Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year of Humility

Most places around the world, 2011 is complete. The year has a few hours of life left here, and a few more in Hawaii, and then 2012 will shift from the future to the present.

The previous year was pre-selected for some major events in my life. I finished college, and began grad school. I knew these milestones would be passed this year some time ago, and looked forward to 2011 with a hopeful kind of impatience. I picked up an award, a diploma, a few fellowships, and a job offer at Boeing, and left for a summer in Seattle for the second time in my life.

2011 was trying in a host of ways I didn't, and probably couldn't have, anticipated. Finishing college forced me to come face to face with the wideness of the gulf between the shifts I want to effect in the world and the tools I have to accomplish things right now. The constant, gypsy-like motion of living my life in 16 week increments is starting to get old. Most of all, grad school itself has been trying beyond anything I would've believed before this August. I feel battered and weary after a semester striving to warp myself into some creature that can thrive in this climate, and realizing that I don't really want to do that. More on this later.

More than most years, it seems like the world's a bit emptier than when the year began. In 2011 we said goodbye to people evil (bin Laden, Gaddafi, Kim), visionary and creative (Jobs, Hitchens, Havel), and personal (my grandpa, Obbie). The three surviving Space Shuttle orbiters lie still, never again to fly under power. Juno and Curiosity have left Earth forever, bound for Jupiter and Mars. Earth now holds seven billion people, and space six, all better fed than ever before. The gains of this year are sure to exceed the losses, but that will take time to realize.

More than anything, I feel humbled at the end of this year. I've reached all my life, and after the last semester I'm sorer than usual from reaching. For all the ends and codas and completed programs of the past year, the world remains incomplete, to say the least. There's nothing special about the particular year of 2012. Even its boundaries are arbitrary constructs. It's simply next. The next place we act, the next time with which to yearn and act and decide. As the year closes, I think A. E. Housman's sentiment in "Reveille" is appropriate:

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On Kneeling in Doubt

Earlier today I spent about nine hours working on a problem set for my dynamics class. That in itself isn't too bad, or too strenuous, but given that today has been a more relaxed day than most for classwork and the end of the semester is fast approaching, I'm not really at my best right now in terms of rest or responsiveness. When I left midway through deriving the Lagrangian equations of motion for a double pendulum (because I'm cool and do that kind of thing in grad school) to head to the evening mass at St. Mary's, Zach asked the obvious. Was I Catholic? I said "no," which is true, and brushed off the question of why I would do such a thing since I didn't have a good response.

It bothers me that I don't have a good response to this. When Augustine was going through RCIA last year, we talked often about Catholic whatnot and I was generally intrigued by her insight. Now that she's out of College Station, the only thing keeping up my momentum to learn more about religion and general and Catholic-flavored Christianity in particular is my own stubbornness, and I'm starting to realize the limits of that drive. Stubbornness is good for keeping up a mindless plod forward, but is quite weak in the face of the complexities and mysteries of life and religion. I keep sitting and genuflecting and kneeling in church, but less often than I used to. Those equations aren't going to derive themselves, after all, and in the meantime the question of why I should be there when I don't share the creed haunts me.

I'm tired of feeling out of place at St. Mary's. I'm tired of standing silently, like an idiot, while everyone else gets on with the Nicene Creed. I'm tired of feeling like a clockwork Christian, doing the motions, understanding the arguments, even feeling the right emotions at the right times, and not having a damn clue if any of it means anything at all. The reality is that I understand Christian theology and arguments better now than I have at any point in my life before, and I still don't find it convincing, on balance. Catholicism is a beautiful idea, but for all my effort to unstick my paradigm and see if it'll shift, I can't see it as anything but an idea. It makes zero sense to continue acting as though I were Catholic, a part of my mind concludes.

Yet I find something compelling, something alluring about this faith. Faith itself is something so exotic and incomprehensible to the workings of my mind that I can't help but find some allure anywhere in organized religion I look, I suppose. Maybe it's just an effect of the soft blue walls and the pretty Catholic choir girls, but I feel a sense of calm kneeling among the faithful. It's not clarity, which I'd like, but even among the murk something just feels right about being there. I feel stupid during the creed, but then we sit down and sing "Hosanna," and I don't care about feeling stupid anymore, it just feels nice. So I go back, wondering what I'm doing or where I'm going, but in the pews for now.

I can't imagine anyone, atheist or faithful, would look on this story with anything but pity. Listening to many, it sounds as though it should be obvious one way or the other, and only a poor pitiful fool would hem and haw the way I've been doing for over a year now. I'm so sick and tired of being something to pity. I wish that I could shelve everything academic and focus all the solution techniques I've learned in engineering school on this one single issue. Are the Christians right? This question lingers long after I grow weary of the endless dynamics and continuum mechanics problems.

With the crunch of finals bearing down I don't expect to post again until after December 14. My experience in grad school so far merits discussion of its own, but for now I'll just mention that I'm dissatisfied enough with the environment to be looking elsewhere. I've applied for a job in Washington, DC, and I rolled the thought over and over in my head after receiving my blessing, Should I go east, if they want me? Once communion was done and we sat back in the pews, we sang the closing hymn, "People, Look East."

I'm not superstitious, but sometimes I wish I was. It would make major life decisions so much easier.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Conception of Curiosity

I saw a spaceship go to Mars today. It was very exciting.

Like a sunset or a southwest canyon, a rocket in launch is not something that can be captured losslessly in photographs or video. Images can convey something of the events that occur, but the richness of the time and place is muted relative to truly witnessing the launch. You really need to go see something like this for yourself, but maybe my words can add something to the many pictures and videos you can find. Watching the Atlas V and her Mars rover cargo Curiosity take flight this morning felt something like this.

First, the tension.

The Atlas V 541 is the second-largest launch vehicle offered by the Lockheed Martin branch of United Launch Alliance. It's actually misleading to call it a vehicle, since there are six machines, each composed of many parts, sitting on the pad at launch time. Four solid rocket boosters surround a kerosene-burning core stage, all topped by a hydogen-burning Centaur upper stage. Add to this the payload fairing which must separate (failures do happen) to let the Centaur burn and all the other separation events which must proceed on schedule (solids from core, Centaur from core, spacecraft from Centaur), and you have some sense of the complexity of the events that must unfold with perfection for a successful launch.

Things happen. Nuts corrode. Separation bolts fail to fire. Motor cases burn through. Valves leak. Fuel sloshes. Software bugs surface at the most inappropriate times. Debris clogs fuel lines. All of these are nontrivial, and have ended launches in the past. Failure is the most obvious option of all in launch vehicle operations, and is only thwarted through enormous effort to the contrary. If the Atlas had failed on her ride to Mars, it would've been much more than a few rockets and a rover going to the bottom of the Atlantic. $2.5 billion and countless hours of blood, sweat, thought, design meetings, and tears have gone into this program over nearly a decade. Atlas needed to work, and while the program had been reliable in the past, there was no guarantee she would. Such is the tension of launch day.

Second, the motion.

On TV, rocket launches take on a regal sort of spectacle. The engines light, the hold-down bolts slice, and the rocket gently tugs its way up into the air. Watching the Atlas claw her way off the pad this morning looked anything but gentle. For an hour before the launch, the rocket and the three lightning towers stood together across the bay, as immobile as the buildings and blockhouses of Kennedy Space Center that have stood for decades. Suddenly the Atlas jerked loose, poking up past the lightning towers, faster and faster, until just after clearing them it lurched drunkenly to the side. This is all as intended, of course, lining up on the proper inclination to head toward Mars, but the effect is nauseating to look at. All those hours of dedicated work slew into the raging Atlantic wind shear under the command of a flight control system barely able to keep up with the momentum piling out of the solids and the core. The effect is a baroque and terrifying dance of one computer and a few servos against the fury of nature.

Third, the fire.

For whatever reason, the light of solid rocket motors never looks right on video. It's probably just too bright, and the white-hot glowing particles of soot just peg out any CCD that tries to look at them. Your eye can do better. From three miles away, the light of four solids and a core hurt to look at through my polarized sunglasses. The intensity of the flame makes vivid the numbers of temperature and pressure and velocity that escape imagination, though they describe the rocket faithfully. White, white beyond imagination, the solids blazed, pushing Curiosity up first, then east.

Fourth, the smoke.

The central Florida coast is peppered from Daytona Beach to Patrick Air Force Base with cameras of every size and type to monitor the ascent of all rockets launched form Cape Canaveral. While they capture a mountain of good data from each launch, they all fail to capture the context that your eye sees intuitively watching the Atlas climb. Watching later on video, the rocket seems to be a self-contained unit moseying along up up and away. Watching in the moment, the smoke trail traces the Atlas's path all the way to the lightning towers across the bay. Just past the tip of the fire, the smoke billows, jutting down with surreal quickness and eventually tangling into the familiar fractal puffs of clouds. A new cloud is born, arcing up and east, first to Africa, then to Mars.

Fifth, the sound.

Until I took an aerodynamics class in college, I never appreciated just how different things can be depending on whether you're moving faster or slower than the speed of sound. Crossing Mach 1, the physics of fluid dynamics fundamentally changes. Shapes that once slowed flow now accelerate it, which among other things explains why narrowing the exit of a garden hose increases exhaust velocity (the hose flow is subsonic), and the widening exit of a rocket nozzle also increases exhaust velocity (the rocket exhaust is way, way supersonic). Rocket engines are built to do one thing: take propellant and turn it into blazing hot gas moving as fast as humanly possible back toward Florida. The exhaust wails with the sound of the physics of the fast colliding head-on with the physics of the slow. Radically supersonic water vapor and carbon dioxide rips the ocean breeze into curtains of noise, and that ripping, rumbling, vibrating sound fills your ears and your stomach from three miles away, while the Doppler shift of the accelerating rocket gradually drops the pitch until only a barely-present shaking of the bleachers remains. No electronics yet built is sophisticated enough to bottle this feeling. It's like hearing a whole formation of F-16s tearing up and away while a gentle earthquake hums at your feet.

Within five minutes it was over. The westbound breeze was strong this morning, and it tugged the rocket's contrail apart quickly. By the time the Centaur's first burn was done, the only evidence that anything had happened at all was the empty pad nestled between the lightning towers. The palm fronds bucked in the wind, and the buzzards circled through the updrafts, just as they had before launch. The alligators have lazed in the swamps for millions of years before the launch pads were built, they'll be happy to do it as long as rockets keep flying away.

Yet something is different now the Curiosity is on her way to Mars. After all those hours, all those intense arguments over funding priorities, all those heartbreaking setbacks and euphoric completions, this machine will never again rest on Earth. She was built lovingly by human hands, but is now a creature of deep space, and soon will be a creature of Mars. Hopefully, one day, she'll feel a human's touch again, but that person will be a creature of Mars as well. If you're up late enough, you can see Mars in the sky tonight, a twinkling orange pinprick in the black. But machines like Curiosity have given us a visceral since of the reality of Mars. It's not just a point of light, it's a whole place, a world. We live in a time when we send our robotic envoys to live and march and sift the sands of alien worlds. Please set the bickering and grim tone of today's news and politics aside for a moment, and just think about that. What a wonderful time this is.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Something Old, Something New

You wake up, and there's a wall and a ladder. There's one way to go. Up and over. Clearing the first wall, there's another wall, and another ladder. This one's a little higher, with the rungs spaced a little further, than the ladder that came before. After a while, with some help from people taller than you, you learn better ways to climb, how to pace yourself and stay focused. Progressing through school has often felt like this to me. Each wall seems trivially short after the taller wall is cleared, but that makes the task at hand no less daunting. This May I cleared the last wall many who start the climb up formal academia ever attempt, but there's still land above my head.

Tomorrow will be my first day of grad school. I'm not quite sure what to expect. Coming back to Texas A&M, where I've already spent four years learning the ways of engineering and the culture of Texas, is entirely familiar in some ways, and yet I'm about to start something totally new. The dog days of undergrad engineering are over, replaced by something whose nature I don't yet know. An upgrade, to be sure, but I won't exactly know how for some time yet. I'm glad for the time I spent getting to know Boeing and Washington away from Aggieland this summer, but it's still great to be back in this land of joyful optimism. Starting school, as usual, is an anxious time, but I'm hopeful I can keep adapting upward. Wish me luck, or pray for me if that suits you, and here's to a fall of discovery.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I'm an Optimist

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I've noticed something of a gloomy trend in the last few posts, and I'd like to address that. I haven't been happy about a number of things in my life lately, mainly because I have a relentless impulse to criticize myself. Looking back on things like letting a few grades slip during my last semester in college and moving into an apartment that's way to expensive for the summer because I was too lazy to look around more thoroughly makes me cringe, as trivial as these events are in the long run. Though I don't always do a great job of fully internalizing it, in my more level-headed moods I think the evidence abounds that there's good reason to be joyful and optimistic about the future, in spite of whatever tone you may have perceived up to now.

As I noted before, there are considerable limits to what anyone, person or organization can do. But just as surely as those limits exist, we can't possibly know the extent of those limits until they're under test. More to the point, I think it's wrong to assume that limitations are static things that forever bound our field of motion. When pressed, barriers can be broken down, or at least a detour can be found. Reading the history of some of the great scientific and engineering triumphs, the Wrights' innovations in powered flight for example, it's hard not to get a heady sense of the understanding and practical delivery that can be gleaned from nature with enough persistence and cleverness. We once new nothing of the scale of the universe, the workings of the atoms, or the way a clock slows down when launched into orbit. Now their discoveries are historical footnotes. This is the power of human ingenuity.

I'm not saying that the progress of science is endless and will eventually steamroll over any need to understand things beyond pure rationality. That would be overconfident, and worse, wrong. There are clear boundaries to what the scientific method and the progression of logic are capable of uncovering, though those boundaries are so far from the borders of our current understanding that the scientist needn't concern herself with running into them anytime soon. What I'm getting at is that each human is capable of dipping into this font of wellness and progress and helping to move us all forward. If that's not optimistic, I don't know what is.

When you run, you're bound to falter every once in a while. I'm often much more apathetic and lazy than I'm comfortable admitting and will put off tasks I find dull until they're infuriatingly behind schedule. My social awkwardness keeps me from fully engaging those around me. I regularly fail to heed the advice I wish to take from the sermons of Jesus, to say nothing of my ongoing failure to resolve how I should even look at these sermons to begin with. But though I falter regularly, I know (or at least like to tell myself) it's because I keep running. There's a lot of ground to cover, but humans can move remarkably fast when we want to. I find Mario Andretti's insight that "if you feel like you're still in control, you're not going fast enough," relevant fairly often. Pessimism seems absurd given this insight.

After the third Falcon 1 launch failed to reach orbit, and his critics were breathlessly asking if he was capable of delivering on any of his promises to radically change the launch industry, Elon Musk had this to say when asked whether he was optimistic about future attempts to reach orbit:

"Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. With God as my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work."

Falcon 1's fourth flight (and every SpaeX launch since) was an unqualified success. There's something to be said for the Musk approach.

Ocean in View

When the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Columbia River estuary in 1805, William Clark had this to say:

"Ocian [sic] in view! O! the joy."

After the long, dangerous, and exhausting slog he and his party endured over the year and half leading up to this arrival, I can hardly imagine the joy Clark must have felt with the end in sight. 200 years and an extensive network of roads and ferries later, the journey from Texas to the Pacific coast of Washington is practically routine, and I opted to complete it yesterday afternoon.

Seattle and Phoenix, my old hometown, are both blessed to be within day trip distance of some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the United States. The Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and Saguaro National Park dot the southwest, as Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Olympic National Park do in the northwest. Still, traveling from one to another is like going to a different planet as the southern desert slowly gives way to the northern rain forest.

Ruby Beach was shockingly empty when I arrived. A few tourists milled around and took snapshots at the estuary, but no one seemed interested in venturing far from the parking lot. That seemed absurd to me, as the beach goes on for miles in each direction. So I ventured north, then south, not looking for anything but what it was like to be at Ruby Beach, listening to the melodic pounding of the surf.

After a while I realized how empty the place was and felt the urge to start running. I took of my shoes and ran in the surf until my feet went numb. When I saw, but couldn't feel, a cut on one of my toes after tripping on a rock, I thought better of that and put my shoes back on. As I walked and the sensation returned, I felt the pebbles of the beach under the soles of my shoes like a swarm of prickly interlopers. Such is the richness of sensation at the beach.

Feeling a bit like the only human in a timeless world, I started acting silly. First, I sang this:

Then, I sang this, but much louder:

Anyone watching would have very confused ideas about what kind of person I am. They'd probably be mostly right.

With no one watching and no sound but the endless churning of the sea and the occasional squawk of a gull, I suppose I meditated for a while. Or prayed. Mostly I just sat and listened, and practically begged for some kind of inspiration to strike my mind. It doesn't work that way, I know. Even in a place as numinous as the Olympic coast, insight is never reliable, and inspiration never comes simply when bidden. It did feel good, though, just letting the noise flow through me and running till I could barely breathe anymore. Most of all I felt like I was doing what I should be doing, as though I were fulfilling a purpose. It would be an odd thing, to feel a longing for purpose, if there truly weren't any plan behind the curtain.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Planned Obsolescence

This morning the space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. By Sunday afternoon, if all goes according to plan, she will have docked at the International Space Station for the final time. With some luck and much effort and skill, two weeks from now she'll be back on the ground in Florida or California. No space shuttle will ever fly again.

The phasing out of the Space Shuttle Program reminds me of the Concorde's retirement in 2003. No other machine built by humans (with the exception of a limited and confused Soviet copycat program) does quite what the shuttle does, or does so in such a grandiose way. Several launch vehicles exist today that can launch as much payload into orbit as a shuttle, but none of them can take that same payload from space back to Earth. Nearly every spacecraft that's ever been launched has never felt a human touch after the payload fairing was closed was closed around it. Thanks to the space shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mir, the ISS, and a small gaggle of communications satellites have been serviced, repaired, refueled, and upgraded much to their benefit. Not quite a rocket, not quite a spacecraft, not quite an airplane, but all of these things at once, the space shuttle is a remarkable vehicle that will surely be admired for centuries to come.

Like the Concorde, though, the shuttles' retirement makes a cold, rigid sense in spite of their unique capabilities. It was very difficult to build a business case for the Concorde, in spite of so much tilting the tables in its operators' favor. The state-owned Concorde customers paid nothing at all for the airplane's development and virtually nothing for the airplanes themselves. Since there was no initial investment, a grounded Concorde was essentially no cot to British Airways. Grounding a 737 costs Southwest Airlines about $10,000 a day in amortization alone if the aircraft's sticker price is to be believed. Despite this, and despite the marvelous engineering that allowed Concorde to achieve nearly the same fuel economy as subsonic airliners, it could only carry a quarter of the passengers of a full 747, quadrupling its seat-mile costs. So long as there are many wealthy and impatient customers in New York City, London, DC, and Paris, the model closes, but it was always tenuous at best. And so the Concordes sit in museums, soon to be joined by the three remaining space shuttle orbiters.

The combination of capabilities the space shuttle combines is impressive on a scale that inspires awe. In engineering, though, everything has a price, and the price in blood, sweat, and dollars to keep the shuttles flying just doesn't make sense anymore. The Bush administration knew this when it put the writing on the wall by mandating their retirement by 2010 seven years ago. So the target date slipped a year. It happens, but we all knew this was coming.

In the midst of all this nostalgia, it's important to remember that American human spaceflight is not dead, it's simply retooling, becoming a leaner, more organized, more utilizable beast. The age of widespread space travel will come to humanity, and the United States will probably be the nation that pioneers this. The Space Shuttle Program fits into this journey obliquely, in its own odd and twisted way, and so I think the best response to this last flight is respect for the lessons learned and wonder at the beauty of these machines while flying. Godspeed, Atlantis, and fly safely.

Friday, June 24, 2011


For some reason, I've always found the idea of having limits to what I can do repugnant. Maybe it's just cultural conditioning, maybe there's something innate in me that despises it, but very few things make me angry as quickly as the implication that I'm not capable of accomplishing some task.

There's a whole litany of things that I can't do, or can't do better than a certain level, of course. I know that, but I also don't know what my limits are, so I test them relentlessly given the slightest chance. Can I understand modern mathematics to the point that I fully understand how to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, given the amount of time I'm willing to invest in studying math? Certainly not. But there's probably a lot of math I can understand, and, not knowing what that limit is, I do things like make an effort to understand perturbation theory and partial differential equations at the graduate level while I'm still an undergrad. I'm not happy about how I did in that class, but I passed, so I suppose that counts for something.

The willingness of challenge seems necessary to me if we're to understand how much we can truly accomplish. I'd like to know that, because I'd like to accomplish as much as I can in the finite amount of time I'll be alive. That seems like a reasonable idea to me. Sometimes I wonder, though, if there's a kind of bravado inherent in the attitude of the challenger. "I can handle anything," he says. Well, sometimes you can't. Denying that is to refuse to acknowledge reality, which never seems to work out well for anyone in the long run. If there's a reasonable way out of this impasse, I'm not sure what it is.

There are so many things I'd like to do in my life, and such limited resources with which to do them. There are things to build, people to meet, mountains to climb, places to fly to, and ideas to teach and learn. So many of all of those. It takes money to building things, though, and serendipity to meet the right people, and most wickedly of all it takes time to do everything, and that time is constantly running draining away. I know that I can't do everything that I want to, but that doesn't do much to keep the desire at bay. My hope is that I can actualize as much of this potential as possible, and learn to live with the losses when they happen. One more thing to add to my post-college list of learning objectives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The day that just ended in North America was the longest that 2011 will see. Everett is the second farthest north I've ever been on the June solstice (after Edinburgh, Scotland, and just a few minutes north of Kent, Washington), and the sunset and twilight moved in slow motion while a few scattered sheets of clouds coalesced and abated.

There's really too much going on in a sunset like the one Puget Sound saw an hour and a half ago to take it all in at once. You can focus for a moment on the pinkness of the coulds, the gentleness of the breeze, the tallness of the evergreens, but it all hits gridlock just past the optic nerve. I drove north after getting off work, because I can and because I wanted to see what was there, and I stopped to walk around a park in northern Everett. Later I drove toward Snohomish, the mountains by Boulder Creek rising and falling in great sighs of the landscape with each valley and peak on highway 2. It's a joy to be able to wander like this, so free, with so much to take in. Of course, the contemplation is only for a little while. I tell myself I'd love to just gaze at the waves on the sound and hear the crackle of the crows, but there's work tomorrow, and a bed I'm paying too much for on the other side of the Mukilteo freeway.

The beauty of it all is always there, though, even when it's foggy and raining and my mind is trudging through the muck of chores and criticism that always follows. It's a hollow thing to say that we should all try to just see this simple elegance in everything more often, but it's true. I still wonder how as the days begin to grow shorter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Different Kind of Place

Since it hasn't actually been this clear yet, I defer to wikipedia for a decent image of downtown Seattle.

This weekend I visited my cousin in Capitol Hill while an uncle stopped by for Fathers' Day. It was as joyous as any reunion of long-separated relatives should be. She spends most of her time in Seattle, my uncle in Idaho, and myself in Texas, but for a couple of nights we all slept under the same roof. We wandered through the city and Green Lake Park, ate scallops fresh from Puget Sound, and drank Belgian ale while our conversations wandered from feminism to Marxism to space policy to particle physics. Not a bad way to cap my first week at Boeing.

One moment on Saturday I glanced at the books on her shelf in the living room. My cousin is very well read (as a PhD in English literature would lead one to expect), and there was wide menagerie of philosophies represented. Before I could ask about anything on the shelf, she quickly commented that the Bible was a gift, and not necessarily something to be taken seriously.

In College Station, it would be a rare bookshelf that didn't have a Bible somewhere in plain sight, but Seattle's a different kind of place in more ways than one. Most of the people I interact with on a casual basis in Texas probably assume that I'm at least nominally Christian unless I say otherwise. Here in the northwest the opposite is true: innocent of religion until proven guilty.

The dichotomy between the primarily religious and primarily secular parts of America is fascinating to me, and reinforces my thinking that there isn't really any such thing as American culture. There's a broad marketplace of cultural ideas in the United States constantly vying for attention. Depending on the location, different sets of these ideas become mainstream. College Station and Seattle are both places that I'm happy to call home, but each must seem baffling to those native to the other, just as my cousin would probably be baffled by exploration of Catholicism.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Old Thing about Love

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Back in April, The New York Times held an essay contest asking for college students' perspectives on love. What they were really looking for was an account from someone who incorporated web 2.0 software into their relationships. At least, that's what I gather from the winning entry. I wrote a piece for the contest, since I had thoughts on my mind that seemed relevant to the prompt. I'll hold off editorializing until after the (slightly modified) essay...

You’re probably older than me, whoever you are. I wonder what you think of me. We’ve almost certainly never met, but you’ve already made a few assumptions about me. Maybe you think I find face-to-face communication obsolete, that I prefer tweeting and texting to a real human presence. Perhaps you think I’m unconcerned with the older grown-ups and the world around me, engaged in my personal bubble on facebook. Perhaps you think I’m baffled by dating and monogamy, that I prefer casual hook-ups to emotional attachment.

I hope you won’t be disappointed to learn that none of those things are true. Well, I am baffled by dating, but I doubt that’s uncommon among your generation. The truth is that I never text if I can call and I never call if I can talk. The real thing is better than the simulacrum. My experience is limited, and I won’t claim to know what typical life is like for my generation. What I do know is my own experience of what it’s like to be a Texan born in 1989. And if you want to know what love is like for me, I’ll have to tell you about her.

We met on the first day of September our freshman year, on the third deck of Kyle Field. It was hot and windy and mind-blowingly loud. She was so much shorter than me she kept hitting me in the face when she raised her hands at the end of the yells. She had no dinner plans after the game, and neither did I, so we did what college kids do and got pizza.

Our relationship wasn’t love at first sight. We just talked. We talked about high school and where we were from, our majors and our plans. When the words stopped one of us said some more words, or smiled, or asked a question, and the words kept going. We had enough pizza and went back to the dorm.

She didn’t want to date at first. She knew that it just wouldn’t work. We could see some contraindications in each other, most salient among them that she was Christian and I was agnostic. “How can I date someone with such different beliefs from me?” She would ask me that, frowning, and I didn’t have a response more articulate than “just do it anyway.” But we still talked, and laughed, and above all spent time next to each other, rambling at ever higher levels of detail about everything. One night in October we had one of our rambling conversations, and when I hugged her she didn’t push me away. I kissed her cheek and we held each other, and I was her boyfriend.

Our dating must sound so boring to you, who think the shows on MTV accurately characterize how my generation interacts. She’s a proper and devoutly chaste Christian. She wouldn’t even let me kiss her on the lips at first. She made it clear she intended to opt out of the culture of hook-ups and casual sex, and so I opted out, too. Sometimes I wondered if that was the right thing to do. Maybe I was missing out on the pleasure and gratification the media executives in LA promised I could have if I would stop being such a prude. I knew I’d have to leave her to do that, though, and I didn’t want to.

When a couple draws a sharp line on how far is too far, they come up with other ways to keep things interesting. And boy was she ever interesting. We became a pair of junkies, addicted to each other like lab rats on cocaine. Any time I could justify away from studying, and a lot of time I couldn’t, I sneaked down to her room and we’d lie there, holding each other and kissing and talking, until the clock wound past two or her roommate came back.

Sometimes I wonder if my memory is unreliable. Were things ever that good? I tell myself I indulge in nostalgia when I reminisce. When I really delve in, though, and place everything in the theater of my mind as it was on the theater of campus, it’s something beyond words. Holy is the best word I can find. Our lips touch and I feel joy percolating through my soul. Holy. I run my fingers through her hair and gaze into her eyes, black in blue in white. Holy world. I hold her close and she holds me back; I’m absorbed in sensing her her-ness. Holy world, and I share it with you. No, it was really that good.

Like all interesting people she’s a study in contrasts. She’s sweet and calm and kind, so kind I can barely comprehend it. She has a black belt in Karate. She’s profoundly humble, always wondering if the other side of the argument is right all along. She has a dazzlingly bright mind, making me see things as I never would’ve on my own. I became aware of these contrasts and how they beautifully composed her as we laid and talked. In the distance the clock tower chimed and the train whistles moaned, setting a mellow beat to our wanderings. We were young and in love, like ten thousand generations of couples before us.

We argued sometimes, as all couples do. We argued about whether math was a useful tool or a form of artistic expression. We argued about whether our school should have female yell leaders. Most of all we argued about religion. It hurt like a hundred paper cuts when we vivisected each other’s ideas about truth and reality, but we felt we had to. We wanted to be right. More than anything else she hates to see conflict, and here was an infinite source of conflict.

The little wounds this mental fencing opened healed after some time and gentle words. About two years after we started dating, though, she saw the writing on the wall. The arguments were too much, the joy too little, and I left that summer after our sophomore year for an internship in Seattle. I still loved her, but I told myself that too would pass.

I returned to College Station renewed, wiser for our time together and my time in Seattle. At least, I hoped so, since I was certainly older. Since that halfway point I’ve dabbled with others. There’s the girl as airplane-crazy as me, the girl from Texas State I met at a Stephen Hawking lecture, the girl who was half-Texan and half-Irish. We made out in the piney woods by the Louisiana border, in my dorm room while the air conditioner clacked and rumbled, on a hot June night in a park in Cave Creek. They’re all interesting people, and I wish I knew them better.

The truth is, though, that I don’t know anyone like I know that first love. Whether we knew it or not, we were still addicted to each other, and kept talking even though we didn’t kiss anymore. I gave her a book on epistemology and she gave me a book on theology. The line where my mind stopped and her mind started increasingly blurred as the lunches and socials marched on. The message formed and crystallized in clarity. I didn’t want to date anyone else. I wanted to be with her.

I pulled out all the stops and tried to express myself as articulately and plainly as possible. I explained to her how embedded her self was in mine. I was acutely aware of her faults, but I was used to them by now, and none of them were cloudy enough the dim the brilliance I could see through the cracks when she let me peek at her mind. The reality of her presence, her there-ness, her existence apart from yet intimate with me as someone uniquely wonderful lit my consciousness like a bonfire. At one point I told her that I was more certain I wanted to be hers for the rest of my life than I was sure that I had blood in my veins. I meant it. Maybe I’m a romantic.

Hopefully you’ve felt this emotion. It’s an alien concept from the idea of love as a commodity traded in some grotesque zero-sum game. For me, love is divorced from concepts like satisfaction or reassurance or gratification. It’s the act of knowing that the one I love is real, that she’s a gorgeous human composed of flaws and talents, and a churning desire to do all I can for her. I wonder what she meant when she said she loved me. Maybe it was something like this. She’s clarified her intention not to renew this intimacy, though, and so I move on.

So what is love in this postmodern age? I imagine about the same as it was when things were modern, and about the same as it was before that. The imitations of love abound, but the real thing is something consuming. Love isn’t a currency to be bartered; it’s a train that clicks and clacks and marches forward, a discovery of that holy kernel that lives in each human soul. Discovery is wicked and violent, and most people get hurt doing it. But to avoid it is to take a sedative and sit life out. I don’t want to do that.

If you understand what I’m getting at, you probably know all this already. If not, and I’m talking past you, my hope is that you at least see my generation as a little more human, a little more like people than like characters in a fiction. I hope you have love, or find it, in whatever form you’re tuned to express it. As for me, I wander on, a little bit older but still pretty young. It’s a numbers game, and I can be patient. You may find happiness hooking up or traipsing from lover to lover, but I know myself better after what I’ve been through. So I wander and wait for someone new, in hope of the day when I’ll tell her I’ll love her forever, and her voice will echo mine.

...Truth be told, I'm not happy about the way this turned out. My first draft was almost 50% overbudget on word count (the final draft came in exactly one word under the upper limit). I had to trim the essay mercilessly to fit the length limit and it shows. My prose also has a way of meandering between long chains of GRE study words with complex sentences structures and short sentences that look like they were written for the Simple English wikipedia. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Looking it over, I keep thinking the eternal lament of how much better it could've been if I'd just put more time into it.

I'll almost certainly write more about the person I reference in the essay here. It would not be an exaggeration to say that our relationship and its aftermath was the most significant event in my life during my college years. For ease of reference I'll call her Augustine from now on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The End of the Beginning

When the Allied forces defeated Rommel's Afrika Corps at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill had this to say:

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Such could also be said of my life the last two months. I haven't made a conscious effort to update regularly since last Spring Break or so, and it's showed. In that time a number of interesting things have happened. For example, the airplane my senior design team fabricated flew.

This was a wonderful moment after all the effort and time the seven of us devoted to the project. I couldn't have asked for a better team (I'm all the way on the right below).

I also graduated from college. My academic record as an undergraduate is complete. There will be no revisions. The list of addendums and flourishes on my degree are an embarrassment of riches. "Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Mathematics minor, Summa Cum Laude, Foundation Honors, University Honors, Honors in Aerospace Engineering," the reader said as I stood waiting to shake Dr. Loftin's hand and cross the stage.

It feels so different from graduating from high school, though. I felt triumphant after graduating from high school, as though I'd taken on some great evil foe and won, ready to move on to more worthy opponents. In a sense I suppose that was true. Now I mainly feel defeated, honorably or not. There's so much I don't know, and only so little I do, and I just hope I can keep tackling this monstrous unknown and come out better for the struggle. I suppose that's what grad school's for, and why I'll be heading back to College Station in the fall.

For now, though, I'll be in Seattle. It's a beautiful place, quite different from Phoenix or College Station, though it combines some elements of the two. Hilly like Arizona (but more so) and green like Texas (but taller, and deeper green), it's here I'll take stock of my time as an undergrad Aggie and prepare for my time as a grad student Aggie. In the meantime I'll have plenty to do between Boeing (where I start tomorrow), hiking in the evergreen hills, and generally doing those things that don't get done between September and May. Gradatim ferociter.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In the Land of the Emerald Giants

There are two places in the world where twin-aisle commercial air transports are assembled. One is in Toulouse, just north of the Pyrenees and halfway between the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea. The other is two miles from my apartment in Everett, north of Seattle, the Emerald City. This afternoon I took my exercise walking through the second place after picking up my Boeing employee badge at orientation.

This summer I will work at Boeing's Everett site just south of the main plant. The final assembly building is the largest building by volume ever constructed by humans, but that's actually hard to realize from the inside. The eyes and the brain only comprehend so much horizontal distance before the numbers cease to mean anything and that airplane in the same building as me is just "over there" and not "a quarter of a mile away." Vertical distance is always more impressive, though not even the Burj Khalifa on its side would cover the distance east to west at the Everett plant.

So I roamed through the halls of the giant airplanes, their fuselages gleaming anti-corrosion green, their wings swept in repose, ready for a dash to the top of the troposphere. Each of these airplanes will carry millions of people more millions of miles before they finally slumber in a desert boneyard far south toward Mexico. Each will fly for decades in a terrifyingly hostile environment, frigidly cold, starved of oxygen, and miles above the solid comfort of Earth. Each will carry hundreds of people through this gauntlet every day so stoically the passengers will complain about legroom and cheap coffee while the neglected lethal world rages outside the fuselage. This is the drama of technology written in its boldest font.

I struggled to develop a sense of ownership of what I saw. I work here, I kept repeating over and over in my head, feeling like an intruder in a land of giants. My eyes ran back and forth along the beautiful curves of the unborn airliners and I tried to comprehend what contribution I might make here. It's a big place, Boeing Everett, with nearly 40,000 employees. Each new 777 that rolls off the assembly line has 40,000 mothers and fathers, and as of today I'm one of them. Incredible.

There is pride in this ownership, to be sure, but more than that I feel the correct response is gratitude. I needn't be working in Everett, for Boeing this summer. It's just a partnership that we both agreed would be good to try out. So no I'm here, in this incredible place, watching the gears that mesh all of global commerce together taking shape, and even helping to define that shape myself. Like David so many years ago, my cup runneth over. Sometimes it just takes a little walk to see.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Brief Monday Interlude: Turning Altitude into Airspeed

It's still Monday in El Paso, so this totally counts.

Today was a day of cognitive dissonance. After taking one of the worst tests of my life on perturbation theory and all her friends I was in a foul mood. Cramming all weekend for an exam and still feeling that nauseating sensation of non-understanding when you see said exam on Monday doesn't exactly inflate the self-esteem. An hour later I was in Dr. V's office while he described me as one of the best students he's ever worked with. Insanity.

A much more exciting brand of insanity is presented in the sport of wingsuit base jumping:

This is high on my list of absurd but wonderful things I want to do.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fruitful Path

After President Obama released a budget that called for a sharp change in NASA's direction last year, I wrote a piece for the SEDS newsletter, NOVA, defending the policy change. The idea was hotly contested since it called for a radical change in the way NASA does business with its contractors. Rather than doing most of its engineering in-house and closely supervising contractors under cost-plus contractors, the idea was that NASA should move toward encouraging private sector development of transportation services to space and buy these services as a commercial customer. Since politicians usually don't like things that rock the boat, and this rocked a lot of boats all at once, there was a lot of rage in Congress against the idea, and I think it still needs defending a year later. Here's a piece I recently wrote for NOVA about why this is a good move for NASA:

Recently I had the chance to represent the students of Texas A&M at a meeting with a veteran member of the aerospace industry. Given his extensive experience as a professor early in the aerospace engineering department’s history at A&M, the Southwest Research Institute, NASA Johnson Space Center, and the National Academy of Engineering, I found his insight into the field interesting and illuminating. Still, I couldn’t help but be bothered by a few comments he made about NASA, its history, and its current status.

It took eight years to go from Alan Shepherd’s first suborbital hop in Mercury to the bootprints of Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon. In the last eight years, he asked, what has NASA accomplished that could possibly compare to this technological leap? Not much, the students replied, questioning why the NASA of the 1960s seemed so different from the NASA of the 2010s.

His reply was direction. While NASA managed a number of smaller scientific and aeronautics missions during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the reason for its existence could be fully described in one sentence: “To achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.” It would take at least a paragraph, and probably several, to completely outline NASA’s mission today. Clearly our national space program has become a much more diverse endeavor over the last 40 years, and many of the Apollo generation claim that it has suffered from requirement bloat. Give NASA a simple, grand mission, and rebooting human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit will follow naturally, the argument goes.

It’s an appealing argument, to be sure, and it’s not entirely false. Given a clear directive and adequate funding, I’m sure NASA could return astronauts to the Moon or send them to the asteroids in a decade or so without changing the way it does business. Many in industry and congress are lobbying for the development of heavy-lift launch vehicles and a restoration of elements of the Constellation program because they see the clarity of this path. Unfortunately, while the path of business-as-usual and clear, simple directives can accomplish great things in the near-term, it does so at great cost and leaves long-term prospects for space exploration and settlement barren.

We rightly hail the Apollo program as a major achievement of human ingenuity and industry, and marvel that the engineers of the day could go so far with tools so primitive by today’s standards. But in lauding the accomplishments of Apollo, the legacy of the program is often forgotten. It turns out that the fastest, most straightforward path to the Moon didn’t lead to an enduring long-term human presence in space. The requirements of the Apollo program were well-posed but misleading from the more poorly-posed requirements of how to enable lasting human presence beyond LEO. The dilemma NASA now faces is this: either opt for a clear path to a near-term objective, or a murkier path that seeks the long-term optimum. I argue that though the long-term path may delay human departure from LEO and requires a paradigm shift in NASA’s operations, this is the fruitful path for the agency’s – and humanity’s – future.

What does NASA need to do in-house to enable an enduring presence beyond Earth orbit? Not human-rated launch vehicles, since Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and SpaceX offer options that can be adapted for crew launch for less than the price of a single shuttle launch. Not a Space Shuttle extension, since the shuttle’s program cost is prohibitive to the development of major new hardware. Not even heavy-lift launch vehicles, since their extraordinary development and operation cost outweigh the benefit form eliminating on-orbit construction given realistic assumptions about these costs. The private aerospace sector is ready today or very close to ready to provide NASA all the services it requires between the Earth’s surface and LEO. It’s time for NASA to harness this capability and work on the problems of keeping astronauts alive and productive in deep space, not the problem of lifting off the ground.

Since launch and crew transport have traditionally been a mainstay of NASA human spaceflight, this notion is a radical one. The suggestion that our national space program abandon the launch vehicle business enrages politicians concerned about rocking the boat at their local NASA centers, but this is a necessary step if we truly want to develop robust vehicles for human spaceflight. If much of NASA’s annual budget is devoted to the design, development, and production of launch systems, there simply won’t be enough resources to go around to design the spacecraft we need to maintain a permanent presence on the Moon and journey to the asteroids and beyond. To make a Moon base, you need to design a Moon base, not a rocket.

Ultimately the goals of most space advocates are the same. We all want to see humanity’s reach extend beyond the limit of the atmosphere, and one day this will mean the exploration of deep space and a permanent human presence there. The opinions diverge on the best way to achieve this, and I argue that leveraging the capabilities of the private sector, as NASA plans to do through commercial crew development and cargo resupply programs, is the most fruitful path to restarting human exploration beyond LEO in a sustainable way. As long as NASA insists on developing all its launch vehicles and transports in-house and through cost-plus contracting, the growth of humanity in space will be limited. By working with the private sector and splitting responsibilities for transport to and beyond LEO, NASA will begin the march toward a true frontier in space, though this march may look quite different from the drama of Apollo. But for building a true frontier, it’s the slow, methodical steps that count, not the grand drama.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Brief Monday Interlude: Daft Ponypunk

Monday is my fully-populated day this semester. Between class, lab meetings, lab work, airplane work, and organizational meetings, Monday is a bad day for me to get anything done, particularly anything non-school related that takes effort. So instead of blogging I'm thinking of just dropping a link to something I found interesting in the last week.

That Daft Punk are awesome has been widely understood for some time. Only this last weekend, however, did I discover that the inauspiciously-titled cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is... actually kind of awesome too. Or at least, within the context of the internet subculture devoted to the show, it is. Maybe my sanity has just departed completely. Regardless, I have to say that I approve of this hybrid of Daft Punk and MLP:

Link here because embedded viewer is sadface

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Tyranny of Probability

Image Source

"I never thought I'd see the day" is a phrase I don't say very often, but it comes close describing what went through my mind after hearing about the hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima I nuclear plant last Saturday. Followed up as that first explosion was by additional explosions, partial meltdowns, and a fire, the situation in Japan has looked pretty grim since the earthquake and tsunami of last Friday. Judging by the media reaction you might think a serious catastrophe is in the making at Fukushima, while a real catastrophe is already unfolding across the Japanese coastline. The talking heads are already speculating in that gleeful way they do how this will affect the prospects for renewed, or at least static, development of nuclear power, and the consensus is nearly unified against the idea.

Knocking the momentum out of the nuclear renaissance, such as there is one, would be an unfortunate and ill-advised way to respond to the Fukushima crisis. It takes power to run a technological civilization. Sure, you can and should take steps to use energy more efficiently and reduce per capita demand for its production, but to deny that we'll need the amount of power we produce today, if not much more, for a long time into the future is to deny the entire history of the industry. The question is not whether human civilization should produce power on an industrial scale for the foreseeable future, it must. The question is best posed as follows: what's the best way to produce the amount of power we need with the least detrimental consequences to the environment?

Image source

With wind turbines producing electricity at a cost competitive with coal, renewable energy is a serious contender for the first time. Wind power can and should be implemented on a large scale wherever practical, and I'm heartened to see the turbine blades whipping through the desert every time I drive through the desert mountains of west Texas and southern California. Renewables alone simply aren't ready to take over all the grid's needs yet, though, and steadier sources will be required for a long time.

Reliable, portable electricity, that doesn't depend on damming the few remaining untouched rivers or tapping into capricious sources of geothermal heat, leaves us with three options that can be implemented on a vast scale. Coal, natural gas, or nuclear?

On price alone, coal is the clear winner, as the market economy of the US and the command economy of China have both selected it as such. But while nuclear power still has a dreadful image in the public eye from accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and recently Fukushima, coal is little feared. This is curious given the coal industry's damage to health and the environment at every stage of production and power generation. Extraction and production destroy mountains, pollute rivers, dump sulfur dioxide and (ironically) uranium into the atmosphere, and are a real danger the miners and users affected by these operations. There are no coal power disasters because every day we mine and burn coal is a disaster unfolding in slow motion. Natural gas plants are, in general, less dirty than their coal-fired counterparts, but their emission still contribute to the stock of man-made greenhouse gases and the supply of natural gas is more limited than that of coal. There must be a better, feasible way.

Nuclear power isn't perfect. It still requires some mining, breeding reactors generates weapons-grade material, nuclear waste must be properly handled, and accidents can happen, despite our engineers' best efforts to prevent them. But there are feasible engineering and regulatory solutions to all these problems, and if embraced on a large scale nuclear power can handle the needs of our society for generations to come while posing the least risk to public health of any viable energy generations option. The accidents, like the one at Fukushima, are unfortunate, and I wish the workers the best in keeping things under control. When the dust settles, though, few, if anyone, in the Japanese public will be harmed, and the nuclear industry should be vindicated for averting the kind of environmental disaster that is business-as-usual for coal.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

In Which I Talk About Controversial Things

This is a library in Boulder, not the Library of Alexandria. I do like the inscription, though.

In the last episode of "Cosmos," Carl Sagan outlines the story of Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. If you haven't seen it, it's worth about 13 hours of your time to just go watch the whole series, but the last episode in particular focuses on the absurd way intelligence can be its own existential threat. The cautionary tale goes that the 5th Century Christian leaders in Alexandria were politically threatened by pagan influence, and burned this priceless storehouse of knowledge to the ground to demonstrate their capabilities. It's a grim story, to be sure, but I found Sagan's description of what the mob did to Hypatia more disturbing for some reason. Spoiler warning: people do terrible things to each other, and sometimes do them with abalone shells.

I find Jen Fulwiler's allusion to the burning of the Library of Alexandria in the context of the never-ending abortion debate refreshing, mostly because I agree with her and didn't think of it myself. I've always found it curious how tightly the pro-life (substitute "anti-choice," "anti-abortion," "misogynist," or whatever adjective you prefer for people who oppose legal abortion on demand) movement is bound to outspoken Christianity in the United States. Like all people, I think some of the things I do for very odd reasons, and my befuddlement here is probably a result of rejecting religion and legalized abortion on demand at about the same time while I was in high school. Though I realized I couldn't in good conscience describe myself as a religious person early on in high school, the more I thought of the issue of abortion law the more I felt I had in common with the socially conservative position.

Part of what makes this debate so intractable and prone to collapse into mud-slinging is that our implicit definitions of the boundary conditions of human life lie at the heart of the debate. Put bluntly, is there anything worth protecting in a fertilized human egg? The case against this idea follows naturally from the observation that during the early stages of development, when most abortions happen, there's little there that resembles a human who can think and feel pain and get excited and do other human things. If an embryo a few weeks along in development can't do those things, how does he or she deserve protection?

That argument churned around in my head as my teenage brain carved an opinion into what I'd heard and thought of. Many people find it convincing, but I never did. A serious problem with this argument is the border it requires us to identify. Clearly there is a point where a newly-developing human is recognized as a person and therefore cannot be destroyed. There's also a point where a newly-developing human exists, but is considered a piece of tissue that can be discarded if doing so benefits the current adults and children to a high enough degree. When does the transition occur? Not at birth, since there's no developmentally significant transition that happens there, and not after, since just about everyone seems to agree that infanticide is a heinous act. So when is it an issue of protecting choice and when is it an issue of protecting life? This is a serious question that needs to be addressed by an consistent system of ethics. Well that would be nice anyway.

Fetal viability is a moving and elusive target to pin this transition on. Premature births can be survived at an earlier and earlier stage thanks to intensive medical intervention.  Is it any more morally unacceptable to perform an abortion at 24 weeks of development today than it was in 1973? That argument doesn't make sense to me, and I doubt it does to you either. Granting the idea that abortion is morally permissible up to a certain stage of development will always leave a hauntingly murky and completely arbitrary line. Before this line, it is tissue, after this line, she is a person.

This is not an academic or semantic exercise. If you could boil all of ethics and morality down to a single mission objective "protect human life" wouldn't be a bad summation. The beginning of what a person is, all he or she will become, all the thoughts, the emotions, experiences, the interactions with the web of human life, is launched at conception. This is not a political or religious statement. This is how things work. Denying this truth demeans humanity and chips away at our ability to respect others under all circumstances. The line in the sand is drawn by nature. I argue against the legality of abortion on demand because I don't want anyone to cross that line. You are free to call me a busybody for saying that, but you say the same for your own line.

There's a whole host of other issues that this topic brings up, of course, not least of which the fact that making abortion illegal doesn't seem to do much to reduce its incidence. I don't know what it takes to reduce this practice, but I will argue against its legality as long as I am convinced that it's immorality imposed on others. This is a very uncommon view outside of religious circles, and that puts me in a bit of a bind whenever the topic comes up. I'm still evaluating the religion question, but I don't really see what could convince me otherwise on the abortion one. Perhaps you can show me.

Conservation and Progress

One of the nice things about my current status is that whenever the intractable is-the-Catholic-Church-convincing problem becomes overwhelming I can always examine the intractable where-should-I-go-to-grad-school problem. I felt motivated, optimistic, and foolhardy enough last semester to apply to five programs. From west to east, they are:

1) The University of Colorado at Boulder

2) Texas A&M University

3) Purdue University

4) The Georgia Institute of Technology

5) The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It should be noted that I only took the first two of those five pictures. MIT wait-listed me and I don't expect to hear back from them until late May. Likewise, I was admitted at Colorado but they offered no funding, so I'm considering those two applications dead. It's unfortunate, since both are doing great work in spacecraft human factors, but that's part of why I applied to five schools instead of one or two.

A&M, Purdue, and Georgia Tech have been generous with their offers of financial support, and all have top-notch programs I would be excited to join. Frankly I'm a little embarrassed about how generous the offers have been. After visiting Georgia Tech and completing seven and a half semesters at A&M I think I'm most qualified to asses these two options. For the sake of conservation of sanity, I've downselected my choice to a simple dilemma. Georgia or Texas?

The decision isn't really Georgia vs. Texas, though. It's not even College Station vs. Atlanta or Bright Building vs. Guggenheim Building. I know Texas A&M intimately after three and a half years here. It's home. I know what the people are like, how muggy it is in August, how long it takes to get from West Campus Garage to the engineering side of campus. I know precious little about Georgia Tech since I only visited there for a few days and talked to a few professors and grad students for a matter of hours. If I stay at A&M I will be delving deeper down a well-lit path; if I go to Georgia Tech it'll be a leap into the dark, an embrace of unknowns.

Both programs are doing world-class research in the field I want to work in. Both are well-respected and will give me about the best preparation for entering engineering that I could reasonably ask for. But after being here for my undergrad program, I know A&M works. I like the faculty, the students, the town, and the fact that everyone screams so loudly on Saturdays in the fall. Going to Georgia Tech will give me the chance to experience life in a different culture and setting, expand my network of colleagues, and indulge my wanderlust a bit more. Still, there's risk in that indulgence, and I'm not sure which argument comes out ahead.

Deep down, this decision is a reflection of something I need to define for myself. If I am a conservative, at least in this context, I'll stick with what I know works well and engage Texas A&M to the fullest. If I'm a progressive, I'll branch out, and try my luck to the east. I'll get back to you on which one of those I decide.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Georgia (Tech) on my Mind

Barring thunderstorm or maintenance problems, I'll be setting down tomorrow evening in Atlanta, on my way to visit Georgia Tech for the weekend. Georgia Tech is one of the five places I've applied to grad school. From west to east, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Texas A&M, Purdue, and MIT round out the pack.

The offers are already coming in, giving the prospect of grad school a giddy sense of reality. It feels a little bit awkward, after the years of climbing step by step, one homework problem, one lab report, one staff meeting at a time, toward the nebulous goal of understanding how to make an impact in this field, to suddenly be courted by these institutions. I suppose that was the payoff I was looking for this whole time. Still, the feeling of suddenly being wanted at places where I've never even set foot is a little bit disorienting.

My choice really comes down to this: do I stay at A&M or depart for one of the other schools? The fernweh that drove me to Texas from Arizona is still alive there down in my heart, but it's sedated by the fact that I've really grown to like College Station over the last four years. I'm keenly aware of all the faults and flaws of this little town, but all the little nice things about staying are also vivid in my mind. If nothing else, this jaunt to Atlanta should help give me a baseline with which to compare College Station to my other options. For that, and because I like flying in general, I'm looking forward to this weekend.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Politics of Design

The entries are in for the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Years from now, if this program is adequately funded and pursued, it will no doubt go on to produce some of the most cost-effective investments in NASA's history. CCDev's aim is to nurture a private-sector human spaceflight industry capable of delivering safe and inexpensive (well, relatively inexpensive, anyway) travel to Earth orbit to anyone interested. If we're serious about developing an enduring human presence in space (and I am), this is the road that will take us there, and Barack Obama has been the best president for NASA since Kennedy for kick-starting this development.

Like any good private-sector competition, bidding is open to just about anyone. There were some predictable entries like SpaceX's proposal to accelerate crewed Dragon development, and some less orthodox ones as well. By far the biggest oddball was ATK and Astrium's proposal for a mash-up of the Ares I and Ariane V first stages. I allow the following video to explain the concept as generously as possible:

There are a number of odd things, inaccuracies, and bogus claims in that video that should be addressed:

-Why is the International Space Station shown thousands of miles away from the Earth? Look at any picture of the ISS ever taken. Seriously. Any picture ever taken. See how big Earth is? That's where the ISS lives. ATK is an aerospace company that works with NASA every day, and goofing a visual like this is unprofessional in a bizarre way.

-ATK and Astrium have a long track record of successful missions. Fair enough. But the stages they're proposing for Liberty are radically different beasts than the Space Shuttle SRB and the Ariane V core stage. The four-segment Space Shuttle SRB has virtually nothing to do with the five-segment SRB developed for Ares I, since the geometry of the motor case is completely changed and the load paths are so different. Liberty's upper stage would have to be air-started and survive the punishing vibration and bending loads applied by the first stage, requiring enough analysis and redesign from the stock Ariane V first stage that it would be practically a new vehicle. To imply that the flight heritage of the shuttle and Ariane have a one-to-one mapping with Liberty reliability (as the animation showing shuttle and Ariane components morphing into Liberty does) is at best overoptimistic.

-We are told that the Liberty configuration is the safest and most reliable orbital launch vehicle design available, since it has two engines with one engine per stage. So do Atlas V and Delta IVFalcon 9 has nine engines on the first stage, but I'm not convinced this automatically makes it less reliable. A nine-engined vehicle can lose one or two and still make it to orbit, and engine-out capability has mattered in the past. Regardless, the specifics of the design and its flight history are probably more important to reliability and crew safety than the high-level configuration, so this is a bit of a stretch to label it "safest and most reliable" on such loose grounds.

-Including the chart of launch abort effectiveness was a terrible decision. This is just wrong. There has been much debate about this at the NASA Spaceflight forum, and credible sources there have said in no uncertain terms that Ares I (and by extension Liberty) would have a less forgiving abort environment than a current launch vehicle like Atlas V or Delta IV. The blackout zones shown on the chart for "other vehicles" can be closed with a minimal loss of payload, and a liquid-fueled rocket engine can be shut down benignly before a problem becomes catastrophic. Since solid-fueled engines can't be shut down once ignited, an abort requires detonating the first stage explosively, and the launch abort system has to outrun the many heavy flaming pieces of metal capable of burning through crew capsule parachutes that result from such an event. The notion that solids are more inherently crew-safe than liquids is a myth that just needs to die. All else equal, you're safer flying on a liquid-fueled vehicle, full stop.

-I thought it was interesting that SpaceX's Dragon wasn't included in the compatible spacecraft. Clearly Liberty would have enough lift capacity to launch it, but it seems like ATK just doesn't want to talk about smaller space companies like SpaceX, instead focusing on Boeing and Orbital Sciences. Also, I don't know what they're getting at with Orion. Ares I was designed to launch Orion, but continually failed to meet its design targets for launch weight, requiring weight-loss programs to make Orion launchable by Ares. Liberty has less lift capacity than Ares. Are they talking about a trimmed-down, orbit-only version of Orion? It would be nice to have some clarity...

-The video makes the case that development costs can be reduced by using NASA facilities at the Kennedy Space Center. Very well, but who will pay for the facilities? Will ATK pay to rent out the parts of KSC necessary to launch Liberty? That would be prohibitively expensive. Will these operations be paid for out of NASA's operating budget? That would be an unfair subsidy to ATK and would obfuscate the real cost of operating Liberty. This is not a convincing selling point, to say the least.

-The go-fast stripes on the first stage look very pretty. I have no rebuttal to this fact.

Outside of the video, ATK claims that Liberty could be ready for its first launch by 2013 and will cost about $180 million per launch. This is incredible. Ares I has already spent four years in development the earliest it could realistically fly according to the Augustine Committee was 2015. It was unlikely, according to the committee, to ever be more cost-effective than the Atlas V. Liberty is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new vehicle, requiring many man-hours of redesign, development, and testing. If ATK and Astrium want to sell this vehicle for $180 million per launch and take a loss, that's their business choice, but I can't imagine any world in which Liberty would be profitable flying at that price.

The reason this proposal exists, then, is not because of the technical or business merits of the concept, but because of the politics surrounding ATK, NASA, and the entire aerospace industry right now. ATK runs a very profitable business assembling solid rocket segments into SRBs for the Space Shuttle program. This is good for the company, good for the state of Utah (where ATK is based), and good for NASA since it spreads the political footprint of its contractor base a little more. While Ares I was in development, it looked like this business could continue by transitioning to the assembly of solid rocket segments for the Ares I first stage. When Ares I was effectively given a vote of no confidence by the Obama administration last February, much rage ensued. Liberty is ATK's last punch in the fight to keep Ares I and its orbital solid rocket business alive.

One of the great things about going to school in Texas is that you're never far from the resources and experience of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I've had the chance to talk to a number of people at JSC about Ares I and the design choices behind it, and I have yet to meet anyone who's actually worked on a project related to the rocket and come away thinking it was the best technical solution to problem of sending people to the Moon safely and reliably. It's first and foremost a politics machine, not a a physics machine or an economics machine.

Ultimately Ares I, and its Liberty echo, are solutions looking for a problem. CCDev is about spacecraft, capsules and spaceplanes to get people to their destinations in orbit and down to the ground in an orderly fashion. We have launch vehicles already, wonderfully reliable ones with proven track records in the form of Atlas V and Delta IV. I'm sure Falcon 9 will join their ranks soon once it has a dozen or so cargo transport flights under its belt. On a level playing field, Liberty will lose this competition because it doesn't address what NASA and private human spaceflight need. I hope the playing field really is level.

It brings me no joy to attack a new idea about crew transport to low Earth orbit. Rockets are just really cool and a robust human spaceflight industry is something I desperately want to see become reality. But I don't see this ATK proposal fitting into that reality. There have been many bad ideas in the history of human flight, and some of them sank billions of dollars and many years of precious engineering time before fizzling out. Liberty is a bad idea and the CCDev money belongs to ideas with more promise.