Monday, August 28, 2017

A Moment of Crown and Shadow


There are mountains on the Moon. The lunar surface once roiled and wriggled, driven by nuclear fire from below. That fire died long ago, and for billions of years the mountains have stood steady over the sterile gray mare. Some of these mountains are on the 90th meridians east and west. They stand at the border, one foot in land always facing the Earth, one foot facing toward the endless space beyond.

There are mountains on Earth. The furnace at the heart of the planet, fueled by the sputtering of helium and antimatter off uranium, thorium, and potassium, still glows red like an animal’s blood where it leaks through the skin. The mountains here are still in motion, thrusted up by the trembling plates that compose Earth’s crust, worn down by blowing sand and flowing water. Some of these mountains are in the Snake River watershed. They funnel the water that falls here, east of the Cascades, toward Hells Canyon and the surging Columbia River that snakes through the desert to the northwest.

Space, even as short a space as between Earth and the Moon, is an effective quarantine. The mountains astride the limb of the Moon and the mountains of eastern Oregon are indifferent to each other. In plain view of one another they are separated by an invisible and insurmountable abyss.
At the time the Moon formed it didn’t look or move as it does today. The Moon was closer and orbited faster, and Earth spun with more febrile vigor just after the cataclysm that cleaved moon from planet. The Moon’s gravity tugs harder on the point beneath it than on the point opposite Earth’s core. This tide pulls Earth into a lopsided ellipse, one lobe spun slightly forward of the Moon’s position. This applies a torque, trading spinning energy of the Earth for potential energy, altitude, of the Moon.
At the present day this long balance has placed the Moon in an elliptical orbit whose average distance results in an angular size about the same as the Sun’s in the sky when viewed from Earth’s surface. When the Moon is in the lower arc of its orbit it appears just slightly larger in the sky than the Sun. When the plane of the Moon’s orbit around Earth just happens to line up with the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the Moon is near perigee, its shadow sweeps across the face of the Earth. This is a total solar eclipse.

As long as I can remember being aware of the concept I’ve wanted to see a total solar eclipse. I suppose a part of me just wants to do everything, or at least everything pleasant. Total solar eclipses are rare. Seeing one in spite of their rarity might give one a sense of accomplishment. They are beautiful, full of unusual phenomena not seen anywhere else in human life. At any rate, I wanted to see one.

In the fractal branches of my family tree I have an aunt and uncle who grew weary of California. They were driving on a highway full of solitude 50 miles east of Baker City and arrived where they chose to place their lives. Conveniently and unexpectedly, the site would be directly in the path of the Moon’s shadow at 10:25 AM on Monday, August 21st, 2017.

I became aware of this in the summer of 2011. At that time, tentatively, I began steering myself toward this point at this time.

That moment of awareness was once the present. Now it’s a memory. So many other futures became presents, then memories. Some treasured, some mangled, some longing for amnesia, nearly all forgotten, all those moments became pasts. I started grad school. I dropped out of grad school. I moved to Seattle. I vomited sangria on New Year’s Eve. I helped hang weights on aircraft tails to prepare them for flight test. I pressed my lips against Sarah’s. I ate communion wafers like paper and drank wine like sweet fire. My brother shot himself. I wept at his funeral. I caught the garter tumbling through the air at Sarah’s sister’s wedding. I married Sarah. I drank godawful North Korean brandy on New Year’s Eve, but didn’t barf this time. Deep within Sarah my son was conceived. I flew to Long Beach for an interview and was asked three times what I knew about geometric dimensioning and tolerancing. I moved to Los Angeles. My son was born. I stayed up late holding his little whimpering body, hoping Sarah’s program would just let her come home. I watched him grow, and smile, and walk, and speak. Sarah and I embraced, so many times remembered, many more times forgotten. One of those times our daughter was conceived. I watched parts I designed filled with fuel and fire and gas black as coal and hot as a blast furnace. I learned what unilateral renal agenesis was. I boarded an airplane, rented a truck, and drove to Oregon.

Time progressed, that is to say, and I arrived at my destination where the gravity of the Earth would see to the Moon revealing the light of the Sun’s corona. Time, gravity, light. The convergence of the elements Einstein showed were intimately and mysteriously linked in a moment of brilliance before his time on Earth ended. I know not where the time went between 2011 and 2017 but it placed me more or less exactly where I wanted to be.

Two nights before the eclipse the sky was dark and clear. Far from the cities and with the Moon closing in on the Sun there was nothing but the faint leakage of light domestic and stellar to corrupt the view toward space. Mercury shined copper-white low above where the Sun sank beneath the western hills. Later on, after the Earth turned further from the setting Sun, the dark brought out the night sky’s wonders in dazzling fashion.

I laid on the ground beneath the galaxy and my brother asked me what I thought happens when we die. I demurred. He seemed to want an answer, as do we all. That death is the end of everything and the fate of us all, with no reasonable hope of continued existence, seems to me at once the most obvious and horrible fact of life. It is obvious because my mind comes from my body, my body came from other bodies, those bodies came from the organic sludge of the Earth, and all of the above are governed by fixed and indifferent laws that leave no room beyond the madhouse for the resurrection of the soul. Should the soul find reason to exist purely from the machinations of the neurons within my skull, what reason would it have to exist after my skull’s destruction? Absurdity and obscenity. It is horrible because if death conquers the soul it’s a whole universe of existence that’s lost. Such seems apparent to me.

There followed a sort of apologetics for annihilationism and a meditation on consciousness as an illusion. My brother suspected I was not arguing in good faith when I argued that the notion that consciousness is an illusion is a non-sequitur. He had good reason to suspect so. I don’t always talk plainly. I was being unfair to him then, as I am now. My brother is a fiercely intelligent human being and a better debater than I am, but I didn’t understand how he arrived at what he was saying. We were unable to make ourselves understood.

Like ships with no wake, satellites moved silently over the face of the sky. They came from the west, north, and south, sometimes crossing the whole sky, sometimes fading to invisibility halfway as they passed into Earth’s shadow. Meteors shot through the black like flashes of inspiration on a quiet mind. The biggest ones, the size of pebbles rather than sand or dust, left faintly glowing trails of plasma, a neon record where they fell to Earth. When the conversation ebbed the sound of weaning calves longing for their mothers filled the air. There were no concluding statements. We talked, and we looked at space.

Clouds came in the afternoon the following day. They irritated me. I came to Oregon to see an eclipse, not clouds. I missed my connection to join the family on an excursion to the pine forest because I was at mass in Baker City, so I enjoyed the solitude at the house instead. In the evening sunset came.

The clouds were illuminated by sunlight bent around the limb of the Earth. Like a prism, Earth’s atmosphere bends different frequencies of light at different angles. This manifests as a tremendous chromatic aberration across the line where day becomes night. Orange like sherbet, red like blood, shadows like a bruise, all in pastel glow. It is a trick of refraction, air, light, and color perception, and it’s beautiful.

Beauty moved like an animal through the air that evening. In rustling leaves, in starlit clouds, in the feeling of grass beneath my feet, the beauty of it all seemed to jump from place to place, like a mirthful sprite. Why do we find these scenes so appealing? Perhaps there’s some survival value hidden, a pressure that says “You should enjoy this, for the good of you and your offspring.” Whatever the mechanism, this surrender to awe is one of the great pleasures of human life.

Nightfall came, and morning followed, the 21st day of August, 2017. I woke and headed to my uncle’s house. Through the eclipse glasses the Sun was round. The Moon was on a beeline to cover the disc of the Sun, but from the vantage point of Oregon limb did not yet touch limb.
The house was not exactly where we watched the eclipse. A few miles to the southeast the neighbors on a ridge overlooking the Eagle Valley were throwing an eclipse party. Our caravan trundled over, a working tuck, a rental car, and my rental truck, flanked by two ATVs. We arrived just as the Moon was beginning to nibble a chunk out of the Sun
.
Several times before I’d seen partial eclipses, and once before I’d seen an annular eclipse, when the Moon was near apogee and left a ring of fire as it crossed the Sun. This was a familiar sight. Still, I felt giddy watching the Sun shrink from a Pac-man shape to a smaller and smaller crescent. When we observed an annular eclipse at the rim of the Grand Canyon my dad and I fashioned a pinhole camera from a shoebox. The camera had found its way to Oregon. Through the pinhole camera the tiny illuminated mirror image shrank in the same way it did through the eclipse glasses
Sunlight dimmed in a barely perceptible fashion for the first hour of the eclipse. Main sequence starlight is so overwhelming from 93 million miles away, and the eye and brain so skilled at contextualizing the light it sees, that you can remove 80% of sunlight without much noticeable difference. Then things get noticeable.

My brother remarked “It feels like stepping into the shade.” The sun shined but it refused to burn. With so much radiant heat from the Sun blocked by the rock of the Moon the temperature began to drop in an accelerating fashion. It grew quiet. Without the Sun driving convective motion in the air there was nothing to move a breeze, and the crowd hushed as the Sun became a sliver in the southeast sky. Finally, after it cooled and quieted, the scene darkened.

Five minutes before totality began I remarked that the shadow had made landfall and I turned my camera on to record the scene. It was darker now, the colors more dull, the shadows sharper. With a clear blue sky above us and one-one-hundredth the normal amount of sunlight still blindingly bright the foreground looked a twilight scene. I took one last look at the vanishing bow of Sun through my eclipse glasses and turned my attention to the mountains.

Light vanished, not in a moment, but in a slow fade The mountains of Oregon grew dark as the shadow of the Moon fell upon them. In the west the sky had the deep gray-blue of late twilight. The east was still bright but fading fast. In the final seconds the scene visibly darkened from one moment to the next as the great light that powers the life of the Earth blinked out overhead. Headlights and street lights in the valley below flickered on. There was a series of whoops, yelps, and a toddler squeal, and I turned to see the Sun’s corona glowing around a pitch black disc where the Sun was a moment ago.

Corona. Crown. Tenuous incandescent plasma at a temperature of two million degrees crowning with beauty and glory the star that nourishes the life of our world. It was absolutely still. Somehow I didn’t expect that. I was looking at a structure millions of miles across. Of course it appeared motionless over the course of a minute, but somehow that dynamic spherical cauldron looked more crystal, more fixed and less fluid, than I imagined. It was white, white as pure as the dress Sarah wore that day in December. It had points and tufts like a bobcat’s ears. There it was, plain as the day rendered night.

I zeroed in on the corona because I knew I would only see it for a few minutes in the entire course of my life. Let this white drill down into my memory forever, I thought. Someone said something about the horizon and I glanced away. There were no illuminated peaks around us, even the background was close enough to all be enveloped in shadow. All around, and brightest to the north, the colors of sunset were on display. There was the golden fleece of dawn all around the horizon, framing the mountains and valleys without prejudice.

I fixed my gaze on the Sun for the rest of totality. The second hand wound on. The corona, constantly in motion, shined on like a glowing white diamond. There were flashes on the edges that coalesced into a brilliant ring. These were Bailey’s beads, sunlight shining through the valleys between the peaks on the 90th lunar meridians, followed by the diamond ring effect. For a moment just a point of overwhelming sunlight shined on the western edge, and the eye and brain interpret this and the corona barely still visible as a ring of light. Then, sunlight, back in all its radiance. From start to finish, totality in Richland was one minute and 15 seconds.

What is the significance of an eclipse? In all honesty I don’t know the answer. The last scientifically important eclipse happened in 1919, when general relativity was tested for the first time by checking whether starlight behind the Sun was moved by the Sun’s gravity. So it was. Eclipses today are a matter of aesthetics, adventure, philosophy, and, as always, simple geometry.

The laws of gravity and geometry, light and relativity are such that the timing of an eclipse can be predicted with great accuracy a thousand years in the future. There are laws of chemical binding energy and genetic information flow, and there is a known structure to my brain. These relationships are more complicated than the relative motion of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, but shouldn’t they in theory be just as knowable? Doesn’t that knowability somehow wound the soul, make you little more than an odd organic robot?

Maybe that’s the true and complete story. If it is, the idea that death conquers all seems unavoidable. I am unable to rigorously dispel this hypothesis. I have chosen, however, to build my life around the hypothesis that this description of the universe given by indifferent physical law is not wrong, but incomplete. There exists an idea that love, the will toward life, the free giving of life, is not merely a thing that exists within other laws, but a fundamental property and structure of the universe. There is no way to show convincingly whether or not this is true, but it pleases my intuition and is in agreement with my experience. Anyway, I’ve bet my life on this hypothesis being true. Maybe, if it’s all true, the eclipse is a foretaste of what’s to come. When darkness comes it will be surrounded with glory, and be quite temporary, and light comes roaring back a moment later. Maybe.

Speaking more plainly, during the eclipse the mountains of the moon and the mountains of Oregon were not indifferent to each other. Across the sea of space they shouted to one another and made their presence known in the shadow sweeping across Earth and sunlight peeking around the Moon Though islands, we are part of the same whole. This is not half-baked hippy nonsense. This is the reality I witnessed in the Eagle Valley.


On a white blanket there were lines and shapes dancing as the Sun re-emerged from behind the Moon. It looked like the bottom of a disturbed pool. This was the light of the Sun, normally incoherent and overwhelming, made calm and uniform by the Moon’s surface like the knife edge in a Schlieren photography setup. That uniform light showed the swirls and eddies in the air we breathed together that morning. The shapes faded fast as the knife edge crept onward to the east. I marveled at this last beautiful sight from this remarkable conjunction, and felt the heat of the Sun on my face once again. I hugged my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my brother, and my dad, embarked in my truck, and headed home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Arise and Come


Orbital launch vehicles are strange creatures. They are thuggish brutes, rising, roaring upward into the empty sky on an ecstasy of fire. They are delicate, their skin nearly thin as paper, every possible gram of metal whittled and etched away while retaining the faintest positive margin of strength. They are intelligent, able to pinpoint a plane, an altitude, and a speed, an imaginary keyhole past the atmosphere, and drive toward it with ferocious precision. They are dumb, carrying many tons of oxygen blasting through an oxygen-rich atmosphere, too busy to make use of what’s around them. They are expensive, a collaboration of the finest machinations of the stubbornest minds brought to bore on the problems of extreme performance in the last century. They are cheap, cast aside like garbage after doing their work to the bottom of the ocean or the depths of space.

By far the oddest quality of these rockets is their expendability. It’s hard to imagine any other machine of such careful engineering being jettisoned in such a careless way. But the carelessness is a clear product of the physics of spaceflight. It’s hard enough to get from the surface of the Earth to the lowest footholds of space, the argument goes. Why make a hard problem even more hopeless by trying to turn back to save what you’ve created? So we make sacrificial virgins of our launch vehicles, consigning them to a funeral pyre in the upper atmosphere after sending their payloads on their way.

If we’re serious about establishing an enduring, robust, human presence in the cosmos beyond the lushness of Earth, we need to have a better attitude toward rockets that have made the journey. They need to come back. Their tanks need to be refilled. They need to fly again. The economics of reusability are difficult to get right. The Space Shuttle certainly didn’t get them right. It was never cheaper to buy a launch on the shuttle (assuming NASA would let you) than it would have been to launch the same payload on an expendable rocket, despite the fact that most of the hardware that launched on each shuttle flight could be used again. But the economics of reusable rockets are the only method of getting stuff into orbit with any hope of getting it right. After a long hiatus full of scholarship but mostly devoid of action, we’re finally, as a civilization, starting to work on getting this right again, and SpaceX’s stunning return of the first stage of a Falcon 9 v 1.2 last night is a major step along this path.



There’s an eerie, entropy-defying quality to the videos, like somehow the arrow of time got flipped around. In hindsight it all looks so perfect that it’s difficult to remember how uncertain this success was. SpaceX built to this moment incrementally. They learned hard lessons about aerodynamics, retropropulsion, and controls along the way. They came agonizingly close to success only to see the results go up in flames. Last night the mountains of analysis, design, work, and sweat paid off with a used rocket standing on the landing zone pad, huffing and puffing from a 10 minute sprint, exhausted, toasted, but alive.

This stage will probably never fly again. The opportunity to pick apart a machine that’s harrowed the underworld of hypersonic flight into space and returned is almost as rare as opportunities come in the engineering world, and I expect that the people of SpaceX will inspect and document every weld, bolt, and valve before putting the stage on display at Hawthorne or McGregor. The first rocket to make it back will be a well-deserved trophy. The burden of truly proving the concept will fall to her younger sisters.

Space travel is very expensive, even after 58 years of on-again, off-again efforts to advance the state of the art and make it easier to get there. It’s possible to meaningfully reduce the cost of getting to space by making launch vehicles simpler and cheaper and being satisfied with a single launch per rocket. But consider the cost of the propellants that took the 11 Orbcomn satellites carried by last night’s launch to their new home compared to the cost of the vehicle. My naively conservative analysis suggests that SpaceX spent less than $400,000 on liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene, while the list price for a Falcon 9 launch is over $60 million. I don’t believe it’s possible to build a truthful economic case that spaceflight will ever be affordable enough to enable things like commonplace research and manufacturing in microgravity, asteroid mining, and the human settlement of the solar system as long as orbital launch vehicles are one-time use. I don’t think it’s possible to make a machine that can get from the surface of the Earth into orbit cheaply enough. Even if reusable launch vehicles can’t do better than operate at 10 times the cost of the propellant they consume, that’s a factor of 15 improvement over where we are now. That’s where the (relatively) low-hanging fruit lies.

This matters because whether or not spaceflight becomes something that most people on Earth can take part in directly affects whether the future of our civilization is an optimistic one or a pessimistic one. The settlement of Mars and a widespread human presence throughout the solar system isn’t a flight of fancy. This is a practical, possible reality that’s the only viable alternative to a long-term future where we scramble to find ways to make slightly better use of the limits of Earth, confined to a single lonely mote of dust in the universe. The choice, in the long run, is between growth and discovery, and stagnation and decay. I’m assuming, if you’re not a member of the voluntary human extinction movement, that you’d prefer the former.

What SpaceX did last night is a bold step toward the optimistic future for humanity and Earth. Much more work needs to be done, by many people besides those working at Hawthorne, McGregor, and Cape Canaveral. SpaceX cannot by itself make humanity a multi-planet species. The work going on at my employer, Virgin Galactic, at Blue Origin, and at all the other small entrepreneurial space companies are an essential part of this effort. In no way does SpaceX’s success in their landing last night detract from how remarkable and wonderful Blue Origin’s successful flight was earlier this year of their New Shepard vehicle to the edge of space and back. Anyone who suggests otherwise would do well to tone down their Elon fever and embrace the effort to make spaceflight more affordable throughout the industry. It looks like the more established figures of the industry, from NASA to Boeing to United Launch Alliance, are starting to get on board with reusability, too. With a lot of work and some luck, this will be the start of the first real revolution in how things get to space since Sputnik.

Each night my wife and I read to our son the readings of the day from the Catholic lectionary. Last night’s readings were oddly appropriate given the historic events earlier that evening. The Old Testament piece was from the Song of Songs, and it’s a favorite of mine, one of the readings my wife and I had read at our wedding. It’s a poem that touches on love and hope, eros and thanksgiving. In part, it reads as follows:

“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!"

Most of the universe is full of death. Not in the sense that it’s actually evil, but in the sense that it’s immersed in a dark night of inertness. Life, like light, fills a void, and precious little of the universe we live in has any of the light of life within it. The machines that sever our ties to Earth enable us, the intelligent part of the biosphere that can think of the future, plan for it, and make it better, to bring at least some of what’s out there into the bloom of life. Only if we rise from the Earth can the winter of death in our part of the cosmos end. I think this is worth doing.


So I celebrate what SpaceX has done to move us along this path. I’m glad I can play some part in this effort, too. Seeing what wild lovely celebration engulfed the men and women who made this a reality in Hawthorne, I can’t help but smile for what happened last night, and for what lies in store in the years to come.


Friday, December 26, 2014

To Awaken on Saturday


The Gospels of the New Testament are rich in parables but often terse when it comes to the details of the events they describe. We're given much detail on what Jesus told his disciples in the form of prayer and advice and stories but often the events that happened are reduced to the driest accounts of their facts. A thing happened, we're told, and here's what it was.

Lazarus had been bound, hooded, and deceased for three days when Jesus told him to come out of his tomb. There's no story of resuscitation, no intervention by way of sorcery or technology, just a shout - "Come out!" - and Lazarus awkwardly groping his way back to the world of the living. What he thought and what he felt at being called back is left as an exercise to the reader.

The film Interstellar is blunt in different ways than the Bible, and the personal feeling of resurrection or something like it is explored in more detail here. When Dr. Mann, presumably the last survivor of the Lazarus missions, is awakened from his deep technological slumber he coughs, opens his eyes, and immediately weeps with joy and gratitude in the arms of his rescuers. "You have literally raised me from the dead," he says later, words that speak enough for us to know something of what happiness lives here.

I think I know something like this in my own life, in the bond I'm about to make sacramental with my bride, Sarah. I've written about her before. There was a love conceived in Sarah and me that blossomed and grew and withered and didn't quite die, but for years it fell into a sleep one breath removed from death. A year ago it woke up, and we watched the perennial buds of love grow again.

Why did we choose this baroque cycle, wandering from fascination to love to indifference to (tomorrow, God willing) the love that's stern as death? I suppose it wasn't really a choice - no sane person would choose to repeat all we've done to each other and with each other - but the accumulated knowledge we found of who we wanted to be.

I want Sarah in what I am. I want her kindness, her gentleness, her femininity, her brightness of soul, her cleverness in me. This much is true, but it's not the whole truth. More than all this, I simply want her. I want her in my life and I want to weave my life into hers.

When we dated the first time, in the twilight of our teen years as we first grappled with the problems of adulthood, I glimpsed something in her. How do I describe it? It was lovely and resistant to reduction; it was what it was. I saw Sarah for all the beauty and wonder that every human being is. But Sarah was my human, and I could do nothing honest but love her in response.

When we didn't date, I accepted that and tried to move on. We dated other people. We moved away, Sarah to Houston and me to Seattle. We continued building our lives separately, linked by the faintest bonds of friendship. There's more to the story than just this, but the tl;dr summary is that when I became Catholic it resolved the most significant extant conflict between us, and we decided to see if something more than friendship made sense. Suffice it to say it did, and I wept happy tears that our love was breathing the air of life again.

Why do I want to marry Sarah? There are many ways I could answer. I want to make her life better, to help her achieve her childhood dreams. I think she’ll make my life better. There’s no one I’d rather start a family with and see mother my children than Sarah. I love the simple joy of feeling closeness to her in body and soul. These are all true, logical, and rational, but the deepest truth is something less amenable to words. I feel a lightness in the heart, a longing deep inside, a thirst for beauty created at the thought of joining our lives together.

So Sarah is the one for me. I offer all that I am, confident of my strengths, trembling at the knowledge of my flaws, to her. I pray for intercession that I might grow to be the husband she needs and in thanksgiving that I will have her as my wife. For as long as we have to be spouses to one another, let the words of adoration, love, companionship, and caring for her always be on my tongue. My life is blessed with riches beyond measure, and the greatest of them is the woman who will soon be my wife.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Clay Lies Still, but Blood's a Rover

My brother, Matthew Atkinson, died in a bizarre and tragic accident this past weekend, on the night of June 21st. He was cleaning one of his guns after a day of honing the marksmanship he enjoyed so much. The gun fell, a bullet somehow left in the chamber misfired, and Matt happened to be in the wrong place at that one moment in time. Matt was 21 years of age, and left the world a man in love.

He was in love with nature. He loved roaming in the wild, whether it was in the deserts and woods of Arizona or the forests and mountains of Washington. On all his hikes and hunting trips and fishing trips it was clear that he saw the little intricacies in the natural world around him. He just noticed things that others didn’t, and admired things no one else saw. He was going on an internship with the Game & Fish Department this summer which would’ve taken him out patrolling and maintaining often the southwest land he loved. He breathed most comfortably when he breathed the free air away from the cities, and he set up his life so he did so, often.

He was in love with animals. He adopted a rat and a dog from the Arizona Humane Society, and loved them both dearly. His friendships with the animals in his life, whether they were my parents’ cats or butterflies on a hilltop, seemed to show something charmed about him, something that the animal world just connected with. To see Matt caring for the animals in his life was to see a man who loved all the life around him, whatever form it took.

He was in love with people. He was dearly romantic with the woman he loved, and his friendships were deep with his comrades in my family and beyond. His caring for others cast a deep net throughout his life. One Christmas he asked for no gifts, but for the budget for his gifts to be donated to charity. He gave help and food to strangers when they needed it without questioning or hedging. It was the right thing, so he did it. Matt lived with a clarity I envy toward the way he treated the people in his life, however transient his connections with them might be.

Whatever Matt wanted to do, he did. The day he turned 18 he signed the paperwork to buy a motorcycle in Prescott, and with a friend he shipped it to Phoenix in a rented U-haul trailer. It was an operation as complex and clandestine as a bank heist just out of my parents’ attention. My parents returned shocked to find the machine they forbid him to buy in the driveway, surely feeling a bit of pride along with their frustration and surprise.

I didn’t always get along with Matt, in that simple typical way of not getting along that that siblings do. It seems horrifying now that I didn’t appreciate every conversation we had, every walk through the streets and on the desert trails, and every moment we lived under the same roof since he came home from the hospital. I remember that day clearly. The December air was crisp and chilly, the concrete of the driveway cool on my feet, Matt and his twin brother looking as fragile as porcelain dolls but as alive as all the Earth. The memories stand out like afterimages in the flashbulb shock of his absence. Fortunately the good times, when we felt linked together in brotherhood and a shared bliss in observing the world, far outweigh the times we just didn’t understand each other.

There’s a temptation to think the world an evil place for allowing Matt to depart so soon. We expect so much, so used to wealth and peace as we are in this country in this time. We expect that we’ll all have decade after decade flowing lazily into the future, forgetting how patiently time waited for life to emerge and blossom on Earth, and how transient life is. It’s a privilege beyond measure to breathe a single time, and that Matt breathed for 21 years is a heroic wonder. It was a privilege to be able to call him “brother.”

Matt believed the world was good, and lived his life accordingly. To live authentically with such love for nature and people requires a belief that there’s goodness at the heart of all that is, and this is the legacy that I think Matt wants us to carry on. Look not on the strangeness and the randomness of his departure then, but on the way he touched the lives he contacted, brief as that contact was. I long to live as Matt lived, full of passion and firmness and joy. In my brothers and my parents and in me, I hope and pray that these parts of Matt may live on.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year of Seattle


Normally I like to close the year with some retrospection about what's been going on over the last 12 months, but I'm in a bit of a bind this time around. The year has about five hours to go in my current time zone, and this will be the second post on this blog since the last time we were on this side of the Sun. The main reason for this is my other blag, which has been taking up a surprisingly-large chunk of my unclaimed time. I've posted quite a bit of content over there (by my standards), about three times as many posts as are currently on this blog, in the last year, so this is reasonable, but it makes it awkward for me to talk about what I've been up to in 2013. Out of context, many of the brief notes I could write would make no sense, so instead I'll talk briskly about some of the things I can be open about and I'll make a note to write more in this space next year. Hopefully.

In January I moved to Seattle full-time. I started my first real, indefinite-length job, and started learning about how engineering happens in practice, rather than the abstract way I learned in school. As the daylight and twilight yawned open for the summer, then contracted again in the fall, I gradually began to feel more and more like I actually work at Boeing, and I've been able to make some reasonable contributions to the work going on in the structures lab. At the very least, I haven't delayed a major program yet, which is cool.

For the first time since 2008 I stayed in the United States all year. I ventured as far north as San Juan Island, south to Houston, east to Bar Harbor, and west to Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. A stamp on my passport would be nice, but that seems like a rich enough set of travels for one orbit.

My life is at once more open-ended and more stable than it's been in a long time. Things are well at Boeing and in Seattle, and I don't foresee any obvious impediments that might prevent things from proceeding as they are into the future. There's more to life than stability, of course, and the questions about where to go from here with my education, my career, and my personal life remain open and largely unsolved. Given the fact that I'm not yet a quarter-century old, that's probably a good place to be. I expect that the next year will bring at least some resolution into focus. More on that later...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nothing but the Rain


Friday was an unusual day for February in western Washington. The sky was desert-clear in the afternoon once the Sun burned off the morning fog. From Seattle, Mount Rainier loomed like a titan's throne in the south, and the Olympic mountains were clearly present across Puget Sound to the west. Most days this time of year the western mountains are shrouded in the clouds that dump rain forest levels of rain on the peninsula, but on Friday they rose like the teeth of a saw blade, white with the immaculate reflectivity of winter's snow. This weekend's weather has been more typical. The skies have mostly been gray, and the afternoons filled with the sound of raindrops on glass.


As atypical as the weather was in Seattle, it was much more out of the ordinary in Chelyabinsk than anywhere else on Earth. The largest meteoroid to collide with Earth since the Tunguska Event of 1908 hit the atmosphere with a train of light that outshone the Sun and a shock wave loud enough to break thousands of windows and collapse at least one large building across the city. The energy released by the asteroid was something like a typical ICBM warhead, a level of energy as beyond human imagination as the scale of the oceans.

Some in the media will downplay this event, reminding us that these impacts are very rare on the scale of a human lifetime. This is true. It's unlikely that anyone alive today will live to see a larger collision between a near-Earth object and our home planet. There are other, clearer, more present dangers to our cities and farms than these collisions, and it makes sense that more time and industry has been devoted to understanding and mitigating the effects on civilization of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, and tsunamis than asteroid collisions.

Still, we're doing meaningful things to mitigate those threats because they're real and obvious. The threat from asteroid and comet impacts is less obvious because of the rarity of these events, but it's no less real. Shouldn't we be doing something about asteroid defense, now that we have the technology to make it happen? There are many credible options on the table for how to deflect a large object on a collision course with Earth so long as we have a few years' lead time. Finding objects in time to have that head start is within the capabilities of well-incentivized amateurs. The challenges aren't technical, they're political and financial.

Rather than dumping the responsibility on NASA, why not charge the world's defense departments with the defense of the world? Most of the objects capable of causing regional damage on impact could be found, and a demonstration mission could be done to prove the concept of asteroid deflection for about half a billion dollars. That's about a thousandth what the US DoD receives every year, sequestration or not. People tend to be reactionary, and don't want to respond to threats until they become too painful to ignore. My hope is that the rain from space over the Urals will get people to react.

Because the one thing we know for certain is that the next one is out there.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year of Transition



At the end of 2011 I was in denial about the kind of year I’d just had. There were many external suggestions that I’d had a good year. Last year I graduated from college, completed my first internship at Boeing, started grad school, and completed work on what would become my first conference presentation paper. The Space Shuttle program drew to a successful, safe close, an Aggie commanded the International Space Station for half the year, Curiosity departed Earth bound for Mars, and the first 787 was delivered to All Nippon Airlines. Unemployment stayed unfortunately high by American standards throughout the year, but it seemed to be coming down, and the long recovery from the financial madness of the mid-2000s continued steadily if not briskly. Overall, 2011 was a good year for the United States and my academic and corporate alma maters, but it was a personally difficult time for me.

It’s hard to be clear about what exactly was so difficult last year. Partly it was a transition from thinking “This next” to “Now what?” In high school I was fixated on performing well academically so I’d be able to have the best college experience possible, and in college I did the same with an eye toward grad school. Growing up I got the message that I was good at school, that more education is always better, and internalized somewhere deep in my mind that climbing as high as I could on the academic ladder was the most important task I had in front of me. When I got to the last rung on the ladder, grad school, and found that my talents and skills were a poor match for what makes people successful there, my mind’s first response was anxiety.

By the end of the year I realized that my unhappiness with the program I was in wasn’t going away, and took steps to start changing things. I switched advisors, took classes in design rather than theory, and decided to try an internship in structural testing over the summer. My second tour in the Boeing internship program confirmed that I prefer working in the land of experiment to the land of theory, and that I’m happy working at Boeing and living in Seattle.

When I found out that I no longer had funding for my master’s program, the “Now what?” questions flared up again. I wanted to tough it out for another year, at least, to finish my MS, but knew that I was happier working on test programs in the lab than I was in College Station trying to conceive of a thesis topic. The decision to put grad school on hold and start work full time would’ve horrified the immature, high school version of me bent on pursuing formal education to the expense of everything else in my life, but it’s been a convincingly good decision for me. I’ve been able to cool off over the last few months, start the process of getting my priorities straight, and I’ve seen some interesting places along the way.

Externally, 2012 has been an interesting year. Barack Obama was reelected, something I’m rather apathetic about, but there is the historical curiosity that this is the first time since Jefferson-Madison-Monroe (1801-1825) that three consecutive presidents have been reelected. It was the first year since 1987 that no manned spacecraft launched from American soil, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the epically delayed SpaceShipTwo development. China’s space program did better on the propaganda front, manning their Tiangong 1 space station for the first time (making this year the first since 2001 with two space stations on orbit simultaneously), but more American than Chinese astronauts flew in 2012. SpaceX’s two successful automated delivery flights to the ISS were a triumph for private enterprise and the future of American human spaceflight. By some miracle, everything worked that needed to work on the Curiosity entry, descent, and landing bus, and the rover now has a productive decade of science ahead of her in Gale Crater. 2012 turned out to be a major year of transition in the aerospace industry, too.

Where 2011 was a year of frustration and pushback, 2012 was a year of exploration and renewal. My path’s changed a bit from my plans of the end of the last decade, but I think the trajectory is still good. This was a good year for me, and I’m optimistic about what’s to come. In the next year, I’ll be moving to a new place, starting a new job, and defining what I want my post-college life to look like. Who knows what else 2013 might bring?

Just for reasons, here are a few records and fun facts on my travel and reading for the year:

-Furthest north: Vancouver, British Columbia
-Furthest south: Ka Lae cape, Hawaii (also the southernmost point in the United States)
-Furthest east: The Capitol, Washington, DC
-Furthest west: Barking Sands Beach, Kauai, Hawaii (this is also a personal record for furthest west)
-Highest elevation: Mauna Kea summit, 13,803 ft above sea level (I'm not positive, but I think this is a personal record for highest elevation on the ground)
-Lowest elevation: Sea level (in Hawaii and Washington)
-Longest single-day drive: Phoenix, Arizona to Twin Falls, Idaho, about 790 miles.

-2012 was the first year since 2007 in which I never went to Florida.

-I traveled to Virginia and the District of Columbia for the first time in 2012. This means that I’ve now been to exactly half of the 50 states, and puts me on track to visit every state by 2035.

-I’ve now accumulated more than three weeks in Hawaii, meaning that Hawaii is sixth on the list of states I’ve spent the most time in (after Arizona, Texas, Washington, Illinois, and California).

-I visited two new islands for the first time: Kauai and Hawaii, both in the state of Hawaii.

-My record for furthest west was broken in November, during my trip to Kauai. The previous record was set in 2007 at Pearl Harbor on Oahu.


-My first flight of the year was on January 4, between Phoenix (Deer Valley) and Page, Arizona.


-My last flight of the year was on December 12, between Honolulu and Phoenix (Sky Harbor). There were more people with me this time.

-I read a number of surprisingly good books this year, so picking a best is difficult. The Spirit of St. Louis and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are both excellent, but my favorite was Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. Everything about O’Connor’s writing, from the imagery to the character interaction, to the basic prose just works to make an intense but delightful experience.

I hope you had, on balance, a good 2012, and best of luck in the year to come.