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.

Seven Days in the Garden

For obvious reasons, I didn't take this picture. It was taken by a person who was living on a space station at the time. I took the rest of the pictures in this post.

In the Hawaiian creation mythos, Haumea, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, plays a prominent role. The gods and goddesses who regulate the wild and rugged nature of Polynesia’s geology, plants, and sea life all hail from her, and according to legend she renewed herself several times, taking the form of a new young woman to bear the next generation of gods and demigods. Though the mythmakers of Hawaii couldn’t have known it, the story of Haumea echoes the creation story of the islands themselves. As the Pacific Plate slides west by northwest, a hot spot just south of the Tropic of Cancer weeps liquid rock upward, building a vast mountain chain one runny eruption at a time. Many of the old volcanoes, built long ago and carried far into the distance toward Japan and Russia, have been worn until only seamounts and atolls remain. Only the eight major islands of the Hawaiian chain still stand tall over the surf line.

Kauai is clearly the eldest of the major apparitions of Haumea. Only Niihau is further west, and Kauai dominates over the eroded lowlands of her smallish neighbor. The character of the island is very different from the virgin volcanic forms of Hawaii and Maui. Below the human scale, erosion polishes rocks smooth into pebbles, but above the human scale it cuts jagged canyons into the landscape. It’s been about six million years since the peak of Kauai first rose above the long waves of the open Pacific. That’s not much, compared to the age of the old rocks of the continents, but it makes Kauai the spinster to Hawaii’s maiden.

Kauai is a place where water is in perpetual motion. Clouds shroud the inland peaks and plateaus, transfiguring the calderas into swamplands. Parts of Kauai take in over 40 feet of rain in an average year, and this harvest from the sky plows downward through deep V-shaped valleys characteristic of fast, water-driven erosion. All the prominent features of the island, from Waimea Canyon in the west to the Kalalau Valley in the north, to the Wailua River basin in the east, are furrows sliced by this relentless liquid plow into the frozen lava of long-dead volcanoes.

Walk along the northern beaches of Kauai, and another voice of moving water becomes clear, that of the surf. Winter is high surf season in this part of the Pacific, and the waves breaking on the shoals at Kalalau and Ke’e are breathtaking in scale. Watching the waves reveals the breath of a sleeping giant. Water goes out, rises. Crest forms, white curl across the top. The crest crashes back toward the beach to the rustling roar of energy pounding through humid air. This all takes about 20 seconds, then the next pipeline monster emerges from the teal-blue water.

Moving through the Kalalau Valley, every time scale is apparent. The shortest is that of the insects and leaves. Butterflies twitter and leaves pirouette through gusts of winds lasting a second or two. Next there’s the thrice-a-minute rhythm of the waves. Beyond that, the longer cycle of Earth’s rotation is shown in the shifting sunlight, the most accessible scale to people. Accelerate a few orders of magnitude, and the island and valley themselves bear witness to millions of years of volcanism, rain, wind, and waves, and the Earth beneath is the product of billions of years of planetary evolution. The scale and wonder of the universe is written plainly in Kauai for all who pause long enough to see the writing in the walls of the canyons and mountains.

Moving along the highway toward the east and civilization (such as it is on Kauai) does not disappoint. The land is less rugged than the off-scale-high unfriendliness to roads that the Na Pali coast maintains, but it’s no less stunning to behold. Look south, and you’ll see sharp mountains and cliffs rendered in every shade of green the electromagnetic spectrum offers. There are lime greens, forest greens, neon greens, olivine greens, fern greens, emeralds, jades, teals, and aquas coating every visible face of the interior in impressionist swirls of color. Blossoms, red and magenta and royal blue, scream their presence toward the retina, saturating the eyes with color. There’s a bridge just east of Princeville that curves three-dimensionally through a thicket of every imaginable variety of tree. A bridge through the jungles of Pandora would look no less exotic.

As the road curves to the south, the mountains and valleys of the north shore give way to lowlands in the east shore. There are fish ponds and taro fields in the plains, and cliffs in the interior. There are no steady flat horizons on Kauai, even in the plains, due to the presence of the inland mountains, so the sphere of view isn’t so much divided between ground and sky as it is between green and white. Below the altitude where the air temperature drops below the dew point, there’s terrain and outcrops in a patchwork quilt of greens, and above that altitude there’s the shifting white and gray undersurface of clouds. On the rare occasions when a cloudless sky faces the northeast corner of Kauai, Mount Waiale’ale is visible from here, the wellspring of the rivers of Kauai.

Travel inland from the coastal towns of Kapa’a and Wailua and it’s easy to forget that you’re on an island. Erosion hasn’t been so savage that there are no hills left in Kauai even after six million relentless years of rain and wind, and after climbing a few ridges the ocean seems distant as the mainland. The Wailua River is the tamest of the Hawaiian islands’ watery veins, and from overlooks it winds through lush valleys upstream and downstream of the great eastern waterfalls of Kauai. I picked the wrong day to try to rent a kayak, Sunday, and all the rental shops were closed. With better timing there are many options to choose from touring up and down the river.

The road winds south, then west, through Lihue and Omao and Kalaheo. Kauai is unique among the Hawaiian chain in the level of agriculture it’s retained, and the route travels through plantations growing sugarcane, taro, coffee, cocoa, and vanilla. The soil is red like that of Sedona and Alabama. The ground is rich with iron and the water rich with rain and sunshine. Only elsewhere in Hawaii, between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, can such a bounty be harvested from US ground. Over the week I spent on the island I sampled coffee and rum produced from the fruits of Pacific lava and showers, and was not disappointed.

Detour south toward Poipu and the road winds through a thicket of eucalyptus trees known as the tree tunnel. It’s a good place name, simple and descriptive. The tree tunnel is a microcosm of the overall atmosphere of Kauai, at once wild with living energy and cultivated for the tourists speeding down the road, hemmed in on both sides by the tangling branches and trunks. The south coast is leeward of the trade winds, and its beaches are less complete than those of the north. Much of the southern coast of Hawaii is jagged piles of lava right up to edge of the water. In some places, hard rock was laid down on soft rock, and the lower, older lava flows were eroded into the Pacific long ago while the young hard flows atop them remain. At Spouting Horn, waves rush into the tunnels etched through this alternating process of laying up and tearing down, and water surges upward through gaps in the rock like a geyser with each crest of energy.

People had lived on Kauai for a millennium by the time Captain James Cook arrived at the Waimea River estuary, but his crew were the first Europeans to lay eyes and feet on the island. There are high-voltage pylons and electric lights in Waimea town now, but other than that it seems little changed since the Discovery and Resolution sheltered in the bay. Today the roads are paved with asphalt and there’s now a post office, a Subway, and a statue commemorating the arrival of Cook in 1778, but there are no high-rises and most buildings seem as worn as the island itself. Charitably, Waimea is a place that looks quaintly aged. Less charitably it seems almost as worn as the ruins of Fort Elisabeth across the river.

The traveler is offered a choice driving through Waimea. Proceed north on 550 and the road climbs the western rim of Waimea Canyon. Go west on 50 and it curves north along the coast to the end of the line. Waimea Canyon is the centerpiece of the western geology of the island, and I elected to scale its rim to the southern edge of the Na Pali coast.

The road rises quickly up the old igneous flank of Kawaikini, weaving back and forth through switchbacks as the climate shifts from coastal to alpine. Blue skies are rare in the highland interior of Kauai, and the cumulus shimmers quickly between partly cloudy, brokenly cloudy, overcast, drizzling, and pouring rain. Every once and a while the road veers off into a parking lot and an overlook, and the views of the canyon merit contemplation.

Mark Twain described Waimea Canyon as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and unlike most quotes attributed to Mr. Twain, it seems he actually said this as he tagged along with the western whaling fleets shortly after the end of the Civil War. The simple canyon of Kauai evokes memories of the compound canyon of Arizona, and it’s almost as deep though it’s much shorter and narrower than the true Grand Canyon. The faces and bluffs are painted in shades of rust and brown, like the walls of the canyons of the North American southwest, and the river winding far below is muddy and turbulent like the Colorado. Something is missing from the analogy, though.

“Verdant” is not an adjective that comes to mind thinking of the Colorado River basin. In the land of Waimea, it seems truly appropriate. The green of the east coast is nearly as ubiquitous here where the rains don’t have time and altitude to turn to virga. There are trees and bushes everywhere the slopes are shallow enough to allow root structures to latch onto the soil. Green shades of life compliment the red shades of rock. Though the scale of Waimea Canyon is an order of magnitude less than that of the great canyons of Arizona and Utah, it’s still well beyond the human scale, and its epicness is in no way diminished by the size of things ashore.

The road continues through the high plateau of Koke’e State Park and terminates at a pair of overlooks of the Kalalau Valley. Whether viewed from above or below, the scale of the valley is clear, but the view from cliff’s edge allows a better understanding of the island’s context. At the beach, waves as well as walls tower over the visitor, but up here the waves are diminished to noise on an otherwise peaceful expanse of ocean. The ocean yawns onward to the horizon, where blue water merges with gray sky. Climbing to nearly a mile above the water renders the unimaginable distance to America a little clearer, and the island’s place among the ocean is put in its proper perspective. Either way, its beauty is obvious.

By car there’s nowhere to go besides turning back, but on foot the traveler has the option of hiking through the Alaka’i Swamp. I’m not sure what I expected to find based on the name of this place, but the experience was exactly as advertised – swampy. The trail was all mud and rock, the mud thick, slurpy, and filthy, the rocks slick and smooth. Even in the interior plateau of the island the trail rarely stayed two-dimensional. Where it’s flat, potholes the size of bowling balls threaten to swallow your feet in mucky opaque water, and where it’s steep the only option is to reach out to the overhanging branches to stabilize yourself as your feet slip and slide across the rocks. Properly equipped with boots and a few fellow hikers I could’ve easily pressed on, but I wanted to save my shoes from the worst of the wear, and elected to turn back after a mile of rough going through the great mudhouse of the Pacific.

Back on the perimeter highway, there’s only one more town counterclockwise of Waimea. Kekaha is passed quickly, yielding to Barking Sands beach, one of the longest in the archipelago. Even here on the leeward side of the Kauai, the waves have broken down long expanses of the lava into powder mixed with broken coral. Only Kauai is aged enough to have lush strips of sand that go on for miles and miles. Barking Sands is a particularly long beach, and is particularly well-suited for sunsets. It’s an ideal place to feel fine sand between your toes and crisp foaming seawater around your ankles on a long walk. Gazing over the surf, the plateaus of Niihau are a ghostly silhouette in the mist.

Once the road reaches the Pacific Missile Range there are few options to press on. Continuing on the highway requires getting past the guards at the range, the road to Polihale Beach requires four-wheel drive, and the narrow road inland quickly ends among the sugarcane plots in the shadow of the Koke’e plateau. From the end of the line it hits home how little of Kauai can be reached by car. The steep gradients of the eroded valleys are hostile to road building, and nearly the entire interior of the island is off limits to vehicle traffic. Hiking trails provide some access to the places where cars don’t go, but that’s a difficult and muddy option that strips the close-up perspective of the island from any meaningful context. The only way to truly understand Kauai is from the air.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Nowhere Higher to Climb

The largest telescope in the world, the binocular 10 meter reflector of the Keck Observatory, is located at the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii. On the island there’s nowhere higher to climb, and there are few places on the mainland United States that are higher. Mauna Kea is an odd place, an ultra-prominent peak just shy of 14,000 feet high on an island the size of Connecticut 2,500 miles from the nearest continental shore. It’s very remote, and very high above the bottom of Earth’s atmosphere, both of which make it a fine place for an observatory. For the dryness, darkness, isolation, and atmospheric thinness, astronomers have flocked to the peak. Telescopes with names like Keck, Subaru, Gemini, CalTech, and Canada-France-Hawaii populate the summit. It’s an interesting place for anyone interested in geology or astronomy, and I elected to visit the summit on Friday.

Approaching the visitors’ center 9,200 feet up the mountain transports the visitor into another world from the island coast. Kilauea has been particularly active the past week, and the Kona coast has been shrouded in volcanic smog that stains the sky an industrial shade of pinkish-brown. Leaving the resorts of Kailua for the forested slopes of Hualalai, the vog gave way to authentic overcast, which in turn receded while ascending through the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It doesn’t rain often in the saddle, and lava flows happen at a brisk pace for geology, leaving little but bushes and black rock. The final rise by road, halfway up the slope of Mauna Kea, rises quickly to the dry, rarified, and chill climate of high elevation, leaving the wet, muggy, and warm climate of the coast a distant memory.

The last touch of civilization comes in a warning. All across the information board at the visitors’ center are breathless reports about the hazards of the mountain. Always, the air is thin at the peak, only about 40% as dense as it is by the sea. The hazards of hypoxia – dizziness, exhaustion, dehydration, headache, poor judgment, and edema – are made clear, as is the fact that time and exertion at summit elevation make some of these symptoms likely and all of them possible. In the winter, the hazards of low temperatures and high winds are exacerbated. Snowstorms happen, as unbelievable as that seems looking into a sky as blue and blank as the Pacific water off the coast. There are many ways to get into trouble, the signs warn. The interloper is urged to be responsible.

Relative to the general population, I’m pretty young. I should be in better shape than I am, but my blood is rich with hemoglobin, my heart beats without drama, and my lungs do a good job of keeping the heart connected to the outside world. I’ve flown above 12,000 feet in an unpressurized glider before, and felt no ill effects from doing so. I know I’ll be working much harder hauling my body 2,000 feet higher than that, and I plan to linger for a time at the summit if possible, but it seems a journey well within my capability.

At 9:30 AM I departed the visitors’ center. The guide recommended budgeting no less than five hours for ascent and three hours for descent, and at that pace I’d return just in time for sunset. I didn’t like cutting it that close, but reckoned that the estimate was conservative and I could do better. On the way up, I limited my breaks for rest and picture taking, wanting to conserve as much time as possible for the summit. I had eight miles to go, and a 4,500 foot elevation gain, followed by the reverse, and I did not want to be on this trail after sundown. Responsibility favors briskness.

The trail is steep going right from the head, and it doesn’t let up. An average slope of 6° doesn’t seem so rough on paper, but the first miles are certainly steeper than average, and inclines always feel fiercer on foot than the math implies. After the initial burst of energy, progress was slow, and I breathed hard as I made my way up.

Mauna Kea proves that she’s a real mountain in these first miles. Like her sister volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain, Mauna Kea is a shield volcano, formed by lava weeping from a caldera and flowing with gravity until cool enough to stop. One by one, millennium after millennium, the lava flows add up until a peak emerges from the ocean waves. This makes for a gentle, monotonic rise, and a very different shape from the stratovolcanoes of the Pacific Northwest or the folded crust of the Rockies. From a distance Mount Rainier looks like a pyramidal monument, awesome in shape as well as scale, while Mauna Loa looks like a ski ramp that rises from the ocean and ends abruptly at 13,700 feet. Somewhere in my mind I’d tagged the big twins of Hawaii as not-really-mountains because of this peculiarity of formation.

I retract my prejudice. Mauna Kea is a real mountain, as real as any I’ve set foot on, and the exhausting nature of the climb is better proof of that fact than any numbers on elevation or prominence or average gradient magnitude. It’s rough, and it seems to go on forever. I keep climbing, glancing back every once and a while across the saddle to gauge my progress, and marveling that Mauna Loa never seems to change.

On any island other than here and New Guinea, Mauna Loa would be the end of the line for elevation. There’s nowhere higher on the continents of Antarctica and Australia. It’s almost as high as Mauna Kea, and the saddle between them never quite reaches a mile above sea level. That makes Mauna Loa another ultra, only 30 miles away from Hawaii’s true summit. There aren’t many places in the world where two ultra-prominent peaks stand this close together. Imagine Mount Rainier and Kilimanjaro standing at opposite ends of Long Island, and you get a sense of the weirdness of the island of Hawaii. Any changes in perspective for Mauna Loa are imperceptible, even while ascending her slightly taller twin.

More obvious are the cinder cones speckled about the highlands on both volcanoes. Mauna Kea isn’t just one mountain. It’s a cluster of peaks, mountains on mountains like goosebumps on flesh. Each cinder cone is a monument to an epic event of fire and liquid rock that once issued forth there, and there are dozens of them, each hundreds of feet high. The trail weaves between cones, and it’s possible to imagine that each might be the real summit. After several miniature peaks are passed, the feeling subsides, though it’s still unnerving to pass so much imposing rocky height and keep climbing.

Above 12,000 feet the edges of hypoxia start to nip at the mind. Hypoxia is a drug that takes time to kick in, and its effects aren’t immediately obvious. I woke up early, have been hiking all morning and into the early afternoon, and had only a light lunch that could fit in my laptop bag. This drowsiness that I feel, is it perfectly understandable exertion-induced fatigue, or is it my brain running rough, synapses being bypassed as the atmosphere leans my blood? I notice myself breathing harder, my feet seeming heavier, and I realize after a while that I don’t seem to be thinking as sharply. This concerns me, but not overwhelmingly so. I know what drug-induced euphoria feels like, and that this is usually the first subjective symptom I have of altered consciousness, and feel none of that right now. My nail beds are pink, and I can easily convince myself that the tingling in my toes is all in my imagination. This was partly true. I found out later that I was developing an impressive blister on my left big toe. Presently I came over another ridge, and saw the first telescope.

It was the Subaru telescope, and its housing was silvery and boxy. Soon the other telescopes resolved into view. There are 13 telescopes perched on terraces etched into the summit of Mauna Kea, mounted in domes and cylinders and cubes. The sky’s color had shifted to a deep blue, more like the blue of the ocean than the blue of a cat’s eyes, indicating how little of Earth’s atmosphere lay above the summit and how much lay below. The telescope complex is an impressive place, dwarfing the human scale, and dwarfed in turn by the scale of the mountains. Seeing the work of humans overshadowed by the work of nature provided another check on the awesome nature of this place.

Looking south, I was surprised by how far the clouds had progressed. When I started the hike, there was a fait veneer of cloud and vog clinging to the edges of the Hawaiian ultras like suds on a half-submerged dish. During the morning clouds trickled into the saddle, and by now there were a few puffs of cumulus passing by the observatory at eye level.

My mandatory descent time was 2:30 PM, budgeted to guarantee a daylight return, but I elected to turn back at 2 due to the clouds. I was unsure what weather they might be bringing, but didn’t want to take the unnecessary risk of running into a rainstorm, or worse, snow, on my way downhill. So downhill I plunged, past the telescope domes and past the cinder cones, down toward that cloud deck below me. Like the hike uphill, it seemed to take forever. Eventually I grew tired of ignoring the complaints of my back, and stopped to rest, watching the motion of the cloudscape in the saddle.

How should I describe the sight of clouds from the south slope of Mauna Kea? There are many metaphors I could choose from. The clouds were a blanket, swaddling the saddle away from the dry cool emptiness of summit land. They were slow-motion surf, rising and falling in waves like those pounding the land at Ka Lae. It was a net below me, the opacities woven like thick fishing line, the translucent spaces the gap between them. There’s some truth to these metaphors, but none of them fully capture the sight of this demimonde between the fast world of the ocean and the slow world of the land.

Endless forms came together and came apart. There were von Karman streets and fractal branches, peaks and valleys, swirls and puffs. Land takes thousands of years to move and ripple, even here in young Hawaii, and ocean waves take seconds. In the cloudscape, the motion of shape and reshaping is set to a rhythm of minutes, just right for the human mind to fully comprehend it. It was nice to just sit for a while, to breathe the thin air deeply and watch the shapes roll by.

Few people make the journey from the visitors’ center to the summit on foot, and fewer still do so in the winter. I encountered no other hikers during my journey, and as I rested I became aware of how silent the mountain is. Wind rustles and insects buzz occasionally, but other than that, there’s no source of sound other than your own breathing and heartbeat. Mauna Kea is a preternaturally quiet place. To the eye every detail is brilliantly illuminated by the Sun, but to the ear it’s a place as silent as space. The loss of the ear is the gain of the eye, and the character of the rocks and the cloudscape and the mountain to the south are rendered larger-than-life by the noiselessness. Seeing this motion, slow in the mountain and fast in the clouds, is a transporting experience, and after a few minutes of observing the scene in quiet it becomes difficult to believe that you’re still on the same planet where human civilization exists.

As the afternoon progressed I descended the mountain. The clouds flowed on to the west, moving back toward sea level with the Sun. After a time I’d followed enough switchbacks that the visitors’ center came back into view, unbelievably far below me still, but fortunately above the cloud deck. I made it back, dust billowing at my feet with each step, just in time for sunset. It was strange hearing so much speech and seeing so many people after my silent day alone, but good to be back where there air was thick and warm (relatively speaking) and where I didn’t need to worry about being stuck alone in the dark. I rested for a few minutes, taking stock of the day’s journey, and headed back to the Kona coast.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I Voted for Gary Johnson

On Friday I submitted my early voting mail-in ballot for the Maricopa county, Arizona state, and federal general elections of 2012. Since the midterm elections two years ago there's been a deluge of noise from the presidential campaigns. First, the rather anemic pack of republican candidates savaged each other with negative ads and smearing on the social networks, then Mitt Romney emerged to repeat the process with Barack Obama. Like many voters, I’m unhappy with the appallingly low signal-to-noise ratio of modern campaigns, and I’d pretty much made my decision in the presidential election by the start of the summer. I've  learned little new on any of the candidates and their policies since then. I suspect that anyone reading this has already made their decision as well, so I intend this note to be more for historical than persuasive purposes.

For a number of reasons I felt that I couldn't vote for either major party candidate in good faith. Briefly, I think that President Obama has continued too many of the infuriating policies and practices of the Bush administration, and I don't trust Governor Romney to deliver on the promises he's made over the six years he's been running for president. Since the democrats and republicans have failed to offer candidates willing to address what I think are the most serious problems facing the United States, I felt that my vote was more meaningful opting out of the two-party system and voting for the libertarian candidate for president. There are reasons for this, which I'll explain in more detail below.

Since the economy and deficit have dominated recent news coverage of the election cycle, let's start there. Romney has focused his campaign on attacking Obama for not doing enough to pull the US out of recession and not getting the federal budget deficit under control. It's true that the GDP growth and unemployment numbers have been bad during Obama's term in office - shockingly bad to my non-expert understanding of economics. Controlling the deficit and reducing the national debt needs to happen. If it doesn't happen soon, the United States will start facing the type of financial crisis now facing nations across the Eurozone like Ireland and Greece. This will be devastating to the global economy when it happens, and I agree with Governor Romney that I'd like to see someone more dedicated to deficit control in the White House.

Mr. Romney has made it clear that he's unwilling to be such a president. The federal budget is composed of, in descending order of spending, entitlement programs, defense, discretionary spending, and interest payments. The fact that the United States government paid $227 billion on interest in 2011 (roughly 12 times NASA's budget) should make clear how important deficit reduction is. There's nothing to be done about interest payments, and Romney specified in the debates that he doesn't intend to reform entitlement programs in such a way that there would be meaningful savings soon. He's also clearly stated that he intends to increase defense spending, despite the fact that the United States shoulders 40% of the global defense budget already. The US Navy operates 11 of the 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers currently in service. We don't need more ships, guys. Even cutting discretionary spending entirely (which would be a terrible and untenable idea) wouldn't be enough to close the deficit while keeping the rest constant or growing.

Increasing tax revenues could pick up some of the slack. Romney's proposal amounts to an across-the-board tax cut, however, exacerbating the deficit growth problem. When pressed for specifics on what loopholes Romney would close or what spending he would cut to move America's budget toward the black, the republican candidate has decisively failed to make a convincing case that he can actually make any of this happen. "Trust me," he's said "I know how to run a business and balance budgets." That may be, but he didn't do so by naming countless ways he won't accomplish the task at hand. I don't trust that Governor Romney will follow through on his pledge to improve the economy and manage the deficit better than President Obama, and I don't think you should, either.

Of course, there's more to the election than the economy. I didn't vote for President Obama in 2008, but when he took office I was glad for several, mostly foreign policy-oriented, reasons that Bush was gone and he was in the White House. I believed that the step-by-step infringements on civil liberties that were the cornerstone of Bush the younger's counter-terrorism strategy would stop. I believed that unauthorized drone strikes on foreign soil would stop. I believed that the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay would be shut down and the detainees would be charged and tried in a fair court. How wrong I was.

Over the last four years, Obama has made it clear that all these practices of an administration fueled by terror and shame will continue indefinitely. The culture of fear that's persisted in America after 9/11 has been corrosive to our civil liberties and the values that we ought to (in my opinion) stand for. Our enemies might torture our troops and blow up innocent civilians by the thousand and write them off as collateral damage, but that doesn't mean that we should stoop to their level of inhumanity. In the last presidential debate, there was no difference of opinion on this issue. Obama bragged about upping the tempo of robotic assassination strikes in Pakistan, and Romney hastened to add that he'd keep the Predators and Hellfires coming. What a nation we've become. At least Obama seemed less eager to bomb Iran.

What about the environment? I'm not a climatologist, but the expert opinion in the field is that Earth's global average temperature is increasing, human activity seems to be at least partly responsible for this, and that accelerating increased temperatures will probably be bad for society at large. There isn't an airtight case that action must be taken now to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions, and there probably won't be until well after the droughts and famines and hurricane seasons that run into the Greek alphabet start. There was evidence, sobering but imperfect evidence, that tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons were doing serious harm to public health before they were better understood and banned, and it would be nice to learn the lesson from these cases. We should take meaningful action now, before the truly nasty effects of anthropogenic climate change start showing up. Where do the candidates stand?

There's little to say about Mitt Romney. He scoffs at the idea of climate change and blasts the current president for not drilling for more oil and not leveling more Appalachian mountains to find coal. In 2008, Barack Obama argued for a cap-and-trade system to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions and investment in renewable energy. Some investment has happened, but cap-and-trade has been abandoned, and the drop in American carbon emissions over the last four years is mainly from a dramatic increase in shale gas extraction. "Drill, baby, drill" has become "Frack, baby, frack." I don't expect a second Obama term to pick up where Obama the 2008 candidate left off.

When Romney hasn't been talking about the economy this election cycle, he's almost always been focused on Obama's healthcare initiative, passed in 2010. I'm neither a doctor nor an economist, and frankly, I don't think I'm qualified to comment on this issue. This may be selfish of me, but I'll have excellent health insurance through my employer either way, and I distrust the candidates so much on so many other issues, that their bickering back and forth about healthcare reform is simply noise to me.

Generally speaking, I don't think it makes sense to vote for a presidential candidate based on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, or gun control. Politicians adapt to the popular consensus, and when there's enough momentum behind a cause, it'll happen, whether it's a good idea or not. I have opinions on these issues, but I don't think they're relevant to this discussion.

Looking at the two major party candidates I'm at a loss to decide who I think would be less bad for America. President Obama is a clear supporter of commercial human spaceflight and investment in science, and seems less likely to agitate for more military action in the middle east than his republican rival. On nearly all other issues, they're actually pretty similar, so though I'd rather see another Obama term than a first Romney term, I'm far from enthusiastic about either opportunity. What other choices are there?

Gary Johnson is the libertarian candidate running for president this year, but is less ideological than a typical libertarian candidate. He served as governor of New Mexico for eight years, balanced its budget, made spending decisions on a cost-benefit basis, and pushed back against the disastrous federal war on drugs. He's repeatedly spoken out against the hawkish neoconservative foreign policy America has followed since the Bush years, and seems trustworthy when he says he would take meaningful steps to reduce the deficit and debt. I don't agree with him on all issues, but to be honest, I'd rather have someone like Mr. Johnson serve as president than either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney.

By casting my ballot, I've articulated that I will put in the effort to express myself politically, and I'm dissatisfied with the candidates the republican and democratic parties have produced. I know that Gary Johnson won't win (it'll probably be Obama, but it's a close race), but I also feel like this is the most meaningful way I can exercise my democratic privilege. If you can, vote. Vote for the candidate you think is least bad. It might not be much, but the ability we have to influence our government this way is a precious thing.

It's late, and that's all that comes to mind now on this election. Here's an image that more succinctly describes how I feel:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Haikus for Sober Daylight

(Graffiti at Gasworks Park, Seattle)

Normally I don't much care for writing poetry. Constraints can be useful for creative exploration, but I usually wind up feeling overconstrained by rules governing rhyme and meter. At some point the rules stop being welcome milestones for navigation and start being frustrating limits on what I can say. Though prose can seem more mundane upon reading, it's liberating to be able to write unbounded by artificial and unnecessary structure. Sometimes, though, it's nice to do something different.

I woke up this morning and decided I'd rather write some haikus than keep packing for my departure to Arizona. Here they are:

I think I want to
be a Renaissance man, but
napping is cool, too.

As an engineer,
gravity bothers me, but
I like that stars shine.

Girl in a green dress
Standing on the median
Should've hit the brakes.

I want another
haiku. Because of pride? Or
because I like them?

Taylor Swift makes more
money and music than me.
That's okay. She's pretty.

war is exciting to the
The problem is that
we might someday play it for
real. That would be bad.

I find writing more
interesting than lunch, but I'm
also hungry now.

Moving all my stuff,
I marvel at how much should
have been trashed before.

I understand that
is a thing. Wait. What?

Freedom from want is
the best place to be, but I
want it. Dammit, brain.

Writing about flow
is hard. Minds don't like thinking
about ego loss.

Did I write this just
for symmetry, or because
I want more haikus?

Some of these refer to real things. Most of them seem to be fairly meta. If only there wasn't still so much packing to do, I might be able to make better sense of what I'm trying to say, assuming that such a thing exists.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Southern Wild

Image credit

This isn't a news blog. I'm not even sure what this blog is for sometimes. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that there was spectacular news from the European Southern Observatory on Tuesday night that I haven't mentioned until now. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our solar system, has at least one planet. Greg Laughlin posted an excellent overview of the technical and cultural implications of this discovery here.

Alpha Centauri has planets! And not just any planets, the one discovered is almost a twin of Earth in size, one of the smallest ever discovered. This is wonderful news. Alpha Centauri is a stellar archipelago anchored by three main sequence stars, and the larger two (A and B) are close in size and age to our Sun. Multiple star systems are more common than singletons like the Sun, and finding at least one planet in the Alpha Cen system underlines the message that's been slowly emerging from the search for extrasolar planets. Where there are stars, there are usually planets, and where there are planets, there are possible homes for life.

No exoplanets will be discovered closer to home. This is the primary reason the ESO's discovery is so exciting. The new planet's proximity will make it more practical to observe and travel to than any other planetary system yet known. Note that that doesn't mean observation and travel will be easy. Alpha Centauri is still a frighteningly long distance away at the speeds human-built spacecraft have yet achieved. Even at the speed of light, it's more than a four year journey across the interstellar void. The most power-hungry engines we can imagine building today will only be able to manage a few percent of that speed. The most capable engines we can build today can only manage a fraction of a percent of that lower bar. Still, the divide between Sun and Alpha Cen is less than that to any other destination beyond the solar system, so this discovery is a boon for learning more of our planetary companions abroad.

I want to be sure that I'm not overhyping this discovery. The planet discovered is a strangely hellish place. She orbits so closely to Alpha Centauri B that a year there lasts about three and a quarter Earth days, and the planet's surface is so hot that the surface is probably more lava than rock. There are no oceans of water there, but there could be lakes of copper. Alpha Cen B's companion is not a home for starship pioneers, and would be a very challenging place even for robotic exploration. The main reason the announcement is so exciting is not so much for the freakish world it unveiled, but because it shows that more clement places may await discovery nearby.

Laughlin's description of the data collection and analysis that led to the announcement illustrates what a demanding challenge the ESO team has answered. The new planet is much too dim to see against the white-hot glare of Alpha Centauri A and B. Instead, astronomers saw the signature of her presence in the doppler shift of Alpha Cen B swinging back and forth against the planet's gravitational tug. A and B orbit each other in a lazy double-elliptical path that pulls them through a cycle once every 80 years, but even at that rate Alpha Centauri B is sprinting away from the Sun and double the fastest speed astronauts have ever achieved. The wobble due to the planet discovered perturbs this path by the speed of a falling leaf. The light leaving Alpha Cen B carrying the signal of the planet's presence left with a sticky residue of noise from starspot activity, convection, and stellar rotation. After travelling for four years across the vacuum of space, it was garbled further by turbulence in the last few milliseconds on the way through Earth's atmosphere to the ESO's telescopes in the Chilean desert. Like CERN's discovery of the Higgs boson earlier this year, this discovery is as much a triumph of statistical analysis as it is of instrument design and perseverance. While only one planet is currently known, the signal of an Earth-sized planet the right distance from B to have watery oceans will be harder to tease out of the data than that of the planet announced on Tuesday. An American team has been collecting high-cadence doppler observation data on Alpha Cen B since 2008. In a few years, they or the Europeans may have even more startling discoveries to announce.

Alpha Centauri B is the second-brightest star in its system, and the planet ESO announced earlier this week is the first planet discovered around B, so it will officially be known as Alpha Centauri B b for the time being. That's an awkward name, one that makes the planet sound more like bank account than a world. She'll be given a more appropriate name when astronomers and engineers are much further along in her exploration, as the Curiosity team has done with Mount Sharp on Mars.

Due to an awkward and unfortunate coincidence of Earth's orbit, attitude, and plate tectonics, most people won't be able to see the Alpha Centauri system tonight. Viewed from Earth, it's far south of the equator, and only appears directly overhead in the wild waters of the Southern Ocean. Alpha Centauri never appears for observers north of Houston, and is only occasionally visible between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer.
A few summers ago I was in Campinas, Brazil during July and August, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The familiar constellations of the north, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia,  Polaris, where nowhere to be found on the long clear nights of the southern tropical winter. Each cloudless night, the Southern Cross glowed like a string of lighthouses pointing the way to the Antarctic, and the constellation Centaurus shimmered to its east. The brightest star, the Alpha of Centauri, formed one of the Centaur's forward hooves, and shined clear, twinkling, and colorless, like a diamond in a sea of rubies, sapphires, and pebbles. Now I know there was a world on fire that I was seeing in that point of light. Alpha Centauri is nothing to those in north, but in the southern skies it's brighter than Arcturus, beckoning those who look up from Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Cape Town. As people once ventured to those places, so we'll one day venture further south. South of the Cape of Good Hope, south of Amundsen's camp at the pole, south of orbits of all the planets, south until the Sun is just a white fleck in the northern sky, and home is among the worlds of Centauri

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Logos et Volantes

Though I'm no longer a student at Texas A&M, I've been in College Station lately, and can still check out books from Evans Library. Since I'll be departing soon for Arizona, then Washington, I've been spending as much time as I can get away with lately thumbing through the third floor aviation and space section. First, I jotted down some notes from T.A. Heppenheimer's two-volume Development of the Space Shuttle history (which should be required reading for anyone interested in program management, government science policy, or technology development), and read through Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon (which is severely problematic, more on that later). Over the last week, I've been reading Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, and I've not be disappointed.

There aren't many people who have both made great strides in human flight and eloquently described their work and experience to a broader audience. Lindbergh is one of them (if you're interested in others, I recommend Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Michael Collins, and Mike Mullane). In my reading today, I came across two passages in particular that do much to capture the feeling of awe that flight enables us to glimpse:

"Behind every movement, word, and detail, one felt the strength of life, the presence of death. There was pride in man’s conquest of the air. There was the realization that he took life in hand to fly, that in each bolt and wire and wooden strut death lay imprisoned like the bottled genie – waiting for an angled grain or loosened nut to let it out."

"Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. There was science in each curve of an airfoil, in each angle between strut and wire, in the gap of a spark plug or the color of the exhaust flame. There was freedom in the unlimited horizon, on the open fields where one landed. A pilot was surrounded by beauty of earth and sky. He brushed treetops with the birds, leapt valleys and rivers, explored the cloud canyons he had gazed at as a child. Adventure lay in each puff of wind."

What Lindbergh understood, and Mailer so failed to grasp, was that the severance of contact with the Earth is an experience charged with the numinous by its very nature. Talking about these kinds of experiences, these moments of contact with psychological flow and awe at humanity's place in the cosmos, is very difficult. Thank goodness we have articulate accounts like that of Lindbergh. If nothing else, he reminds me that I should go flying more often.

Monday, October 15, 2012


The first time I flew solo in an airplane, I departed from Pleasant Valley Airport in Peoria. It’s a small operation north of Phoenix, and the facilities can best be described as “Spartan.” The runways are thin strips of desert floor plowed free of the larger pieces of sandstone and basalt, and the gravel and protuberances of the dry Gila River valley cover each of the runways. The Schweizer 2-33 can take off at a hair under 40 miles an hour when it’s not burdened with the weight of two riders, but even at that speed rolling over the dirt runways at Pleasant Valley is a jarring experience.

When the airplane first starts rolling all its weight is borne by the landing gear and their contact with the runway. Every bump, dip, and chip of gravel transmits a jolt to the wheels, the aircraft structure, and ultimately to the pilot. You accelerate as you roll down the runway, and the experience of ground contact begins to rattle your spine. Soon, though, the wings are moving quickly enough through the dusty air that they ease the load on the tires, pushing the glider’s weight through sheets of air rather than wheels on ground. Takeoff is a moment first sensed through touch rather than sight. When the shaking stops, replaced by the smooth continuous jostling of aerodynamic motion through turbulence, you’re aloft.

It’s a relief to be airborne after the rattling and rolling of the takeoff run. Ground holds an airplane gruffly, though the path is assured. The touch of air is gentle, purposeful but accommodating, like the hold of a familiar dance partner. Leaving the ground behind and embracing the air above is a moment of relief for the pilot, knowing he’s taken the machine into a realm where she’s better equipped to move through the elements. Still, on a gusty day it can be an unnerving process to leave the certainty of the path of ground below.

This process of embracing uncertainty and drawing away from the unsettling notions of the past is something like my experience developing my career and exploring religion in the last few years. To be honest, this seems the most appropriate way to describe where I am:

Whether or not I have any idea what I’m doing, I have ideas with varying shades of vagueness on what progress is, and I like making progress. I've spent more time idle than I’d like since deciding to put grad school on hold and head to Boeing, but that will come to an end after the new year. I’m confident that that’s the best I action I can take now, though it is a departure from my original plan. In the meantime, I've written quite a bit on various things that interest me, and plan to make more serious progress between now and starting full-time in Seattle. Will advise.

Last month, I started going to the weekly Rite of Christian Introduction for Adults (RCIA) at St. Mary’s in College Station. This is trickier, but I've had enough influences, some subtle, some overt, in my life pushing me toward Catholicism that I felt I needed to learn more about it. So I’m gathering data, trying to make an informed decision, painfully aware of how bad I can be at making important decisions when I’m given conflicting advice. Still, this seems like the appropriate place for me to be now (though I’ll need to find new RCIA classes in Phoenix later this month and in Seattle in January), so I’ll keep plugging away trying to make sense of how things work in this universe.

I’m slowly beginning to understand that if I keep flippantly taking up monumentally challenging tasks, I’ll probably never really feel like I know what I’m doing. Not that that’s a big deal. Truth be told, I can’t think of anything better to do. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Last week I made the decision to withdraw from my MS program in aerospace engineering at Texas A&M to pursue full-time work in the Structural Test Laboratory at Boeing in Tukwila, Washington. This delays but does not eliminate the day when I earn an advanced degree in engineering. There are a number of reasons (good) why this is happening.

During my first year of graduate school, Texas A&M awarded me a generous financial support package. Though it only provided for the first year of my MS program, I was confident my advisor and I could find either a fellowship or a research or teaching assistantship to pay for my second year. When that turned out not to be the case, I re-evaluated my future plans.

Working at Boeing will allow me to earn a master’s from the University of Washington with the company’s financial support. I won’t become eligible for the program until next summer, and will have to proceed at a slower pace since I’ll be working full time while taking classes, but the contrast couldn’t be clearer between starting work next summer several thousand dollars in debt and starting work in a few months with my savings intact. Financially, I knew I’d be better off going the Boeing way than staying at A&M, but there was more to consider.

UW is a fine academic institution, with an excellent program in aerospace engineering. I don’t think I’m trading down getting my final degree from there rather than Texas A&M. I enjoyed the work I did in the structures lab last summer. The work there is technically engaging, exposes me to a wide variety of projects, and makes me feel like I’m really making an impact on the program. In a year or so I should be able to go down to the high bay in Tukwila, see a major piece of structural equipment, and tell people “I thought of that. I can tell you why it’s shaped the way it is.” That kind of tangible ownership is what first attracted me to engineering.

There are a few things I’ll miss about College Station. I’ve lived here long enough that it feels a bit like home. It’s a lot of fun being able to scream my lungs out every once in a while at midnight yell. St. Mary’s is without question the best religious atmosphere I’ve ever seen, and a major component of why I’ve spent so much of the last two years learning more about Catholicism. That said, on balance I’m thrilled at the prospect of moving on to Seattle. Puget Sound is one of the best places in the world to be as a young professional right now. It’s physically beautiful, rewards wandering, and is full of young, fresh college grads like me. I’ve never been anywhere else that feels as vibrant, young, and alive as Seattle does. As long as my brain can handle the dearth of sunlight in the winter, I’d be happy to set down roots there and settle in for a good long while.

Since departing from A&M now makes sense from both financial and personal standpoints, this really wasn’t that difficult of a decision to make. That said, I can’t help but feel a bit anxious about the whole thing. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t being told daily that I need to strive for excellence in school. Do well in school, do more school, and above all just keep working up the academic system, I was told. Now here I am with every rational indication I have telling me that more school, at least immediately, is the opposite of a good idea. It’s a thrilling realization, but one mixed with a large dollop of vertigo.

There are so many things I’ve wanted to do over the years. I want to wander about some Pacific islands. I want to write, not in fits and starts for a few paragraphs, but steadily, till I have something I can proudly call an example of my creativity. I want to figure out if there’s any merit to the peace I see in my religious friends’ lives, or if my atheist friends are closer to the truth. For the next few months I’ll be living in a strange sort of interlude, neither student nor professional. I don’t know when I’ll next have a time in my life as ripe for this kind of freestyle exploration, and my top immediate priority should be using it to the fullest.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wheels on the Ground

First, the video from Earth:

Though history has been made and Curiosity is now safely on Mars to stay, the tension is well preserved in the video. Watching this live, I could feel my heart hestiate when powered flight began and at the call "standing by for skycrane." The wild emotional outburst 12 minutes in, when "touchdown confirmed" goes out on the comm loop, is something rare, something I wish happened more often in my life and for people in general. Wonderful.

Next, the video from Mars:

When the previous craft to land on Mars, Viking, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix, eased their way down to the surface, they were going to a place as real as as the canyons of Arizona that so closely resemble the Martian terrain. Still, there's an air of mystery around a process no one's ever really seen unfold. It's temptingly easy to allow the notion of a rover landing on Mars to become an idea, an academic notion without a charged sensory experience attached to it. Now that this video's been taken, a close electronic proxy for that sensory experience now exists.

Make no mistake. This event really happened, and was breathtaking. Amazing.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Birth of Curiosity

Nine months ago, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity left the east coast of Florida on a one-way trip to a crater on Mars. Launch was a violet event, full of light, smoke, and noise on the way uphill and eastward out of Earth's gravity well. Since Florida is relatively easy to get to from where I live, and I know people who work on the rover for the living, I was able to see the launch from a few miles away and blogged about it here.

Curiosity's landing site, Gale Crater, is a bit more inaccessible than Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Not only has no one seen or inspected the rover for nine months and a hundred million miles, Mars is so remote from the Jet Propulsion Lab's control room in Pasadena that it now takes 14 minutes for telemetry radioed back from the rover to reach mission controllers. This means that if anything happens quickly, this complex automated system built by a team of imperfect people is completely on its own for decision-making and execution of those decisions. Nothing much exciting happens during an interplanetary cruise, so that hasn't been worrysome up until tonight. Once Curiosity hits the top of Mars's atmosphere in a few hours, though, things will start happening very quickly.

The following things need to happen, without fail, for the pride of NASA and JPL to reach the red dust on Mars's surface intact and ready to do science:

The rover, now an aircraft rather than a spacecraft, needs to decelerate from around 30 times the speed of sound to twice the speed of sound by converting the kinetic energy of spaceflight into heat energy surging into an incandescent wall of plasma on the leading edge of the heat shield. The rover's electronics cannot overheat while this happens. That would ruin everything.

The rover needs to explosively launch a parachute out the back end while still flying faster than rifle bullet. There will be shock waves snarling the parachute's shroud lines and coalescing into sheets of high-pressure air that will slam into the canopy like blasts from a grenade. On Earth, supersonic parachutes are considered something to avoid, but the air on Mars is simply to thin to wait any longer to deploy the chute. It needs to be out while the rover is still in a screaming dive toward the surface.

As it turns out, the parachute still isn't enough to slow Curiosity down to a tolerable landing speed. Rockets will fire, nulling the rover's horizontal speed and cutting its vertical speed to a gentle, constant descent. Meanwhile Curiosity's onboard computer will be snapping pictures of the terrain beneath her, comparing those pictures to borrowed snapshots taken by the fleet of Mars orbiters, and will attempt to guide the rover to a pre-programmed ideal landing point.

Once the rover has closed to within fifty or so vertical feet of the surface, the rover itself will be slung under the rocket platform on cables. The platform (actually a skycrane. Like, for real, that's what its called) will descend until rover wheels touch down, then cut the cables and fly away to a (hopefully) distant impact point.

Then the rover can power up the instruments with the heat of an onboard plutonium source and go do science. In case you're not properly terrified of how horribly this can all end, here's a video which adds some visual detail to the steps outlined above:

The engineers at JPL, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, who designed, built, and simulated the rover are smart people. They're experienced, they've accomplished difficult things before, in short, they know what they're doing. That said, this is a much, much more dangerous event in the life of Curiosity than was launch. More things have to happen in faster succession on a machine that's been on a lonely journey since November. Before launch there were people ready to inspect and repair the rover up until the final hours before engine ignition. That luxury is unique to Earth.

NASA has sunk more than two billion dollars into this spacecraft, and the future of our Mars exploration program for a generation may be hanging in the balance of what a simple-minded robot can do in seven minutes in the atmosphere of another planet. Tonight is a big night, and I'll be breathing easier after 10:30 my time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on Consciousness

Tomorrow I'll be co-presenting a talk on consciousness to the Philosophy Club at Texas A&M. This is a rich subject, with thousands of years of argumentation on just about every side imaginable. To say that consciousness is poorly understood would be a bit of an understatement. I'm not an expert in philosophy, neuroscience, or metaphysics, so my opinions and their divergences from mainstream theories of consciousness aren't of any great import. In my mind, though, this is one of the most interesting subjects to examine, and I can't help but try to synthesize something out of the mountains of thoughts that have been composed over the years. In my introduction, I plan to say something along these lines:

"Consciousness is that aspect of your mind that’s left undescribed when you say your brain is like a computer. It’s the inner world of color and sound, of pain and euphoria, of presence and awareness, that exists for you alone. Like a machine intelligence we sense, remember, and act, but more than that, we perceive, believe, and yearn, and that explosive wondrous world that it is to be human is what consciousness is. Reconciling the dazzling warm world of sensation with the cold dispassionate world of material things around us is the challenge of understanding what consciousness is."

In an unrelated issue, I should probably post pictures of something other than sunsets at some point.