Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Epic Journey of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch and flowerThe migration of the Monarch butterfly is one of the most incredible adaptations in the natural world. There is nothing that we observe in the delicate-winged creatures that would predict the immense journey of the butterflies. And yet, they will undertake a 4 generation migration, which will cover 2,000 to 3,000 miles (each way). The migration begins in a remote mountain range in Mexico, goes across America to Canada and back to Mexico again.

The Migration Route

After overwintering in Mexico, the Monarchs begin the migration to Canada. These butterflies are the 4th generation in the cycle, and they are unique. They have made the migration from Canada to Mexico, arriving in October. The following spring they will start the migration back to Canada. They begin the journey by flying to the southern United States, where they will mate and die. The 2nd generation will make it as far as the northern states; they to will mate and die (living only one month). The 3rd generation will settle in various locations in Canada and the northeastern United States (also living one month).

The 4th generation will make the trip to Mexico before winter comes again. They will live almost nine months, and make the epic journey from Canada to Mexico, all on their own. They will have to fly an average of 50 miles per day. On their way the butterflies will cross the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, hundreds of miles of deserts and the Sierra Madre Mountains. Starting from different locations in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, the Monarchs will find their way south and converge in huge flocks near Mexico. Millions of butterflies take part in the 2 month-long migration.

How do They do it?

Monarch migrationNaturalists are unable to explain how the Monarch butterfly accomplishes such an incredible flight. Each butterfly weighs less than one fifth of an ounce, and its delicate wings must withstand the journey. Also, a large amount of energy is needed to fly such long distances. A butterfly is built more like a helicopter than an airplane, thus it is not the most efficient flyer. There are, however, ways that they can maximize their energy. They only fly when the conditions are perfect. And they can take advantage of rising columns of air. This occurs when the sun heats the ground, causing the air directly above to become hotter. The hot air gets lighter and then rises, carrying the butterflies up. In this case their light frames are a bonus.

Perhaps the most puzzling question regarding the migration is: how do the Monarchs navigate? The 4th generation will begin the journey from a wide variety of locations, and find their way to a forest in the mountains of Mexico (a place they have never seen). Scientists can only speculate how they do it. Maybe they follow a specific angle of the sun or the earth’s magnetic field. Maybe they are guided by wind directions or follow landmarks. And why is the 4th generation more adept at flying long distances, and able to live much longer?

The Power of Multiple Generations

I find it particularly interesting that multiple generations are needed to accomplish the full cycle of the migration. It brings to mind a comparison with human life. In many ways, recent generations are special. We are special in the sense that we benefit greatly from the labors of past generations. Our modern life is the product of people who are no longer here. Like the Monarchs, each generation has passed on something to the next, and over time it has built up.

Today, humans can achieve great things, because we have been given great opportunities. Much of which we take for granted has come about through multiple generations. For example, democracy, human rights, technology, industry, agriculture and so on. Some challenges are so immense that it takes more than one lifetime to overcome them. We should also keep in mind that we will leave something to the next generation.

On personal note: I live in Atlantic Canada, and I have on occasion observed a passing butterfly. They are beautiful creatures, and seem to have a mystical quality to them. In addition to their vibrant colors and elegant flight, the thought of having come from a grounded caterpillar is remarkable. The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is one of the most amazing transformations in nature. For me, the Monarch is the most familiar of the butterflies. And even before I knew of the migration, I would still pause in admiration when one flew by.

The story of the Monarch Butterfly is so incredible that if it had not been observed and documented, no one would believe it. In fact, the full extent of the migration was not known until 1975. There are Monarchs in other parts of the world, but only in North America do they migrate such great distances. The Monarch butterfly is clearly one of the most amazing animals on earth. And it shows us that very often nature is more creative than we are.


References:  Journey of the Butterflies, Aired November 30, 2011 on PBS


The Apollo Missions: The Golden Age of Space Flight

I was born in 1963, when the Apollo program was just beginning. I still have vivid memories of the last few Apollo missions (the program lasted until the early 70’s). Apollo made quite an impression on a young kid. What a thrill it was for our home room school teacher to bring a television set to class, so we could watch the return of the astronauts from space. Back in those days the method of re-entry was called a splash down. As the Command Module passed through the atmosphere and approached the earth three parachutes opened. Then it all ended in a splash as the spaceship fell into the ocean. For some reason I have no recollection of the moon landings; perhaps they happened late at night, I don’t know. I do, however, remember footage of the astronauts testing a vehicle on the surface of the moon called the Lunar Rover.

Despite the enthusiasm of many kids and science buffs, Apollo got off to a rocky start. On January 27, 1967 the first Apollo mission turned into a disaster when a fire ignited the Command Module. In a pre-flight test, astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives. Later, investigators pointed to high levels of oxygen and exposed wiring as possible causes for the fire. In any event, Apollo 1 was the program’s lowest point, but it would recover from this and eventually go on to make history.

Preparing for a Moon Landing   

Saturn vSeveral missions were necessary before any attempt could be made at landing a man on the surface of the moon. Apollo 4 through 6 (Apollo never flew any spaceship with the name Apollo 2 or 3) were unmanned missions for the purpose of testing the Saturn V launch vehicle. The first manned Apollo mission was Apollo 7 which propelled the Saturn V into earth’s orbit for a few rotations before re-entry.

The Saturn V rocket was a fascination for many kids. My older brother Gilles had a model of the final stage of the Saturn V. On his bedroom desk he displayed the Command and Service Modules, along with the Lunar Module. The Command and Service Modules would orbit the moon and the Lunar Module would land. In the eye of a young boy they looked just like the real thing. Each module could be separated manually and then resembled. I wonder what ever happened to that thing; it would be great to see it again.

Apollo 8 and Earthrise

With Apollo 8 things began to get a little more interesting. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to enter lunar orbit. This was the first time that man experienced the dark side of the moon. The moon is in gravitational lock with the earth, therefore the same side is always facing us. As you might expect there wasn’t much to see. Some astronauts described the experience of the dark side as eerie and foreboding. The fact that radio communication with ground control was lost behind the moon probably didn’t help either.

The Moon has little color to it, but it did change character depending on the angle of the sun. As the spacecraft moved along in orbit, the lunar surface went from not very hospitable at low sun angle, to a fairly friendly looking place at high sun angle. From our view on earth the moon looks white or silver, but the lunar samples retrieved from later Apollo missions are actually black, charcoal and asphalt. What a strange feeling it must have been to be the first humans to get a close look at the moon. As NASA astromaterials curator Carlton Allen puts it “It’s hard to wrap your mind around a place where nothing ever happens, but the moon is that place.”

earthrise Apollo 8Perhaps the highlight of Apollo 8 was captured in a now famous photograph. This picture is normally referred to as “earthrise.” It was taken on December 24, 1968 by crew member Bill Anders. When the spaceship came around from the far side of the moon the earth became visible over the horizon. Our bright colorful planet stands as a beacon against a black background and the near colorless moon. It’s interesting that we had to travel thousands of miles to get a clear look at ourselves. NASA astronaut Anders said of the photo “We came all this way to discover the moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.”

Apollo 9 and 10: Final Preparations

The next step for NASA was to test the Lunar Module in maneuvers that would be needed in lunar orbit. However, Apollo 9 did this while orbiting the earth. The mission tested the Lunar Module as a self-sufficient spacecraft. Rendezvous and docking with the Command Module were also worked on. The dress rehearsal came next with Apollo 10. This mission accomplished everything that a moon landing would, except the landing. The Lunar Module separated from the Command Module and descended to about 9 miles of the lunar surface before re-joining the command ship. The stage was now set for achieving the ultimate goal of Apollo.

 Apollo 11: The Moment of Truth

U.S. President John F. Kennedy set the bar high when on May 25, 1961 he stated that the nation should commit itself to sending a man on the moon and to bring him back safely. And to do this by the end of the decade. Unfortunately President Kennedy would not live long enough to see his vision realized.

Nevertheless, on July 20, 1969 the NASA Lunar Module (Eagle) landed on the surface of the moon. The decent took a little longer than expected and touched down with just seconds left of fuel allocated for landing. Almost immediately after landing, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ”Buzz” Aldrin had to do a system check to make sure that they could remain on the moon. The tests were successful and the decision was to stay. Upon landing, mission control had scheduled a 4 hour sleep period for the astronauts. But Armstrong and Aldrin asked to delay the rest period and go ahead with preparations for a moon walk. I can certainly see their point; in reality, who’s going to sleep just after landing on the moon.

AstronautSix hours after landing Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. With his first step he spoke to the world, “one small step for (a) man one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin would join him several minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin spent about 2 and a half hours on the moon (outside the spacecraft). Once both were back in the Lunar Module, all that remained was to return home safely.

After a little less than a day in total on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared for rendezvous with Michael Collins operating the Command Module (Colombia). Collins had been in lunar orbit awaiting his crew members. Due to weight restrictions the Lunar Module had only one engine designed for launch and it had to work. If it failed, there would be no way to rescue the men off the moon. In going through the launch sequence Aldrin noticed a broken circuit breaker; it was the one switch necessary for igniting the engine. Aldrin improvised by pushing a pen into the switch’s remaining space, and it worked.

All three astronauts were then reunited as the Lunar Module docked successfully with the Command Module. The Lunar Module was then released into space and crashed on the surface of the moon. The crew headed for home as heroes. And on July 24, the Command Module splashed down as planed into the Pacific Ocean.

The Legacy of Apollo 

luna module on moonApollo went on to land 5 more missions on the moon. But by Apollo 17 (the final Apollo mission) the luster was gone. Considering the exorbitant cost of the program and the lack of practicality of moon missions, Apollo was terminated. Some could argue that from a practical stand point, going to the moon did not accomplish very much. Could the money spent on Apollo have been used for better means? Did the U.S. go to the moon simply for political reasons, because of a so-called space race with the Soviet Union?

When I think of Apollo, money or politics is not what comes to mind. For sure there have been more significant discoveries that have benefited mankind in tangible ways. However, in terms of setting a goal and overcoming challenges, no human accomplishment even comes close. To think that in 1969 (with computers with less computing power than today’s mobile phone) we could put a man on the moon is staggering. I for one am in awe of what NASA accomplished with the Apollo program. Apollo should serve as inspiration for all of us. In my opinion, history will forever be divided in two categories (before we walked on the moon, and after we walked on the moon). No matter how ambitious a goal might be, the legacy of Apollo should give us pause before we say, ‘It can’t be done.’


References: Craig Nelson, Rocket Men (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009) 229,230.

See the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” in a Whole New Way, by Nancy Atkinson on December 20, 2013: