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Friday, January 04, 2013

2012 Year in Review

My 2012 looked similar to my 2011 - a lot of reading, writing, studying, and teaching. Throw in a bunch of running and a pretty miserable Cubs season and the year came and went pretty quickly. I traveled back to Iowa for the first time in four years, giving me a chance to visit old friends and help my parents a bit. However, if my 2012 is highlighted by anything, I think it comes down to three things: experiencing some great speakers here at CU-Boulder, passing my comprehensive exams, and not only setting, but reaching, a running goal.

Great Speakers


You know what else is great about all these tickets? I think I spent a total of $2 on them.
I'll remember 2012 for the outstanding speakers I got to see in person. First was Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at Macky Auditorium in February. In a talk called "The Delusions of Space Enthusiasts," Tyson, in a most entertaining way, talked about how we doubt our power to innovate, how we look too much at the past of the space program, and how our culture reflects our focus on science. Thankfully someone recorded it and posted it, so listen for yourself.

In April, Cornel West came to CU-Boulder. He is, most likely, the most powerful speaker I've ever heard. Tying together messages from Plato to Martin Luther King to Curtis Mayfield, he sharply delivered messages about race, culture, power, democracy, and life in a way that I'd never heard before. I wish there was a recording of that speech, but thankfully Dr. West's oratory is easy to find on the web, such as this great recent presentation or his weekly podcast with Tavis Smiley.

To kick off our school year, the School of Education hosted Gloria Ladson-Billings. I must say that I felt a little vindicated when she stressed that we, as educators, should use social media -- not just to connect to people, but to understand the culture of connectedness in which our students are growing up. I think this hit a point about culturally relevant pedagogy that gets overlooked: it's not just being aware of what culture our students are part of, but how they expose themselves and participate in that culture.

By far, the speaker here at CU that got the most attention was President Barack Obama. He came here not once, not twice, but three times -- enough that I joked that he was trying to get Sasha and Malia eligible for in-state tuition at CU. President Obama is a great speaker, but because we hear him almost daily I can't say that much of what he said was very surprising. Even so, you're welcome back any time, Mr. President.

There are a couple white pixels down on the stage. That's President Obama, trust me.

Comprehensive Exams


Part of the process of being a PhD student usually entails passing some sort of comprehensive or qualifying exams, signifying to the university that you're a candidate for the degree and capable of engaging in your own research. I wrote about this process extensively using the #OpenComps tag at MathEd.net, so I won't go into much detail here. As I look back at it, having passed my exam just over a month ago, I focus less on the exam itself (a week of writing followed by a 90-minute oral exam) and more on my maturity as a graduate student. Simply put, things are making more sense, and I'm able to connect more ideas from more perspectives. That's a good feeling, even if I still have frequent and healthy moments of, "Wow, there's still so much I don't know!"

Running


I painfully remember in December 2009, after a semester of almost no exercise and some pretty unhealthy eating habits during finals week, the rotten feeling I had walking to campus to turn in my last paper. The 25-minute walk felt like it took effort and I was breathing harder than I should have been. During my previous several winters, I'd been coaching wrestling, walking to and from school daily, and skiing. Now I was nowhere near that active -- and it showed. In the months that followed, I tried going out for short runs. On a 1.5-mile loop near my apartment, I remember having to stop and walk several times due to fatigue.

I kept running and my fitness improved, if only slightly. I was a very casual runner in 2010. Starting in the spring of 2011, however, I started tracking my runs with RunKeeper and I transitioned from simply running to becoming a runner. Gradually, 1.5 miles became 2.8, and in June 2011 I ran 6.5 miles at a 12 min/mi pace. That August, I ran 10 miles at a 12:30 pace, and by the end of the year I had racked up 200 miles.

I ran infrequently over the winter months coming into 2012, nursing some knee pain that didn't want to go away. By the end of March, I'd only tallied 37 miles. By May 1st and the end of the semester I was at 55 miles, and I'd started to figure out that my knee hurt no more if I ran 4 times a week or 4 times a month, so I picked up the pace and set a goal for the year: 366 miles, or an average of one mile per day. (2012 was a leap year, remember. Also, new, highly-cushioned running shoes alleviated most of the knee problems.) I had some catching up to do, but no work or classes during the summer in the way of progress. I ran 48 miles in May, 26 miles in June (not bad considering I traveled for almost two weeks), and 34 miles in July. Perhaps inspired by the Olympics, August was my best month yet at 58 miles -- which put me in excellent shape for a beautiful climb of Mt. Meeker in September.

Mileage dropped off during the fall months, but I ran enough to keep my fitness up. Still, I needed a big December to reach my goal. Thanks to a light schedule post-comprehensive exams, I ran 64 miles in December, almost all of it 5 miles at a time along the Boulder Creek Trail.

My big December gave me just enough to finish the year at 366.9 miles. The progress on the graph below looks steadier than it sometimes felt. For some people this kind of mileage isn't a big deal, but for me -- the overweight, short-legged kid who hated to run -- I think it's a nice accomplishment. Trust me, my sore-kneed, sometimes 220+ pound body fits all too comfortably on the couch to see it any other way.


Best of 2012


Favorite book: I read a lot in 2012, but rarely did I get a chance to sit down and read a book end-to-end. But one book I read last summer keeps influencing how I think about scaling technological and educational innovations: Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery, which I reviewed in August at MathEd.net.

Favorite article: Last year I chose Anna Sfard's 1991 article On the Dual Nature of Mathematical Conceptions, and this year I'm tempted to choose her 1998 article On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. However, I think I've been more influenced by Marty Simon's 1995 article Reconstructing Mathematics Pedagogy from a Constructivist Perspective, which I reviewed at MathEd.net.

Favorite show: In 2012 I never missed an episode of Breaking Bad, I routinely watched some of the top shows on Discovery, and caught The Daily Show and Colbert when I could. Still, I pay attention to traditional television less and less. (I still get an unusual amount of enjoyment from the shows of my youth, like Night Court and Cheers, which I'll watch in marathon fashion.) Instead of regular TV, I watch and listen to a ton of programming on the web. My favorites this year included pretty much anything with +Gina Trapani -- I've long enjoyed This Week in Google, and this year she started another show called In Beta with +Kevin Purdy. Now that she's joining All About Android, I'll be glued to that show stronger in 2013 than I was before.

Favorite album: According to my last.fm stats, I listened to 548 Tori Amos tracks and the single track I listened to most was Röyksopp's Vision One. But for music that was actually released in 2012, I think I've been most impressed with Garbage's Not Your Kind of People, with Norah Jones's Little Broken Hearts close behind.

Favorite hardware: I bought a Galaxy Nexus from Verizon in December 2011, a pretty significant hardware upgrade from my Droid X. It's difficult to separate hardware and software in mobile devices, but the amount of things I can accomplish with this pocket-sized device is incredible. From now on, I think I'm sticking with Nexus hardware, which probably means leaving Verizon when my contract expires for whatever phone Google releases after the Nexus 4.

Favorite software: I still heavily rely on Mendeley and became a regular Evernote user in 2012, and both make me realize that the distinction between software and service is getting pretty fuzzy. Niether of those products would be nearly as useful without their web and syncing capabilities. It's difficult to pick a favorite, but this year I'm going with Google Currents, Google's news reader for Android. Maybe the app by itself isn't super impressive, but to me it represents how I was able to ween myself away from subscribing to the RSS feeds of major news sites, where my time was wasted in Google Reader getting past entertainment news and superficial political coverage. With the help of reading Clay Johnson's Information Diet, I realized that by checking just a few headlines from something like The Daily Beast's Cheat Sheets, I could get most of the news coverage I needed.

Favorite service: As I did in 2011, I have to give the nod here to Google+. I still check Facebook occasionally and Twitter pretty regularly, but neither have the features or rich conversations and ideas that I regularly experience on Google+.

Make it a good 2013, everyone!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mt. Meeker

After a summer of running and a couple trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, I felt like I was ready to climb Mt. Meeker. I didn't want to climb it alone, but luckily one of our new doctoral students, Elizabeth Schlessman, wanted to climb Meeker, too. Knowing the peak of fall weather was at hand, we set out on a beautiful Saturday to see if we could summit Longs's nearest neighbor.

Elizabeth and I hit the trail around 6:30 and steadily moved above the trees and got the classic view of Meeker and Longs. This is really a wonderful place, and getting there was far easier than I remembered it from my climb of Longs in 2000. Then again, this time I was in shape, accustomed to the altitude, and not carrying 45 pounds of camping gear.
Meeker on the left, Longs on the right, and Ships Prow in the center. Our route (the Loft Route) climbs the gully left of the Prow.
I couldn't have imagined better weather for this day. Not too hot, or cool, or windy, and practically no risk of storms. Post-monsoon climbing is great!
I think the only non-beautiful sight I saw the whole day was the smog layer over the Front Range. It was good to be above it.
Most of the challenge of climbing Meeker lies in the gully above Chasm Lake up to the Loft. It's somewhat steep, requires the occasional 3rd-class move, and you have to know where to exit near the top to find the ramp and switchback to avoid a cliff. It's also the kind of place where you'd want a helmet, as we could hear the occasional ice and rock succumb to gravity. One climber we met coming down said he had a close call with a cinder-block size rock moving within feet of him at high speed, but fortunately Elizabeth and I avoided such danger. Now I wish I'd have stopped and taken more pictures along the route, but I think Elizabeth and I were justifiably concentrating on the routefinding and making it to the top safely.

Once at the Loft, a climber's trail took us most of the way to the top. Meeker's summit is a pretty airy place along a narrow ridge.
Elizabeth and I reached the summit ridge and moved cautiously towards the mountain's highest point.
We took turns moving along the ridge while the other took pictures. The exposure really wasn't that bad, but certainly not a place to try anything foolish.
Elizabeth leaves her pack behind and moves towards the summit block. The more distant high point is the high point of Meeker Ridge, and a careful traverse (that we didn't attempt) separates it from Meeker's main summit.
Meeker's summit block requires a 4th-class move, meaning if we fall we're probably going to get hurt. We explored the right side of the block where it slopes the lowest, but neither of us saw a graceful way of getting down once we got up there. Later, reading at home, I saw the suggestion that the crack on the left in this picture might be the surest way up.
Climbing up the crack in the summit block would have worked, but the thought of stumbling when dropping back down was enough for me to decide that standing on the absolute highest point wasn't worth it.
Compared to the 2.5 acres of almost flat ground on top of Longs Peak, Meeker is no place to celebrate with dozens of your newest friends. Thankfully, we had the upper mountain all to ourselves and didn't have to wander far from the ridge.
Meeker's summit is just airy enough that it's probably not a fun place to be when it's wet or icy.
Elizabeth also opted to not try standing on the summit block, but she did exceed its height. Or her arm did, anyway.
13,911? Try 13,912!
The canister for the summit register was empty and uncapped at one end. Usually that's about all I look for on the summit, but this place had someone to greet us at the top.
Buddha looking fit and trim compared to other times I've seen him, not surprising given the effort it takes to climb Meeker.
We took the customary 20-30 minutes to eat lunch before heading back down. There wasn't much to hurry us except for the knowing that getting to the top is only half the challenge.
Looking to the east you can really get a sense for how tall Meeker stands above the Front Range.
Meeker was Elizabeth's first 13er, even though she's climbed Longs nine times. Apparently she's never read the book, "How Most People Get Started Climbing Colorado's Big Mountains." It was great to see her excitement and satisfaction of seeing Longs from the top of Meeker.
Longs Peak is an incredible mountain, but frankly, compared to Meeker's narrow summit ridge, Longs looks like it's been broken off at the top.
On the way down we detoured to Chasm Lake for the scenery and for me to refill my water. The mid-afternoon sunlight coming over Longs and dancing off the water was a great gift after a great climb.
Chasm Lake is an awesome place and easily reachable for the reasonably fit. I need to go back there soon and often.
We reached the car around 4:30, roughly 10 hours after we started. (On her own I bet Elizabeth could do this in 8 hours. Thanks for your patience, Elizabeth!) All my summer running and packing lighter than usual paid off -- I can't remember feeling better at the end of any climb like this one. (How I felt later that night and Sunday, however, was another story. Let's just say for about a 24-hour period I avoided any and all sudden or jarring movements.) The experience has left me wanting to climb something else before the snowflakes stick, although I get the feeling my school schedule might have something to say about another climb as big as this one.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ali Bernard, Lolo Jones, and the Women of the London Olympics

Coming into the Olympics, I had a hunch that these games were going to be remembered for the performances of the U.S. women. Maybe it had something to do with the local media attention on Missy Franklin, or my native state's attention on Gabby Douglas and Lolo Jones, but it seemed there was a lot more talk about our female Olympians than there was for the men. (Michael Phelps is the obvious exception. Remember, NBC thought it was worth skipping part of the Opening Ceremony so we could listen to Ryan Seacrest ask him about his fear of spiders.)

Now through 13 days of competition, it appears my hunch was right. U.S. women have so far won 51 medals to the men's 38 (neither figure counting the bronze won in tennis mixed doubles), and the women have struck gold twice as often as the men, 26 to 13. Give yourself this quiz: Name a male U.S. Olympic gold medalist who isn't a swimmer. (crickets) Give up? It's not easy, because there have only been three: Vincent Hancock in shooting, Christian Taylor in the triple jump, and Ashton Eaton in the decathlon.

(Side note: How backwards is it that we give so much more hype to the "World's Fastest Man" instead of the "World's Greatest Athlete?" Do we just lack the patience to follow the decathlon competition?)

Now, I know the games aren't over yet, but I find this imbalance pretty astounding. Yes, there have been some hard-to-explain surprises for the U.S. men: Zero medals in boxing for the first time everZero medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, the first time that's happened since 1976; and no American men in the 400m finals, an event we've won the last seven Olympics, sweeping the medals in 2008, 2004, and 1988. Maybe these are just flukes, an unfortunate accumulation of bad luck. But I don't think the performance of the women has much to do with luck. I think a lot of credit should go to Title IX (despite what effects it may have had on minor men's sports), which just recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. This country opened up opportunities for women to participate and compete, and they've flourished. We should be proud of this as a nation, and we should be proud of these women as individuals.

I've loved watching the U.S. women compete in these games. The women's indoor volleyball team has been excellent and I even stretched my soccer tolerance to 10 whole minutes to catch the end of the gold medal match we won against Japan. I was especially happy to see Allyson Felix win a gold in the 200m after silvers in the past two Olympics. But do you know who I looked forward to watching most? Two wrestlers: Clarissa Chun and Ali Bernard, both returning Olympians from the Beijing games. You've probably never heard of them. In a way, that's what makes the Olympics great -- you discover some athlete who has been toiling day-in and day-out with little reward or recognition, just waiting to be discovered by a national audience. Being a wrestling fan, these two women aren't as obscure to me as they are to most people. I've known about Clarissa since she won a World Championship in 2008, and I really had hoped to meet her when I was coaching and we took our state qualifiers to workout with the women's freestyle wrestlers from the Olympic Training Center. (She wasn't there, sadly.) Clarissa won a bronze medal in London by beating a long-time Ukrainian nemisis, and if there's a tragedy in these games, it's that Clarissa broke her phone during the opening ceremonies. (Who do you think took the photo of teammate Elena Pirozhkova lifting Michelle Obama?)

I really didn't know much about Ali Bernard before the games, but as I watched matches and interviews on YouTube before the start of competition there was something special about her that drew me in. Maybe it's because I can imagine what it was like for her to grow up in rural Minnesota, and the challenges she faced being a girl in a predominantly boy's sport. Maybe it was imagining the big step she took to leave the U.S. and go to college in Canada where there was a women's wrestling program, or the sacrifice of committing herself to the training required for world-level competition. Maybe I can imagine her ups and downs the past year: a bronze at the 2011 World Championship; being named Women's Wrestler of the year; losing at the Olympic Trials despite being the favorite; having ankle surgery; then making the Olympic team after the original qualifying wrestler failed a drug test. You'll have to pardon me, Kobe and LeBron, but Ali Bernard's journey to the Olympics satisfies me in a way yours does not. And Ali's result is, to me, no less Olympian: a hard-fought first round loss, a dream over in four minutes as her hometown watched and cheered her on. As did I.

As much as I've enjoyed pinning my hopes to Ali, I could have been cheering for anyone. With a few different clicks on YouTube, maybe I'd have been getting up at 6am to watch a heptathlete, or a rower, or a boxer like Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old from Flint, Michigan, who won a gold for the U.S. The U.S. seems to have so many talented female athletes to support, and many of them have knocked-down-get-up-again histories like Ali Bernard. They're everything we expect our Olympians to be, and often times more. Winning so many medals is just icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been a perfect Olympics for the U.S. women, or at least our perception and judgement of them. Being a successful female athlete in America still has its problems. First and foremost, I could happily do without linkbait like "20 Hottest Olympians of London 2012," to which I won't give any extra traffic by linking to here. Even NBC (and my local NBC affiliate) shamelessly published such an article, complete with plenty of bikini and semi-nude photos of female Olympians. I don't have all the answers here, but somehow our culture just hasn't quite figured out how to recognize their fitness and attractiveness -- which they should be free to display, and we should be free to appreciate -- in a way that I think is appropriate and not gender-biased. (The worst example: One site posted pictures without the names of the athletes or other identifiers. Just pictures.)

It was also disappointing to see some of our biases and double-standards get targeted at individuals. For example, in the midst of Gabby Douglas's run at all-around gymnastics gold, the internet buzzed with criticisms of her hair. And the biggest drama of the games might be that surrounding Lolo Jones, which she referred to in this Today Show interview:


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Lolo was clearly was upset. And after I read the New York Times article in question, I was upset, too. (An editor for the Times has since apologized for the article. Okay, not really, but sorta.) The article claimed the attention given to Jones "was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be -- vixen, virgin, victim -- to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses."

Yes, Lolo gets a lot of attention. Her story of running out of childhood poverty and on to championships and track records is inspiring, and a lot of people cried with her when hitting the final hurdle in Beijing cost her a sure gold medal. That mistake might have been an early sign of a worsening spinal cord problem that kept her from feeling her feet, a problem that required surgery a year ago with an uncertain outcome. Given the emotional and physical turmoil, it's a surprise that Lolo even made these games, much less ran well enough to finish 4th best in the world. And yes, she's incredibly attractive. Beautiful. Gorgeous. She's all those things and more, and people love and celebrate her because of how she fits all her talents and attributes together. (And don't forget her wit and humor, which she displays best on Twitter.)

Track and Field is often not all that lucrative, and athletes hope for steady paychecks from endorsements in between running for prize money. To maximize your endorsement value, athletes need to win and market themselves. Lolo did both, and did both well. Unfortunately for Jeré Longman, the author of the Times article, he was uncomfortable with Lolo doing both. It's as if he's saying Lolo -- or any female athlete -- has to choose between success in their sport and being eye candy. Be one, or be the other, but don't be both. Don't be one whole person. Minimize our discomfort by only being the parts that don't expose our societal (or personal) double standards.

That's not fair, and the problem isn't limited to Lolo Jones. On a variety of scales, our society still struggles with women who are beautiful and successful, and the Olympics is rich with women who are both. (Including, specifically, the U.S. women's freestyle wrestling team, no matter how many of those "Sexiest Olympians" lists omit them.) As a culture, are we getting better? I think so. But we stumble once in a while. After all, nobody clears every hurdle.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

St. Vrain Mountain

After a month or so spent getting my running legs solidly underneath me, I figured it was finally time to head west into the mountains and climb something. After looking at destinations relatively close to Boulder, I chose St. Vrain Mountain, a peak located on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
It's always nice to start a hike by knowing, for sure, that you're on the trail you think you should be on.
While St. Vrain isn't that far from Boulder as the crow flies, getting there meant driving northwest to Lyons and then southwest to Allenspark. Thankfully, the gravel road south out of Allenspark was in great shape and it wasn't far to the trailhead. I was a little surprised at the lack of trail register, and that made me think that maybe this trail gets used less than I thought. I started hiking around 8:20 on good trail and was soon in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
It's not far from the trailhead to the boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
The trail stays mostly just to the north of the creek and the grade is pretty steady with few switchbacks. At about N 40° 10.2' W 105° 33.5 it turns south and crosses several snowmelt streams, but soon turns back north again. It was warm over the first few miles, but thankfully I started to feel a cool upslope breeze once I neared treeline. I was trying to move quickly, and even though I'm in pretty good physical condition it's still a workout to average 2 miles per hour going uphill with a pack.

Most of what I carry on a hike like this, by weight, is liquid -- 3 liters of water and a liter of Cytomax. Since I did this hike alone, I threw in my full first-aid kit as well as some survival gear. I think smartphones have reached the point where I can carry less technology. I'm sure a few years ago on a climb like this I would have carried a phone, a camera, a GPS receiver, a GPS tracker for later geotagging photos, and an mp3 player. Now the phone is also my GPS, geotagging camera, and my mp3 player. (Tip: Turn on airplane mode to save your battery, which otherwise will drain quickly in the mountain if your phone stays busy looking for a signal.) I took my hiking GPS just in case, although I'm sure I would have been fine without it.
There was a little snow across various parts of the trail, but it looked more like July 4th conditions than June 4th.
If there was anything that really slowed me down, it was the 5-10 small snow crossings I dealt with along the trail. Usually the snow was firm enough to walk over but I postholed enough to make it inconvenient. Still, it's amazing (and worrisome) to have so little snow left this early in the summer.
Looking back down valley, you get a reminder that you're really just at the edge of the mountains, with the plains beyond.
It had been so long since my last hike that I almost forgot how much I love being at treeline. The views open up, you're exposed to the full effects of the sun and wind, and I always make the mental note that "If the weather goes bad, this is where I need to get back to -- fast." Everything struggles to survive up here, as evidenced by the Krumholtz. There is a fantastic stretch of trail on this route that starts at treeline -- the trail levels and smooths as you cross into Rocky Mountain National Park and you get some great views of bigger mountains to the north.
The sign said Rocky Mountain National Park, but I looked everywhere for a visitor's center and found nothing. I think somebody was playing a trick on me.
I wish I could have stayed on that trail longer, but it wasn't long before I was at the base of St. Vrain Mountain and it was time to head up. There was still plenty of snow on the east slopes of St. Vrain, and thankfully it was still early enough for the snow to be a good firmness for climbing and not steep enough to risk a fall. I read reports of a climber's trail but I'm pretty sure it was still mostly buried in the snow.
To reach the summit of St. Vrain Mountain you leave the trail and head pretty much straight up the hill along the RMNP and Indian Peaks Wilderness boundary. The familiar flat-topped summit of Longs dominates the northern view.
After 3,000 feet of climbing my legs were growing a bit tired and I slowed, but that's to be expected. Even with trying to keep an average pace above 2 miles per hour, I love how the good climbing of a summit push slows to a near crawl. I had RunKeeper tracking my progress and talking into my ear saying things like, "Current Pace...110 minutes per mile."

There's nothing particularly spectacular about St. Vrain Mountain itself, but the views from the summit are pretty good. Surprisingly, I didn't spend much time looking west, as all the best views were either north into RMNP or south into the IPW.
This panorama looks south on the left into the Indian Peaks Wilderness and north to the right into Rocky Mountain National Park.
I settled into the wind break on the summit, ate my lunch, and listened to (of all things) a Fresh Air interview with David Alan Grier. The skies above me were clear, but the clouds directly over Longs Peak were darkening. As much as I enjoy the peace and rest of a summit, I enjoy avoiding lightning strikes even more, so I packed up and headed back down the hill.
My last shot from the summit looks into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I think I've only ever hiked there once, but given its proximity to Boulder I'm likely to return.
I moved downhill quickly and finally saw another person just below treeline. It was a woman and her dog headed for Meadow Mountain, a smaller peak that I opted to bypass on this trip. I don't think I took any breaks the rest of the way and passed one small group that looked to be out for an afternoon hike. Other than those two moments, I felt like I had the trail, RMNP, and the IPW all to myself.

I was back at the car just before 2 pm. Total distance traveled was 8.7 miles with 3683 feet of climbing. Total time on the trail was 5:27 with a moving average of 2.2 mph. Click on the map endpoint marker for additional stats.

View 6/4/2012 8:21 AM in a larger map

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Scott Carpenter, Aurora 7, and Boulder

Scott Carpenter (photo NASA)
Fifty years ago today, astronaut Scott Carpenter became the second American to orbit the earth. The 1960s were a busy time for our space program, so the 2010s are going to be a busy time for 50-year space achievement anniversaries.

I've been a bit of a space junkie ever since I was a young boy with my Kmart telescope and Space Shuttle models. My very first "Do you remember where you were..." moment was the Challenger disaster, and even when NASA wasn't in the spotlight I was getting up in the middle of the night to watch Shuttle launches and landings.

One of the perks of being a student at CU-Boulder is the university's history of producing astronauts (20 at current count, which I believe is more than any institution other than the military academies) and our strong involvement in building space craft and experiments (we're the top NASA-funded university in the world). There's a great exhibit in the CU Heritage Museum where you can see a moon rock, various spacesuits and equipment, and artifacts collected from the Challenger wreckage that belonged to CU alumnus Ellison Onizuka, who died in the disaster.

CU can trace much of this proud space history back to Scott Carpenter, a Boulder native. I'm reminded of him almost every day: I live across the street from Scott Carpenter Park and I route my runs behind Aurora 7 Park, named for Carpenter's Mercury spacecraft (which I've seen in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry). After Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom made sub-orbital flights, and John Glenn made a three-orbit flight, it was Carpenter's turn. The flight was designated as a science mission and not everything went well, as discussed in this video:


This video makes it look like Carpenter did a lot of work to save a ship with malfunctioning guidance equipment and a lack of fuel, although Chris Kraft's comments in the documentary When We Left Earth and elsewhere make it sound like Carpenter was willingly pushing the craft to its limits, even when instructed not to. I suppose in the end it just makes for a good story, as whatever headaches Carpenter might have caused were replaced by the wealth of data Carpenter collected about the Mercury spacecraft and what's possible in spaceflight.

Carpenter returned to earth and to Boulder a hero, and locally he has been anything but forgotten. Here's a sampling of some great local articles written about him in the past few weeks:

Boulder Daily Camera: Scott Carpenter leaves mark on Boulder, 50 years after blasting into space
Boulder Daily Camera: Carol Taylor: Boulder declared Scott Carpenter Day in 1962 after historic spaceflight
CU-Boulder: CU astronaut-alumnus Scott Carpenter looks back at 50th anniversary of Aurora 7 mission