Rocket scientist recalls dawn of space age
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
(Editor's note: Now available in the Bandera County Public Library, "Blast Off" is a fun and informative read. If anyone can make cosmic rays and early space exploration accessible to a science-challenged journalist, it's author and, yes, rocket scientist, Kenneth McCracken.)
Despite conventional wisdom, sometimes it does take a rocket scientist.
That's what John Hegemier, director of the Bandera County Public Library, discovered on Saturday, June 23, when author Kenneth McCracken presented him with a copy of his latest book, "Blast Off." The book recalled McCracken's "scientific adventures at the dawn of the space age."
During his whistle stop in Bandera from his home down under, McCracken visited his longtime friend and colleague, Bill Bartley, who worked with McCracken on NASA's Pioneer 6 satellite, launched in 1965. McCracken was en route to Denver, Colorado, for the Cosmic Ray Centenary Symposium 2012, sponsored by the University of Denver. The symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of cosmic rays included a tour up Pike's Peak.
A natural raconteur, McCracken explained that prior to World War II, Pike's Peak served as the premier locale to study cosmic rays in this country. "I spoke with the conference coordinator and asked him how we were going to get up Pike's Peak. I certainly wasn't looking forward to that trek," McCracken said. "He said, 'Ken, I have a lot of octogenarians attending this conference. No one will be walking up Pike's Peak'."
McCracken's space specialties included cosmic radiation, which encompasses sunspots - which he described as "eccentricities of our sun." These black explosions on the sun were first observed by the Chinese 2000 years ago and by Galileo with the use of a telescope in 1609.
According to McCracken, a sunspot is a region of the sun that is cooler than the rest, and therefore emits less light and appears darker than its surroundings. "Increased incidents of sunspots leads to increased 'funny physics,' a disturbance of the earth's magnetic field," he said. "An increase in sunspots correlates with increased energy falling on the earth from the sun."
Conversely, McCracken said, decreased sunspot activity portends what scientists call 'little ice ages,' where the earth's temperature decreases. "Napoleon invaded Russia in a period of decreased sunspot activity," he said, adding, "From the results of that military campaign, we know Napoleon chose his time very badly."
Predicting a coming "little ice age," McCracken said very few sunspots have been reported in the last five years. "In addition, evidence collected from the Arctic and Antarctica tells me that there have been very few sunspots in the last 20 years."
"Blast Off" evolved from journals McCracken kept to amuse himself while on long flights from his native Australia to assignments in Papua New Guinea and throughout the United States, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dallas; and Cape Canaveral, Florida. He noted, "The book's a loosely stated remembrance of a not-so-bright person growing up in the beginning of the space age."
McCracken continued, "These memories are directed at young people who think that satellites have been circling the globe forever." He added, "The book also points out that physics isn't all stuffy."
According to McCracken, "Blast Off" was also written to show that one doesn't have to be "unusually gifted to be a contributing member of society." During an interview, he continually commented that he had simply been in the "right place at the right time," insisting, "I was not at the top of my class." McCracken continued, "The top students actually didn't get very far, but those who had to work at it did very well. So, it's good to be just gifted enough."
McCracken collaborated with Bartley in the late 1960s when the pair of scientists met in Dallas at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, which later became part of the University of Texas. He and Bartley developed an instrument that counted cosmic rays coming from various directions in space. Their instrument facilitated the data collection capability of NASA's Pioneer 6 satellite, which "provided an analysis of cosmic rays spit out by the sun."
The morning of the launch, McCracken and Bartley were told their instrument was being taken off the satellite because of a "massive failure."
McCracken's replied, "Like hell you are," while Bartley screamed, "Let me see what you're doing."
Bartley soon realized that a polarized plug inserted upside down had caused the malfunction. As McCracken recalls in "Blast Off, "(Bartley) reversed the plug and suddenly the instrument tested as being in perfect health. The crisis averted, the countdown continued."
You see, sometimes it does take a rocket scientist.
Pictured: Author Ken McCracken, right, along with old friend and colleague Bill Bartley of Bandera, left, presented a copy of McCracken's latest book, "Blast Off," to library director John Hegemier.
The four equipment photos:
Rocket scientists, Bandera's Bill Bartley and Ken McCracken of Australia designed the cosmic ray anisotropy instrument flown on the Pioneer 6 spacecraft, shown in the upper left corner. Below are examples of McCracken's other passion - sunspots.
Bottom: Blast Off by Ken McCracken is now available for checkout at the Bandera County Public Library.