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.