It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for matters of space and space exploration … so even if we have all sorts of great news about modeling advancements in automotive, or electronics, it will never be as thrilling (yes this is the right word) as the things I encounter through my work at Maplesoft that deal with space. In countless blog posts, I’ve commented on aerospace engineering and space exploration, and once again this week, several events have confirmed that inside me, there is still this wide eyed boy staring into the night sky in amazement …

Dr. Richard Gran: the archetypal engineering hero

The Pleiades -- staggeringly beautiful

 One normally associates the word hero with a whole range of people and professions, and typically engineers are not part of the association. But our friend Dick Gran, in my mind, is worthy of such admiration. Dick made a name for himself during the heady days of the Apollo lunar missions. He was part of the Grumman design team for the lunar module (i.e. that funny looking vehicle that actually landed on the Moon), and in particular, he was part of the team that developed the first ever digital controller to fly in space. Pretty amazing concept – at a time when there was less computing power in a typical spacecraft than we currently have in kitchen appliances, he and his colleagues were able to implement enough control smarts to not only land on the Moon several times, but as we all saw in the movie, rescue three stranded astronauts and bring them safely back to earth – pretty heroic stuff indeed.

Last week, I had the pleasure of being on a webinar panel with Dick. As part of the IEEE webinar series, we presented our thoughts on multi-domain physical system modeling. Dick gave a wonderful account of the evolution of engineering modeling from the wild and woolly days of the 60’s through to today and at the end remarked on just how far we had come. MapleSim, as an example, in his mind, has basically turned the engineering modeling world upside down as it now automates some of the most problematic processes that used to suck up most of even the most talented engineers’ time.

From the Earth to the Moon: the ubernerd’s miniseries

Ten years after its first release, I just discovered the HBO miniseries that chronicled the US ambitions and achievements in the quest to land on the Moon. Unlike the movie Apollo 13, the miniseries treats the technical dimensions in a bit more detail – fascinating stuff. And there’s just enough in the dramatic elements to interest the right brain as well (at least I think so, though my wife vehemently disagrees). Indeed when I spoke to Dick about this series, he did confirm that the series was a much more accurate depiction of the time than the movie. So if you’re in need of some inspirational, scientific nostalgia, you won’t go wrong with this series.

I saw crescent Venus for the first time!

M42: the Orion nebula – one of the grandest sky objects visible with a modest telescope

On a totally different topic … I have this largish telescope at home (a 93mm f/8 achromatic refractor for those of you who care) which typically collects dust or holds Christmas lights. A few nights ago, during one of those brilliant, cold, dry, and clear winter evenings, my 10 year old daughter Maddie asked me a few questions about some of the brighter objects in the night sky. Overhead was the “king” of constellations Orion, who then points to the jewel box of the winter sky, the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), and off to the right was the blazing disc of the planet Venus. Even in our light-polluted suburban neighborhood, everything was amazingly bright.

Fast forward about 30 minutes, I’m twisting my neck with my knees digging into the ice covered surface of my driveway, trying to aim the small finder scope to the various objects that she was curious about. The “seeing” (the astronerd’s buzz word for quality of images) was great that night and I truly felt that I was providing a very positive experience for my daughter. At the end of the session, we pointed the scope towards Venus and it literally took my breath away. Venus, orbiting closer to the Sun than us goes through phases like the Moon – including the crescent shape. I’ve seen hundreds of photos taken by other people of the crescent shape but for some reason, every time I’ve pointed the scope it its direction, it’s always been in the “wrong” phase – i.e. very disc-like and boring. This time, it was clear as day – or night, I guess – tight, thin crescent, lightly wobbling and shimmering due to the distance – a seductive wink in many ways.

Morals of this rambling blog post

With ingenuity and a good grasp of math, you can get to the Moon (and back) with a toaster’s worth of computing power.

There have been developments in TV programming since the end of Seinfeld.

If you’ve ever needed an intellectual pick-me-up or if you truly want to spark a kid’s imagination (even my “I’m too cool to be excited by science” teenager Eric), point a decent telescope at some of the more prominent objects in the sky and let the Universe unfold.

Useful links

Recent IEEE Webinar on multi-domain modeling:

Dr. Gran’s Maple application on designing controllers for the magnetically levitated MAGLEV train (his other big impressive project)

The DVD version of From the Earth to the Moon

Introduction to hobby astronomy from Sky and Telescope magazine

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