"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Praise for Japan's "Hayabusa" and a Reply to a Critic

The photo below is not of a meteor. It is a human-made spacecraft intentionally reentering the Earth's atmosphere after a seven-year round trip journey.

Image Credit: NASA/Ed Schilling


"Hayabusa", as the Japanese probe is called, landed on an Earth-crossing asteroid and attempted to retrieve samples. It endured damaging solar flares, crippled engines, and a rough landing on the target asteroid. Hayabusa's adventure reads like an unmanned sendup of Apollo 13. Every time something went wrong, resilient engineers employed fixes and the mission continued. Hayabusa's last act was safely depositing a sample capsule, perhaps empty, on the Australian desert.

Though humankind is getting better at flying probes to asteroids, we still have a lot of work to do before humans make the trip. In the meantime, these science-based missions inspire me a great deal. Every day, probes and rovers continue exploring our solar system, bringing us closer to the moment when humans are ready to make the trip. For a wonderful account of this probe's tumultuous odyssey, and how it fits proudly into the bigger picture of space exploration, I recommend Louis D. Friedman's account entitled "The Hayabusa Adventure." It's a quick read.

A Reply

Not long ago, I was accused of being a sucker. It came anonymously in response to my blog post lauding President Obama’s plans for NASA. In part, the President’s strategy calls for increased reliance on private industry to build the powerful rockets needed for human spaceflight. Though not without risk, NASA's new direction has the potential to spur innovation and lower mission costs. After I blogged in praise of this approach, a comment was posted saying I’d been “suckered in!”

At the time, I did not reply. Frankly, I assumed “Anonymous” was just another Internet troll—a random visitor throwing a hotheaded and hasty jab and then running away. I was mistaken. It turns out my unnamed critic is someone I know personally, someone I respect. More importantly, he is a veteran employee of a major aerospace company (and heretofore NASA contractor). His job, and many others like it, are threatened by this retooling of our nation's space program.

Given this reality, I have finally posted a reply. I invite you to read it here. It is neither an apology nor a change of my position. Based on a great deal of reading, I remain optimistic about NASA's new direction. Still, it is important to acknowledge the upheaval being experienced by some of NASA's current contractors.

Suffice it to say that NASA remains at the fiscal mercy of Congress--a Congress that has now spent decades underfunding space exploration. Provided NASA receives the increased funding President Obama has called for, our nation's aerospace companies can expect continued opportunities to competitively bid for lucrative contracts.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Kind of Dream Has It Been?

Have you ever had a dream so incredible you felt sad upon waking up?
Ahem! Actually no, I’m not referring to sex dreams. This post is going to be about something better…well, that assertion may prove debatable. In any case, think of your favorite TV show. Think about what elements of that show make it so great to watch, so engrossing.

Recently I had an especially vivid and exciting dream based on one of my all-time favorite shows: The West Wing. As I was having it, the dream rivaled any TV/movie-based dream I've ever had. But from the moment I woke up until now, many days later, I have been drowning in sorrow. You see, my incredible West Wing dream resulted in tragic lost opportunity--an opportunity I may never get back.

Still, let’s first discuss the coolness of this dream. Over seven seasons, The West Wing proved just how entertaining and intelligent television drama can be. It followed the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlett, portrayed by Martin Sheen. The show took audiences deep, physically and mentally, into the White House. By any standard, it boasted one of the best casts and writing teams (a la Aaron Sorkin) ever assembled for network TV drama.

I’ve certainly had dreams before that included motifs from The West Wing. As a devotee, I’ve been through the series three times on DVD. Of course the show has surfaced in my dreamscape—as I’m sure it does for anyone with a relapsing remitting crush on actress Allison Janney, who portrays the White House Press Secretary.

Let me be clear. Until last week, I’d never had a dream so vivid and well-constructed. In contrast to typical dreams where continuity runs amuck, or I wake up just before the good part, this dream played out like the best, most dramatic scenes in the show. The dream was almost perfect. Almost.

Once in REM state, I found myself in a closed-door meeting with White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and DCS Josh Lyman. On the real show, Leo McGarry was referred to as the second most powerful man in the world. And by the final episode, Josh Lyman had become the show’s main protagonist, rising to the position of Chief of Staff to President Bartlett’s successor. Here I was having a closed-door strategy meeting with arguably the most important characters in the entire series.

Replicating classic episodes, Leo, Josh and I wrangled over what strategy President Bartlett should take to handle a national crisis--something analogous to the Gulf oil spill. Josh and I were of one accord that the White House should not accept blame. However, Josh wanted to blame the crisis on a political rival. Replicating a central theme of the show, namely that cooler heads should prevail, I suggested we neither take nor assign blame. Rather, the White House should angle passively so that blame fell imperceptibly onto wrongdoers. This, I assured Josh and Leo, would keep the President’s hands clean. (Oh yeah, folks, I’m crafty during REM sleep!)

After this intense meeting, Leo and I stepped into the hall. He charged me with taking our position directly to the President. One of the most beloved characters on The West Wing, Leo leaned in close to me and spoke in a low gravelly tone like I’d seen the late actor John Spencer do masterfully so many times. That was the most electrifying moment of the dream.

Next thing I know, I am sitting in the Oval Office with Sam Seaborn and other senior advisors looking on. SWEET! President Bartlett, or put another way—MARTIN FRICKIN’ SHEEN is looking right at me. COOL!! I’m advising him to stay above the fray. President Bartlett appears skeptical, and my nerves start to rattle. But the President doesn’t interrupt, and I successfully get my point across. AWESOME!!!

As I woke up , staring at the ceiling of my apartment, I grinned ear to ear for a second. Then the metaphorical floor dropped out from under me as I realized my dream lacked one critical element. Astute fans of The West Wing may already know to which element I’m referring.


I’ve been kicking myself ever since. How did my brain deliver up such a realistic West Wing dream, only to leave out the critical technique of actors walking as they talk? By literally moving the story forward, Walk and Talks help fans digest critical exposition as they survey the White House Complex. What is worse, my dream included an obvious place to do a Walk and Talk. For goodness sake, Act 2 of my dream was in the hallway with Leo. But we just stood there. And no, I don't blame Leo. I take full responsibility.

Now I’ve got to watch a whole ‘nother season—again—to prompt a new dream (which reminds me that only watching Kate Beckinsale movies every other week isn’t doing the trick, but that’s a peripheral issue). Oh well, I’m off to watch some reruns.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Manly Man Goes Millay

Selected Poems (Perennial Classics) Selected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shame led me to read this book of poetry.

Here is how it went. Last November I read a blog post by Dave Cullen in which he pointed out the disparity between male and female authors receiving recognition. The column stuck with me. Fast-forward to last month as I mulled over what present to get my niece for her high school graduation. I bought her a new hardbound collegiate dictionary. But I also wanted to get her a work of prose or poetry to try out, something of proven literary merit.

My initial impulse, no lie, was to give her a copy of Childhood's End by the late Sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke. I didn't feel shame about that. It's an excellent and thought-provoking novel I hope my niece does read sometime. But I realized I ought to do better than just toss her one of my "favs." I also felt a strong impulse that I should get her something by a female author. And that's when the shame hit.

Though I have read many books by women, I couldn't think of any works off the top of my head that would make good graduation gifts. The guilt began to flow when I realized that had my niece been a nephew, I could have easily listed a bevy of titles fit for any high school graduate to sample. Moreover, as the proud recipient of an English degree, I ought to be able list several female authors whose works are ideal for soon-to-be college freshman.

Then I remembered seeing the name Edna St. Vincent Millay on a friend's Goodreads Profile. So I grabbed one of Millay’s collections off the shelf at Borders Bookstore, read a couple poems in the store, and quickly bought the book. If it ended up not being appropriate for my niece, at least I would improve my own reading list.

In Millay's writing, I found poems about nature, companionship, assertiveness, and even wanderlust. I especially loved one passage where Millay said in effect that she wasn't satisfied with roses--either as a romantic gift or a subject for poetry. She prized more the vitality of real human interaction. At some point, I stopped reading to see if my niece might like Millay and just enjoyed the poetry for myself.

My goal in giving my niece this collection was not to make her a Millay fan. If she becomes one, bonus! As a liberal arts junky I would also be tickled if she writes me this summer and says, “Uncle Jake, I did not enjoy Ms. Millay’s poetry for the following reasons…” I just wanted to extend her a sincere invitation to explore great literature as an avenue of personal development. And as she purchases books for school, most often written by men, I felt it important to make sure she starts out with a book on her shelf written by a great woman who succeeded on her own merits.

Most of the authors I read are men, and I make no apology for that. I like being a man and reading about the male experience. Not long ago I sat in a buddy's backyard and relished listening to him read masterfully the first paragraph of Moby Dick, a manly story indeed! But the strength in that work can be found in equal measure in the works of many female authors past and present. I thank Mr. Cullen and Ms. Millay for reminding me of that. But I also thank my niece.

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