Salk vs. Sabin and Race for a Polio Vaccine


During the early 1900’s, summer was not a welcomed season for both parents and children, but rather a feared one.  For back then, summer was also ‘Polio Season.’ Children were susceptible to poliomyelitis, an incurable disease that affects the central nervous system resulting in paralysis.  Polio is a highly contagious virus that spreads from contact with water or food tainted with fecal contamination. ‘Polio Panic’ was a surpassed only by fear of nuclear war.

That the disease crippled so many children was alarming enough. But the shock wave that followed a local outbreak was devastating. Communities resorted to measures used to combat the spread of influenza or even small pox. Neighborhoods were quarantined, schools and movie theaters closed, windows were shut in the summer heat, and public pools abandoned.

Worse still, most hospitals refused to admit children with polio.  Families were forced to rely on house calls by doctors who could do little more than fit tiny children with heavy braces. Polio paralyzed some patients’ chest muscles removing their ability to breathe.  If they were fortunate, they would be placed in one of the dreaded IRON LUNGS, huge cylindrical respirators which pulled air in and out of their small chests.

In 1921, the war on polio recruited an unlikely ally.

Although polio mainly struck children, 39-year-old Franklin Roosevelt became ill after attending a summer Boy Scout rally. Within days, he was paralyzed from the waist down. Although as President he hid his disability from the public, he became a champion of its medical research. In 1937, he announced the formation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, also known as The March of Dimes. Citizens donated dimes to support polio research. In the first year alone, it raised almost 2 million.

Two heroes emerged in the 1950s, waging war against polio. The 1st, Dr. Jonas Salk of the Univ. of Pittsburgh developed a method to kill the virus with formalin. When injected into monkeys, his vaccine protected the animals against polio!  In 1952, Salk began testing in humans, starting with children already infected with the virus, often at institutions for the disabled or mentally ill. Strongly believing in his vaccine, Salk went so far as to inject himself, his wife, Donna, and their three sons in the family’s kitchen.

Controversy arose when a 2nd competing researcher, Dr. Albert Sabin of the Univ. of Cincinnati, claimed Salk’s inactivation method failed to kill ALL the polio virus. Sabin was almost a decade older and considered the more experienced researcher.  Testifying before Congress, he attacked Salk’s killed-virus vaccine. There was no proof the vaccine conferred long-lasting immunity.

Sabin predicted that any live virus remaining in the vaccine would doom innocent children.

Despite these doubts, Salk’s method was validated and he published his results in 1953. The March of Dimes decided to finance a massive field trial of Salk’s vaccine on 2 million American children between 6 and 9.  The large-scale trial was made possible by major pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, Wyeth Labs, and Parke Davis producing his vaccine on a large scale.

In 1954, half of these “Polio Pioneer” children received a vaccine injection, while the other half received a placebo.  Significant risks exist when administering any untried vaccine. As Salk told a journalist, “When you inoculate children with a polio vaccine for the first time, you don’t sleep well for two weeks.”

On April 12, 1955, on the 10th anniversary of FDR’s death, Dr. Thomas Francis, Salk’s mentor and the trial director, called a press conference at the University of Michigan to report the results.  Salk was still in the dark and had little idea what Francis would say. The conference was broadcast to 54,000 physicians; millions of Americans tuned in by radio. The pronouncement was stunning.

The vaccine was safe, potent, and 90% effective in protecting against polio!

The audience of over a thousand gave Salk a standing ovation as he took the stage.  A pleased yet overwhelmed Salk looked at the crowd.  “The objective here was not merely a reduction in crippling cases of polio, but rather the elimination of fear.” He thanked the many people who had made this success possible but failed to mention his colleagues by name. This caused a rift between Salk and some of his research associates that persisted for decades.

There were over a hundred reporters at the event. Word got out around the globe overnight. The scourge had been whipped! Every front page and newscast proclaimed the victory. Polio panic would soon be over as pharmaceutical companies would create millions of doses of the new vaccine. Church bells and fire sirens sounded. People gathered in churches to pray thanks. Many openly wept.

Salk immediately became a national hero and celebrity. That evening, he appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s television show See It Now. “Young man, a great tragedy has befallen you—you’ve lost your anonymity.” When asked who held the patent on the vaccine, Salk’s response became legendary, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

Salk disagreed with owning a patent as millions of Americans had paid for the research via the March of Dimes.  Of course the vaccine wasn’t novel enough to be patentable according to US law, and Salk knew it.  Forbes once estimated that Salk could have earned over $7 billion.

President Eisenhower gave Salk a special citation at the White House.

The fame was unwanted however. Hotels offered Salk their best suites, pilots announced his presence on airplanes, he could not eat at restaurants as everyone wanted to shake his hand.  The March of Dimes lionized Salk to the point of offending his colleagues yet again. Other researchers grumbled that he hadn’t found anything new; just applied research that was already there.

Around the same time that Salk began his work, Dr. Albert Sabin began working on a weakened live-virus vaccine. Sabin felt that his oral vaccine was superior to an injection, as it would be easier to give to kids and cheaper to manufacture.  Sabin began testing his vaccine on humans, included prisoners from Ohio’s Chillicothe Penitentiary.  Volunteer inmates were paid $25 with a promise of some time off their sentences. None of the 30 prisoners developed polio, and the test trial was deemed successful.

Just 2 weeks after the victory announcement, scattered reports appeared of children developing polio after vaccination. An investigation implicated one of the manufacturers, Cutter Laboratories.  Cutter was quick to blame Salk’s inactivation method, arguing it didn’t work on large batches.  Albert Sabin chimed in calling it the “Salk Accident.”  Jonas Salk was in the spotlight again, but for the wrong reason.

It was soon discovered that Cutter failed to follow Salk’s strict protocol for inactivating the virus.  

The ‘Cutter Incident’ was heartbreaking for Salk. “I cannot escape a terrible feeling of identifying with these poor people who got polio.” Because of Cutter’s cost-cutting, 260 people contracted the disease.  Nevertheless, his vaccine proved a godsend. By 1961 polio, was all but eradicated from the United States.

Because Salk’s vaccine was now being used in the US, Albert Sabin couldn’t get support for his large-scale field trial like that of Salk. In 1957, Sabin convinced the Soviet Union to conduct field studies on his oral vaccine. Ultimately 2 million Soviet children were vaccinated. Sabin’s Russian trials were also deemed highly successful.

sabin_350pxSabin quickly entered into an agreement with Pfizer pharmaceuticals to produce his ‘attenuated‘ live-virus vaccine. Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, administered to kids on a sugar cube, eventually replaced Salk’s injected vaccine in many parts of the world. By 1963, it became the gold standard, and the one used to eradicate polio globally.

Salk claimed his killed virus vaccine was safer, but his resistance was futile. The Sabin vaccine, cheaper and easier to deliver, won the race in the end.  Sabin belittled Salk’s achievement as “kitchen chemist’s work,” which anyone could have done. Honors went to Sabin that never came to Salk, like membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Neither Salk nor Sabin ever received the Nobel Prize in medicine. It’s been speculated this was due to their close ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

In 1963, The Salk Institute opened in La Jolla, California.  He got funding from the March of Dimes and recruited Nobel Prize-winning scientists to investigate cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and eventually AIDS.

So although Jonas Salk is credited with ending the scourge of polio because his killed-virus vaccine was first, Albert Sabin’s inexpensive sugar cube vaccine continues to successfully prevent the spread of polio in every corner of the world to this day.

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First in Flight! Wright or Wrong?

Ezekial airship

Is it possible a Texas Baptist preacher beat the Wright Brothers to powered flight a full year before Kitty Hawk?  At the turn of the century, huge cash prizes were offered for the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight. In Pittsburg, Texas, a Baptist minister and inventor named Burrell Cannon just may have made history with his unusual craft, the Ezekiel Airship.

The Rev. Burrell Cannon was pastor of the Pittsburg Baptist Church.  And it was from the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel that he got the idea for his wheel-within-a-wheel, winged airship.

“The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the gleam of beryl; and they four had one likeness; and their appearance was as it were a wheel within the middle of the wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:16)

Cannon was born in 1848 on a Mississippi farm, where he grew up working with machines. He studied mechanics at Mississippi College and became a Baptist preacher. At age 30, he left for Texas to start a saw mill, preach, and tinker with small inventions. He already had 2 patents —for a cotton cleaning machine and a butter churn dasher—but he had a much grander idea in mind!

The American frontier was no longer out west, but up in the skies. For years inventors had played with winged gliders, but now the race was on to build the first airship. And while most aviators studied birds for inspiration, Cannon studied the Old Testament.  He spent more than fifteen years poring over the Book of Ezekiel.

By 1900, Cannon, was an accomplished engineer with 9 patents for wind and water-driven machines.  Inspired by the 1st & 10th chapters of Ezekiel, he began designing an airship, several years prior to the Wright brothers first flight. The design included complicated wheels and paddles for propulsion, which were marvels of engineering.

Would the damn thing actually fly though? 

Well, Burrell believed he was guided by God and hence God would surely insure its success. The result would be a means for man to get a closer to heaven—and make a little money along the way.  Cannon sold his mill, and to raise further capital, he and his 4th wife, Amanda, moved to nearby Pittsburg, a thriving cotton town about 120 miles east of Dallas.  There he began to preach about his airship.

In February 1901, the Pittsburg Gazette praised the Ezekiel’s design and declared that if the airship flew, “untold wealth will be the reward.”  That August, he and ten investors incorporated the Ezekiel Air Ship Manufacturing Company for $20,000, selling stock at $25 a share.  Cannon boasted that stockholders would become millionaires overnight. He had plans to build a version could carry 41,000 pounds of cargo. The first Ezekiel Airship was built at the Thorsell’s Foundry in Pittsburg.

At first, crowds swarmed the machine shop. Cannon complained he couldn’t get any work done, so he limited viewings and, ever the entrepreneur, charged 25 cents admission. Locals marveled at the light chassis made of hollow steel. It was powered by an 80 hp, 4 cylinder gas engine, and the fuel was ingeniously kept in the hollow framing of the chassis.

Cannon built eight prototypes that looked like something more from Jules Verne than Old Testament. The aircraft – a 26 ft wide, canvas-winged contraption resembled a cross between a huge white bat and a stagecoach.  Four large wheels below the wings contained smaller wheels, which held large paddles. The gas engine turned the wheels and paddles, creating vertical and horizontal blasts of air.

But all was not well in the Foundry. Expectations had been high, and Cannon kept pushing the completion date of the final model back. Impatient investors began withholding their money. The Reverend began running his operation on a shoestring budget.

And then, according to several witnesses, the thing actually flew!  

In November 1902, on a cool Sunday morning, Gus Stamps and a handful of men who had worked on the airship, took it out for a test flight in a nearby pasture on the edge of town.  Ironically, Reverend Cannon wasn’t there. It was Sunday after all, therefore he was off preaching.  Stamps was elected to fly the damn thing.  He climbed in, looked at his team apprehensively, and started up the engine.

According to witnesses, it lurched forward, rose up about twelve feet off the ground, then began to drift toward a nearby fence. Stamps had a difficult time controlling it.  Then the engine began to vibrate badly and he was forced to cut it off. The airship came to rest across the pasture, about 160 feet from where it started!

“And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.” (Ezekiel 1:19)

If the 4 adult witnesses are to be believed, it actually happened. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure as there were no photographs taken, no press announcement, and no repeat flights. Rev. Cannon was very secretive about his engineering processes, so the project was rarely mentioned in the Pittsburg Gazette during the 2 years the ship was under construction.

By the end of 1902, Cannon was flat broke. He hadn’t produced what he’d promised: a controllable airship capable of flying and carrying a payload. The stockholders refused to give him any more money and wanted nothing more to do with it or him.

Spurned by Pittsburg, Cannon loaded the Ezekiel Airship onto a railroad flatcar and headed north to preach the gospel and pass the hat.  He was headed for the St. Louis World’s Fair, where a $100,000 reward was offered to anyone who made a sustained controlled flight. But somewhere near Texarkana, a windstorm, some would say of biblical strength, blew the airship off the flatcar and into the rocks, completely destroying it.

A dejected Cannon left the remains of the airship where it fell.

Ever the visionary though, the Reverend was not discouraged.  He moved to Longview, Texas where he attempted to construct a second airship.  For the next 8 years, long after the Wright brothers had won the race, Cannon kept tinkering. Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic 120-foot, 12-second flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

Cannon completed a second airship in 1911, creating another corporation and selling more stock. Apparently, it ran into a telephone pole on a test flight and was completely destroyed.  After a decade without success, Burrell finally abandoned the Ezekiel Airship for good.

There is no factual documentation that it ever flew, but living witnesses in Pittsburg as late as the 1960’s swore they saw it fly over a fence near the Foundry where it was built. None of the firsthand witnesses are still alive today.  Brothers Aubrey and Parvin Swaim, were small boys in 1902, and told of watching the airship fly wobbly toward a fence on which they were sitting and how they scrambled to get clear.  Elizabeth Merrell was thirteen and walking with her friend Agnes when they heard an engine noise and looked up.

It came up above the fence row and I saw it in the air!


Cannon’s granddaughter Lenita Tacea said the reason Cannon never flew it himself was because, at six feet four and over 200  pounds, he was too heavy.  But had it actually flown?  If only there were a newspaper article, or better yet, a single photograph of the flight. In fact, only one photo survives of the Ezekiel Airship. Nevertheless, Burrell did have those witnesses.

In his final years, Cannon was a flat-broke widower, living with his stepdaughter’s family in Longview. In 1922, a fire sadly destroyed all his plans and drawings for the Ezekiel Airship.  At the time of his death at age 74 in 1923, Burrell was still working to invent a cotton-picker and boll-weavil destroyer. Ever since, Burrell Cannon has been treated as a sort of urban legend in Texas.

A full scale replica of the Ezekiel Airship is displayed in the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum in Pittsburg.  Aviation experts who have studied the replica say they doubt the aircraft ever performed like a real airplane. Historians agreed the airship might have gotten off the ground and moved through the air, but it was not a controllable machine.  Nevertheless, one must admire both the faith and ingenuity of the forgotten inventor and Reverend Burrell Cannon.

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Australia began as a British Penal Colony over 230 years ago

botany bay

It’s no longer a well-hidden fact, nor even an embarrassment, that Australia was founded as the Botany Bay Penal Colony in the late 18th century.  But how exactly did an entire continent come to be settled by British convicts?

Botany Bay is an inlet on the eastern coast of Australia, just south of Sidney.  In 1770, the bay was discovered by the famous British explorer Captain James Cook in his ship, the HMS Endeavour. It was named Botany Bay because of the abundance of plant life noticed by the ship’s naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks.

A decade later, recently deprived of its American colonies, Britain was desperate to find another territory to ship its criminals to.  At the time, criminals were considered defective, couldn’t be rehabilitated and must be in fact be separated from its law-abiding citizens.  So prisoners had to either be executed or exiled! Australia seemed to fit the bill as it was inhabited by only native Aborigines and no other European power had established a colony.  Based on Cook’s report, Botany Bay was selected.

The first fleet of 11 ships, filled with 736 convicts, set sail from England in 1787.

They sailed for 8 long months, around Africa’s Cape Hope of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean.  Captain Arthur Phillip, a tough but fair naval officer, was in charge of the fleet and with setting up the first penal colony in Australia. The 736 convicts were chained beneath the decks for the entire hellish voyage.  While the journey claimed the lives of just 39 prisoners,  later trips would see up to a third die along the way.

Interestingly only a small minority were hardened criminals convicted of violent crimes.  Women made up 15% of the convict population.  Those ships carrying females inevitably became floating brothels.  The poor women were exposed to varying degrees of degradation with younger women lined up for inspection.  The prettiest were taken to the officers’ cabins, while the others were thrown in with the crew.

Discipline aboard ship was brutal, with the crew themselves often cruel drunks, recruited from dockside taverns. Most were thugs who didn’t shrink from doling out the most brutal punishment on any convict who broke a rule. Dysentery, scurvy and sea-sickness were also rife, making conditions below decks most foul.

The fleet of ships finally sailed into Botany Bay in January of 1788.

Upon inspection though, the large bay was deemed uninhabitable due to a lack of fresh water and marshy soil.  Captain Philip’s surprise and disappointment must have been palpable.  This is where they sent him?  What was he to do now, with 6 ships full of convicts?  Based on Cook’s records, he took the fleet 9 miles up the coast, landing at Port Jackson in Sydney Cove six days later.  Here all worries vanished as Phillip had just discovered one of the finest harbors in the world.

The night the male convicts landed, 26 January 1788, the Union Jack was hoisted, a succession of volleys fired from the ships, many toasts of rum were drunk, and Captain Philip led his officers in three cheers of “HUZZAH!”  Australia Day commemorates this first landing of white settlers on the continent.

For the convicts who disembarked in Sydney Cove, that 1st Australia Day, it was a bit bewildering. Unused to land after 8 months below deck, they stumbled through the cove’s alien forest.  It was 2 weeks before enough huts could be built for the female convicts to leave the ships.  In the midst of a storm, they held the first Australian bush party – dancing, singing and drinking into the night.

Though no longer confined behind bars, the convicts still had an extremely rough life. The guards who signed up for duty in Australia were driven by cruelty bordering on sadism.  Governor Phillip was a strict and even small violations could result in 50 lashes with a cat o’nine tails. Blood was usually drawn after the fifth, so the conditions of their backs after 50 was more like raw meat.

The female convicts were often reported as low-class, foul mouthed women with loose morals.

But women were often imprisoned as a punishment for simply misbehaving to a man, or having illegitimate children.  At Sydney Cove, they were forced to perform the more menial tasks like sewing clothes or toiling over wash-tubs. Punishments for women was not the whip, but rather having their head shaved as a mark of disgrace.

So who exactly were all these convicts forced to “the land down under?”  They were prisoners yes, but only a small fraction were dangerous murderers.  Most were common poachers or thieves, while others were radical Luddites, Catholic Ribbonmen or Scottish Jacobites.  Regardless, all were treated the same by Phillip.

Those early days were perilous as their food stocks dwindled and rations were frequently cut. It was only the arrival of supply-ships that enabled the colony to avoid starvation.  Two more fleets arrived in what was now called New South Wales in 1790 and 1791. Now called “transportees” rather than convicts, the average age was 26, and also included children.

Plus they now included emigrants and their wives, attracted to dreams of a better life than in England.  

And it was not just the poor who headed down under.  Australia became a place where Britain sent unacceptable members of all its classes, including the gentry. It was an ideal place to send a young man who had gambling debts, or who wasn’t particularly good academically, or who had gotten the family maid pregnant. The author Charles Dickens sent his two sons to Australia.

Whether they arrived as convicts or emigrants, the settlers faced a forbidding, unwelcoming landscape. In a continent with little water and poor soil, growing crops proved extremely difficult. The western interior, or Outback as it came to be called, offered no great river and many yeomen who ventured there perished in the desert.

Nevertheless,  in the end they stayed and endured.  The emigrants went out beyond colonial control and squatted on huge tracts of land. While farming was hit or miss, the settlers soon realized the climate was perfect for sheep.  The animals would become a mainstay of the Australian economy.

As settlements expanded, they came into conflict with the Aborigines, who had lived there for thousands of years.

Phillip ordered they must be well treated, and anyone killing Aborigines would be hanged.  The natives considered the continent theirs, so they began killing the settler’s livestock or the settlers themselves.  This is when the guns came out and British firepower ultimately won.  Frontier wars, massacres and the introduction of European diseases, devastated the Aborigines.

In 1851, gold was discovered in New South Wales, sparking a Gold Rush similar to California’s. Melbourne went from a fishing village to one of the great cities of the empire in just 20 years.  Gold brought wealth to the continent and hastened an influx of even more migrants. The Gold Rush also sparked the beginning of the end for convict transportees, due to a growing resentment from the new population.

Over the next 80 years, from that first fleet, more than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  After 1868, when convict transfers ended, Australians tried to hide their founder’s legacy, considering it a disgrace and embarrassment.  But over the centuries, Australia’s shame has been transformed into national pride. The truth about who the convicts really were has helped remove the stigma.  Some were just kids, some did little more than steal a bag of flour, some were political prisoners. Today, about 20% of Australians are descended from those founding convicts, including many of its most prominent citizens.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is as Big as Texas

GPGPThe “Great Pacific Garbage Patches” are just what they sound like.  Not one, but two immense clusters of man-made trash concentrated in the North Pacific Ocean. One is off the east coast of Japan, the other between Hawaii and California, often described as being as being ‘as large as Texas!’ 

The name may lead you to imagine floating islands of garbage, full of plastic bags visible from an airplane. But the reality is far more insidious. Most of the debris is made of much smaller pieces. They range in size, from large discarded fishing nets to tiny micro-plastics, chunks smaller than 5 mm (0.2 in.). They look more like dirty snowflakes swirling in a cloudy soup than something you can grab off the water with your hand.  It’s possible to sail through the Garbage Patches and see little large debris on the surface.

The amount of waste in the Patches accumulates because most is not biodegradable.  In the ocean, the sun breaks down plastics into tinier pieces in a process called photodegradation. The garbage is constantly being churned by wind and waves causing it to be spread not just at the surface, but down through the water, sometimes to the ocean floor.  The sea floor beneath the Patches probably look like underwater trash dumps.  Think of that the next time you enjoy a lobster at your favorite restaurant.

It’s difficult to estimate the size of the Garbage Patches because the edges are constantly changing with the ocean currents.  They’re formed by whirlpool-like, rotating currents called “gyres,” sucking debris in like magnets.  The gyres are formed where the warm waters of the South Pacific meet the cold waters of the Arctic.  

Because of those ocean currents, the two Pacific Garbage Patches actually trade trash!

There are two gyres in the North Pacific Ocean.  The most famous is located between Hawaii and California, far out in the middle of the ocean. It was discovered by a yacht captain named Charles Moore over 20 years ago in 1997. He was sailing from Hawaii to California after a yachting race. While crossing the eastern Gyre, his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship. The patch was later named by Seattle oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, a known expert in tracking ocean currents.  

About 80% of the trash comes from North America and Asia.  The remaining 20% comes from cargo ships, fishing trawlers and offshore oil rigs that dump their waste directly into the ocean. Garbage from one side of the Pacific takes only about 1 year to travel to the other side. About 80,000 tons is discarded fishing nets and traps alone. More unusual stuff is everything you can imagine: shoes, styrofoam, bottle caps, and even Legos.

Because of their remoteness, the Garbage Patches are hard to study. But we know their impacts. Sea life are caught, injured, and killed by lost fishing nets called “ghost nets” because they continue “ghost fishing” even after being discarded by man. Plastic debris with loops like six pack straps and plastic bag handles also get caught on sea life.  

Fish, seabirds and whales mistakenly eat the micro-plastics causing choking and starvation. 

These indigestible items clog their stomachs, making the animals feel full and stopping them from eating. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jelly fish, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of ruptured organs.  Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in ghost nets and drown, unable to reach the surface to breath.

If algae and plankton are threatened, the entire food chain is screwed. Animals that eat them, like fish and turtles, will have less food. If their population decrease, there’ll be less food for their predators like tuna, dolphins, sharks, and whales. An estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year. Eventually, seafood will become rarer and as a result, more expensive for you and me.

Why should we care?  Well, humans are exposed to those microplastics from seafood, sea water, and sea salt. Scientists are exploring what this does to us over the long haul, but all agree it’s not good.  As photodegradation breaks down plastics, they leach out harmful pollutants and chemicals. To make matters worse, floating plastics absorb the other pollutants we dump in the oceans. These chemicals then enter the food chain and eventually us, when eat our favorite fish and seafood. 

If we do nothing but shrug it off, the sizes of the Garbage Patches will continue to grow.

This growth will worsen the impacts on our environment, fishing, navigation, the economy and our health.  So what do we do about it?  It may not be possible to entirely clean up the Garbage Patches. Man-made materials take a very long time to break down naturally and the plastics may never fully go away. Larger debris can be removed by man, but the micro debris is spread from the surface to the ocean floor.

Recent studies predict that unless a major response is mounted, the patches will increase exponentially and could TRIPLE by 2050.  Cleaning up the debris is not that easy.  Any net small enough to capture microplastics would also capture small marine life as well. Truth is, the sheer size of the Patches makes clean up almost too big to consider. The US NOAA’s Marine Debris Program estimates it would take 67 ships 1 year to clean up just 1 percent of 1 patch. It would be very difficult and expensive to remove it all.

Prevention is obviously key to stopping it at its source.

Trash enters our rivers, bays and oceans in ways like poor waste management, dumping, littering, and storm water runoff. Because the patches are in international waters, far from any nation’s coastline, no countries are taking responsibility or providing funds to clean it up.  Scientists agree that eliminating our dependence on disposable plastics and switching to biodegradable materials is the best way by transitioning from toxic, disposable plastics to reusable materials.

Thankfully, a few international organizations are dedicated to preventing the Garbage Patches from growing. The Patches are now the target of a $32 million cleanup campaign launched by a millennial Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat, head of Ocean Cleanup, using a floating boom system.  But everyone, including governments, industries, and we, the citizens of this planet, will have to change.  We caused the problem and we will now have to fix it.

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Before the Challenger & Columbia Disasters, there was APOLLO 1

Apollo1Everyone knows the famous Apollo 11 Moon landing and the historic first steps of Neil Armstrong in 1969.  But few outside NASA recall the Apollo 1 Tragedy that happened just 2 years earlier.  On January 27, 1967, during a launch rehearsal at Cape Kennedy, a freak flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module with 3 astronauts sealed on board. The three men died inside, despite the best efforts of the launch crew to save them.  But how could this have happened on a simple practice run?

NASA had an intimidating goal before it, set by President Kennedy in 1961, “to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade. Earlier Mercury and Gemini flights were the first steps toward meeting that challenge. Apollo would take 3 astronauts all the way to the moon.

This first manned Apollo mission, designated AS-204, would be just an Earth-orbiting test flight.

The Commander was Virgil “Gus” Grissom, an Air Force veteran, mechanical engineer and one of NASA’s first Mercury Seven Astronauts. He was America’s 2nd person in space in 1961, riding aboard the Liberty Bell 7. Grissom then went on to successfully command Gemini 3, the first 2-man Gemini flight, before being selected by NASA for Apollo 1.

Another veteran astronaut, Ed White, was also chosen.  An Air Force lt. colonel test pilot, he was the 1st American to make a spacewalk, on Gemini 4 in 1965. The images of White floating above the curved blue Earth, tethered to the spacecraft are unforgettable, as are his words, “I’m coming back in, and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

The third and last astronaut was Roger Chaffee a seasoned Navy lieutenant commander. Although a rookie in spaceflight, he had spent years supporting the Gemini program since 1963, including CapCom (Capsule Communications) on Gemini 4. He would now finally be getting his first chance to fly in space after five years of waiting.

Two weeks earlier, all 3 men kissed their wives goodbye, hugged their kids, and left Houston for Cape Kennedy in Florida.  They would be taking part in a pre-launch test, within the Command Module mounted atop an unfueled Saturn 1B rocket on launch pad 34. Engineering changes were still in progress as NASA prepared for the test. The plan was to go through the entire countdown sequence.

On Friday, January 27th, the 3 astronauts climbed into their familiar silver space suits.

At 1 p.m,. they road out to the launch tower and took the elevator to the top.  With the help of the launch crew, they climbed into their capsule.  The hatch was then sealed with a heavy ‘thud.’ A number of technical  problems cropped up immediately, which delayed the countdown for 4 hours.  Finally, a failure in communications forced a hold in the count at 5:40 p.m.  A frustrated Grissom shouted through the static, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two buildings?”

By 6:31 pm, Launch Control was ready to pick up the countdown … when ground instruments showed an electrical surge in the AC voltage readings, possibly indicating a short-circuit in the capsule.  Four seconds later came frightening words from the Command Module over the speakers, almost casually from Chaffee: “I smell fire.”

Two seconds later, White reports louder, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” The fire spreads throughout the small cabin in a matter of seconds. Chaffee shouts this time, “We have a bad fire!” followed by all three shouting as they struggled to get out. The last communication ends 17 seconds after the start of the fire, followed by loss of all capsule telemetry.

The Apollo 1 hatch opened inward and was closed by several latches.  It was held tight by higher interior pressure and required venting before the hatch could be opened. It took a minute and a half to get the hatch open under ideal conditions.  Ed White, in the center seat, had to reach above and behind his shoulders to use a ratchet that would release the first of a series of latches. White made part of a turn with the ratchet before he was overcome by smoke.

Launch technicians ran towards the sealed command module as the capsule ruptured!

White flames and thick smoke billowed out, filling the enclosed entry room. Some feared the fire might set off the launch escape rocket attached atop Apollo’s nose. This might then ignite the launch tower. Many technicians ran, but others grabbed extinguishers and tried to rescue the astronauts. The intense heat and smoke kept forcing them back, but finally after 5 minutes, they opened the hatch. Firemen arrived within 3 minutes and doctors soon afterwards. Unfortunately, it was too late … the 3 astronauts had died.

The entire NASA community was in shock.  There had been no fatalities during Mercury & Gemini. NASA impounded everything at the launch pad. A medical board eventually determined that the 3 astronauts died of asphyxia, with burns as a contributing factor. Fire had destroyed 70% of Grissom’s spacesuit, 20% of White’s and 15% of Chaffee’s. Doctors treated 27 men at the launch tower for smoke inhalation.

A NASA review board found a stray spark from damaged wires near Grissom’s seat started the fire. Fed by flammable materials such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze spread easily.  Because the cabin had been filled with 100% oxygen for many hours, the gas permeated all the material in the cabin.  The fire spread rapidly and the trapped astronauts had little chance of getting the hatch open.

The three men had perished probably within the first minute. Ed White, in the center seat, was found with his arms over his head as he struggled with the hatch.  And that hatch turned out to be too difficult to open in an emergency. The astronauts struggled in vain to crack the inward-opening door with the pressure inside the spacecraft higher.

The exhaustive investigation and extensive reworking of the capsule postponed any manned launch of the Saturn for nearly a year.

A number of changes were instigated in the Apollo program, including designing: a) a new hatch which opened outward and could be operated quickly in a matter of seconds, b) removing much of the flammable material and replacing it with self-extinguishing components, c) using a nitrogen-oxygen mixture instead of pure O2 at launch.

In the end, the resulting changes made the Apollo Command Module a highly reliable spacecraft.  With the exception of Apollo 13’s service module failure, it helped make the six Moon missions almost routine. The eventual success of the Apollo program is a tribute to Grissom, White, and Chaffee, whose tragic loss was not in vain.  Lessons learned from Apollo 1 stretch all the way to the International Space Station.

The AS-204 mission was officially names “Apollo 1” in honor of the three astronauts.  NASA honors their sacrifice every January in an annual Day of Remembrance which includes the Challenger 1986 and Columbia 2003 Space Shuttle crews. An exhibit honoring the Apollo 1 crew opened at the Kennedy Space Center in 2017 with a special ceremony honoring the three astronauts on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

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Podcast #6: ‘Razor’ Tojo – Japan’s Adolf Hitler

Sixth in a series of Podcasts on Forgotten History

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Podcast #5: Five Reasons the Johnstown Flood Disaster should never have happened

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Podcast #4: The Tragic Fate of the SS St. Louis’ Jewish Refugees

Fourth in a series of Podcasts on Forgotten History

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Podcast #3: The American Legacy of the Cherokee Trail of Tears

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The Last Unexplored Place on Earth – a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

trieste color A decade before the Apollo Moon Missions, two aquanauts, traveled to the last unexplored place on Earth, the deepest point under all the oceans.  On 23 January 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, in the bathyscaphe Trieste, descended down to the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, 7 miles, (11 km) beneath the water surface.

The lowest point on our planet is deep underwater, in the western Pacific Ocean near the island of Guam. It’s here where converging geological plates crash together, forcing one plate down beneath the other, forming the formidable Mariana Trench. The deepest portion, at nearly 11,000 meters was discovered in 1951 by the British survey ship Challenger, hence the name “Challenger Deep.”

The distance between the ocean’s surface and the bottom of the Mariana Trench is greater than the height of Mount Everest (at 8,850 meters).

The Trieste bathyscaphe was named after the Italian city of its birth.  A bathyscaphe (deep boat) is a type of mini-sub with a bathysphere attached to the bottom for piloting and observation. Auguste Piccard, a visionary Swiss inventor and aeronaut designed the Trieste, a precursor to today’s modern submersibles. Piccard was already famous for setting the record for the highest altitude balloon flight ever in 1932.

Trieste’s two-man crew would be working inside a 6.5 foot (2 meter) wide pressure sphere on the underside of the submersible. To withstand the intense pressure at the bottom of Challenger Deep [8 tons per square inch!], the bathysphere’s walls were 5 inches (8 cm) thick. To see outside, the crew would rely on a single window made of a solid cone of Plexiglas.

The rest of the nearly 60-foot (18-meter) long Trieste was primarily a 50 ft. tank filled with 33,350 gallons (126,240 liters) of gasoline for buoyancy, along with nine tons of iron pellets as ballast to weigh it down. (Gasoline is more buoyant than water and resistant to compression.)  The Trieste also had the advantage of being controlled by the pilot and didn’t need to be tethered to any surface ship. Piccard developed an ingenious method to control the buoyancy, using both the gasoline and pellets.

Why partake on such a dangerous mission?

During the Cold War, the US Navy realized the ocean depths could be exploited for military advantages against the Soviets.  The Office of Naval Research purchased the Trieste in 1958 and hired Auguste’s son, Jacques, as consultant.  The dive was not just about setting a new record, the Navy wanted to prove the feasibility of human exploration at such extreme depths.

Piccard’s radical design would be put to the test in January 1960 at the deepest place on Earth, with none other than his 38-year-old son Jacques as one of the 2 crew.   So the US Navy carried the small sub to the Pacific for its historic dive into the Mariana Trench.  31-year-old oceanographer Don Walsh, a US Navy Lieutenant, would be the other “aquanaut.”

Floating over the trench, the 2 men waved to the crew of the mother ship, then climbed down through the Trieste, into the bathysphere underneath.  It took 4 hours and 48 minutes to drop to the very bottom of the Challenger Deep at a rate of about a yard (0.9 m) a second. One can only imagine the creeping fear and tension the 2 men experienced as they descended slowly and silently into the pitch-black darkness, the bathysphere getting progressively colder and colder.

The Trieste’s hull could buckle at any moment from the extreme pressure, or it might violently explode without warning.

piccard and walshAs if to highlight the peril, after passing 27,000 feet (9,000 meters) the outer window pane cracked, violently shaking the entire sphere! Should they abort?  But since no leaks or pressure drop occurred, the brave men decided to continue their decent.  Throughout much of the trip, they lost contact with their mother ship on the  surface. Nevertheless, Piccard and Walsh successfully reached the bottom of the trench at a depth of 7 miles.

The floor of Challenger Deep was a fine, snuff-colored, oozy silt made of microscopic algae known as diatoms. The explorers were shocked to see jellyfish, shrimp-like creatures, and a couple of small white flatfish, proving that some life could withstand the extreme depths. Unfortunately, they carried no external camera and one of the external lights had imploded from the extreme pressures. Skeptics at the time criticized Piccard’s observations, claiming life was impossible at such depths and they were hallucinating.

Due to the cracked window, two men spent just 20 minutes on the trench floor.

Eating chocolate bars for energy, they shivered in the cold.  The bathysphere temperature was only 45 F (7 Celsius). They finally managed to speak with their mother ship using a sonar-hydrophone.  Travelling at a speed of nearly a mile per second, it still took 14 seconds for a message to travel from the Trieste to the surface and back.

Piccard slowly unloaded the iron pellet ballast and the Trieste began to float back to the surface. The ascent was much quicker than the dive, taking only three hours and fifteen minutes.  If you consider that faster when you are freezing inside a cracked, cramped, cold, dark sphere.

At the surface came cheers and champagne.  Both men were celebrated as two of the world’s great explorers. For a time, the Piccard family, father and son, held the record for both the highest altitude balloon and the deepest ocean dive.  The historic dive ushered in a golden age of underwater exploration, with men like Jacques Cousteau leading the way, in which submersibles would make amazing discoveries in oceanography.

The Trieste was retired in 1963 and you can view the original today on exhibit at the US Navy Museum in Washington DC.  So costly and risky was the descent into the Mariana Trench it was not attempted it again for another 52 years. It’s been repeated only once, in 2012, this time solo by Canadian explorer and filmmaker James Cameron (of Titanic fame) in the torpedo-shaped, DeepSea Challenger.  This time, Cameron was sure to take copious videos, enough for an award winning documentary of the same name.

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