Monday, February 28, 2011

F2.8 Zooms: Over-Priced Junk

The $1,800 Nikon 24-70 f2.8: pride of measurbators, but actually lousy for low-light photography.

There are two types of photographers: those who like to take pictures and those who like to show off their equipment. Of course, each group does occasionally stray into the other's territory but, for the most apart, each camp tends to stay with its own beliefs.

For those people who like to show off equipment, the constant f2.8 zoom is their most prized possession. Always marketed toward professionals (and priced for them, too), these lenses are tough, equipped with the latest technology, and often impressive to look at. The real funny part about such lenses (besides the fact that non-pros are willing to pay for them) is the fact that, in the big picture (sorry), they're not that fast despite always being marketed for their fast optics.

In photography, each f-stop represents the doubling/halving of exposure time. In terms of focal ratios, the common f-stops are: f1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, and 16. So, with each stop slower (larger numbers are slow, small apertures), the exposure time is doubled. Example: f2.8 (the zoom best) is a stop faster than f4, thus a f2.8 lens will require half the exposure time of a f4 optic in a given situation. So, if a f2.8 lens requires a 1/50th second shutter speed, the f4 will require 1/25th second (twice as long) for the same result. In some cases, f2.8 can make the difference between hand holding and needing a tripod.

Now, consider this: f2 or faster lenses.

The conventional rule of thumb for optical design is this: twice the glass means twice the price. In theory, then, a f2 optic should always be as twice as expensive as a f2.8 model. However, with the advent of zooms, this is not always the case, often far from it. While primes are simple designs requiring comparatively few glass elements, zooms are complex affairs requiring a lot of engineering and glass. Result: slow zooms are often more expensive than faster primes.

Example: Nikon's top-notch professional FX f2.8 zoom, the 24-70, costs around $1,800. Now, Nikon's top-notch FX 50mm f1.4 prime, the 50 AF-S, costs around $450 despite the fact that it lets in 4 times as much light (f1.4 is 2 stops faster-hence 4 times as much light) as the zoom. Suddenly, people looking to buy the expensive 24-70 for its “fast” optics look pretty stupid, don't they? Want something funnier? If you're willing to sacrifice full time manual focus, you can snag the 50 f1.8D, which still lets in over twice as much light as the 24-70) for around $135 (not even 1/12th the price of the 24-70).

Yes, the 24-70 has its benefits, namely weather resistance (though it is by no means waterproof) and the flexibility of a zoom, but, for those looking to shoot in low light, the fast primes are the way to go as they will always do the job better for a fraction of the cost of a zoom.

Now, how about some pictures?

Recently, there was a clear night (amazing in itself in Northeast Ohio this time of year), a bright Moon, and a glaze of ice atop the melting snow (from the Groundhog Day ice storm). Result: whatever lights there were reflected atop the glazed show, which took on the appearance of glass. Needless to say, picture opportunities abounded.

So, taking my D700 and 50 f1.4D (the middle of the road 50) out into the night, I captured some amazing shots of the warm mid-winter night, hand-held! Could your expensive f2.8 zoom do this? I don't think so!

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In-Depth Review: Sigma 100-300 f4 HSM DG APO

The Sigma 100-300 f4 DG HSM APO

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 100-300mm
Dimensions: 8.9 x 3.6 in.
Weight: 51oz.
Maximum Aperture: f4
Minimum Aperture: f32
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Front Element: non-rotating, non-extending
Optical arrangement: 16 elements in 14 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: HSM
Closest Focus: 70.9 inches
Maximum magnification: 1:5
Filter Size: 82mm


Traditionally, serious photographers have had two choices when it comes to telephoto zoom lenses: the short fast ones (70-200 2.8) and the long slow ones (100-400 f4-5.6). Obviously, there is a trade off with these optics in terms of focal lengths and speed. This in mind, it's really a wonder that no one but Sigma has taken a shot at splitting the difference between the two. So, if 200 f2.8 is too short but 400 and f5.6 too slow, well, the Sigma 100-300 f4 may be just your thing, but is it any good? Read on!

The lens stays the same size no matter what you do with it.
Build Quality 5/5

The Sigma 100-300 f4 is targeted toward professionals and is built for all the rigors of pro use. To start with, the lens is all metal, a good thing that increases weight, but also confidence. Adding to the pro-grade feel is the fact that the lens is both internal zoom and focus, which means that the lens stays at a single physical length no matter what you're doing with it. Needless to say, with such construction, it'll be hard for any dust to get inside your lens. In terms of the rings, the focus is the larger, outer one while the zoom is the smaller, inner ring. Both are rubberized and highly textured to provide ample grip. In addition, this being a sonic drive lens, the focus ring doesn't spin during AF. As a last nice touch, the tripod collar is removable, too. About the only thing this lens is missing is a weather seal at the mount. However, thanks to its non-changing dimensions, it is still better than most when it comes to dust/moisture resistance because there is simply no way for junk to get inside.

AF Performance 5/5

Being a sonic drive (HSM in Sigma lingo) lens, focus is fast and silent. On my copy, unfortunately, focus was a bit spotty, with the only reliable result coming at 300mm. However, I have no doubt in my mind that I got a lemon given all of the positive takes on this lens. Unfortunately, having an old, pre AF microadjust camera, I was out of luck and, having only one dSLR, wasn't going to be sending it back for calibration, either. Like I said, though, with all of the positive takes on this lens out there, I have no doubt that it is a great lens when the AF works as it should. Being a sonic-drive lens, there is always the option for full time manual override, simply leave the lens in AF, grab and turn the focus ring, and then go about autofocusing, no need to flip switches. The only problem with this lens is that, thanks to the huge focus ring, I found it easy to actually bump the focus ring when holding the lens. In reality, the AF/MF switch can be thought of as more of an AF/AFdisable switch.
There's a lot of glass in this Sigma, note how the inner barrel drops when zoomed to 300mm.

Optics: 5/5
A lot goes into optical quality, so let's examine various charcateristics individually.
Lens at 100mm
At its shortest focal length, the Sigma 100-300 f4 is tack sharp from wide open across the entire frame on the sub-frame Canon 30D. Blowing up to 100%, one has a pretty hard time telling whether the crop comes from the center or the extreme corner, it's just that good!

Lens at 200mm
See the 100mm report.

Lens at 300mm
For center and mid frame, the lens is still really good, actually, about as good as is possible. Unfortunately, the corners are a different story here: they're soft, really soft, and stopping down really doesn't help. The good news is that such lenses are typically used to shoot specific subjects, which will rarely enter the extreme corner of the frame.

Throughout the focal range, there is slight vignetting wide open, which is somewhat disappointing considering that this is a lens designed full format cameras. Good news, by f5.6, the vignetting is gone at all focal lengths

There isn't any.

Chromatic Aberration
This lens is marketed as an “apo” and it certainly lives up to that reputation. The above shots are 100% crops of a much larger original, to boot. *80mm is left, 300mm is right.

A monster hood (on an already big lens) is sure to minimize any tendency for flare/ghosting. As an added convenience, the tripod collar is removable, too.
For the few days I had this lens, I was stuck in a run of cloudy days (those vignetting shots were of breaks in the clouds) and didn't get a chance to shoot this thing into/around the Sun. However, thanks to the monster hood that comes with this lens, I don't think flare/ghosting would be a problem if you decide to use it.

Value: 5/5

Well, a $1,200 lens is not cheap by any means, so it had better perform, and in the case of the Sigma 100-300 f4, it certainly does. The build is top-notch, as is AF. The optics are good right from the f4 get-go, too. In all, if you choose to buy this lens new, this is $1,200 well-spent as the lens performs admirably in every respect. This lens has a well deserved reputation for being Sigma's best telephoto. Personally, I think this is better than the original Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS that I rented awhile back, which should say a lot right there!


In a toe-to-toe match-up, the Sigma 100-300 f4 has no direct competition unless one counts the ancient Tokina 100-300 f4 from way back in the early days of AF. Never having used this particular Tokina but having used old lenses, I have no doubt that the Sigma clobbers the Tokina 100-300 in terms of optics and AF. Build? Well, knowing Tokina, the Sigma probably takes second place there. The real, practical competition for the Sigma comes in the form of shorter, faster f2.8 zooms (ex. your 70-200s everyone makes) and the longer, slower lenses (the familiar xx-400 f4-5.6 ones). Both can run in the same price range as the Sigma and are very different in that one sacrifices speed or range. The Sigma, with its 100-300mm focal range and constant f4 focal ratio, is a bit of a compromise lens in that it splits the difference between the other two, far more common designs.

Conclusion: 5/5
The Sigma 100-300 f4 is a great lens and it really stinks that I have an old camera and can't adjust the focus. Build quality is excellent and the sonic-drive AF mechanism means instant, silent, and accurate focus every time with the option for full manual override without the need to flip any switches. Optics, well, they're top-notch, better than the Canon 70-200L I used awhile back. Price? Well, it's expensive but it's money well spent. About the only drawback on this lens is the corner softness at 300mm. As a last bit, this lens could be the perfect thing for anyone fretting over the “do I go for a fast, short f2.8 zoom or a slow, long one in the 400+mm range?” In every respect, the Sigma splits the difference, making itself the perfect lens for anyone who just can't make up his/her mind. Recommendation? A definite “yes,” hopefully, you'll have better luck than me or a camera that can compensate for mis-focusing!

The Sigma 100-300f4 DG HSM APO: a great lens that, unfortunately, didn't like my camera!

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Running Tracker: 2011 Predictions

At the start of the year, I made a bunch of predictions on my Examiner column about what the photography world would have to offer consumers. Well, rather than forget about them until December like last year, why not keep a running count of predictions that have come true as they happen?
Well, that's the idea behind the following list.
Below you will find a concise list of all my 2011 predictions, with those yet to happen and those that have come true highlighted. As the year goes on, expect regular updates whenever one of my prognostications comes to fruition.
Come True:
More phase-detection AF in P&S cameras: (1/26) Ricoh CX5
Weather-sealed Sigma lenses: (2/8) 12-24 Mark II, New 105 Macro
New Upper D-Rebel: (2/8): T3i, gets 7D's remote flash control, xxD line's AF, color-based metering
New Entry D-Rebel: (2/8): T3, an obvious replacement for the old XS
Trickle-down SLR features: (2/8) Canon Rebel T3i gets 7D's remote flash firing capability, xxD line's AF system
Yet to Come
P&S pixel race to stagnate
AF microadjust in sub $1,000 camera
New Canon ultrawide(s) for FF
D700/D300 successors
More AF-S updates
New entry, mid-level Four-Thirds dSLRs
Constant f2.8 zooms for Olympus
Panasonic to focus on Four-Thirds camcorder
Telephoto Panasonic lens
Pentax K-5 big brother
New Pentax ultrawide lenses
Full frame mirrorless Sony camera
More sonic-drive Tamron lenses
More FF-capable, pro-grade Tokina lenses

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

January 2011 Astrophotos

Here they are, the few astrophotos from January, 2011. The photo of the Puppis Double Cluster, (note the tiny planetary nebula in the left cluster) is also the last for my now-sold Canon 30D. Hopefully, the weather will clear and all the snow will melt so the era of the Nikon D700 can begin. THis should be a fun summer!

The 'other" double cluster, M47 and 47 in Puppis.

The Moon in the morning.

Jupiter meets Luna.

Venus through the clouds.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

See (and Photograph) Snow Like You've Never Imagined Before!

It was a week ago today when much of the Eastern half of the continental United States was buried in one of the largest winter storm systems in the last 50 years, ironically, on Groundhog Day, which marks the half way point (at least astronomically) of winter. Needless to say, for those of us who get snow, February can be one of the snowiest months of the year, which means a lot of opportunities for picture taking.

When one thinks of winter photography, landscapes and pictures of winter fun typically come to mind, not individual snowflakes. Yet, with a macro lens, one can easily reveal all the finest details of each individual flake in just a click.

So, how to go about photographing snow?

First off, you'll need a good background that will serve as good contrast to the snow itself. A piece of black poster board fits the bill nicely as it is not glossy and thus will not cause glare. For someone who wants a real black background, you can always get a piece of plywood or plexiglass and paint it flat black for an even darker, smoother background.

Next, snow melts, which means that your staging material had better be cold. Rather than put your stage outside, just drop your black background into the freezer for about half an hour so that it gets good and cold so the snow won't start to melt on contact.

As the second part of your stage, you'll need a table or to set your staging material on, or, if you don't mind getting cold, you can always just set it on the ground.

Now, the stage set, bring in the “actors” if you will.

To make the snow shooting as easy as possible, you'll want a tripod where it is an easy effort to adjust the height. Why? As in macro photography, it is often easiest to set the lens at 1:1 distance, then move back and forth to get focus. Unfortunately, since you're shooting down, you're going to be restricted to adjusting the tripod's height, instead. So, assuming that your tripod is user-friendly, all you need to do is adjust the height so that focus falls automatically upon the staging material, and thus the snow.

Height and focus found, stop down the lens to f5.6 or f8 (you're shooting flat subjects, so stopping down more really won't do any good).

The complete setup: surprisingly simple, stunningly effective!

Last, be sure to keep your shutter speeds up if you don't have a remote, use the always-effective focal length
equivalency rule (100mm lens on FF, stay over 1/100th second, 100mm on APS-C, stay over 1/150th second) if you don't have a remote. If you have a remote shutter release, knock down the ISO for maximum detail and minimal noise.

One last tip: give yourself a little room to move your staging material around a bit so that you can bring particularly attractive flakes under your lens at full macro magnification.

As always, good luck!

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Grand Tale of Human Exploration

The crew of Apollo 1: L-R: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee

The crew of Challenger: Back Row, L-R: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front Row, L-R: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald Mcnair.

The crew of Columbia: Back Row, L-R: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon. Front Row, L-R: Rick Husband,  Kalpana Chawla, William McCool

Today marks a somber day (and the conclusion of a dark week) for NASA. It was exactly 8 years ago today that the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. On Friday, the nation commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which killed 7 astronauts, including teacher in space winner Christa McAuliffe. Just a day before that, January 27 marked the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed all three astronauts aboard. Naturally, with anniversaries all of these disasters coming in such quick succession, it is to be expected that the nation will focus on how these brave 17 explorers died. However. What is forgotten in all of this remembrance is what the astronauts stood for: the continuation of man's grand quest to explore.

Ever since the dawning of man, we have been explorers. Millions and millions of years ago, perhaps as the light we see from the Great Andromeda Galaxy tonight was leaving home, our distant ancestors were already well on their road to discovery. The first life evolved on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, undergoing an explosion of biodiversity around 600 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion of multicellular organisms would eventually lead to mammals, primates, and then us.

Evolving from primates, our earliest ancestors inhabited the trees of central Africa. Perhaps our evolutionary past is the reason for the common fears and dreams of falling that so permeate our species, regardless of culture, religion, or race. However, at a time long before recorded history, our distant ancestors, specifically, one bold leader, persuaded his band of hominids to follow him down, out of the trees and onto the land in a search for a better existence, never mind the relative safety of the heights that were free from lions, tigers, and other animals far stronger than we humans ever were.

Early human migration: the first quest for our species.

In time, starting from our nursery that was the center of the African continent, we moved out to colonize the world. What a grand adventure this must have been! However, primitive man's wanderings were, without doubt, not without cost. Facing all the perils of nature with little technology and experience at this new way of living, many of our ancestors undoubtedly died from starvation, exposure, animal attack, disease, and myriad of untold reasons unimaginable to us today. Did these tragedies stop the human enterprise of exploration? Of course not. Where do you live? If you answered anywhere but Africa, you are living proof of man's age-old desire to explore.

As the human enterprise went along, not only did the desire to explore continue, but the drive to invent also took root. With the new inventions brought upon by technology, man's ability to explore new frontiers expanded dramatically. Thanks to the ship, man could now cross the sea, colonizing island lands, most notably Australia. However, with the collapse of the Classical civilization, the Western world entered a 1,000 year Dark Age, during which little in the way of science and technology was accomplished. However, starting in the late 1300s, the West would reawaken and, once again, continue the quest for invention and discovery.

Ferdinand Magellan: the 1500s equivalent of an astronaut.

When the Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453, rich Europeans had to discover a new route to the Orient, thus commenced the age of exploration. In 1492, in a seemingly ludicrous attempt to reach the far East y sailing West, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, thus beginning a rush of explorers. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out to do the impossible: circumnavigate the globe. Setting out from Seville, Spain with 5 ships and 234 men under his command, Magellan sailed out into the unknown. Fighting storms, illness, and hostile native peoples on the islands were they landed for 3 years, the remnants of Magellan's crew (Magellan himself was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines) finally returned home in 1522. Only 1 ship and 18 men completed the journey.

While Magellan's most paramount goal, circumnavigating the globe, was accomplished, there was a great cost in terms of human and material loss. However, rather tan make contemporary explorers question the worth of such travels, Magellan only inspired further voyages of discovery. At this time of rapidly advancing technology and unbridled optimism, there seemed nothing that humans were incapable of accomplishing. Yes, there were setbacks, French explorer LaSalle was lost after a navigational error took him to the Texas coast instead of New Orleans, John Cabot, originally of Italy, vanished with his 5 ships on an expedition to North America, and the entire British colony of Roanoke disappeared without a trace, but none of these disasters halted the drive to explore for very long. Humans are resilient, learn from mistakes, and then press on with whatever they endeavor to do. Once the Americas were colonized, the focus shifted to the Far East and the “dark” continent of Africa, our birthplace. We humans were returning home and didn't even realize it.

From the Renaissance until the start of the 20th century, humans trekked all over the Earth by land, sea, and eventually air. When the South Pole was finally reached in 1911, many were ready to declare that there was nothing left to explore. However, these suggestions were in error.

An early Chinese rocket, the ancestor of our modern space rocket.

So far as we know, the rocket was invented by the Chinese, with dates ranging from the 10th to 12th centuries, depending on the source. century. Initially used as a celebratory firework, the rocket soon gained military significance and was used by the Chinese in their continual wars with the Mongols. When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan conquered China, Oriental technology began to spread to the outside world via trade route linking the Far east to Europe. In time, the rocket would find itself being used in military campaigns and, more innocently, as fireworks. In time, rocket technology would advance and lead to better, more powerful, accurate, and reliable rockets. By the dawning of the 20th century and what is widely considered to be the end of the grand age of exploration, rocketry, once a dangerous hit-or-miss adventure, was becoming a science and many science fiction writers, among them Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, were advocating rockets as a means of interplanetary travel. Unfortunately, taking the rocket from the realm of weapon/entertainment would require more than the mind of a few imaginative writers.

Robert Goddard: father of the modern rocket.

Robert Goddard is considered the father of the modern rocket. On October 19, 1899, Goddard, then 17, climbed a cherry tree to cut off dead limbs near the top. However, instead of focusing on his work at hand, Goddard's focus became transfixed on the sky and the possibility of ascending into it. Goddard later wrote “as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.” When he descended from the tree, Goddard had changed, he had a purpose in life: developing a machine that could travel into space.

Upon graduating as high school valedictorian, Goddard went on to pursue a college education in physics, eventually earning a Ph.D. In 1911. However, even before earning his doctorate, Goddard was writing scientific papers, his first coming in 1907 proposing methods for stabilizing the flight of airplanes and his second, and most revolutionary, in 1909, detailing he possibility for liquid fuel rockets (up yo that point, all rockets were dry fuel). In the following years, Goddard would earn his first patents and university teaching position, which would allow him to further increase his time researching rockets and propulsion methods. In 1919, Goddard's pinnacle work, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes, was published. One of the topics in the book: the possibility of rockets for space travel. Although only a small portion of the work, the pages dealing with rockets as a means for space travel brought a lot of attention to Goddard, almost all of it ridiculing his theories for spaceflight.

Goddard with the first liquid fuel rocket. The rocket is in the center and the 'A' like tubing Goddard is holding is actually the support mechanism.  

Despite the criticism and lack of financial support, Goddard pressed on with his experiments, launching the first liquid fuel rocket in 1926. The rocket flew just 41 feet into the air, crashing back to Earth a mere 184 feet away from where it started its journey. However, while many might consider such a result a failure, the test did prove that liquid fuel rockets were indeed possible. In following experiments, there were many disappointments but, instead of giving up, Goddard pressed on, with he and his team analyzing the remnants of each failed rocket in a search for clues on how to help guarantee success of the next launch. In time, the liquid fuel rockets became more and more reliable and, finally, allies in the form of Charles Lindbergh and the Guggenheim family materialized to lend financial support. With financial backing, Goddard continued his work into the early 1940s, when his ever-tenuous health started to fail him. Despite offering his services to the United States military in the years leading up to and during WWII, Goddard was rebuffed. Ironically, his work was of keen interest the Germans and Russians. When Robert Goddard died on August 10, 1945, his work was still largely unappreciated in his home country.

A German V-2 rocket.

During the 1940s, rockets would return to their ancient use as weapons of war. German rocketry, far ahead of any other nation's efforts, would develop, test, and successfully terrorize England with its V-series rockets. Although highly inaccurate, the rockets did get off the ground with great reliability and could travel vast distances that were previously unimaginable. After the war, the victorious allied governments raced to capture both German know-how and the scientists themselves. Of all the competing powers, America came out the big winner, getting a hold of not just the technology, but the men behind it. Among the captured German scientists was Werner von Braun, the driving force behind German rocketry who would go on to play a major role in helping America win the space race.

Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite.

In the years after WWII, the relationship between America and the Soviet Union cooled until it reached a state of “Cold War.” Again, rockets would be employed for military purposes, namely delivering nuclear warheads vast distances without the risk of human life on the attacker's end. During the 1950s, both USA and USSR would build bigger and bigger rockets capable of delivering ever larger bombs greater distances. In 1957, the Russians surpassed the Americans when they launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, thus creating the possibility of raining death from above onto any location in the world. In 1961, the Russians would launch Yuri Gagarin into space and President Kennedy would lay down the gauntlet to the Russians when he declared that Americans would land on the Moon by the end of the decade.

The culmination of the space race: Apollo 11 blasts off for the Moon.

In the 1960s, both countries went on a frenzy of technological development, creating ever more powerful vehicles for space travel. Unfortunately, even in this decade of almost routine technological triumph, there was tragedy. In 1967, NASA was rocked by the Apollo 1 test accident, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffe on the launch pad after their space capsule burst into flames. The resulting investigation and redesign of the capsule would set back the American space program a year. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Russians endured a similar tragedy when cosmonaut Vladamir Komarov was killed after the parachute on his space capsule failed to open upon reentry. This, coupled with the explosion of an unmanned rocket would wind up spelling doom for Russian efforts to reach the Moon. For America, the Apollo 1 tragedy was mourned, but also taken as a learning experience wherein future space capsules could be made safer. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would finally become the ultimate explorers when they landed on the Moon via the 363 foot high Saturn V rocket.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Note Neil Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's face shield.

Driving the Lunar Rover on Apollo 15

As a side note, following the successful lunar landing, the New York Times, which had been highly critical of Robert Goddard's ambition to fly rockets into space, printed a much belated apology, admitting that “further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum . . .”

The Skylab space station.

After the successful lunar landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the focus on space exploration turned to long-term stays in space and making space travel more economical and, if one can even call it that, routine. In the 1970s, the quest to explore the Final Frontier was dominated by the Skylab space station and the development of the reusable space shuttle, which first journeyed into space in 1981.

Columbia lifts off on the STS-1 mission.

As the 1980s progressed, spaceflight became an almost routine event. In the first five years of the space shuttle program, 25 shuttle missions flew into orbit. As 1986 started, NASA was off to another quick start when Columbia, the first space shuttle, launched on January 12. A few weeks later, on July 28, millions of eyes in both the United States and across the world were on shuttle Challenger because of the inclusion of teacher in space contest winner Christa McAuliffe. AS the shuttle rose from the launchpad, it seemed another routine launch until, unnoticed by many at the time, a burst of flame erupted out of Challenger's right solid booster because of a failed o-ring. The booster came loose, impacted the rest of the vehicle, and ignited the escaped gasses. The orbiter itself fell from a height of over 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. For a nation where anything seemed possible, the loss of Challenger was devastating, with the shuttles being grounded until 1988 as a result.

The International Space Station: man's extraterrestrial home.

In the 1990s, the landscape of space changed dramatically. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian drive to the stars came to a virtual halt as political instability and economic collapse forced the Russians to focus on more Earthly concerns. However, for the United States, it as full speed head, albeit on familiar “ground.” Like in the 80s, the 90s for NASA was a time of low Earth orbit shuttle, then Mir and International Space Station missions. While the 60s and 70s were times for innovation, the 80s through the early 2000s were a time for science. Yes, the shuttles didn't chart any new territory in their missions, but they harnessed much knowledge through science in space. At the turn of the millennium, the ISS was well on its way to completion and the shuttles, although coming under some criticism because of their age, were flying a steady stream of missions without mishap.

On January 16, 2003, the oldest space shuttle in the fleet, Columbia, lifted of for an extended mission of experiments in space. At the time of launch, video footage revealed that a piece of thermal insulation had broken off the shuttle's main fuel tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. At the time, engineers pressed NASA management for independent and astronaut inspection of the damage. All requests were denied, the belief being that once in orbit, nothing could have been done. As the shuttle completed its mission and prepared for re-entry on February 1, nothing seemed amiss until reports of debris being shed by the shuttle were reported by people out to watch the reentry. The unusual spectacle then turned to one of horror as Columbia itself was seen to disintegrate. Subsequent investigation revealed that the engineers had been right in their concerns over the wing damage, which had apparently dislodged the thermal protective tiles that keep the shuttle's metal from melting when encountering the high heat of reentry. Result: superheated air entered the hole and melted the shuttle's wing, causing Columbia to spin out of control and disintegrate.

As with the Challenger disaster, the shuttles were grounded, this time for 3 years. When Discovery launched on its second return to orbit mission (Discovery was first in space after Challenger), foam was again shed from the external fuel tank. Although it missed Discovery, concerns over the integrity of the foam caused NASA to ground the shuttles yet again. At the same time, it had been nearly a quarter of a century since the shuttles first started flying into space, there was no denying that they were getting old. However, in a memorial speech for the Columbia crew, President George W. Bush stated that “the cause in which they died will continue . . . our journey into space will go on.” In 2004, President Bush announced the Constellation Program, which provided a new focus for American space exploration in that its mission was to return Americans to the Moon. With the advent of Constellation (itself now in limbo), the shuttle era was now nearing its end.

So, in 2011 as we were forced to take a look back at the tragedies that have befallen America's space program, instead of focusing on how the astronauts died, we should all focus on how they lived and what they stood for: man's undying quest to discover new worlds. For our entire history as a species, we have been explorers with ever-changing frontiers. Millions of years ago, coming down from the trees and setting foot on the land was like setting foot on a new world. Today, we are literally journeying to new worlds, the uncharted regions of space. Throughout history, many people have died in the quest to discover new places, but did that stop us? Of course not, look at where we have come as a species: down from the trees, out of Africa, all over the planet, and now to space itself. Exploration will always be a dangerous endeavor, there is no escaping this fact, but we owe it to all of those bold explorers, those who succeeded and those who failed, who came before us and dared to go where no one had gone before and today, that means continuing our journey to the stars.

We owe it to all who came before us to continue our exploration of the universe.

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