April 23, 2013
Last Monday, April 15, the National Museum of Natural History actually did come to life after hours. Not with mummies or miniature armies, of course, but with a small group of volunteers, a bunch of fancy-looking equipment and two guys at the forefront of museum digitization.
Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, of the 3D Lab in the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, work with laser scanners to create high resolution, three-dimensional digital models of objects and places around the Smithsonian Institution. Last week, they teamed up with curators at the Natural History Museum for the second of two nights of scanning the Dinosaur Hall, the museum’s iconic galleries that house prehistoric fossils from the ancient seas through the Ice Age. The hall is scheduled to close in 2014 for a ground-up, multi-year renovation, so Metallo and Rossi, dubbed the “Laser Cowboys” by their colleagues, were brought in to capture the hall’s present arrangement before all the fossils are removed.
“The main purpose of 3D scanning an exhibit like this is to have an archive of what an exhibit of this era might have looked,” Metallo says. “This is a documentation for folks in the future to know what a museum experience here was like.”
The scanning has immediate uses as well. With accurate digital 3D models of T-Rex and his friends’ skeletons, curators and designers will have a much easier time envisioning the exhibition’s future iterations and testing out ideas for optimal arrangements. Paleontologists, too, will suddenly have access to fossils anytime, anywhere. “There’s one specimen that’s on display two stories up in the air,” Metallo says. “Now, instead of a researcher having to get up on a scissor lift to look at it, we can just email him the digital model.”
And if digital models aren’t enough, 3D scanning might soon allow anyone interested in fossils to get even closer to the real thing. “We’re seeing a real democratization of 3D printing along with 3D scanning,” says Rossi. “There are apps for iPhones that allow you to use a camera as a 3D scanning device. Pretty much any museum visitor could create a pretty decent model of a museum object, and potentially take that through a 3D printer. There’s still a fair amount of expertise required at the moment, but it’s going to be a lot more user-friendly in the next two or three years.”
In other words, it’s not inconceivable that you could print out your own stegosaurus skeleton for your living room on your home 3D printer someday.
Ultimately, Rossi and Metallo dream of digitizing all 137 million of the objects in the Smithsonian’s collections. Because only two percent of the objects are displayed in the Institution’s museums at any time—and many people never have the chance to see even those in person—precise replicas could be printed and sent to local museums across the country, or viewed digitally on a computer screen anywhere in the world.
As for future of the Dino Hall, Matthew Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosauria, says his team is still in the early stages of planning exactly how the exhibit will look when it reopens in 2019, but that it definitely will strive to incorporate humans into the dinosaurs’ story. “The biggest thing I hope for in the new hall is that a visitor comes here and is inspired, amazed and interested in the history of life on earth, and understands that this history is still relevant to them today, and to the world today,” he explains. “There are problems we face as human beings that paleontology can help address. Dinosaurs didn’t exist by themselves; they were part of environments and ecosystems just like we are today. And that connection is really important to everything we’re going to show in this hall.”
To learn more about 3D scanning and printing at Smithsonian, check out Metallo and Rossi’s Facebook page, and follow them on twitter @3D_Digi_SI. To learn more about dinosaurs, check out the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur page.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
April 2, 2013
Nearly 30 years ago, moviegoers got an unprecedented look into the lives of the space shuttle astronauts orbiting 280 miles above the Earth. And they witnessed it in extraordinary dimensions—on a five story-tall screen in booming surround sound.
The Dream Is Alive pulled back the curtain on NASA’s Space Shuttle program, giving the public an intimate glimpse into the previously unfamiliar lives of its members. Directed by IMAX co-inventor Graeme Ferguson and narrated by Walter Cronkite, the IMAX classic showed astronauts in full garb, practicing how to move in weightless conditions, using a water tank on land. Once in space, the film revealed the crew’s reactions to watching the world turn as the orbiter circled the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. It followed the men and women as they worked, ate, exercised and even slept in zero gravity.
“Astronauts have said it’s the next best thing to being there,” says Valerie Neal, the space shuttle curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, of the film that was originally released in 1985. “The theater kind of dissolves and you feel like a part of the film. I had this sense that I was in space with them.”
Shot by 14 NASA astronauts during three shuttle missions, the film includes footage of Discovery‘s 1984 launch and landing, as well as the deployment of several satellites from the spacecraft. It features sweeping panoramas of the Earth, space walks and risky satellite repairs. It puts the audience in the driver’s seat with video filmed from the astronauts’ points of view while training on land—viewers feel as if they are parachuting to the ground, or lurching away from the shuttle in high-speed emergency baskets.
The film premiered during an optimistic time for space exploration—1984 saw nine shuttle missions, seven more than in the program’s first year in 1981. More than 100 missions would launch into space in the next three decades before the program folded in 2011. The Dream Is Alive represented the country’s drive to make space transportation routine. It also introduced the public to a new era of American astronauts, Neal says, one that included women and individuals from more diverse backgrounds.
“That was something of a revelation, and I think it probably played a role in widespread acceptance that this is the way spaceflight should be,” she says. “It shouldn’t be just the cream of the crop of the most elite military jet test pilots, but also people who are scientists and engineers who could be our next door neighbors.”
In the film viewers saw Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hover in midair while working with her fellow Challenger crew members. Kathy Sullivan joins her, marking the first time two women flew together on a shuttle mission. We watch Sullivan become the first American woman to walk in space as she waves to the camera from outside the window, the white and blue of the Earth swirling behind her. We see Judith Resnik, the first Jewish woman in space, working in weightlessness. To date, more than 50 American women have become NASA astronauts.
The Dream Is Alive was still playing in theaters when Challenger exploded seconds after its 10th launch in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard, including Resnik. The tragedy illuminated the very real dangers of space travel, an aspect of the shuttle program that The Dream hadn’t explored. But Neal says the United States soon saw a surge of public support for the program, suggesting the golden age of American space exploration was not yet over.
“The American public had a sense that the space program was valuable and shouldn’t be halted,” she says.
Now, another generation of space enthusiasts can experience the zenith of the shuttle program, this time on an 86-by-62 foot silver screen. The Dream Is Alive is now showing in the Airbus IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Showtimes and ticket information is available here.
The film temporarily joins two of its stars at the Smithsonian. One of the cameras used in the film, which went on to document missions until 1998, arrived at the Institution last April and will soon be installed at the Air and Space Museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition. The black camera, which weighs about 80 pounds, shot film with over-sized, 70mm frames, providing more than eight times the area of traditional 35mm film. Such capacity lent to never-seen-before, wide-angle views of the planet’s topography. The space shuttle Discovery landed at the museum shortly after. The famed spacecraft spent 365 days in space during its 27-year career. It flew 39 missions, several of which are chronicled in the film, before it was retired in 2011.
March 22, 2013
Parts of the F-1 rocket engines that may have launched the first space mission to put a man on the moon were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday.
Organized by billionaire Jeff Bezos, a team of scientists has spent the past three weeks off the coast of Florida retrieving components of submerged engines from NASA’s Apollo space launches. The pieces have lost the serial numbers that identify the specific spacecraft to which they belonged.
The team had plenty of underwater pieces to choose from; 13 F-1-powered Apollo rocket ships with five engines each blasted into orbit from Florida’s John F. Kennedy space center between 1967 to 1973, dropping the spent engines into the ocean during their ascent. In a blog post this week, Bezos called the remains “an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines.”
Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the private rocket company Blue Origin, announced a year ago that he intended to bring back at least one engine from the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969. He made the attempt by guiding remotely operated vehicles almost three miles beneath the ocean’s surface to collect the various pieces. Without serial numbers, though, they must now rely on restoration efforts to find clues to the engines’ former spacecraft. There is no public timetable as to when it will be determined which mission these engines were a part of.
“We’re bringing home enough major components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines,” Bezos wrote in his blog. “The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion. We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing.”
Paul Ceruzzi, chair of the Space History division at the National Air and Space Museum, says it would be “very significant” if the engine pieces’ connection to Apollo 11 were confirmed. “The actual stuff that went to the moon with Apollo 11 is really small, so this would be one of the few original pieces from that mission.”
They would have a tremendous emotional impact as well, he adds: “Here we have this mission that was so outrageous at the time and seems even more so today, and yet we did it.”
Bezos has stated that he hopes the restored engines will make their way to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, but Ceruzzi says that parts of the engines also could end up in the Air and Space Museum. The murkiness of the laws governing international waters and the artifacts discovered within them will likely delay such a decision for a while. ”It remains a possibility,” he explains, “but we won’t know until their ownership is settled, until we find out whether or not they are from Apollo 11 and of course until NASA offers them to us.”
According to Ceruzzi, the Air and Space Museum plans to refurbish its Apollo 11 exhibit sometime in the future, possibly in tandem with the 50th anniversary of the spacecraft’s moon landing in 2019. An authentic engine from the spacecraft could “give visitors a sense of the magnitude of the whole Apollo mission, and be a way to get people into that story,” he says.
“It’s all very early right now,” he emphasizes. “But there’s a genuine excitement about the recovery.”
March 13, 2013
The National Air and Space Museum has a $50,000 toilet. It’s functional, and it answers one of the greatest engineering puzzles of the 20th century: How do you pee in space?
The “space toilet” is a replica of the waste collection systems used aboard NASA’s five space shuttles—Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor—which launched into space on 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. Missions often lasted longer than 10 days, so astronauts needed a reliable way of relieving themselves while floating around and doing research. How they managed to go is the most common question astronauts are asked, says Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space shuttle missions and author of Do Your Ears Pop in Space and 500 Other Surprising Questions about Space Travel. It’s also one of the most frequent questions heard from visitors to “Moving Beyond Earth,” the exhibition that features the replica space toilet in a full-scale model of a space shuttle’s living quarters.
The subject is so popular, says museum staffer Michael Hulslander, because “it is truly universal.” The first thing he thought when planning the exhibition was “oh my god, we need a toilet.”
The space toilet doesn’t look all that different from the Earth-bound toilet in your home bathroom (its base is larger, its bowl is smaller and it has an elephant trunk-like tube—for context, look past the right chair in this image of Discovery’s middeck), but months of research and testing go into each model to ensure it runs maintenance-free for the duration of a mission. And research costs add up: the price tag on the actual space shuttle toilet that flew on Endeavor? About $30 million.
Each shuttle had only one toilet, so “they had to work,” says Hulslander. (And they did, mostly.)
While the more recent space toilet models used on the International Space Station do more and cost less than those aboard NASA’s shuttles (these range in the ball park of $19 million; one even purifies urine into potable water), all space toilets rely on the same basic system to remove waste: differential air pressure. Liquid waste is sucked into a plastic funnel on the end of the trunk-like tube and deposited into the base’s urine container, which vents into space when filled. Outside, the urine sublimates and eventually turns into gas. Solid waste goes straight into the bowl, Earth-style, where it is stored for the remainder of the flight. Jettisoning solid waste would ”just be bad for business,” Hulslander says, because it would send a projectile hurtling 17,500 m.p.h. through space—unlikely to hit anything, but better safe than sorry.
When using the liquid waste tube, female astronauts tend to have an easier time with funnels than male crewmembers, because female funnels are cup-shaped and adhere to the body when the toilet’s pressure is turned on. Men, meanwhile, use a small cone, which they must hold close enough to themselves to collect waste, but not so close that they get vacuumed in. “We do not want men docking,” cautions Scott Weinstein, a crew habitability trainer at NASA, in a video on space toilet training.
For solid waste deposits, the toilet has foot straps and thigh braces to help astronauts stay in place, and air-tight bags on hand for toilet paper disposal. Astronauts spend a lot of time in training sitting on space toilets to learn how to create a strong seal and how to align themselves properly. In Houston, the Johnson Space Center has a bathroom with two space toilets for practice. One model is fully functional. The other, a “positional trainer,” has a video camera beneath its rim, and a television monitor on a table in front of it. Astronaut Mike Massimino calls this second toilet “the deepest, darkest secret about space flight” in the training video.
“This takes a lot of glamour out of the business when you go for training,” Mullane says about his first encounter with the positional trainer.
Astronaut Tom Jones, another seasoned space veteran, spent 52 days in orbit on four space missions. He says that while “everybody laughs” at training, “you realize that you can’t hold it for 18 days. You’ve got to be able to use the system. And you want to be efficient at it, because it takes time away from what you really should be doing.”
Jones never lost a sense of novelty using the space shuttle toilet, though, even with its steep learning curve. On his third trip into space, aboard Columbia, he remembers glancing at the privacy curtain that covered the shuttle’s toilet and often seeing socks where a head should have been. His crewmate Story Musgrave enjoyed peeing upside down. “Don’t just use the bathroom like you would on the ground. Take advantage of being weightless and try out some new things,” Musgrave would remind him.
“I never got bored,” Jones says. “You go about these things with a smile on your face thinking this is amazing. This is really strange and really wild.”
Astronauts also used the toilet’s closed-off space on the shuttles for changing clothes and wiping themselves down with bath towels. On Jones’ missions, crewmembers stored their towels in grommets along the toilet’s wall; in the absence of gravity, the towels’ ends floated straight out into the small compartment like kelp in the sea. When Jones had to go, he would float through this mini towel kelp forest to the shuttle’s hatch window next to the compartment, fasten the curtain behind him and stare into the cosmos as he relieved himself into a $30 million vacuum cleaner.
“It’s a pretty neat bathroom,” he says.