Sunday, July 23, 2017
Five years have passed since the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Her New York Times obituary — specifically, the way we addressed her sexuality — provoked an intense debate that still echoes from time to time.
In the third week of July 2012, The Times learned that Dr. Ride was terminally ill and was receiving hospice care. She was only 61, and her illness had been kept secret. I started working on an advance obituary right away.
Dr. Ride died that July 23. Late that day, her company, Sally Ride Science, posted a statement on its website. I read it hurriedly, picked up the name of a survivor we had not known about and hastily typed it into the draft: Tom O’Shaughnessy, Dr. Ride’s partner of 27 years.
“It’s not Tom,” said the obituaries editor, William McDonald, reading the company’s statement. “It’s Tam.”
I had misread it. Tam was a woman’s name. Only then did we have an inkling that Sally Ride had been gay. We quickly had to decide how to approach it.
The Times has a general policy of not “outing” people who choose to keep their sexuality private. But we also identify immediate survivors in obituaries. So it was clear that we would mention Dr. O’Shaughnessy. But beyond that, what more could we — or should we — say?
We knew nothing about the relationship, and with the deadline closing in, we were in no position to report more fully on the matter had we wanted to.
There was no indication that Dr. Ride’s private life was relevant to her remarkable professional accomplishments, the focus of the obituary. Had she been an activist for L.G.B.T. causes or had she spoken openly about how her sexuality had shaped her life, if at all, we would have reported it. But such was not the case. If we made a big deal of the new information, it might seem as if we were trying to draw exactly the type of attention it seemed she had sought to avoid.
In the end, after some back-and-forth among the obituary editors, we decided to identify Dr. O’Shaughnessy as Dr. Ride’s partner and survivor and leave it at that.
The acknowledgment of the relationship set off a public debate about what to say — or not to say — about a national figure’s private life. Some gay rights activists accused The Times of homophobia for not drawing more attention to the couple’s relationship, and some criticized Dr. Ride herself for not having come out. Other readers thought we handled it right. Mr. McDonald was invited to discuss the episode on National Public Radio’s “On the Media.” I was grilled by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Dr. Ride was described by her sister, in later interviews with other news outlets, as an extremely private person who kept many aspects of her life out of the public eye. But family and friends knew she was gay, the sister said; Dr. Ride had made no effort to hide it from them.
Dr. O’Shaughnessy told interviewers much the same, adding that in 2001, when she and Dr. Ride were starting Sally Ride Science, they feared that sponsors would reject them if it became known that they were a couple. Indeed, in her era, had Dr. Ride disclosed that she was gay, it might have ended her astronaut career before it had even started.
As a postscript, Mr. McDonald, my editor, gave Dr. Ride and Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s relationship more prominence in the obituary when it was reprinted in 2012 in an annual collection of Times obits that he edited. There he also updated the obit to acknowledge the public reaction.
The revised obituary said: “Some commentators called it a posthumous ‘coming out’; others saw the disclosure as an invasion of the privacy she had long maintained. Some gay rights organizations adopted her posthumously as a heroine; but their critics countered that she had never identified herself with their cause. Some news organizations were accused of playing down the relationship; others, of ‘outing’ her.”
It all seemed like just what Sally Ride would not have wanted.
Friday, July 21, 2017
From Mars Rover: Panorama Above 'Perseverance Valley': NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recorded a panoramic view before entering the upper end of a fluid-carved valley that descends the inner slope of a crater's rim.
Thursday, July 20, 2017
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
And Now, a Weather Report From Mars
Scientists in Spain are bringing Martian meteorology to the Earth-bound masses.
Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) tools on NASA’s Curiosity Mars.
NASA’S ROVER CURIOSITY IS STILL alive and well in the Gale Crater, just south of Mars’ equator. Meanwhile, on Earth, the team of scientists who designed the robot’s weather station, known as the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), have decided to become the world’s first Martian weathermen.
Jorge Pla-García, the group’s meteorologist, likes the term. “When we send a human to Mars, we could include a section in the news,” he says.Chasma Boreale, a valley in Mars’ north polar ice cap.
Pla-García works at the Spanish National Center of Astrobiology, which is associated with NASA. Now, along with other two researchers, he has decided to publish a periodical weather report in layman terms. The other two weathermen are Antonio Molina, who inputs geological data, and Javier Gómez Elvira, who processes the data for mainstream consumption.
To make the weather report more appealing to the general public, the team has made a point of including comparisons with Earthly weather phenomena. In their first report, released on , they compared the Gale Crater winds with the Chinook air streams in the Rocky Mountains of North America. Their second report, released on July 11, discusses the strong whirlwinds known as Dust Devils.
“We do it because it’s the public’s right,” says Pla-García. “They fund us with their taxes, so they deserve to know what their money is being spent on!”
In their second report, the team highlights the start of summer in the Gale Crater. It’s also the end of the dusty season in the Martian southern hemisphere. During the spring, solar radiation warmed the air closer to the ground and lifted the particles, but now it’s “crystal clear time,” says Pla-García.
This month, as in the one before, atmospheric pressure is on its way down. It’s a typical feature of the Red Planet’s summertime, as the atmosphere’s main gas, carbon dioxide, progressively freezes over the Southern Polarusual, Martian temperatures have stayed under 0ºC for the whole month, and they shouldn’t be expected to get higher any time soon.
The Red Planet is colder than people think. A few years ago, NASA reported temperatures up to 30ºC (86 ºF) at the planet’s equator. However, according to the REMS team, that was an instrumental error the American agency hasn’t corrected. “It was taken by an engineering thermometer used to control a camera,” says Pla-García. “It wasn’t in contact with the environment. The actual maximum we’ve ever registered is 3ºC (37.4 ºF), and 99 percent of the time, it’s below 0ºC.”A View of Mars, showing ice clouds hanging above the Tharsis volcanoes.
The process of compiling the Martian weather report starts with the data the team downloads from REMS’ sensors. It’s data anyone can access through an app (available on Google Play and Apple App Store), but that doesn’t make the reports useless. With the app, you can see the conditions on the Gale Crater. With the reports, though, you get to understand Martian weather more broadly.
“We can get a lot of information from REMS, but that doesn’t really tell us the whole story,” says Pla-García. “We need a network of stations. That’s our problem, and that’s why we insist NASA to send more sensors to other areas of the planet. We need the context.”Sand dunes in southern Terra Cimmeria showing the effects of Martian winds.
To cover for the lack of stations, they use a computer model designed by American professor Scot Rafkin, who is the Assistant Director of the Planetary Atmospheres and Surfaces Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The team simulates what’s going on in and around the Gale Crater. They compare the model and REMS’ real information to make sure the model is accurate. And it is, so they assume it’s also right for the context.
“Hey! I’m here to get the dildo!” shouts Pla-García merrily, as he enters one of the engineering labs. The device (which is indeed quite phallic) is a replica the team used to test-drive REMS before the real one went roaming on Mars. It measures UV radiation, pressure and wind speed. The one in Mars also has sensors to collect ground and air temperatures.A Replica of REMS, used for tests on Earth.
The 12 members on Jorge’s team take turns to keep watch, making sure the device’s abilities are squeezed to the maximum before it inevitably dies off. Pla-García says it gives him goosebumps to think he’s operating a device in another planet, but that collecting data is the hardest, most daunting part of his job.
“We used to be on watch on Martian time,” says Pla-García. “And a Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes long, so our work schedule was different every day. That included weekends, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, you name it.”
Fortunately for them, they’re now on a more steady Pacific Time schedule.Installing one of the two mini-booms on the rover Curiosity that will monitor weather conditions on Mars
While Jorge leaves the military base where the Center is located, he explains the point of it all. His team is trying to answer the million-dollar questions: How did life on Earth begin, and is there life out there? And he’s excited about the future.
The weather conditions in Mars are so inhospitable that the team, which has a lab devoted to researching extremophiles—organisms that thrive in extreme environments—is skeptical about finding any signs of life on its surface. Solar radiation and perchlorate compounds don’t even allow for fossils, if there was any to be found.
But underground the conditions are better. The next European Space Agency rover, ExoMars 2020 is expected to incorporate a two-meter-deep drill. “I pray every day so it gets there soon and everything works well,” says Pla-Garcia. “We may have some big news then.”
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Friday, July 14, 2017
For Moratorium on Sending Commands to Mars, Blame the Sun: This month, movements of the planets will put Mars almost directly behind the sun, from Earth's perspective, causing curtailed communications between Earth and Mars.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017