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False Starts: Astronauts Recall Stories of Shuttle Launch Aborts
Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. (NASA photo)

Many astronaut autobiographies attempt to convey the exceptionally rare and coveted experience of riding a fire-belching rocket into space. It must surely be a situation where all adjectives and analogies fall short. While the trip to orbit seems to affect each person in different ways, the stories all share happy endings. You have to look much harder to find memoirs of launches that didn’t go so well.

The primary reason for the dearth of launch abort stories is that so few missions in the history of the US manned space program provided astronauts with unsavory launch experiences. Historically-speaking, once the engines were fired up, an astronaut had a very high probability of making it safely to their planned orbit.

Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. It’s worth noting that the Challenger disaster is considered a launch failure rather than an abort because events unfolded too quickly for any corrective measures to be taken. There were a handful of other missions where, after the smoke cleared and the echoes faded, the shuttle was still firmly shackled to the launch pad. I spoke with five astronauts who endured these launch aborts to get a glimpse of what it was like.

Living with Photography: Testing Sigma's $950 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens

For the past month, I've been testing the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG DSM lens. Announced at the very beginning of the year and shown off at CES, it's been one of the best reviewed full-frame lenses released this year, and is the highly-anticipated successor to Sigma's 50mm f/1.4 EX lens released in 2008. That prime lens, if you recall, was the first lens I bought with my DSLR, the Canon 6D. It served as my primary lens for several months before I saved enough for some Canon zoom lenses. As I explained way back in Feb 2013, I opted to buy Sigma's f/1.4 over Canon's f/1.4 as my 50mm prime because it was just a better lens--more elements (8 vs 7) and more diaphragm blades (9 rounded vs 8) for sharper photos wide open and better bokeh, respectively. The tradeoffs were that at the time, the Sigma 50mm was $150 more than Canon counterpart, and weighed more as well. I thought it was worth it.

Jump forward to almost two years later and I actually rarely break out the 50mm anymore. For convention photography and events shoots for Tested, I keep my Canon 24-70m f/2.8 on the camera 90% of the time. The versatility of the 24-70mm range is too convenient, and I found that the most I would close down to on a prime is f/2.0--the depth of field at f/1.4 is a little too shallow for my taste. When I do need the sharpness and wide aperture of a prime lens, I borrow Adam's Canon 35mm. What I end up using the Sigma 50mm for are macro photos (eg. for sixth-scale figures), with a Fotodiox macro adapter attached.

But Sigma's new 50mm lens intrigued me. Instead of trying to be the best lens for the price, it follows along the path of Sigma's previous 50mm lens of trying to achieve the best image quality possible, no expense spared. On paper, that's a line of thinking that appeals to me: why not allow users to spend the extra money for the best product possible? Just as I didn't mind the 2008-model Sigma 50mm f/1.4 costing and weighing more than Canon's 50mm f/1.4, I figured I would embrace the new lens, even with its $950 price and 60% weight increase (815g vs 505g). Yeah, this single 50mm weighs as much as my all-purpose 24-70mm zoom.

Let's start with where this lens shines.

Adam's Tour Diaries #3: RIGHT out of West Wing

Woke up at 10 a.m. again. I have to be careful. I like sleeping in too much. I can’t calcify into this bus.

In D.C., Jamie and I headed over to USA Today to do some press about the tour. I hit a bookstore to buy a couple of Haruki Murakami novels I’d not yet read (one is a compendium of short stories) and settled in for a little writing and autograph signing (we sell autographed pix at the merch table, and Jamie and I must sign hundreds of autographs a day).

Jamie tried singing. Didn’t work out too well …

My friend and statistician Chip and his wife came by the theater a little early to talk about stuff in my dressing room. The theater in D.C., the Warner, is the second smallest of our tour. Not the house; the stage. This required some interesting problem-solving, and leaving a couple things onstage throughout the show, but it didn’t affect the performance. The house in D.C. is lovely.

In Brief: LEGO Ideas Next Set May be Their Best

LEGO Ideas (formerly Cuusoo), has really taken off in the past year or so. The program, which allows users to submit their own creations and theme ideas for voting and review, has produced eight sets (and spawned a whole line of Minecraft sets) since it began in 2008. This year saw the release of the Mars Curiosity Rover set, a space-themed Exo Suit, the Ghostbusters Ecto-1, and the very popular Research Institute. The first two Ideas sets to be released next year have also been announced: there's a Big Bang Theory playset, as well as what may be the best set I've seen in a while: Birds. Designed by Tom Poulsom, this set includes a Blue Jay, Hummingbird, and Robin, each on their own stands and with a flower to boot. The set is 580 pieces and priced at $45, going on sale Jan 1. These sets usually sell out really quickly, and LEGO has not been known to do second runs after they're gone.

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Quadcopter Racing with First Person Video!

We've tested different types of quadcopters before, but have never flown them like this! Norm tags along a meetup of local FPV quadcopter racers--people who build and race mini quads by flying them with first-person video cameras. We learn about how FPV quadcopters work, why they're so much fun to spectate, and witness some unbelievable stunts! (Thanks to Charpu, Pablo Lema, and Eric Cheng for their quad footage!)

Making a Miniature Sword from a Nail

I'm not sure what I like most about this short video from DIY channel InspiretoMake: the fact that he's making a beautiful miniature sword from a nail, the time-lapse macro video, the dramatic music, or that the guard of the sword is just an even smaller nail. Wonderful!

In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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Remembering the Wonders in Famous Monsters Magazine

In the world of science fiction, fantasy and horror fandom, one man's enthusiasm for genre film was arguably stronger than anyone else's. With the founding of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Forrest J. Ackerman created a must-read genre guide that inspired generations of fans. The magazine, and the enormous collection of memorabilia Ackerman accumulated throughout the years, proved to be a true testament to his love of fantastic film and literature.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King sang the praises of Famous Monsters: “I didn’t just read my first issue of Famous Monsters,” King wrote. “I inhaled it…I poured over it…I damn near memorized that magazine and it seemed eons until the next one...Ask anyone who has been associated with the fantasy- horror –science fiction genres in the last thirty years about this magazine and you’ll get a laugh, a flash of the eyes, and a stream of bright memories – I practically guarantee it.”

King wasn’t kidding. Just a few of the fans who grew up loving Famous Monsters include Rick Baker, Frank Darabont, John Landis, Kirk Hammett from Metallica, Peter Jackson, Joe Dante, and countless others. In Ackerman's massive movie poster collection, there was a one sheet for Close Encounters autographed in silver marker by Steven Spielberg: “A generation of fantasy lovers thank you for raising us so well.” Guillermo Del Toro also recently told the New Yorker that he discovered Famous Monsters in the magazine section of the Supermarket, and he was determined to learn English so he could read it.

Ackerman (or Forry, as he was known) had been a collector of movie memorabilia since 1926. When he was in his twenties, he would write to Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal, for movie stills from their classic horror films, and would travel by streetcar to pick up them up. (He eventually accumulated 125,000 stills). His collection included every issue of the old sci-fi pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, which he bought when they were new. He owned a copy of Frankenstein that was autographed by Mary Shelley when she was 19. He also had the creature from the black lagoon costume a janitor at Universal took home for his kid to wear on Halloween. Not to mention Bela Lugosi’s cape, the model pterodactyl the original King Kong battled, one of the model Martian ships from the original War of the Worlds, and much, much more.

Forry’s collection never stopped growing, and like a malevolent 50’s science fiction monster, it ended up consuming his house, a four story, eighteen-room mansion in the hills of Los Feliz, which he dubbed the “Ackermansion.” According to one report, the house became so overcrowded with memorabilia that Ackerman and his wife had to park on the streets because their garage was too full.

The Ackermansion was open for tours every weekend, and making the pilgrimage to Forry’s home was a badge of honor for any true monster fan. Its been estimated that over 50,000 people came to visit when he lived there, and when you arrived, he would greet you through the intercom: “Who dares disturb the tomb of the vampire?” And yes, Ackerman was also the co-creator of Vampirella.

Ackerman also coined the term “sci-fi” and he told GQ Magazine that he would say “science fiction” every night before he goes to sleep because if he died before he awoke, he wanted “science fiction” to be his last words. Who better to write the definitive magazine on monsters?

Adam's Tour Diaries #2: What a Jerk!

By the time I woke up in Philly on the bus, I was already an asshole.

Dammit, I overslept.

I didn’t think it was possible: I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning in San Francisco; that’s 9 a.m. on the East Coast. But I guess I was tired. That and the blackout curtains on my bus are REALLY good. By the time I looked at my phone to see the time, it was 10:40!

Crap! I’d made plans with Paul of Paul and Storm to head to a museum and have lunch. Plans for 10 a.m. He’d been hanging out and was at the bus in a minute. But what a jerk! (Me, I mean.)

We didn’t have time for the museum (because I had a matinee), but we did enjoy a lovely lunch together with Paul’s awesome daughter. They dropped me back off at my bus in time for sound check. Bye, Paul! See you at Wootstock in SF in January!

Wow do I look crazy here.

The matinee crowd in Philly was terrific. Super raucous. Some great interactions on stage. I had a couple hours between the matinee and evening show, and managed to see another friend, Jill, with whom I had a lovely dinner. Very social day.

The evening Philly crowd was even more raucous than the afternoon crowd, but just a smidgen.