Rocket Powered Camels

Okay, let’s start with the obvious.  The sun, the moon, planets and stars rise in the east and set in the west.  We all know this; everybody knows this.  Even before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (in the 1500s and early 1600s) figured out the motion was due to the rotation of the earth and not of a cosmic celestial bowl turning over a stationary earth, the day and night cycle was something everybody just knew because that’s what everyone observed, day after day.  And aside from the occasional comet or meteor shower, everything in the sky rose in the east and set in the west.  “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in secula seculorum. Amen.  Alleuluia.

What few astronomical references we have from the Bible, it’s always rise in the east and set in the west.  The passage in Joshua 10:12-15 doesn’t contradict this.  According to the text, Joshua asks the Lord to stop the motion of the sun and the moon “in the middle of the day” (v. 13a), and “[the sun] did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (v. 13b).  Some day, huh.

Neither does the curious passage in Isaiah 38, in which the Lord directs Isaiah to tell the dying Hezekiah that the sign of his healing will be, “‘I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to back ten steps.’  So the sun’s shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down” (Is 38:8).  Isaiah then heals the king’s near-fatal boil by applying to it a “cake of figs” (v 21).  That’s the NASB’s translation.  The NIV says a “poultice of figs,” but to my way of thinking the whole idea of a poultice has a much higher “yuck” factor even if it is more literal.  Of course, why they just didn’t do the whole fig-cake thing to begin with, we’ll never know.  Anyway, modern Astronomy doesn’t have an answer to either of these accounts, but it doesn’t matter.  The Israelites won the battle over the Amorites, and Hezekiah got a 15-year lease on life, so don’t knock it.

All right, where is this going?  I do have a plan.

Fast forward to the Nativity narrative in Matthew, with the Magi.  When Magi AstroConsulting ™ show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, they said they had seen this new star in the east, that according to their Cray Supercomputers, er, magination and divinations had determined it signified a new King of the Jews.  Aside from the fact this rather impolitic announcement spread like wildfire in all the local papyrus tabloids and cable TV talking heads, their announcement, was astronomically correct.

These astronomer/astrologers were east-centric.  From our modern perspective, space is a big, big place and the whole notion of the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, are not of much significance in a universe that stretches infinitely away on all vectors from our small blue dot. That’s for us landlubbers, anyway.  Navigation by air or sea requires the correct heading or bad things will happen.

But the guys at Magi AstroConsulting ™ lived in a much cozier universe, and predicting accurately what stuff in the sky came into view, when, and in what order made all the difference (not to mention keeping their heads connected to their necks).  Therefore, prior to the Copernican Revolution, the most important direction was EAST.  Besides with artificial lighting to accompany us at all times, we in modern culture rarely look up anyway.  What’s the point?  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THE POINT IS…oh, sorry, I don’t want to cry and get my computer keyboard wet.

So the Magi see this star rise in the east and watch its track to where it sets in the west.  Although they couldn’t compute longitude (the vertical grid circling the globe), they could compute latitude (the horizontal lines), and throwing in a little astrology to plot which constellation signifies an auspicious event in the land of the Jews, they packed up their dromedarian SUVs and headed west.  ROAD TRIP!  The Route 66 of the Ancient World!  Destination Jerusalem!  On the way back, they’d hit Caesarea Phillipi, hang out on the beach, catch a few shows.  Some things never change.

The plot thickens, of course, because in present day, every off the shelf astronomy computer software program can calculate the night sky between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 10,000 (10,000 C.E if you want to archeologically correct), and there were some very interesting things happening in the sky between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6., but we’ll deal with that story nearer Christmas.

And as for the star guiding the Magi caravan to the house in Bethlehem?  Well, there’s west (recall they were going west) and then there’s west.  Remember, the sun sets truly in the west only twice a year: at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.  As soon as one deviates from true south or north in a westward direction, then one is “going” west.  That’s about a 180-degree variation of “westerly.”  So, despite the fact Bethlehem is slightly southwest of Jerusalem, it’s no big stretch to get everything to line up.  Of course, the Matthew narrative is much more satisfying, so since they found the right place, don’t knock it.

Double fast-forward to modern day.  I’m standing in my driveway looking west for the newest star in the heavens to appear.  Yes, west.  Didn’t seem right, with all I have just written, but west it was.  And it wasn’t really a star.  It was the International Space Station.  The fourth brightest object in the sky, and as well, only the fourth object in the sky to be visible in daylight (not counting the rare supernova or bollide meteorite).  Why west to east?  That’s the direction of the rotation of the earth.  It’s the rotation of the Jet Stream.  Spacecraft generally are launched with the earth’s spin.  Takes less fuel.  Launch to orbit in eight minutes.

So, there I was.  8:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.  Out of the glow of the setting sun a golden star, the brightest object in the sky, soars overhead.  Fast!  Very fast!  About two and a half minutes from horizon to horizon.  I was stunned!  About it’s size.  Of it’s brilliance.  And of the implication that every few nights, when the clouds of the great Cascade rain forest part for even a few moments that I will be able to step outside and watch this golden orb slide overhead.

A naked eye object.  A real spaceship. A human presence in space.  Not science fiction.  Real.  Just step out of your home every few nights and look up.  You can check the schedule for your Zip Code by going to and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys.”

And I imagined what the Magi might have thought if such a thing, this golden star had soared over their heads, west to east.  Going the wrong direction.  To follow that star, they’d need rocket-powered camels!

ISS Glides Over Butser, England.  3 Mar 09.  Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

ISS Glides Over Butser, England. 3 Mar 09. Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

A Proper Name for a Proper Space Station

NASA and other participating space agencies have decided it’s time to give the International Space Station (ISS) a proper name.  Source: ABC News: I say it’s long overdue.  We humans love to name things.  It is such a deeply innate trait, that as far back in history as we can decipher ancient writings, people, animals, plants and objects are given names.  One clear illustration is in the Book of Genesis: God assigns Adam the task of naming all the things of the earth (Gen 2:19-20).  In fact the importance of this naming is underscored, according to the text, because as God creates the living creatures, He brings them to Adam for naming: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19, NRSV).

Xin Li, Beijing Planetarium

ISS & Shuttle Endeavor (STS126) Transiting the Moon on 15 Nov 08. Picture Credit: Xin Li, Beijing Planetarium

Here’s my list of suggestions for naming the ISS:

Aristarchus of Samos.  (310- ca. 230 B.C.E).  A Greek mathematician and astronomer, Aristarchus, was the first known person to prove, using logic and geometry, that the solar system is heliocentric: the Earth revolves around the Sun.  It took seventeen hundred years before anyone believed him.  “Aristarchus Station” would be a fitting tribute to all scientists throughout history who let the evidence guide them despite the obvious: the Sun “appears” to move, not the Earth.

Copernicus.  (1473-1543).  Copernicus was a Polish cleric, astronomer, and mathematician.  Like Aristarchus, Copernicus refused to accept the obvious and concluded the Earth orbits the Sun, setting off the modern Scientific Revolution.  However, Copernicus could not bring himself to give up the theory that all orbits had to be perfect circles.  “Copernicus Station” is one of my favorites, not only because of his science, but also as a cleric, he found no conflict between his faith and his astronomy.

Kepler. (1571-1630).  Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician turned astronomer, who was a protege of the flamboyant genius Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), whose obsession with collecting astronomical data, provided Kepler with the data he needed to calculate that planetary orbits were elliptical, not circular. Tycho would be a good suggestion for the ISS, except that he already has a lunar crater named for him: that huge rayed crater at the Moon’s southern extreme that is visible whenever more than half of it is visible from your front yard.  I especially fancy “Kepler Station” because it was his discovery that made calculating the orbit of the ISS possible!

Galileo. (1564-1642).  Galileo Galilei is one of the superstars of Science.  Building on the work of Copernicus and Kepler along with a flash of insight to point the new Dutch invention called the telescope into the night sky, he literally changed the Universe from humanity’s perspective.  He discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter as well as the phases of Venus.  His notoriety, of course, is due to his being convicted of heresy by the Holy See for his belief in the heliocentric solar system.  Actually, Galileo was convicted for refusing to STOP teaching the heliocentric theory, not for believing in it as is often misstated in astronomy texts.  Wade Rowland’s “Galileo’s Mistake” (2001) is a very readable analysis of how Galileo ended up being charged and tried for heresy.  Although Galileo is a superstar, his name already has been given to many spacecraft, so I think it’s time to honor someone else.

Newton. (1643-1727).  Isaac Newton, the English physicist, is another of Astronomy’s superstars.  In fact, his genius simply cannot be underestimated.  His theories of gravity and thermodynamics, the invention of calculus and the “Newtonian” reflecting telescope created a paradigm shift that put the last nails into the Ptolemaic cosmos, and set the stage for Einstein and Relativity, as well as Quantum mechanics.  “Newton Station” would be hard to object to, but, like Galileo, Newton has been honored in many different ways.

Messier. (1730-1817).  Charles Messier was a distinguished French astronomer and comet hunter.  He is credited with discovering no less than thirteen of the Sun-orbiting giant dirty ice balls.  But his legacy is the catalog he put together of “objects” that astronomers should not mistake as comets.  Those 110 objects of the Messier Catalog have become the primer of deep space objects, clusters, nebula, galaxies, and others, for all amateur and professional astronomers for the past two centuries, and will continue to be so into the future.  “Messier Station” would be a most fitting way to honor the man who opened up the variety of objects in the vastness of space.

Herschel. (1738-1822).  Frederick William Herschel, though German by heritage, lived in England.  His accomplishments, among others, was the discovery of the planet Uranus and several of its moons, and infrared radiation.  An avid astronomer and researcher, he built over 40 telescopes, some of enormous size for the time.  He has been honored in numerous ways.  His sister, Caroline (1750-1848), however, was his life-long assistant and was an accomplished astronomer in her own right, discovering numerous comets, as well as analyzing her brother William’s data.  Perhaps, “Caroline Herschel Station” would be the ideal name for the ISS to honor women’s underrated contribution to astronomy.

Hubble. (1889-1953).  William Hubble discovered that the universe was not the small island of the Milky Way, but vast beyond our imagination.  Our galaxy is but one among billions.  He also discovered that they are moving away from each other, a phenomenon called “Red Shift.”  Hubble’s legacy is secure, not the least of which is the Hubble Space Telescope that visually has opened up that universe and almost daily continues to astonish.  “Hubble Station” is not a bad idea, but, like Galileo, he has been honored on many fronts.

. . . And now, for the 20th Century!

What a mess!  In the past Century, astronomy came into its own as a legitimate field in science, not just a branch of physics (a fact that the Nobel Prize committee has yet to comprehend, but then, they’re using a list from the 19th Century).

Who to suggest?  The problem is the Space Race.  If you choose an American, the Russians will throw a fit.  And vice versa. And now, since the European Space Agency, the Canadians, Japan, the Chinese Space Agency and other nations developing astronaut programs, have succeeded in either tagging along on a United States or Russian spacecraft, or, with the Chinese, developed their own manned launch program, the naming waters become more and more muddy.   The Canadians, with their tremendous partnership in the ISS, also have a legitimate voice.  So, despite the fact the 20th Century stands with distinction in human history with the advent of space flight projects, both manned and robotic, only dreamed about by science fiction writers a in its first four decades, politics and ideology has permanently screwed up the naming process.  Sorry, John.  Sorry, Neil.  Sorry, Yuri and Svetlana.  You’re a victim of your times.

For instance, if one were to suggest that Werner von Braun (1912-1977) be given the honor, since his engineering genius not only got the American space project off the ground, but was a major influence in Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, his Nazi connections, as well as the Russian’s still nursing a grudge that the Americans got to him before they did at the end of World War II would scuttle the whole thing.

So any individual, or other Cold War name (such as Mir = Peace), just won’t work.  This is a space station and it requires a historically appropriate name.  Of course, some corporate sponsor like Virgin Galactic might agree to put up a whole lot of billions of dollars or euros in exchange for naming it after Sir Richard. “Branson Station”?  Naaah.

MGM Studios, 1968

Rotating Space Station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Picture Credit: MGM Studios, 1968

So who invented the modern, iconic space station, a great wheel rotating in space, first displayed by Disney in his 1955 animation classic, “Man in Space,”  and later immortalized in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey?”  The design was a collaboration between astronomer, Willie Ley and space illustrator, Chesley Bonestell, and then developed more fully by von Braun.  Hmm.  There he is again.  Of course, “Clarke Station” wouldn’t be a bad choice!  But I’m afraid, “Ley-Bonestell Station” just lacks the needed pizazz.

So, in the end what are my favorites?  How about Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), who, in my opinion, is the best science fiction writer of all time?  His Foundation series sold millions and introduced several generations around the world to a style of writing that forever moved the genre away from the silliness of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and began to examine the existential question: what really makes us human?  Oh, and by the way, he also invented the concept of the humaniform robot (the film Metropolis, notwithstanding) and created the Three Laws of Robotics.  “Asimov Station” has a very nice ring to it.

I also like Stephen Hawking. (b. 1942).  After all, his genius for cosmology, as well as his unparalleled courage to live with his ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), guarantees his immortality as a scientist in the ranks of Newton and Einstein.  I like “Hawking Station” very much!

I could go on, but there is one iconic figure, known and loved around the world, that though fictional, would be just about perfect:

Lucas Films

Luke Skywalker--Star Wars Hero and Worldwide Icon for Good! Photo Credit: Lucas Films

C’mon, George.  Why not “Skywalker Station”?  What better legacy could you choose than to have your creation be the name of Earth’s first space station?  No chance of it being confused with the Death Star (Saturn’s moon, Mimas, already has that distinction).  And when “Skywalker Station” passes overhead, we can all say, “That’s no moon!  That’s a space station!”

I like it!