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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Farewell to a Great Explorer

Neil Armstrong

1930 - 2012

An Authentic Hero of Planet Earth

Rare photo of Armstrong taken on the lunar surface, 1969. Credit: NASA

Saturday, August 18, 2012

PT Exposure: Things Become Extinct

Stream of Consciousness Exercise

Could we at least leave a chalk outline...in the skyline maybe?

0:00 to 0:37
Oh, there is music to this video. The first time I watched it with my computer muted. It's noble music, like you get in a big movie when the heroes are preparing to go out and do the right thing. It just makes me sadder, the music that is. This video made me sad the first time. I can see how this is all cool for Weber State. Change. Progress. Proof that money is flowing in and flowing out. This music makes me want to jog triumphantly...as long as I am typing and not watching the video of destruction, or demolition as they call it. They are destroying a shrine of my memories...

That northeast section of the tower, sticking out like too-big brown LEGOs, the one the crane is nibbling on. That was the, is, was the emergency fire stairwell. It was accessible from each floor, but once inside it was separate and all concrete and metal handrails and a great place to sing. Oh, the reverb in that stairwell!

When I was on rounds, and pretty sure I was the only one in that stairwell, I used to sing at the top of my lungs. Showtunes mostly. Maybe Mormon hymns too. Can't remember. It was back when I used to sing anyway. Before the...well that's another story. Anyway, it was a fun stairwell to jaunt down and peer out of through the metal grating onto the campus far below. I can see why the crane wants to nibble at it first. It's the demolition equivalent of an appetizer, isn't it?

I'm glad I'm watching the video muted again. That music isn't for me, not in this context. I'm watching one of my most important homes ever get torn down. I never thought it would be my home. But I ended up there for several years, stayed way too long, but also just long enough to make some of the few friends from college I've actually stayed in touch with...the friends that, like Promontory Tower, took me as I was in all seasons.

I can't remember if the 11th floor was boys' or girls'. But there it goes. In any case, the girls I became attached to, the friends, the crushes. That one PG-rated fling when we made out in the alcove, sitting on the carpet with her in my arms looking up at me. I actually asked permission for the first kiss. Didn't have to ask permission for the many kisses that followed. She was a wonderful kisser. (She wasn't the girl I would become engaged to, but she would prove a lasting friend.) Anyways, what I was trying to say is the girls I remember were mostly from the 9th and 7th floors, the ones not yet demolished by this point in the video. Leaving college just as alone as when I showed up notwithstanding, I did alright in the girl department. Lots of good memories. Good friends and fun acquaintances. I wasn't the best at it, the social stuff, but I definitely experienced college. So it aches to watch this building go.

The cafeteria is gone. It didn't even occur to me until just this moment. Not surprising. Very few profound moments from the cafeteria. Except that's where I first started really watching the girl who became my fiancee but not my wife. That's where I started picking my moment with her. She always ate a very dainty breakfast. (Her first year at WSU was my first year on staff as a Resident Assistant.)

She was a good sport when I started teasing her every time she came to the counter in the main lobby and asked for the key to the practice room. Music majors. Eventually we were in the practice room together. Nothing inappropriate. We were good students. We actually practiced. In the end she was much too Mormon for me, and I not Mormon enough for her...even if I'd stayed.

But getting back to the cafeteria, I had a great guy moment in there. Me and two other male RAs were having dinner. One of the other two was starting to date a resident in a different hall. Off the cuff I said to him, "You're whooped." He took a bite of food and said, "No, I'm not whooped yet." So I turned to the other RA, Sammy, and I said, "Of course he is. He's at that stage where he thinks he's not whooped." Sammy started chuckling in his bassoon-like voice. And it quickly swelled into a loud belly laugh. Ah, great moments in guy talk!

Dear God, they are really gutting it now. But they haven't gotten to my rooms yet. Over the years I lived too long in Promontory Tower, I lived in at least three different rooms. Two were on the still visible east-facing side that the crane hasn't quite gotten to.

The RAs all lived in the middle rooms on this side, opposite the side with the lounges and elevators. The RAs lived as deep as possible into the layout of each floor. So even shitty RAs had to pass by at least half the rooms to get to the elevator. I wasn't a shitty RA. I wasn't a great one either, mostly because my personality wasn't conducive to the job. I bonded well with other RAs and got leadership opportunities, but it was a staff dynamic where I got opportunities cuz I stayed too long and never had any major screw ups. I can't think of any triumphs I had as an RA. Damn.

The crane may or may not have gotten to the floor where Stasha, a fellow RA, found a bumper sticker in an alcove that said, "Vaginas are way cool!" True. Tacky but true. I keep talking about girls. Maybe because Promontory Tower was the last place I lived where I dated a lot...

Now two of the three rooms I lived in are gone. The room where my eventual fiance knocked on my door to respond to the Valentine I placed in her mailbox. She walked in and she asked me to be her date to a dance. She was very composed, calm, and rather formal about it. And then we started our journey toward tragedy. Oh well. It all ended up feeling meant-to-be. And I guess in hindsight it was all okay...I have regrets. And when I see this building going down, this place I lived too long in, but just long enough to meet some very important friends I've kept to this day...my main emotion is sadness at how irrevocably over it all is. That time. The building. My being a college student. I really did experience college.

For a moment there the building looks like a pig on a spit getting flayed and shoved onto plates for hungry people, people hungry for the future at the expense of my past. I know it's not personal...to them. And today's students deserve the best buildings. But my building was good too.

I remember making beds for the Olympics with fellow RA Keith. But I can't remember for sure now if that was in PT. I think it was. And the Olympics of 2002, I spent those living in PT for sure. I buddied up with a couple of the curling judges who were staying on my floor. I interviewed them for a story I did for the school paper.

(As the video continues) So little left now. And I can't avoid pointing out that the tower has now become two towers. It's just a visual observation...mostly anyway and at any rate. All the important stuff is gone now, except that emergency stairwell I used to sing in. Oh the reverb!

There was this girl that I never knew really well. But I would watch her come and go in a 1950s style outfit through the lobby. Going to and from her job at the nearby Galaxy Diner. She was very short. Very pretty. And I would come to be wonderful friends with her roommate.

I never had an urge to approach this girl. I was already going after my future fiance. But this short redhead girl in the Galaxy Diner outfit...she seemed quiet and about her business. A friendly face. A nice presence passing through the main lobby as I worked the front desk. She was a good resident. And then she was gone. Heart stopped in the orthodontist's chair while she was having her wisdom teeth removed.

She had been engaged and wanted the wisdom teeth out before her wedding. I didn't really know her. But I was good friends with her best friend and went to the viewing and the funeral. And then, a couple of weeks after the funeral, my friend was having a hard time coping. We left Promontory Tower behind us that evening and drove all the way past Salt Lake City to the cemetery and sat on the grass by the recently-covered grave. We cuddled next to a grave after dark in the cold air. It was not flirtatious cuddling. It was friends staving off the cold wind...and coping.

When I think back to Promontory Tower, I think about the girls. And then I watch this video and think about how I can't get back to the place or the time. No way to tie off this line of thought I guess. I'll leave that to nature.

Goodbye, PT.

 *The title of this post is an homage to an episode from one of my all-time favorite shows: Northern Exposure.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vignettes from my Pilgrimage to NASA Glenn

No revelations, folks. No confirming of a rigid ideology or one true body politic. No sense of the struggle ending and the golden age beginning. Something wonderful but far more understated happened when I arrived at the place I sought. Upon arrival, this pilgrim saw what he expected to see, felt what he expected to feel, and left fully satisfied that he had visited a special and worthy place.

Through Security at Glenn Research Center

On Friday, August 3rd at 7:00 am, I stepped up to a small table in an old parking lot outside Cleveland’s airport and handed my driver’s license to a man with a gun. Oddly, it was a cordial moment. But for his security uniform and firearm, it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that this particular guard was a teddy bear of a man. He gave his post-9/11 “We’re just being careful” spiel with the warm gentility of Mr. Rogers. It takes a special quality to warn people while simultaneously making them feel welcome.

Security followed our group from building to building all day long. But it was quid pro quo at Glenn. We space bloggers were keeping an eye on NASA as well. Our adoration is not unconditional. We second-guess our beloved agency all the time.

It’s important to emphasize that security is a shell. And once inside the shell, we were given a great deal of access. Still, the longest our leash ever got was during lunch hour. We were permitted to mill at will between the employee gift shop and the cafeteria, where tables were set aside.

I suppose you can learn something about a NASA enthusiast’s priorities by whether he shops first and eats second or vice versa. I had a veggie wrap with Swiss cheese, Italian dressing, and sweet pickles on the side. It gave me a clear head for when it came time to choose a postcard for my nieces and nephews.

Greetings from the Higher-Ups

I was one of about two-dozen bloggers invited to tour facilities at NASA Glenn. In turn, we participated in a multi-site broadcast originating out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. We previewed the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory. Our morning included brief hellos from Glenn director Ray Lugo and astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson, who piloted the final flight of the shuttle Endeavor.

Mars Science Laboratory, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The subtext of their and other NASA officials’ remarks was explicit: Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, might crash. Only about a third of everything we’ve tried to land on Mars has done so successfully. One of my favorite remarks, darkly humorous, came from an employee who said (and I paraphrase), ‘This thing is going to land on Mars. No doubt. It’s just a question of how fast it will be going when it reaches the surface.’ We chuckled, but in discreet moments some of us confessed real doubt that Curiosity would land safely. Of course, that’s history. Curiosity did land!

On August 3, however, we kept most of our worries to ourselves and enjoyed touring a center of research and development. This is a long post, so if you’d prefer, feel free to jump over and browse my complete album on Picasa.

NASA’s Mighty Wind

The 10x10 Supersonic Wind Tunnel is easily one of the coolest things at Glenn. In 2008 NASA used it to do scaled-down tests of Curiosity’s parachute, which had to open at supersonic speed in the Martian atmosphere. Keep in mind that only the test section of the wind tunnel is 10x10. The entire facility is roughly the size of a city block. One of my favorite moments was when the gentleman below matter-of-factly told us that tests done at Mach 2 are “low-end.”

NASA employee discusses wind tunnel testing

They let us stand inside the wind tunnel, but I don’t have a picture worth showing. The eyes were willing but my camera was weak. Thankfully, one of my fellow bloggers, Alicia, had a better camera. Visit her blog and scroll down to the third pic. Now here is a short, admittedly crude, video from the control room where they played back the test for us.

There was a funny moment in the control room when a NASA engineer answered a technical question. After giving a best guess, she paused for perhaps a second and then added, “…but don’t quote me on that.” Immediately several Wi-Fi-happy tweeters responded in chorus, “Too late.” Everyone, including the NASA engineer, shared a hearty chuckle.

Throughout the day we visited several venues, including a sensors lab where high temperature testing is done. The goals are increasing air safety and reducing emissions for jet airplanes. We also visited the Stirling lab where Plutonium-238 (not the bomb-grade 239) is used to quadruple engine efficiency on spacecraft. Yeah, we all wish gasoline engines could jump from 30 miles per gallon to 120.

NASA Gives Us Wheels

We had a lot of fun in the SLOPE facility, where a new lunar rover is being put through terrain tests.

We took turns holding a replica lunar rover wheel from the old Apollo days. One of these replicas is the middle tire above. Turns out these wheels were made with hand-woven piano wire. (Yes, Mom. I did ask the engineer which piano wire they used. He didn’t know offhand. From eyeballing, I’d say it’s a wire for the treble clef.) Now please pardon some extremely grainy video below. This short clip shows the considerable abilities of the prototype rover, including "inch-worming". Let’s get it to the moon!

Mingling with the Experts

Our day culminated in a quintessential briefing room scene, gulping down soda and bottled water while watching PowerPoint presentations and jaw-dropping video. All the while we tweeted facts and figures served up by NASA VIPs. Not all of our tweets were technical in nature. Here is one I posted that NASA retweeted to over 40,000 people:

One of the treats of the day was meeting with NASA scientist and award-winning sci-fi author Geoffrey Landis.

Many of the questions we fired at Landis, a Mars expert, focused on proposed future missions. Here, more than at any other point during the day, discussing tight (some of us prefer the term "stifling") budgets was unavoidable. However, Landis focused his remarks on the wonders of Mars, a planet that becomes more fascinating the closer we study it.

Being Social Because of NASA

In the week since the social, especially as I sit alone typing this, I’ve been struck by a realization. In contrast to almost every other thing I’ve used the Internet for, this NASA Social increased my in-person socializing with others. Overwhelmingly, even on Facebook, surfing the Internet remains a solitary experience…but not this time.

On August 3rd, thanks to our gracious hosts at Glenn, we bloggers shook hands. We literally rubbed shoulders while tweeting in cramped laboratory space. And we smiled and joked face to face while sharing lunch and dinner together. I tend to be reserved in new company, but I prevailed on a fellow blogger to help me take a goofy picture in the employee Exchange Store.

Got anything larger in the back?

Parting Nod to Peaceful Exploration

NASA brings people together and gets them talking. NASA Glenn in particular voices the mantra to dream big. This is done in the name of peaceful exploration for the benefit of humankind. If that benefit is not yet evident to you, I encourage you to visit any of NASA’s many online pages. You might start with @MarsCuriosity on Twitter, where the photographs of a neighboring world are beginning to roll in.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eve of Visit to Glenn Research Center

This time tomorrow I expect to be touring NASA Glenn Research Center. I'll be enjoying a full day of exploring research facilities, networking with fellow space enthusiasts, participating in a multi-center broadcast, and meeting with Mars experts like Geoffrey Landis. What's the special occasion? A preview for the upcoming landing of the much-anticipated Mars Science Laboratory, aka "Curiosity." For more on that, the following JPLNews video is a must see:

"Seven Minutes of Terror"

A First for this Childe

Not only is this my first NASA Social, this is my first visit to a NASA center. I've been prepping all week. Prepping for a NASA visit is fun. You surf the web. You watch YouTube videos and browse NASA's voluminous collection of images. Scoring an invite to this event will afford me and other attendees access to state-of-the-art testing facilities that are understandably closed to the public most days of the year. However, if you ever want to take a visit to a NASA facility, check out your options. Remember, as a citizen it is YOUR space agency.

Curious About 'Curiosity'?

Tomorrow will be a multi-center NASA Social. Even if you are not personally attending, it is easy to connect online throughout the day. Here are three avenues I recommend, with a little self-promotion included of course:


And don't forget NASA TV, which is also a great way to watch space events like launches as they happen (even when other networks miss the boat).

Jake is Go for Travel to NASA

I am thoroughly psyched for this event. Just gearing up for it has been a great experience. More importantly, I'm reminded that missions like Mars Science Laboratory are feats my generation can hold up with pride. Peaceful exploration and the acquiring of knowledge is a generous gift not only to ourselves, but to our descendants.

It's almost time to head for Cleveland. Expect photos, fun facts, and anecdotes when
I return!