Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler

But now it was the whole globe receding in size, dwindling until it became a disk.  We were the first humans to see the world in its majestic totality, an intensely emotional experience for each of us. We said nothing to each other, but I was sure out thoughts were identical -- of our families on that spinning globe. And maybe we shared another thought I had...This must be what God sees.
                                                                                                             Frank Borman

As with any book about the space race, Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything begins with President John F. Kennedy's famous speech on May 25, 1961, challenging America to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's.

The Americans seemed to be well behind the Soviets who had not only launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, but also sent Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth, the first human to do so. In 1961, communism seemed to be on the rise in every part of the world: a new communist government had been established in Cuba, half of the city of Berlin had just been taken over by communists and the civil war in Vietnam was about to intensify.

In the 1960s, the space program in the U.S. continued to work towards its goal of putting a man on the moon. Each mission built upon the next, each previous one offering lessons. In 1968, Apollo 8 was set to launch on December 21 and this mission would be another step in that goal, testing the lunar module. But the objective of the mission was drastically altered and escalated when NASA learned from the CIA that the Soviets had a rocket capable of carrying two men to the moon and that it was being moved into launch position. Although the Soviets would not able to land on the Moon, a successful mission to the Moon would mean they would be able to say they were first to the Moon.

George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program knew he had to act. Low came up with the plan to send Apollo 8, sans lunar lander to the Moon, to test communications and navigation systems. Low knew he would have to sell this to the head of the Apollo project, Christopher Kraft, but in the end he succeeded. Not only was getting to the Moon first an important technological achievement but in terms of the space race it was important too. One of the main objectives of the space race was to prove that American capitalism was more successful than Soviet communism.

All three Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were on board with the revised mission objectives. Eventually NASA's Administrator, James E Webb also gave the go-ahead for the revised mission that would see Apollo 8 head to the moon and return to Earth. This decision meant enormous changes to the mission; a new flight plan and retraining the astronauts, in particular Bill Anders who was to pilot the lunar module but now had to train for the command and service modules. Anders was also responsible for "surveying the lunar surface for future landing sites."

What follows is the thrilling account of Apollo 8's remarkable journey from liftoff atop the Saturn V rocket to the Moon and back. Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything tells the story of how NASA scientists and the Apollo 8 astronauts came together, took enormous risks to make a daring mission an outstanding success.


Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything tells the story of the remarkable mission that was rejigged in order to put America ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Sandler begins by setting the stage for the events of Apollo 8 - the famous speech by Kennedy. However, the original objectives of the Apollo 8 mission were drastically altered when new intelligence revealed the Soviet Union's potential ability to travel to the Moon. From this point on Sandler focuses on the changes to the Apollo mission and the enormous risks the Apollo 8 astronauts were being asked to undertake.

These risks included creating new flight plan and using the largest rocket in the world that remained largely untested. Then there was the difficulty of both placing the spacecraft on trajectory to intersect the Moon as well as achieving lunar orbit. NASA flight director Gene Kranz likened the first to "threading the needle, shooting a spacecraft from a rotating Earth at the leading edge of the Moon, a moving target a quarter of a million miles away."  The enormous distance between the Earth and Moon meant that should anything go wrong, the trip back was three days. The astronauts also needed to perform an SPS burn to put them into orbit around the moon and a third burn to push them out of lunar orbit and back to Earth. On their return to Earth they also needed to accomplish reentry exactly. If the spacecraft's reentry was too steep, the gravitational forces on the astronauts as well as temperatures on the craft's heat shield would be extreme. A too shallow reentry would mean the risk of the spacecraft "bouncing off" the atmosphere causing it to "soar into a huge elliptical orbit around the earth."

Earthrise taken by Bill Anders
Much of the backstory to space exploration and the United States and Soviet space programs is told in separate sections with special paper; light blue with a faint image of the Moon. These sections are informative and fill in the blanks on certain aspects of the story, both cultural and science related. for example,  Pioneers of Rocketry explores the three scientists who laid the groundwork for modern rocketry, Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Germany's Hermann Oberth and the United States' Robert Goddard. Other special topics include Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev who developed the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and who also designed Sputnik. Other sections include Paving the Way For Apollo 8 which summaries the first space missions that laid the groundwork for Apollo 8 including Project Mercury and the Gemini missions, The Families which focuses on how the mission impacted the astronauts families, and What's In A Name which discusses how areas of the Moon have been named.

Apollo 8 captures the astronaut's reactions to the incredible experiences of seeing Earth diminish as they travelled towards the Moon, recording the Earth rise on the Moon's horizon and seeing the dark side of the Moon for the first time. All three astronauts were deeply affected by these sights. What struck them was the Earth's fragility. Anders' colour photograph titled Earthrise made different impressions on each of the astronauts. For Lovell, it "became a symbol of the Earth's fragility, a reminder of just how small and insignificant the Earth's place in the universe truly is..." This impression was not unique to just Lovell, but to the millions and millions of people on Earth who watch the broadcasts from Apollo 8 and who saw this photograph.

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything is a fascinating account of a mission that changed the space race and gave the American's the technical advantage to successfully land on the Moon a mere seven months later. Sandler includes plenty of photographs, a detailed section containing Source Notes, a Bibliography, short profiles of the Apollo 8 astronauts after the mission and an Index. A great book for anyone interested in accounts of the space race and the Apollo missions.

Earthrise image:

Book Details:

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press        2018
160 pp.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Bear In War by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat

A Bear In War is based on the true story of a young girl who sends her beloved teddy bear over to Belgium in the hopes it will protect her father during World War II.

In 1916, with World War I at a stalemate in Europe, ten-year-old Aileen Rogers and her new teddy bear named Teddy are traveling home in their sleigh to their farm in East Farnham, Quebec.  Teddy notices that Aileen is wearing a metal brace on her leg and limps. She reveals to Teddy that she had polio and now has to wear a brace to support her weakened leg. This means she can't run and jump like the other children. Teddy tells her that this doesn't matter to him. Aileen's younger brother Howard thinks Teddy is rather small, but her father points out that "Sometimes the smallest ones have the biggest hearts..."

There are plenty of chores to do both in the house and on the farm. Aileen and Teddy set the table and after dinner wash the dishes. Afterwards, Aileen and her mother help in the barn, feeding the horses hay and oats.  Aileen tells Teddy about the war explaining that war happens "when people from one country fight people from another country."  That night as her father reads stories about the war in the Montreal Gazette he is worried.

The morning is filled with more chores, which Aileen does with Teddy "snug in the pocket of Aileen's coat." That afternoon they return to town to attend church. In town they see recruiting posters for the war. There are few men at church as most of them are off fighting in Europe.

One night Aileen's life changes forever when her father tells her that he has enlisted to go fight in the war. Although Aileen is proud of her father, she tells Teddy that she wishes he could stay at home.Aileen's father travels to Valcartier where he trains to be a soldier. Aileen along with her mother, brother and Teddy travel to visit her father at Valcartier.

Aileen's father's letters eventually reveal that he has sailed to England on the RMS Hesperian. After time in England, her father is eventually sent to Belgium. After much consideration, Aileen decides to send her most prized possession, Teddy to her father, " remind him of home and to keep him safe."  Sadly, although Teddy would return home, Aileen's father did not. Teddy would see all that the war would involve and Aileen's father's heroic efforts to help the soldiers as a medic. He was recovered from a pocket in her father's uniform and sent home.


A Bear In War is a truly a deeply moving and endearing picture book. Although the story is based on real events about a young girl losing her father in the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, it also a story about love and sacrifice.

Aileen Rogers' Teddy
Aileen's father, Lawrence Browning Rogers served with the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles from 1915 to 1917. Lawrence wrote over two hundred letters to his wife, Janet May in that time. Both Aileen and her brother Howard also wrote to their father. These letters and the story of Teddy remained hidden until 2002 when Lawrence Rogers' granddaughter, Roberta Roberts Innes (Howard's daughter) discovered them in a family briefcase along with other memorabilia including Teddy. A Bear In War and a second book, Bear On The Homefront were written by Lawrence Roger's great-granddaughter, Stephanie Innes and children's author, Harry Endrulat.

The authors tell Aileen's family story from the point of view of Teddy, Aileen's new teddy bear. Teddy is kind and loyal. Aileen and Teddy's relationship is at once sweet and tender. She tells Teddy her secrets, the first being that she has had polio and has to wear a leg brace. Teddy responds, "That makes no difference to me."

Teddy immediately fits into the Rogers family, accompanying Aileen as she helps with dinner and chores on the farm.  Like Aileen, Teddy doesn't like war and he misses Daddy. Eventually after her father goes to war, Aileen and Teddy come up with the idea to send him to war as well, in the hopes that Teddy can protect her father.  Teddy and Aileen who have been a comfort to one another during this difficult time, decide to make their own sacrifice and send him overseas to France. During his time at war, Teddy tells young readers a bit about what it was like for soldiers during World War I.  "A lot of the time we sat in deep trenches. They were wet and cold -- and there were rats everywhere. But the trenches helped protect us from bullets and bombs....Sometimes we got hurt when a bomb exploded nearby. Sharp things would hit us." Sadly Aileen's father does not survive and is killed  while treating soldiers during the Battle of Passchendaele. Teddy survives the war and eventually is returned to the Rogers family. His own secret is "that I fought in the war in the pocket of a hero."

A Bear In War captures the uncertainty, fear and loss experienced by the families of soldiers during the long years of the Great War - a war that was supposed to end war but ended up being a continuous blood bath. Aileen's story is very much enhanced by Brian Deine's oil painting illustrations done in soft tones that accent the warmth of Aileen and Teddy's friendship, and how friendship can help carry us through tough times.

A Bear In War is an excellent picture book that offers children a gentle introduction what life was like during the early part of the 20th century, about how families coped during wartime and what life as a soldier was like.  Teddy is the teddy bear we all imagined having when we were children.

Teddy image:

Book Details:

A Bear In War by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat
Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited      2008

Friday, October 18, 2019

Destination Moon by Seymour Simon

In Destination Moon, prolific children's science writer Seymour Simon chronicles the events leading up to the American Moon landing in July of 1969. As expected the story opens with United States president John F. Kennedy's famous speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. In that speech, Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This was the start of the space race between the United States and the Communist Soviet Union.

With each page featuring full colour photographs, Simon begins by explaining the importance of learning more about the Moon to aid in our understanding of the solar system and provides so he provides readers with some basic information about our closest neighbour in the solar system.

The space era was initiated by the launch of the Soviet Union and the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik in October of 1957. The American's followed with their Explorer satellite missions.The Explorer 3 mission confirmed the existence of the Earth's magnetic fields and their protective function against damaging cosmic rays.

Destination Moon describes Project Mercury which ran from 1958 to 1963. Its six missions were designed to place an astronaut into orbit and safely return him to Earth. The group of astronauts chosen for these missions were called the "Mercury Seven" and were chosen from military test pilots. The seven were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

Project Gemini which spanned the years 1961 to 1966, was the next step to the moon. Its purpose was to solve some of the problems associated with landing on the Moon. In an attempt to learn more about conditions on the Moon, NASA sent seven unmanned reconnaissance missions using the Surveyor spacecraft to the Moon. Surveyor also tested the use of retro-rockets to slow down a space craft so it could achieve a soft landing.

The objective of Project Apollo from 1963 to 1972, was to land man on the Moon. Simon takes his young readers through the obstacles engineers encountered as they planned the spacecraft that would take man to the Moon. Full colour photographs accompanied by detailed text explain the Lunar Module, the Eagle and its landing on Tranquility Base, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon walks and the challenge to return to Earth safely.

As 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon landings, Destination Moon is yet another of many  books written for young readers offering them all the details of the race to the Moon and the historic landing on the Moon. Seymour Simon sets the stage in his Author's Note at the very beginning, by recounting his own personal experience of watching the moon walk on the night of July 20, 1969, an event I too remember very well even though I was only ten years old! Seymour Simon was a dad at the time whose two children "Robert and Michael, cheered as Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the Eagle and stepped out onto the surface of the Moon."

Seymour Simon includes plenty of factoids throughout his picture book. For example the contribution of the human computers, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan to the success of the early Mercury missions is highlighted. Adults will remember their story as told in the book and movie, Hidden Figures. There is an interesting section on how the Apollo mission impacted the families of the astronauts and mention also of the speech President Richard Nixon had prepared should the astronauts fail to leave the surface of the Moon. Thankfully that disaster never materialized.

The author employs simple text and explains some basic concepts such as escape velocity and rocket stages. Terms that may be new to readers such as seismometer and basalt are highlighted in bold blue text and are explained in the Glossary at the back. A timeline summary of the Race to Space can also be found at the back.

 A great gift for the budding young astronomer.

Book Details:

Destination Moon by Seymour Simon
New York: HarperCollins     2019

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Within These Lines by Stephanie Morrill

Within These Lines is a heartrending story of love and loyalty in a time of when war breeds hatred and fear. It tells the story of two teenagers, one white and one Asian, a mixed race couple, a forbidden love and two people who choose to challenge the social conventions of a country at war. Within These Lines begins three months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The story spans the period from March 21 to December 25, 1942 and is told in the alternating voices of Evalina Cassano and Taichi Hamasaki.

Evalina Cassano, an Italian American awakens to the news that over sixty Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles have voluntarily relocated to Manzanar in Southern California.

When Evalina expresses her concern to her mother that all the Japanese, even those born in America such as the Hamasaki children will also be forced out, her mother tries to reassure Evalina that they are safe. But Evalina is concerned because she has been secretly seeing Taichi Hamasaki, whose family supplies the produce to Alessandro's, the Casanova family restaurant.

Distraught, Evalina heads down to the market on the waterfront. But the Hamasaki's green Chevy truck is not there and someone else occupies the space where their table is usually set. This leads Evalina to take the ferry to Alameda.

Taichi's family live on a farm in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. On the same morning, Taichi's family is visited by FBI agents who search their home. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Taichi's family burned everything they owned that tied them to Japan including letters, family photographs, Japanese books and kimonos. Taichi's family is in the process of packing suitcases because they are moving to his Aunt Chiyu's home.

Evalina phones Taichi and they meet at the dock. Before he leaves to see Evalina, Taichi's older sister Aiko forces him to tell her about his secret relationship with Evalina. She was also in a forbidden relationship with a Caucasian and suffered a miscarriage. When Evalina and Taichi meet she admits her fear for him. Taichi reveals that his family has reallocated their land back to their neighbours, the Medinas while they are away. The bombing of Pearl Harbor has changed all of Evalina and Taichi's future plans. Evalina has earned a scholarship to attend University of California Berkeley and they hoped Taichi would be able to do the same. The war has also changed the future for others too; Taichi's best friend Diego Medina will not enlist in the U.S.Navy and Eva's best friend Gia LaRocca is planning to marry her boyfriend Lorenzo.

Several days later, Taichi and his father Katsumi make their last delivery to the Cassano's restaurant. During this meeting, Taichi passes a note to Evalina asking her to meet him at Lafayette Park. The two have an emotional meeting, with Evalina giving Taichi her address, begging him to write and let her know what's happening. The Friday afternoon before they are due to leave, Taichi visits Evalina's home, expecting her to be alone. Instead her mother greets him and with Evalina the two say their goodbyes. Taichi reveals that they will be evacuated on Tuesday, likely to Manzanar. In a private moment, Evalina learns the Hamasaki family will leave from the civic center at noon. After Taichi leaves, Evalina's mother offers her sympathy and understanding, but Evalina is not sure how much her mother understands about her relationship with Taichi.

On Tuesday April 7, Taichi and his family arrive at the civic center to leave San Francisco. They find a long line of other Japanese American families, overseen by guards. A group with the First Congregational Church hands out sandwiches and water. It is hot and tiring waiting. Aiko spots Evalina, who as promised has come to see them. Just before he boards the bus, Evalina promises Taichi that she will wait for him and will write him.

The next morning Evalina is furious at the coverage of the "evacuation" in the local newspapers. Meanwhile Taichi and his family arrive at Manzanar and come to realize that the camp is not ready for them. As the months pass by and life goes on for Evalina, Taichi begins to wonder if they can really continue their relationship. Will he ever leave the camp? While Evalina continues to advocate for the Japanese Americans, Taichi finds himself drawn into a deadly revolt that costs a friend his life and endangers his own family.


Within These Lines tackles the shameful imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II in response to hysteria over the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.  Japanese Americans were displaced from their homes and businesses and placed in prison camps merely because they looked like the enemy. In this well crafted novel, Morrill weaves together the forbidden relationship between two American teens and the events of the Japanese internment to portray the reality of life at this time.

Evalina Cassano is an Italian American whose family has a past history of involvement in the Mafia in Chicago. She forms a strong attachment to Taichi Hamaskai, a first generation Japanese American boy whose family supplies her family's restaurant with fresh produce. The two teens keep their relationship secret not only because they suspect their families won't approve but also because interracial marriages are unlawful in California. The realization that Taichi and his family will be sent away, is devastating to both teens.

 Morrill uses Evalina to express the injustice of the government actions. Unlike many of her fellow Americans, Evalina's relationship with Taichi helps her to view Japanese Americans differently, not as potential enemies but as loyal Americans who have the same dreams and desires as any other American. When Evalina visits Taichi at Manzanar and experiences the reality of the internment camp, she is further angered by the injustice of the camps and the mistreatment of these American citizens.

Initially, Evalina writes numerous letters to government officials including General DeWitt as well as to newspaper editors in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her letters to newspapers have been signed anonymously.  initially expresses her views against the internment to parents and friends. When her mother refers to the evacuees as "Japanese", Evalina points out that "the majority of the Japanese Americans who are being evacuated" have "....done nothing except be born to parents who have Japanese heritage. And most of their parents would have become citizens long ago, except that our government has denied them that option since the 1920s." 

At college Evalinas activism on the internment question spills over into her Comparative Politics class taught by Professor Blake. Despite her having visited two of the camps, Evalina receives a poor grade on her paper discussing the Japanese internment. When Evalina confronts Professor Blake about her mark, it is clear he considers her a Japanese sympathizer and later on tells her she is young and misguided. Over time however, Evalina becomes not only more vocal but also more courageous about speaking up for the rights of Japanese Americans. When Grace Bishop asks Evalina to write an article she decides it's time to sign her name. Evalina had told herself that she would be taken more seriously if people did not know she was an Italian American teenage girl. But she finally admits that she has been afraid. "I have felt afraid of people knowing that it was me, Evalina Cassano, who wrote those angry words. Afraid of being laughed at, ridiculed, told that I should just be quiet and feel grateful. Told that I'm too young to understand or too Italian to be a real American...I feel afraid of people knowing that this fight I'm fighting isn't just about the evils of racism, but that it's personal to me...." Evalina begins signing her name to her writing....

Morrill captures the era with her realistic portrayal of 1940's America attitudes and customs, especially as they related to Americans of Asian heritage. While Evalina's parents are more accepting and compassionate towards Japanese Americans, Evalina encounters others who are not. For example, her best friend's mother, Mrs LaRocca derogatorily refers to Japanese Americans as "Japs", and states, "I know I'll feel a lot better when they've been cleared out....Not that there aren't nice Japs among them, but why risk it?" This view encapsulated many Americans thoughts on the their fellow Americans of Japanese heritage. Morrill also highlights the common Caucasian tendency to lump all people from Asia together. When Evalina arrives at the market and discovers the Hamasaki's are not there she also notices that Mrs. Ling has posted a sign at her table that reads "We Are Chinese". Mrs. Ling tells Evalina that she has posted the sign because, "Some white people get confused. They think we are the enemy." 

As expected, the newspapers of the time propagandized what was being done to Japanese Americans. Evalina is furious when she reads the account of the evacuation because it is portrayed as something joyful, with "the air of an outing." The public is told that military guards were there to protect the Japanese Americans from curious onlookers when in reality the soldiers were guarding the evacuees as though they were. "Was I at the same place as this moronic journalist? Because I saw no victory signals. No broad smiles. No bobbing heads. And the only raised thumb was mine to reassure my friend that I was okay. What a load of propaganda. In America! In my own newspaper!" Evalina wonders how many Americans will think that for the Japanese Americans, this will be a fun experience. "He made having your property seized and being loaded onto a bus while surrounded by military police sound like heading off for some kind of vacation!" 

The reality of life in the internment camps is seen through Taichi's narratives. The camp consists of crudely constructed houses that in reality are barracks. There are armed guards to greet them. The barrack "floors are bare planks, coated in a layer of sand that's blown up and in. The only thing separating us from the other families already living in the barrack are the olive-colored blankets like those we're holding in our hands draped from the roof beams. One bare lightbulb dangles over each apartment, which I can see because of the open rafters." There are few working toilets, little privacy, and strange food.

Morrill describes the humiliation and shame the evacuees feel through the character of Taichi. When Taichi sees that his family of five will share a twenty-five by ten foot space for an indefinite period, he thinks, "My heart feels like a fist as it pounds in my chest. This is too much. Too much to take in. Too much to be asked of us. Too much dignity to lose all in twenty-four hours. How can this be real?"  During his first night when he has to use the toilet, a searchlight follows him from the barrack to the toilet and continues to light the steps until he reappears, following him back to his barracks. "I lie on my lumpy mattress, hot with shame as the cold Manzanar wind continues through the night." While the average American believed the camps were a place of leisure and plenty, the reality was much different.

The poor living conditions are not the only difficulty as Taichi and his family discover.Although the Hamasaki family is fictional, the conditions described at Manzanar and the riot were not. The Black Dragons were are real gang that were pro-Imperial Japan and who attempted to take over the camp.

Morrill's characters are realistic, well crafted. The forbidden romance between Taichi and Evalina, set in the uncertainty of war and displacement serve to successfully draw the reader into the story. If you didn't comprehend the reality of the internment of Japanese Americans, you will after reading Within These Lines. Look for further information about the camps and the events described in the author's About The History in the book's back matter.

Book Details:

Within These Lines by Stephanie Morrill
Grand Rapids, MI: Blink     2019
350 pp.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pluto and Beyond

Pluto and Beyond provides viewers with a fascinating look at our solar system's most enigmatic planet, the dwarf planet Pluto as well as a recently discovered feature, the Kuiper Belt, via the New Horizons mission.

Pluto and Beyond opens with the New Horizons mission scientists and their families waiting in anticipation for the spacecraft to flyby object 2014 MU69 now known as Ultima Thule, in the Kuiper Belt. The documentarythen backtracks, giving viewers the backstory that has led the mission scientists to this historic moment.

It all began with the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft on a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006. New Horizons flew past the planet Mars seventy-eight days later. A year after launch, New Horizons flew past Jupiter, capturing a volcanic eruption on Io, a Jupiter moon. Nine years after its launch, New Horizons began its approach to the Pluto system, having flown past Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

From Earth, Pluto is nothing but a blur in the sky. But the New Horizons mission offers  scientists a first real look at this mysterious dwarf planet. Everything goes well until  July 4, 2015, when mission scientists inexplicably lose contact  with the spacecraft. Mission scientists eventually determined that the craft's computers had been overloaded. Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager and her team managed to upload the necessary instructions to the spacecraft enabling it to  function in time for the Pluto flyby.

The flyby reveals Pluto to be a planet of mountains made of ice and a massive glacier of methane and nitrogen ice. Now planetary astronomers and astrophysicists have more questions than answers as they speculate on Pluto's planetary geology and the possibility that conditions may be conducive for life.

The documentary then explores the history of our knowledge about Pluto beginning with its discovery  in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, a young American farm boy. Astronomers argued about Pluto's mass, eventually coming to the conclusion that it was smaller than Earth's moon. Beyond Pluto, the solar system was a mystery, an unknown. However, two astronomers, David Jewett and Jane Luu, discovered that there was much more than just empty space beyond Pluto. For six years, they searched the night sky, looking for evidence of something beyond Pluto. In 1992 they discovered an object located beyond Pluto and orbiting the Sun. They soon discovered many more objects in this region. Now known as the Kuiper Belt, is largely unknown to astronomers because it is so far away from Earth and therefore difficult to explore. Their discoveries led astronomers to theorize that Pluto was likely part of the Kuiper Belt.

The big unknown for the New Horizons mission was what to explore after Pluto. As New Horizons was approaching the Pluto system, astronomers began to search for an object in the Kuiper Belt that would be within the fuel capabilities of the spacecraft. In 2014, with the assistance of the Hubble Telescope, astronomers discovered an unknown object, designated 2014 MU69, eventually named Ultima Thule. However, finding an object was the first of many problems to solve.

The team needed to know more about Ultima Thule and one way to do that was to observe a stellar occultation which would help them determine the size and shape of the object. The astronomers needed two pieces of information: the exact location of Ultima Thule and a star that would be blocked out momentarily by the passage of Ultima Thule allowing observation of the object's shadow from Earth. The Hubble Telescope provided researchers with Ultima Thule's position. The Gaia Space Observatory, launched in 2013 was in the process of mapping the position, distances and motions of stars with precision. It could provide the data on star that would be blinked out by Ultima Thule's passage in front of it.  Observing a stellar occultation is difficult because

After two failed attempts in 2017 to view occultations, Marc Buie and his team succeeded on July 17, 2017 in Patagonia, Argentina. With volunteers holding plywood to block the wind, the astronomers observed the star blink out for two seconds as Ultima Thule passed in front of it. In all, five different telescopes captured the occultation and provided the team with some interesting information. Ultima Thule is estimated to be about twenty miles across but even more interesting is the Kuiper Belt object's unusual shape. Scientists eventually settled on the theory that it is a "contact binary" object formed when the solar system formed.

Scientists believe that the planets formed due to a process called pebble accretion, where bits of dust, rock and gas clump together to form planetoids. It's possible that Ultima Thule is one such object that formed long ago when the solar system was beginning to form. In other words, it offers an opportunity to look back on the creation of our solar system.

On January 1, 2019, at 12:33am, New Horizons sails by Ultima Thule, a mere 2,200 km away. Telemetry from the spacecraft take six hours to travel the four billion miles from Ultima Thule to Earth. The results are breathtaking and enlightening. The New Horizons team is ecstatic as all of their hard work has paid off. The accomplishment, to view an object scientists did not even know existed when New Horizons was launched in 2006 is even more impressive.


The New Horizons mission was tasked to explore the farthest regions of our solar system through the New Horizons mission, launched in January 16, 2006. The mandate of the mission was to explore the edge of our solar system, occupied by the dwarf planet Pluto as well as objects in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto. The journey to Pluto would take well over nine years.

The New Horizons spacecraft was designed, built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. The science payload includes "an imaging spectrometer to probe atmospheric composition and planet structure, a visible and infrared camera to obtain high-resolution color maps and surface composition maps; a long-range telescopic camera for high-resolution surface images; particle spectrometers to measure charged particles in and around Pluto’s atmosphere; a detector to measure masses of space-dust particles; and two copies of a radio science experiment to examine atmospheric structure, surface thermal properties and planet mass." (1)

In February 2007, New Horizons flew past the planet Jupiter, and using its gravity to assist it on towards Pluto. In 2015, the spacecraft began a six month exploration of the Pluto system, culminating with a closest flyby on July 14. New Horizons gave scientists and the world a first close up look at Pluto. But it also allowed them to explore the Kuiper Belt, a region of the outer solar system that is similar to but much larger than the asteroid belt.

With a NOVA team embedded in the New Horizons mission team, Pluto and Beyond presents all the details, struggles and accomplishments in the exploration of the Pluto system. Viewers who haven't seen the photographs of Pluto from this mission will be understandably astonished. This mysterious planet that appears as a blurry image from Earth is revealed to look like an ice-covered Mars, with red hues.

While the impressive accomplishments of New Horizons Pluto mission and the beautiful photographs of Pluto are captivating, the most exciting part of the mission was the astronomer's struggle to work out all the details necessary to make the flyby of Ultima Thule a reality.  Pluto and Beyond captures the determination and persistence of astronomers as they work to capture the stellar occultation. Their dedication to science and the mission is obvious. In the end, we all are able to share in the fruits of their efforts as New Horizons flyby reveal Ultima Thule's unusual object's appearance. As of this time, New Horizons continues to send back data to Earth on the mission to Ultima Thule. Who knows what discoveries it might reveal in the remaining lifetime of the spacecraft as it makes its way into deep space.

For astronomy buffs, Pluto and Beyond is a documentary not to be missed. It is NOVA at its finest.


image credits:
Pluto and Charon:

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett

What Miss Mitchell Saw is the story of Maria Mitchell, astronomer extraordinaire. Maria was born and grew up on an island with gull-dappled dunes and fragrant wild roses. Whaling ships returned to the island harbour laden with barrels of oil and homesick sailors. Maria was taught at home by her mother and aided her father as he observed the night sky. Her father's telescope was placed on the roof of their home in Nantucket Town. He taught Maria how to use the telescope, how to observe the sky closely and to sweep each part of the sky carefully. Maria grew to know the stars and the planets, to recognize eclipses and aurora borealis, meteors and comets. Maria also learned how to rate the accuracy of the chronometers used by the whalers.

As an adult Maria taught school and she also became a librarian. However, every night was devoted to observing the night sky. However, one October night Maria discovered a patch of light that was bright but blurry near Polaris. She knew this was a comet and immediately told her father. He immediately sent a letter to Boston, to the astronomers at Harvard Observatory advising of this important discovery. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, in an observatory in Rome, an astronomer-priest had also made the same discovery.

At this time the king of Denmark had a gold medal created to be awarded to whomever discovered a new comet with a telescope. Maria Mitchell eventually was confirmed to be the first to have discovered this comet and was awarded the gold medal!


It's wonderful to see so many new picture books telling the little-known stories of women mathematicians, doctors, astronomers, physicists, geologists and scientists whose contributions and efforts have been forgotten or overlooked throughout the centuries. What Miss Mitchell Saw tells the story of astronomer, Maria Mitchell, an American woman astronomer who lived in the middle of the 19th century on Nantucket Island.

Maria was born on August 1, 1818 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. She was the third child born to William and Lydia Mitchell. Maria grew up in a Quaker family. Quakers believed that girls as well as boys should receive an education. As a result, Maria's father, who was an astronomer and teacher, was an important influence on her. He taught Maria about the stars, how to use a telescope, and how rate ships clocks - called chronometers. During this era, Nantucket was a major whaling port, so learning this latter task was important as whaling and merchant ships were dependent upon their accuracy.

Learning was an important part of the Mitchell family life. Maria's mother was a librarian, so books were also an integral part of their life and learning. Maria attended Cyrus Pierce's School for Young Ladies until she was sixteen-years-old. Maria's father was an astronomer and a teacher and Maria also became a teacher, teaching young girls math and science.

In 1836, Maria began working as a librarian at Nantucket Atheneum. Her evenings were spent observing the night time sky on the roof of the Pacific National Bank using the family's telescope.  On the night of October 1, 1847, Maria discovered Comet 1847 VI using a two and three-quarter inch refractor telescope. Initially Maria was reluctant to make public her discovery, mainly because she was a woman. However, her father was determined that she should receive recognition for her accomplishment and set about obtaining support for his daughter from friends in various observatories. In the end, Maria's discovery won her the gold medal offered by King Frederick VI of Denmark, who was also an amateur astronomer. Frederick had decided to offer the medal for the first astronomer who made the discovery of a new comet.

Portrait of Maria Mitchel by Herminia B. Dassel
The recognition she received for her discovery changed Maria's life. In 1856, Maria left the Atheneum to travel throughout Europe. She was able to visit Sir Isaac Newton's tomb, the observatory at Cambridge, and to visit Sir George Airy, the astronomer who established the Prime Meridian. In Rome, Maria was able to visit the Vatican Observatory and meet Father Secchi, the Vatican astronomer.

She became a trailblazer for women in society and in the sciences. She was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she was the first professor hired at the newly formed Vassar College, a womens-only college, she was published in academic journals, and was one of the founders of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.

There's no doubt Maria Mitchell made important contributions to the emancipation of women in the sciences. Hayley Barret's picture book focuses only on her discovery of Comet 1847 VI but this discovery was only the beginning for Miss Mitchell. It allowed her to be seen, as Barret points out near the end of her picture book and from there to advance the cause of women in the sciences.To fill out the rest of the story, Barrett includes many more facts about Maria Mitchell at the back in a section titled, "A Bit More About Maria Mitchell - Astronomer, Educator, Activist."

The story of Maria Mitchell is wonderfully illustrated by the starry artwork of Diana Sudyka. Her illustrations make use of a blue, black and silver palatte in keeping with the astronomical theme of the picture book. Sudyka's illustrations were rendered in gouache, watercolour and ink.

 For more information about Maria Mitchell and for resources for students and teachers please check out the Maria Mitchell Association 
This website offers considerable resources about Maria Mitchell as well as suggestions for follow-up research and reading.

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Book Details:

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett
New York: Beach Lane Books   2019