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Heroes and villains in northern Mexico

Chihuahua, a city of about a million people, is the capital of the state by the same name in northern Mexico. Chihuahua city is about four hours south of Ciudad Juárez and the border with the United States. Mexico City is a long way away from Chihuahua, but Chihuahua is nevertheless very much a part of Mexico.

Mexico is a country that loves its national heroes, and there are two heroes that loom particularly large in Chihuahua: Miguel Hidalgo and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Both of them were real people who did real things, but like national heroes everywhere, they have been mythologized. This myth-making supports a particular image of what Mexico is or should be.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Mural of Miguel Hidalgo’s death, in Palacio Gobierno, Chihuahua.

Miguel Hidalgo started the rebellion against Spanish rule that led eventually to Mexico’s independence. Hidalgo was a Catholic priest in the town of Dolores in central Mexico, and it was there that he declared his revolt on September 16, 1810 (111 years ago today). He led an irregular army to some early successes against the Spanish, but ultimately he was defeated and captured. The Spanish executed him in Chihuahua on July 30, 1811. It would take another ten years of bitter fighting before Mexico would finally win its independence from Spain.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Heroic equestrian statue of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez.

Pancho Villa was an important figure in a later period of upheaval in Mexican history, the Mexican Revolution. He was a bandit working in the mountains of northern Mexico, reputed for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like Robin Hood. In 1910, he threw in his lot with Francisco I. Madero and the Constitutionalists, who were fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. After Díaz was defeated and Madero became president, Madero’s general Victoriano Huerta turned against Villa, who barely escaped execution and fled to El Paso. Huerta ended up betraying Madero as well, overthrowing and assassinating him in a coup.

Meanwhile, Villa built up his own army, División del Norte, which helped defeat Huerta. Crucially, he retook the border town of Ciudad Juárez for the Constitutionalists. But before long, Villa had a falling-out with the new leader of the Constitutionalists, Venustiano Carranza. He was sidelined in Mexican politics as Carranza got official diplomatic recognition from the United States. In March 1916, he demonstrated that Carranza did not in fact control all of Mexico by raiding the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s band killed about twenty people before escaping back across the border. The US Army followed in hot pursuit. This punitive expedition, led by General John J. Pershing, spent the better part of a year chasing Villa around northern Mexico, but they were never able to catch him. (It ended when the US Army was recalled from Mexico to fight in Europe in World War I.)

Ultimately, Villa surrendered to the Mexican government after Carranza’s death in 1920. He retired from the outlaw life and settled on a ranch, but his old enemies caught up with him and assassinated him in 1923.

Both Hidalgo and Villa are remembered as being heroes, but the reality, as usual, is a little more complicated. Hidalgo is the father of Mexican independence, but Mexico was not freed from Spanish rule until more than ten years after his death. The man who actually liberated Mexico was Agustín de Iturbide, but he isn’t well-remembered in Mexico anymore. The reason is that he briefly ruled Mexico as an emperor, but Mexico shortly afterward turned toward republicanism. Iturbide went into exile; when he returned to Mexico in an attempt to return to power, he was executed! Hidalgo was never an emperor of anything, and thus he is a much more palatable national hero for the republic of Mexico.

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Monument to Hidalgo, across the street from Palacio Gobierno.

As for Villa, he was by trade a bandit, and he could be incredibly cruel. He and his followers were responsible for countless murders in northern Mexico. The Mexican Revolution is remembered as being a story of good guys and bad guys. The good guys were the Constitutionalists: Madero, Villa, Carranza, and others; while the bad guys were the counter-revolutionaries, notably Díaz and Huerta. But the Constitutionalists didn’t just fight the counter-revolutionaries; they also spent a lot of time fighting each other! In death, Carranza and Villa have been made into heroes of the revolution, but they were enemies of each other in life.

None of this is to say that Mexico shouldn’t remember Hidalgo or Villa, or not have national heroes at all. Every country needs its heroes. But when we remember our heroes—whatever country we are from—we shouldn’t be satisfied with the nationalistic myths. Instead, we should view these people with a more critical eye, to see the aspects of their story that the nationalistic myths might obscure.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

Another equestrian statue of Pancho Villa, this one in Chihuahua city.

STS-118 launch video

Today is the tenth anniversary of the last launch of a space shuttle, Atlantis on STS-135. I remember watching the launch on NASA TV with my dad, and thinking that this was the end of an era. My dad said that he had watched the bookends of the Space Shuttle program: TV coverage of the first glide flight of the Enterprise in 1977, and then the final launch in 2011.

Earlier, in 2007, I made a trip down to Florida to watch another shuttle launch, Endeavour on STS-118. Here is my video of the launch, which I edited and uploaded shortly after shooting it. I watched the launch from Titusville, across the Indian River from Merritt Island and Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t until the shuttle actually took off that I realized I had my camera trained on the wrong launch pad!

Endeavour now resides at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The museum plans to display the orbiter in its configuration for the STS-118 mission, although the permanent display space has yet to be built.

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The Silicon Valley Space Shuttle

MOFFETT FIELD, California, USA – Just inside the front gate of Moffett Field in Northern California, a large model of the Space Shuttle Orbiter stands on three pylons. The model’s nose is high as if it is flaring for a landing on the street leading into the government airfield.

The Moffett Field Space Shuttle model.

The Moffett Field Space Shuttle model.

Although there are no plaques or historical markers anywhere to attest to this fact, the model is in fact a relic of the Space Shuttle program, like the orbiter Endeavour in Los Angeles. Unlike Endeavour, the Moffett Field model never flew into space; but as a precision engineering model, it had its own important role to play in the Space Shuttle program. During the development of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, NASA tested the model extensively in the large 40-by 80-foot wind tunnel at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

The Moffett Field model was the largest of several Space Shuttle models tested in the wind tunnels at NASA Ames from the early 1970s until the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Some of the models represented the entire shuttle stack, with External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters; these models simulated the launch of the shuttle into orbit. Other models, like the Moffett Field model, represented only the Orbiter, as it returned from space and slowed from hypersonic speeds to a gliding landing on a runway.

One of the purposes of the Moffett Field model was to simulate the flow of air over the thermal protection tiles on the underside of the orbiter. The tiles were installed with small gaps in between them, to allow the aluminum body of the shuttle to expand and flex as it heated or cooled during flight. The thermal protection tiles are thus all individually modeled on this model. This is why the model is so large: 0.36-scale, or just over one-third the size of a real Space Shuttle Orbiter.

The 0.36-scale shuttle model during testing in the 40x80-ft wind tunnel at NASA Ames, February 27, 1976. (Source: NASA)

The 0.36-scale shuttle model during testing in the 40×80-ft wind tunnel at NASA Ames, February 27, 1976. (Source: NASA)

Rear view of the 0.36-scale model during testing, May 20, 1975. (Source: NASA)

Rear view of the 0.36-scale model during testing, May 20, 1975. (Source: NASA)

The Moffett Field model has been outside for quite some time, and it is a little the worse for wear. Back in the seventies, it was painted a canary-yellow color over its entire surface. Now it is painted like a real shuttle orbiter, with white on the top and black on the bottom. The after-the-fact coat of paint is thick, and in some places it has been stained by the Northern California rain.

Rear three-quarters view of the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model.

Rear three-quarters view of the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model.

Detail of the engines on the model.

Detail of the engines on the model.

Your blogger’s hand touching the underside of the wind tunnel model, with the individual tiles visible.

Your blogger’s hand touching the underside of the wind tunnel model, with the individual tiles visible.

The paint on the nose of the wind tunnel model, not in great shape after years outdoors.

The paint on the nose of the wind tunnel model, not in great shape after years outdoors.

Moffett Field is located in Silicon Valley, where Apple, Google, Facebook, and other titans of Information Technology have their headquarters or major offices. But long before IT, Moffett Field was a center for another type of technology. Starting with its role as the West Coast base for the Navy’s airship program in the mid-1930s, and continuing with the establishment of NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory (now NASA Ames) in 1939, Moffett Field has long been a center for aviation and aerospace. In the twenty-first century, the wind tunnels at NASA Ames continue to do research for Orion and other programs.

I’m glad that the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model has been preserved, but it needs to be better-taken care of and better-interpreted. Big Tech tends to take up all the air in the room in the Bay Area, but Moffett Field and NASA Ames are as much a part of the history of Bay Area technology as Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Further reading

I learned about the Moffett Field shuttle model in Development of the Space Shuttle, by T.A. Heppenheimer, a terrific book about the engineering that went into the shuttle between the program’s initial approval by President Nixon in 1972 and the first flight in 1981. An evocative NASA photo of the model in the 40-by 80-foot wind tunnel appears on the front cover of the book. Development of the Space Shuttle is the sequel to The Space Shuttle Decision, another excellent book by the same author, which is available for free from the NASA History Office.

By the way, the South Bay has another link to the Space Shuttle program: Lockheed Missiles and Space Systems, just to the east of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, is where the thermal protection tiles were manufactured—an incredibly exacting process.

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