Friday, August 27, 2010

iPhone Video and Pictures of the Moon, Jupiter, and it's Moons

I got home late after working on my orbital Mechanics homework and couldn't resist the magnificent Moon and a mysterious bright point in the sky. A quick consultation with my astronomy app revealed that it was Jupiter. After gazing for a while, I tried to capture what I saw with the iPhone:

The First Photo of Anything I Ever took of something in the Heavens
Jupiter and it's Moons
The Moon

Mare Crisium

Mamie got the telescope for $20 at a garage sale.

I went with Lincoln to an astronomy store downtown a few months back with the intent to buy a camera to use with my telescope. Everything in the store was ridiculously expensive, so I kind of gave up on growing my astronomy habit. As it turns out, my iPhone fills the need for now.

It's amazing to see these things with your own eyes. These things are literally right above our heads, and we don't even know it until we use something that improves out vision. I certainly took the moon for granted until I saw it's detail through a telescope. Even though I have seen pictures, the physiological response of actually seeing something directly with your own eyes is visceral. Its like the difference between looking at a picture of a person and looking at that person.

I'm pretty sure that tonight (this morning) was the first time that I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was certainly the first time that I took a photo of something up there.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

It was a great day. Mamie, Billy, and Matt competed in a relay triathalon in Austin Texas. We had a good BBQ, and I drove safely home while waxing philosophical.

Be warned, this post is more for me than anyone else. (Warning: the word "I" is used a whole bunch. Dont judge me. Me. ME. MEEEEE!!) I'm not sure where my physical journal is, so the internet denizens will be subject to my thoughts, if they have the patience or inclination to read it. This is not the distillation of my life philosophy, or the wrap up of the most important lessons I have learned, it is only an attempt to record some new and different feelings and perspective that have been forming over the past few years. Maybe this post is about growing up. Although I'm sure that in a great many ways, maybe even the most important ways, I still have not "grown up" at all.

May 2010. Memorial Day. 

4.5 years since getting married.

27 years since being born.

a little over 3 years since Lucy was born and I graduated college.

2 years since moving to Houston

1 year into my masters program

9 years since graduating High School

5 years since, and all that other world changing interenet 2.0 stuff.

40 years since the landings on the moon. 

229 years since the founding out our nation. 

Many thousands of years since recorded history started happening. 

4 billions of years since the earth cooled from a ball of magma.

5 billion since the big ball of gas that is our sun formed and lit on nuclear fire.

15 billion years since our universe began.

Lets talk about the passage of time.

What is possible in 6 weeks? As a missionary, That was all the time in the world to find a lost soul, teach them everything they needed to know to change their lives, and do that.

In High School, that was a grading period. Another roll of the dice to see how I pushed through the obligatory hoops of a predetermined life.

As a child, 6 weeks was an eternity. It was multiple summer camps in totally new locations to do completely new things with people I had never met before.

It was multiple merit badges, campouts, books, movies, and other fantastic things.

But now, 6 weeks is nothing. It's a blink of an eye. It's a relatively small amount of time in preparation for a shuttle launch. It's an accrual of a day or so of vacation time. It's a couple of bookends in the life of my children, who in 3 years have gone from non-existant to two, and talking and walking and loving and crying and caring.

There are some things that I do at work, where I can push it 6 weeks forward or 6 weeks back, and it makes no difference at all. I can get some emails, put it on my to do list, and then do it 2 months later and it's fine.

In May 2008, Mamie and I had moved to Houston after just purchasing our second home. We had lived in our first home for 6 months and turned it from a 70s shag hole into a beautiful home in the northwest forrest. In that 6 months before we moved to Houston, I had grown incredibly tired of my job and secured a dream job working on the space station program in Houston. In the 6 months before that, we had graduated, moved, Lucy was born, and I started a job. There was a lot going on in those days.

In the 2 years since then, I have planned out multi-year strategies to replenish the air conditioning filters on the space station. I have briefed managers and shippers, set paperwork in place and handled the real time implications of tracking the long foretold serial number change-outs for those air conditioning filters by the astronauts on the space station. I have been involved in the years long saga of preparing, launching, and figuring out how to operate a 20 million dollar toilet from the Russian Space Agency.

I have sat next to the same 2 people for 2 years, and they have sat in their places for over a decade. Along with most of the other people in my group.

I have carefully planned multiyear academic pursuits and implemented them reacting and adapting to that which was not in my control, and seeing the impact in my life of having accomplished certain milestones.

A few weeks ago, I had a new badge issues to me from the Boeing company. It was without the "N" that designated me as "new." My image on the badge sports a goatee and collared shirt as opposed to the chubby gleeful "newby" in the t-shirt for my original badge.

My wife and I have worked to resolve issues that have been with us longer than the entire length of time that I was in high school.

I dont even try to find new music, or really listen to much music, as I once did. I make sporadic attempts to be current on world events, more for curiosity's sake than a fundamental desire.

We visit our families in Austin and Dallas every few months, and each time Grandma and Gramdpa, the cousins, the in laws, and ourselves are a little older. Some cousins move out of the house, some have growth spurts, Some dramatically alter their lives.

But I still am counting the toilet paper on the space station. This time for the 41st Russian "Progress" cargo spaceship to visit the station, as opposed to the 34th "Progress" ship that carried the first big delivery that I had planned out.

The return to the moon, a multi-decade program, has been cancelled. Myself and others speculate about other programs that could take a year or more to get going, and many more years to be borne to fruition, if they aren't cancelled with whoever is in charge years from now.

Life is moving fast and slow at the same time. I'm more concerned now with what I do today to make the hazy future better for my family and myself, rather than focus on how I want the future to be and shoehorn in the obligatory steps between daydreams.

I dont have too many friends, not too many that I spend a lot of time with.

I have my classes. And my church duties. And my wonderful wife. And my miraculous children. And the toilet supplies on the space station.

I dont even exercise, because a year ago my insurance denied coverage for me to get orthotics after my knees started hurting from my runs. This was after I had started a 6 month ramp-up of a regimented exercise regime that was to culminate in a marathon.

Mamie has gone from considering to training to competing in 2 triathlons in less than one year.

Our finances have fizzled through our misadventures in home ownership and landlording, and my view of wealth as it pertains to me has been reformed (or deformed) in my mind as a failed pot on a potters wheel is drenched in water and smashed into the wheel.

I finally bought a brand new mac and an iphone from the apple store. That was a big deal for me.

I spend 40 hours a week in an environment that is both changing and unchanging at the same time. The industry goes through it's convulsions, astronaut expeditions come and go, the crew size has increased to 6 on the space station from 3, and a dozen shuttle missions have amazingly been launched and flown successfully. My boss has not changed. My boss' boss was fired and replaced. His boss hasnt changed. His boss hasn't changed. His boss hasn't changed. His Boss hasn't changed. His boss did change. His Boss did not change. His bosses are the shareholders and the Board of directors, who have seen the stock go from $100 to $50 as the 787 program has gone from hotly anticipated pending launch to years and years behind scheduled delivery.

So the point of all this is about time. Whats in a year? A bunch of paychecks, a bunch of bills, regular visits to grandma and grandpa each time with bigger and brighter children. More progress toward being a great married couple. Some movies at the theatre, and more attempts to make a breakthrough at work with something grander than the toilet.

Whats in a day? Wake up with the kids (they are early risers!) Go to work and react or proact depending on what's going on. Return home to spend time playing, listening, reading, or holding the kids and wife. Maybe go somewhere after work, If I can get off early enough and if we have strength enough to pack the kids up and bring them out of the house.

Will I someday have a bunch of money to the point where I can pay for niceties that will make my family life more carefree and enjoyable? Will the infinite small steps that I do to provide for my family and myself add up or pan out to a big reward soon enough to make it all worth it?

My children. Is our mode of operation one that will yield happy, righteous, well adjusted, loving, secure, and proactive happy people? I think it is, but perhaps there is some other thing that I need to be doing. Should I throw my hand up with the extra things at work that may help me get a better job and just focus on the kids? Do I have the mental stamina to do both? Will my wife have the patience for me to do both?

I believe that God has a plan for me. I don't necessarily need to know what that plan is, and it may or may not be the plan that I think is the plan for my life (It probably isn't,) But I'm sure that God's plan will happen, so long as I let it.

Ramble, ramble, ramble.

2 years from now, My life will be totally different in some ways. In other ways, it may be exactly the same.

How much of this will be because of my choice, my inaction, my vision or my lack of imagination? How much of my life in two years will be due to the ideas and actions of my wonderful and industrious wife? How much will be because of the personality and needs of my current or future children? How much will be due to the hand of chance or the hand of God? Of market, industry, of political forces?

At this point? I don't even have the will to try to put together all the answer to the question above. Mamie and I have a good idea about how we want to be to each other, and we will work toward that. I always have ideas at work about the next big thing, And I'll keep on plugging away at something to get my above where I currently find myself. I'll keep on being the best father that I know how to, and enjoy the impossibly transient life of my incredible children as it flits by faster than I can even hope to gather it all in. Life will be how it is in 2 years.

I would not be surprised if we Benacs are in a totally different place doing totally new things.

I would also not be surprised if we Benacs were living in Houston doing pretty much the same thing (although I would probably be a little disappointed.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Musings, Dreams, Struggle, Hope, Possibility

The dreams of space.

Those dreams that I often don't let myself contemplate, for fear that it will take my attention away from the practical steps that I am focused on now that may enable me to achieve those dreams in the future.

When I am contemplative, I sit back and consider the current plans of those who struggle along side me in Man's efforts to escape Earth and what is on her.

SpaceX, Orbital, Blue Origin, Boeing, XCOR. Astronautical Engineering courses. Sweeping arcs showing Launch Vehicle Kilograms to circular orbits or escape velocity. Job postings for dynamic Loads engineer, Avionics Test Engineer, Solar Array Engineer. Rarefied Gas Dynamics, Shock Waves and dynamic pressure, nozzle expansion ratios, Melting points, rotation rates, electric discharge arc voltages, power budgets, star trackers, Nickle hydrogen batteries, redundant wiring harnesses...

This is the swarm of brushes, paints on the palate, media types, artistic methods, and implements by which Man creates the works of art that are space exploration.

These are the building blocks of the dreams of spaceflight.

In Space, Man can reinvent society. Find solitude in a nature never beheld by man, and discover alien lifeforms and landscapes. He can plunge to great depths, explode to ultimate heights, insulate himself from the deepest colds and deflect the searing heat of stars far brighter than the sun. He can blast the new knowledge that he gathers through antenna dishes across light years of space or find complete isolation from any and all who could want to communicate. He can travel at incredible speeds or swing in spiraling arcs betwixt alien moons and super-massive planets.

Finally, Man can find himself and what it is to be man when the circumstances that crowd his home of Earth have fallen away leaving him singularly alone with his consciousness and ambition.

Mankind can roll the dice again on himself, his society, and world in a billion billion different places with as many new sets of rules and society-shaping constraints.

Water Jet Operator, Turbomachinery Engineer, Planetary Scientist, Ground Control operator, Mission director, Astronaut. We are legion.

I am John Wilson Benac. I am in the midst of a structured masters degree program from the University of Southern California to learn a coherent and synergistic set of skills to enable me to shape the machines to carry man's dreams outward. I work 8 hours a day ensuring that the life support systems hardware that launches and returns from the International Space Station supports the mission requirements. I choose, along with thousands of others, the pursuit of space exploration as my careers work. And God willing, I shall move mankind outward into the void in which God placed us, to find the shores of distant lands which he created for his truly ambitions and blessed children to attain.

What paintings will be created with the pallet mankind so painstakingly prepares? The Space Shuttle, Space Station, Delta, Atlas, Proton, Soyuz, GPS, Arienne machines were once concepts alongside hundreds of other ideas which never were realized. As in the 1950s, countless tabletop designs ask for our limited resources to turn them into actual dream machines.

From Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's 1903 "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices" to Jules Verne's 1865 "From the Earth to the Moon" and Hermann Oberth's 1923 "The Rocket into Planetary Space," all the way through the countless college students, practicing engineers, and enchanted layman, we dream and imagine together what man may do in the limitless star filled expanse that is outer space.

Perhaps I should indulge in the pleasure and wonder by conceiving of a few paintings of my own rather than focus on the palate from which the paintings are created.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

John's Feel for Obama's 2011 NASA Budget

On Obama's change in NASA's direction:

First let me say that I am genuinely concerned for my buddies working the Constellation program. I pray for them that their families and their careers may be provided for. I'm really glad that
Obama asks for $2.5 Billion in Constellation closeout costs, because I hope that that keeps paying for my friend's kid's baby food. I have already felt the same way for my friend's valiantly supporting the shuttle throughout it's glorious ULF5(7?) end. It's like knowingly marching towards a cliff because you believe in what you are doing.

Secondly, I must say that policy wise, I like Obama's 2011. Here is why:

With regard to the constellation program, here is what is wrong with it, which feelings I have held long before Monday's Moon shattering revalations:

The Orion
crew size recently dropped to 4 from 6. 4 is a very small number. Thats 1 more than the 40 year old Russian Soyuz. Thats 2 less than the space stations current crew compliment. Thats less than the fingers that I have on one hand. Its. too. small.

After George Bush axed the ISS lifeboat, Centrifuge Accomodation Module, and habitation module, Mr Bush got us all spun up about the Constellation thing: (Blast you for fueling our dreams with speeches and not cash!)

"Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014."

CEV has not been funded and is not on track to meet those deadlines. Also, Ares 1, the rocket to take it to space, wouldn't be ready by then anyway. And a crew of 4!!!

"Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond. Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods. Eugene Cernan, who is with us today -- the last man to set foot on the lunar surface -- said this as he left: "We leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind." America will make those words come true. (Applause.)"

Roboti-who? Twenty Fift-when!?! Please folks, hold your applause, really.

"NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from reallocating $11 billion within that budget. We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars, spread out over the next five years. This increase, along with refocusing of our space agency, is a solid beginning to meet the challenges and the goals we set today. It's only a beginning. Future funding decisions will be guided by the progress we make in achieving our goals."

Two words. Not. True.

If that wasn't enough, NASA
picked reliable low performance non space regenerative hypergolic fuel for the thrusters of the Orion capsule, rather than methane, which was in the original planes, which can be harvested from Mars, volatile rich regions of the lunar poles, or anywhere else in the solar system where there is ice. Or an ECLSS by-product. Lame disappointment.

Ares 1 was really behind schedule.

The Lunar Lander contract was not funded. Ares 5 was not funded. And it was January 2010. Come on! The
RFI for the Altair Conceptual Design Contract came out a long time ago!

Europe, Russia, Japan, and China were completely out of the Constellation picture. That's not cool. And that's not economically viable. And international partnerships are probably the deciding factor for why the
space station has survived to maturity.

Those were probably my biggest misgivings about the current program.
When you read the awesome fanfare and plans with which the program was announced, it's easy to see why so many people love it, but the Constellation program, as pointed out by our Augustine graybeards, wasn't living up to the hype, and needed even more cash than Obama is giving the agency to get going.

With regard to the
new program, It really is pouring in a lot of money into developing new capabilities. Whatever Obama's 8 year successor dreams up (moon, mars?), he will have a beefier toolbox to make his plans with. If Obama gets a advanced interplanetary propulsion (VASIMIR) and a matured heavy launcher and multiple commercial providers for crew to Low Earth Orbit by the end of his presidency... that would be so enabling-ly awesome.

Any multi-billionare person or government could throw some seriously cool hardware to all of the places in the inner solar system that they wanted to go. So long as that person was buddy with the US government and Obama follows through with that export control reform.

The program of record would not do that.

So I'm excited about the
new direction.

And by the way, for the first time since George Bush Senior, NASA's budget will see year over year increase. Clinton reduced the budget 7 out of his 8 years.
George W funded NASA at lower levels than he himself established in the VSE in 2005. It's like getting a mortgage on your house that costs $2000 a month because your boss says that you are getting a raise, and then he doesn't give it to you, so you are stuck with your income of $1900. What happens to a space program in that situation? Crappy design. Behind schedule. COMPROMISE!

Rock on
Obama's 2011 NASA Budget! May you live forever (Or at least through the Congressional process, which is run by a bunch of vote hungry short sighted sensationalists!)

I am more excited about a career with opportunity for lots of cool developmental projects in 2020 using cutting edge technology than to find myself trying to pick up the pieces of all those NASA folks who are retiring as they leave me with a program that still hasn't landed on the moon, is under capability, and hasn't broken any new ground beside the schedule.

Now, go! Tell your representatives what you think! Email, Fax, Call, and Visit your Congressmen to tell them to say "Heck yes," to the NASA part of Obama's 2011 budget. Don't let the crazies get in it's way!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Getting Set up with

Monday, November 30, 2009


After a slight disagreement about what to do with the grocery bags after putting away the groceries, Mamie came up to me and said:

"I love you.

I know that sometimes I might seem overly critical, but really, it's just that you do so many things wrong."

Then we laughed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Impressions of Huntsville, Alabama

I'm sitting in front of a rusty gate closed by a chain and padlock. Birds are chirping behind me and I hear crickets in the woods on both sides. I feel a peaceful serenity and solitude at the end of this torn up road. In the distance in front of me, beyond the gate and a row of low trees rise two towers of steel webbed girders, adorned with propellant and oxidizer tanks and cranes that look as if they have been caught in a spider's web waiting to be consumed and sucked dry. I can not see the base of the towers; they are obstructed by different kinds of trees. A low pitched whirr is coming from the base of the towers, perhaps some sort of refrigeration system? A wren calls out. The road that I am on, at the southern end of Redstone Arsenal and the Marshal Spaceflight center, is cracked and the asphalt litters the road in spots with pebbles. A wasp just performed a flyby of my computer screen. Perhaps he wonders why someone has come here to sit on the hood of his car and type into his computer. The wildlife gets louder. Perhaps they are more comfortable now that I have been here for a while. I wonder how the wildlife reacted when the mammoth F-1 engines were tested at this test stand in the 1960s.
This morning, my manager told me that the engineers had not considered the magnitude of the acoustic shock from the engine, and with no suppressing countermeasures, windows for miles around were broken out by the shockwave. That was the first time the engineers working on that engine had operated something so powerful. Perhaps only weaker than the atom bomb, but the F-1 engines sustained continuous explosion, while a nuclear bomb is over in an instantaneous flash.

I hear a clang. The whirring stops. When the airplane overhead moves on, I expect to hear no man made sounds at all. Only the birds and crickets inhabit this place, along with the inanimate man made objects.

Two walkers approach me from behind, and give me a nod. They reach the gate, turn around, and return back down the winding wooded avenue.

30 minutes ago I stood in front of the Jupiter C, Redstone, Saturn 1, Hermes, and V2 rockets lined up in a row about a mile north of where I sit. The Jupiter was riveted together, like a vintage airplane with round rivets that protruded from the metal, unlike modern airplanes where the rivets are flush. It looked like something that was put together a long time ago. These rockets weren’t that big, either. I looked up at the Redstone rocket, which carried Allan Sheppard into his suborbital flight so long ago. I could be on top of that, I thought. It's not even that tall. I did a full walk around the Jupiter C. The V2 Stood next to the Hermes. It's comical bulbous pointy shape pointed to the sky. "I aim for the stars" was the name of the movie made about Von Braun. "But sometimes I hit London," a satirist suggested as an addendum to the title. That V2. Here in Alabama. Far from Penuumbre where it was conceived and manufactured. It came to these woods in Alabama with the designers to show the hunters how to begin the ascendance above the atmosphere. This same machine above me at the time served as a beacon along the trail to the stars, whereas if it had been picked before one of the other V2 rockets in the final days of World War Two at Penuumbre it could have been one of the rockets that killed 168 people at Woolworths in New Cross, London. Its brother V2, which actually struck Woolworths, could be the one standing erect at the Redstone arsenal in 2009. Would it feel survivor’s guilt like the Apollo moon walker Eugene Cernan felt guilt for not being shot at in fighter planes over Vietnam because her was flying in space missions to the moon?

The V2 rocket and Von Braun both came here to Alabama to shake their dark past of fatal slave labor from Jews and merciless arbitrary killing against the people of London. They came to Alabama, with no pretentions about their past, but a dogged determination to make good with the evil gift that had been a mainstay of Nazi desperation in the waning days of World War Two. Still, here at the Redstone armory, both Von Braun and V2 were saddled side by side with the development of the nuclear-carrying ICBM missiles. Hitler had pushed rockets for war in the 1940s, and in the 1960s, Von Braun was not free from the clutches of a country that used every advance in space exploration to further the military technology of missiles.

I pondered on the simple calculations that I had done the night before as I took my propulsion midterm exam. Those formulas that I employed to answer the arbitrary questions, did the engineers who built this hardware really know them much better than I did when they were grappling with the Redstone rocket design? I saw the smooth tubular shell of the rockets. "How complicated is it in there?" I wondered. As I looked carefully, I saw a bird pecking about inside the rocket inside the mesh. That bird was more familiar with the inner workings of the rocket than I was. When I draw my sketches on paper for a homework problem, they are so simple. I know that there are mysteries that the engineers had to discover and uncover as they built these rockets. The unseen intricacies underneath the white painted skin are what has become ingrained in these Alabama hunters. It's that mystery that has been frozen into these steel webbed towers that rise before me. They wait for us to build again.

I hear a rocket firing to my left. It is still going. Is it an engine? It sounds throttled back. The birds complain, breaking out into shrieks. I still hear the sound. It sounds like metal being dragged across the floor. It sounds like a waterfall.

The rocket is throttled up again. It sounds like sparks flying. It sounds like standing under a shower head, echoed through the hilly wooded countryside. I can’t imagine anything other than a rocket test that could make that noise. Now I hear crows in front of me beyond the trees beginning to caw. Perhaps they have had enough. Or maybe they are going to go and see what I can only imagine as I sit here.

These test stands wait here. They stand ready for America to build new engines, to try new technologies never before built by man. These towers are sleeping giants ready to roar to life with the birth of the engineering artifacts that will carry other men’s dreams, other men’s fears, and other men’s pride forward and upward through the atmosphere to unknown worlds and lands..

Men like Von Braun, who walked this very road countless times from the time that the government brought him here to this army base in 1960 with a mandate to put America on the Moon. Some of the Alabama country folk stopped hunting deer in the forests to start building rockets. They never stopped hunting deer, they just moved to other forests. One of the first things that I heard here in Alabama was when I got my security clearance at the Arsenal entrance: A group of locals were standing outside the security post and one said: “When I was gutting a deer this weekend…” in a deep southern drawl. I smiled as I headed to the rental car. These Alabamans didn’t put down their guns when they picked up their tools to construct this oddity in the universe; this portal to change. Where hunters ascend to Knowers. Doers. Makers. Be-ers.

I sit here, surrounded by birds, the very creatures that moved Wilbur and Orville off the sands of the beach in Kitty Hawk. An airplane flies above me now, a creature of man’s making that further moved men to build spaceships and rockets. I sit in front of the towers with their mechanical whirr (it started up again). The towers are creatures that are moving me to some future transcendence. What is it? I can envision interplanetary voyages, as the Wright brothers and Da Vinci envisioned flight when seeing the birds; as Goddard, Oberth, and Braunn envisioned space travel after seeing the airplanes. I see the current day spaceships, the test stands before me right now... I envision permanent settlement on the Moon and Mars. I envision simplified reliable rockets bringing up satellites, experiments, people, and energy into space. I envision a people who identify themselves not with their country, but with their planet and solar system. I envision knowledge spread among the people.

The walkers return again. The same walkers, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans. How many times do they make this trip? I asked them what the noise was earlier. They didn’t even notice. They told me, in their Alabama accents, about how different parts of the arsenal were used to test army missiles and NASA motors. They didn’t notice the sounds. It is such a regular occurrence to them that it only enters their subconsciousness. Those sounds are as natural to them as the birds and crickets.

I set the laptop down and walk down a small street that comes off the dead end where I sit toward the sound that I heard earlier. Perhaps I will catch a glimpse of the source of the noise. Writing on the back of a receipt that I find in my pocket, I make note of these things: The street is covered with dead tree bits. I pass a white blockhouse with a silent diesel generator installed on the side. The blockhouse can’t be larger than 15 feet by 8 feet. Next to it stands a rusty radio tower, consumed with vines. The old-school antennas atop the tower point toward the source of the sound. In big blue letters 4692 is written on the side of the building. A little further down the road, I meet another rusted gate, this one marked with a small white sign with C-12 painted on it, the paint mostly washed away by years, rain and sun. The padlock is rusted, the barbed wire atop the gate is rusted. An old metal mailbox bolted to the gate has been bent to the point that it no longer closes. I see through the open top that the bottom has been rusted out. What type of letters were delivered here, next to the sign that reads "DANGER: Explosives Keep Away." Perhaps the neighbors dropped off letters asking the workers to keep down the noise. Perhaps the wives of the engineers dropped off lunch in the little box? The gate itself has had vines growing from one side all the way to the other, only to die years ago. The dead vines now cross through the gate, past the padlock, as if to confirm the prohibition of access and the permanency of closure. The road continues past the gate in a straight line, ending in trees far away. Dead branches from the encroaching forest lay in the path, not even causing enough of a nuisance to warrant removal.

When I return to the car, a different walker passes by. He wears mesh shorts and is listening to headphones. He walks decidedly to the gate and taps the little white "C-18" sign as a token of reaching the end of his lap. And this is the end of my lap.

This is Huntsville. This is the Redstone Arsenal. This is the Marshal Spaceflight Center.

For me it is, anyway.

As I ready to leave, I hear once again the sound of rushing water, sparks, a metal plate being drug along the ground, or whatever it is.

I guess this place isn’t sleeping after all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

Awesome Day

Today was pretty awesome.

At 9:15, I went to the 5th floor of my building for a presentation by the crew of the Hubble Space Telescope Space Shuttle mission. People were shy, so the seat right in from of the 7 astronauts was wide open. I sat as they thanked the Boeing company for what we do, and watched a video presentation that Greg Johnson, the pilot, had created about the mission. None of the other astronauts had seen it yet, either, except for Greg.

The video was amazing. They did a bazillion spacewalks and swapped out the fridge sized telescope instruments that analyzed the stars in different ways. They put on new thermal insulation, then ripped off a handrail that was in the way of getting at the instruments, they swapped out the gyroscopes that let the Hubble point at stars when it is focused way in, and they did open heart surgery on some of the computers, removing dozens of screws at a time, pulling out circuit cards, and putting in new ones.

The most amazing part of the presentation was not the video, but something that all of the crew members did during the video, and I was front row to see it:

Scott Altman, the commander, was explaining how after they had completed their work on Hubble, they released it from the robotic arm. After that, he said something like: "I gave 10 short bursts on the thrusters after we released the Hubble. Even though we weren't moving and it was, it seemed to pass right over us. Because it was so large, it was an imposing sight." Now, that doesn't sound so impressive as the other things that they did, but as the crew watched that part of the video (on the monitor behind me and in front of them) as it showed the massive, amazing Hubble pass over the top of the orbiter.

As I looked at the faces of the crew, all of their eyes were wide. They remembered the awesomeness of that moment, and I had a front row seat to the first time that they had seen it on film since being there. One bit her lip. They all sat almost taut as they relived that moment, and I had a candid peek into an unplanned non-verbal communication from the crew: They were awestruck, even though we in the crowd were less affected. How could we have been? We were sitting on our duffs watching a video. They were remembering the experience that they had lived.

So, astronauts think that their job is cool. It's not like they practice it so much that it becomes rote. It is even more amazing to them than it is to all us fanboys because they actually know how awesome it is in a way that words, movies, press conferences, and pictures will never convey.

After the presentation, I asked Scott about the rescue mission that would have happened if their shuttle had been damaged from falling foam. He told me that they had two boxes of power bars that they could have survived on for almost a month while they waited for the rescue shuttle to arrive. They would all have to suit up and climb along a rope strung between the two orbiters, and he didn't have a space suit his size on his shuttle; the rescuers would have to bring one for him.

They finished the questions and I asked Drew Fuestel about the merits of a Masters vs a PhD program in Planetary Science. He said that Masters degrees were the baseline, and people with PhDs were differentiated. I asked him because he is a geophysicist, which is what I want to study at CalTech come 2011 and the completion of my USC masters program in astronautical engineering.

I left that event and drove to the mission control building, where Duane Ross, head of Astronaut selection and training, was speaking to a pretty small group of mission control employed astronaut wannabes about the selection and training of the astronaut class of 2005. That was cool. This was the guy who picks and trains the astronauts. One of the people that was in that astronaut class was Jose Hernandez. The reason that I recognized him in the pictures of his field geology and survival training pictures is because yesterday, when I was in Building 4 giving some presentations to my boss's boss's NASA counterpart, I was waiting for the elevator next to this man. Someone walked by and congratulated him on the successful launch of the shuttle on Wednesday, because that meant that he was going to go up soon. I figured that he must be an astronaut as we rode up the elevator together. (I told him that I was going to the 4th floor, and he was kind enough to push the button for me.) That night, I looked him up, and he has a pretty amazing story. So it was cool to come full circle so fast and hear about his selection and training a day later. I asked Duane Ross a couple of questions, as well, like: "Is it more important to develop specialty skills, like experience with hydrology, or get familiar with the more standard things that everyone has to be familiar with, like getting scuba certified?" He said that there were 14 people on the selection board and that there were 14 opinions. That very type of question was asked, he said, and there was no consensus. He said that the overriding factor was the answer to the following question: Would I want to fly a mission with this guy?

When his presentation was over, I went up to him and discussed the education thing a little bit more, and then went back to the Boeing building. When I got back to my desk, Drew Fuestel was in the row of cubicles right next to mine. He was at my desk in a few minutes and I had the Boeing photographer, who was following him around, take a picture of us with the massive-lensed camera she was carrying around. That should be a good-looking picture. (All of the astronauts were in their blue flight suits, which is cool.)

So he left and I got back to work. My job rocks.

Needless to say, after writing this post, I feel a little bit more motivated to slog through the math class that I am doing for USC tonight. 3 credits in 6 weeks. Ouch.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Good Job, Daddy

So i'm putting Lucy to bed tonight (in my littel sisters old room in Dallas,) and I come to the part where I tell her that I am going to leave.

She gets sad and wimpers that I stay for a little bit longer. I have this whole moral dillemma, because I want to go read my book, but I also want to answer my plea. We negociated for a little while, with me telling her it would be ok and her asking me to please stay.

Finally I decide to stay and just lay there with her still for a monent or so. When she realizes that I am going to stay, she says: "Good job, Daddy," as if she was testing me the whole time. I guess I passed that moral test