Sunday, September 4, 2016

Smithsonian Snippets: BBQ's, Mars and The Enterprise

Some items from the Smithsonian online newsletter . . .

The Story of the Weber Grill Begins with a Buoy

The Weber Grill, the famous domed barbeque, was invented by George Stephen, an employee of Chicago company Weber Brothers Metal Works, founded in 1887. George’s father ran the company, which produced metal items, anywhere from hinges to wagons. 

George had 12 kids and they often had an outdoor grill, the popular type of outdoor cooking device at the time being an open charcoal brazier, simply a metal box that held the hot coals with a metal grid iron above. Disadvantages: open to the weather, winds blew ash onto the meat, uncomfortable for the person cooking, meat did not cook evenly. George decided to come up with a better bbq.

The company was, at the time, making metal buoys for the Coast Guard. George came up with the idea of using two halves to create the closed barbeque. His first attempt failed, his neighbor suggesting that there should be air allowed into the sphere. George took a pick and hammered a few holes in. That worked. According to Mike Kempster, the chief marketing suit at the company today, “That was research and development in 1952.” The original grill was marketed as "George's Barbecue Kettle” and sold for $29.95, about $270 today. Later additions included the addition of wheels, a taller lid and coating the body with a porcelain enamel to keep it from rusting. A popular early nickname for the ovoid grill was Sputnik.

The original Weber bbq


The bbq was not a huge instant success but George plugged, or more aptly barbequed, away. Eventually George’s father gave George an ultimatum: work selling the bbq or work for the company. George chose the bbq and left. By 1958 he was able to buy out his father’s partner and he changed the company name to its name today, Weber-Stephen Products.  From there it became an international hit.

George and modern bbq


How the Next Generation of Mars Rovers will Search for Signs of Life

In the past 36 years, NASA has sent three landers and four rovers to Mars, all in the service of eventually getting humans to Mars. In the summer of 2020, NASA will send the most advanced robotic devices yet, armed with a whole new suite of tools. It is expected to land on Mars in February 2021.

Some comments:
  • The Mars 2020 rover hasn't been christened yet.
  • Its goal will be to find signs of life.
  • The new rover will follow in the footsteps, wheel treads of its 2012 predecessor, Curiosity, which astonished scientists around the world with its ongoing discoveries about Mars. Scientists may have already known that there was once water on Mars, as its polar caps are covered in frozen water-ice and there are clear river-like channels on the surface. But Curiosity was the first to confirm that Mars had once been covered in water, meaning that Mars was once a habitable place some 3 billion years ago. 
  • Curiosity also discovered an abnormal source of methane gas in the atmosphere, which is usually released by living organisms. According to Ken Williford, Mars 2020 Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Curiosity found evidence not just for water but water with interesting chemistry. All of this is good evidence that early Mars was habitable. We just now have to figure out, exactly how long ago did those habitable conditions exist?”
  • The new rover will feature a similar suite of instruments, and will look almost identical to its predecessor. But instead of looking for water, the Mars 2020 rover will be the first with an explicit mission to hunt for evidence of life. 
  • Most scientists agree that our planet Earth is a galactic anomaly, with an abundance of fresh water, plenty of oxygen and lush plant life to help regulate our atmosphere. On the other hand the surface of Mars is a cold, barren landscape and countless ways of killing any life forms, from freezing to suffocating to irradiating to starving. “One thing we’ve learned is that the surface of Mars today is incredibly inhospitable to life as we know it,” says Williford. Scientists will use Mars 2020’s seven instruments to search for fossilized microbes that may at one time have lived and even flourished during the red planet's heyday. 
  • The rover will conduct the first investigation into the usability and availability of Martian resources, including oxygen, in preparation for human missions. Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rocks and soil samples that includes a coring drill on its arm and a rack of sample tubes. About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations for return on a potential future sample-retrieval mission. In laboratories on Earth, specimens from Mars could be analyzed for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health hazards for future human missions.


The Mission to Restore the Starship Enterprise

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Having concluded its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man has gone before, the model of the Starship Enterprise was donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum by Paramount in 1974, 5 years after the 3rd and last season of Star Trek in 1969. Gifted at the request of NASA astronaut Michael Collins, to the dismay of Trekkies it sat on display in the Smithsonian gift shop, progressively deteriorating and in danger of its sagging engine pods collapsing.  It's a bit like the Holy Grail chalice being put on display in the Vatican gift shop.

In a recent development that Scotty himself would have been proud of, the Enterprise has undergone extensive repairs. Now one of the iconic pieces of a display on the history of aviation and space travel, it was intended to unveil the restored Enterprise in July 2016 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the opening of the museum, but that has been put back to 8 September, the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.

The new display

Live long and prosper.

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