Sunday, February 28, 2010

From Hell's Heart I Stab at Thee

So, I finished reading Moby Dick. What a load of whale oil. It didn't take quite as long as the Pequod's actual journey, but all in all I would rather have spent the time watching Star Trek: Nemesis over and over again until my eyes bled.

Maybe Melville was born a couple of hundred years too soon. In some ways, the book reads like a blog. The chapters are mostly a few pages long, loosely related but not what you would call a tight story. Spoiler Alert: the first time we see the whale is like page 485 of 500. It's not exactly an action yarn. Nor is it really the deep psychological character study of Ahab that I expected. He's obsessed with the whale that bit his leg off. We get it. The whole thing could have been a short story.

We will not speak of this again. But I will have my revenge on Herman Melville, if it's the last thing I do.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nerdvana (Part 2)

I think we left our story after the launch of Endeavour was scrubbed on Super Bowl Sunday morning, and the wife and I had suffered the drive from Hell back to our hotel. My head hit the pillow about 8:00 am, and I was aware of nothing until almost noon. We had scheduled an extra day in our trip because of the shuttle's 70% scrub rate, so we had one more chance to see a launch. The next attempt was scheduled for 4:15 Monday morning. Because of weather and other events at Cape Canaveral, we knew this would be the last attempt for a while.

Once we were convinced that we were not going to sleep anymore, we got ready and went to meet an old colleague of the wife's who works at Patrick AFB. After a pleasant visit, and a "just what the doctor ordered" breakfast at Breakfast at Lilly's in Satellite Beach, we decided we might be able to squeeze in a one hour nap before the Super Bowl. In what we have come to think of as typical JD style, my friend had invited us to watch the game at his home, despite the fact that he didn't really know us, they had a house full of company, and they were both going to have to be up all night for the second night in a row. Their hospitality was over the top (including a place for another quick nap after the game), we had a great time, and of course the game was awesome. I also had the unusual experience of watching a Super Bowl sober, knowing that we had another long night ahead.

Many of the actual VIP's had gone home after the previous night's scrub, so JD and his wife had a chance to give us a different experience than we had the night before. We had the great good fortune of riding with JD, whose pre-launch ritual is to ride around the base talking to people and watching some of the other prelaunch rituals. Our first stop was what he calls the Astro-parade, where the astronauts get in their big Airstream van and ride to the launch pad.  There is something cool and sort of "Forest Gumpish" about witnessing things in person that we have seen all our lives on TV. The astronaut van was cool like that.

The next stop was the airstrip, where we watched a couple of other astronauts take off in a T-38 on the pre-launch weather flight. This is also where the shuttles that have to be piggy-backed in get unstacked from the top of their 747 carrier, so we got to see the tower where that happens.

After riding around some more until we were well and truly disoriented, and had talked to approximately every person standing watch somewhere at Kennedy Space Center, we returned to the Saturn V center to await the next attempt. The weather had been cloudy all day, and we were not optimistic. Fortunately, our naps were holding up, so we were not nearly so tired as the night before.

About an hour before launch, the weather started to clear. It was not crystal clear by launch time, but apparently clear enough. After listening to the traditional roll call of department heads and "go" responses, we heard the Director say, "You are go to launch Endeavour." When the message was relayed to the crew, you could hear the excitement in their voices. A spontaneous cheer went up from the crowd at Banana Creek, which I'm sure was echoed at all the other viewing sites.

The launch itself was magical. The shuttle was behind the launch platform from our perspective, so the first thing we saw was a tremendous brightness when the main engines started. It got even brighter when the solid rocket boosters lit. They tell me it's brighter than the sun, and I don't doubt it. The shuttle came into view about a second later. If you hold your fingers at arm's length about an inch or so apart, that's the apparent size of the shuttle from three miles away. It was small, but clearly visible. I can't describe the sight of that little thing riding an enormous column of flame. It's just one of those things you have to see to understand. The sound hit us about fifteen seconds later, and just kept getting louder. I found I was quietly repeating the word "go" under my breath.

A shuttle launch doesn't even begin to compete with the best that nature can do, but it is impressive, especially if you engage your brain a little. When I heard, "Endeavour is now traveling 6000 miles per hour, altitude 65 miles and 200 miles downrange," it was really hard to reconcile with the fact that I could still clearly see the glow from the main engines. It really was a special moment, and one I'm glad I got to experience.

JD got us through the crowd and back to his home in no time, and we were in our hotel by 5:30. After a few hours sleep, we started the long drive home, exhausted but happy. The wife commented on the drive home that she couldn't think of a better way to spend a weekend, or better people to spend it with. I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nerdvana (Part 1)

It has been a dream of mine to watch a manned rocket launch since I watched the Gemini and Apollo missions on TV as a kid, but it seemed like a dream that was destined to go unfulfilled. Not that I couldn't make it happen. It just seemed like there was never a good time, and they usually don't go off on time, and it's crowded, and on and on and all the reasons we use for putting off the things that we will someday wish we had done.

That's how it stayed until a few months ago, when I got back in touch with my old high school friend JD. After a distinguished military career, JD landed a high-ranking position at Kennedy Space Center, and he invited us down to watch a launch of the space shuttle. Realizing that this was likely to be my last chance to see a big launch, I jumped at the opportunity. Endeavour was scheduled to lift off Super Bowl Sunday at 4:35 am, carrying the Tranquility module (and the Colbert treadmill) to the International Space Station. We decided to drive down instead of trying to fly, mostly for the flexibility, and the ability to carry whatever the hell we wanted without paying for a bunch of checked bags. It's about a twelve hour drive from here, not much further than a trip to see the in-laws.

JD called a few days before the trip to talk over the plans, and invited us to a KSC reception on Friday night. Knowing that it would be close on timing, we left the house early, dressed in our party clothes. We would have made it on time, too. I realized the flaw in our plan when we passed the sign that said "Now Entering Eastern Time Zone." We were going to lose an hour that was not accounted for in our schedule. Luckily, my car is capable of going faster than it had been going.  We were almost back on track when we hit a ginormous traffic jam in Gainesville, involving three separate accidents on I-95.

Anyway, we got to the reception about a half an hour late, but didn't really miss anything. We located JD, met his wife and her cousins, and proceeded to shake off some of the road dust. Within about 15 minutes I had a chance to see JD standing at the front of the room with the Director of KSC and the Director of NASA talking about what a great asset he was.  This was when I first realized that my friend might not be just another NASA employee. About 10:00 we realized we had been up for about twenty hours in a row, made our apologies and drove the half hour to our hotel.

After a decent night's sleep, we had a quick breakfast and made the hour drive to the KSC Visitor's Center. We had a couple of hours to kill before the VIP* briefing, so we toured the exhibits and rode the shuttle launch simulator, which I have to admit is pretty cool. JD delivered the first third of the briefing, and I was impressed. His particular blend of drive, leadership, humor and love of people seem to fit his new life perfectly, and spending time with him was at least as much fun for me as the rest of the trip.  While JD was always (mostly) serious and dedicated about doing something real with his life, he was not really a star at much of anything in our high school, and I think some people there would be surprised that he has matured into a proverbial "leader of men." It was fun to see him work a room of 400 people with the skill of a politician, but without the lying. I could definitely see a political career in his future. I know I would vote for him.

We had a few minutes after the briefing before they closed the launchpad, so we hopped into JD's car and hauled ass out to see the shuttle. While we weren't exactly standing on the gantry, we were much closer than I had imagined we would get. I could clearly see "Endeavour" printed on the side of the orbiter. We only had about five minutes to gawk and take pictures, but it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We drove past one of the big crawlers on the way out to the pad, which was also pretty cool.

Knowing that sleep would be hard to come by from here on out, we drove back to the hotel for a nap. We slept for about an hour, and spent two more lying in bed wishing we were sleeping. We had a light dinner and headed back to KSC about 10 pm.

The next few hours were the hardest of the trip. We had been standing or walking for much of the day, and it was getting to be past our bedtime. We wandered the Visitor's Center, watched the IMAX movie, shopped for warmer clothes and looked for a place to sit until it was time to queue for the bus. We stood in line for about an hour for the relatively quick trip to the Saturn V Center at Banana Creek, where we would watch the launch. We arrived with about two hours to kill until launch time.

I wish I had taken more pictures of the Saturn V building, though I don't think any shot I could take would do justice to the scale of the building, or the giant rocket suspended overhead. I primarily would like pictures of all the exhausted people wandering around or slumped over or lying on any available surface, so I could have some way to remember how tired we were. It looked like an airport after everyone has been snowed in for a couple of days.

The weather was so clear that I wished for my telescope when we first got to Banana Creek, but within an hour a low overcast had moved in and the launch was in jeopardy. We listened as launch control changed the launch status from 80% go, to 60%, to 30%, to red, back to green, back to red, green and red again. They scrubbed the launch a little after 4:20 am. By that time we were just happy to be able to get back on the bus for a short nap.

The drive back to the hotel was a nightmare. It was fairly easy to get out of the VIP parking lot, and we got away from KSC with no real trouble. About a mile and a half later we hit a solid line of cars that was barely moving. We spent almost two hours traversing the next two miles, and it was nearing 8:00 when we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel. Trying to stay awake, alert and engaged on the drive home reminded me of my worst days on the road, and it took all the will I could muster not to drift off to sleep.

This turned out to be the low point of the trip, and things steadily improved from this point. But thinking of that Sunday morning drive has made me too tired to continue. I will have to take up the second half of the trip later.

*There are around 4000 VIP tickets for a given shuttle launch. The experience is definitely superior to what you can buy tickets for on the Internet, but it's not exactly a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Breaking 80

Richard Nixon was possibly our least athletic president. About the only exercise he ever got was playing golf, which he took up during his stint as vice-president, reputedly as a way to spend more time with his boss, Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon's swing was awkward and his golf clothes never fit well. He never shot under 100 as vice-president, but was dogged in his efforts to improve. He played quite a bit during his first term as president, less in his second, and more after his forced retirement.

Nixon wasn't a particularly fastidious follower of the rules, but he worked hard and steadily improved. One day in 1978 he shot a 79, at a course in San Clemente he described as "relatively easy." He had always considered a score of 80 to be a sort of "personal Everest." Knowing that he could not hope to improve on that score, and probably never match it, he never picked up a golf club again.

Picture from here

I may have watched my last professional football game.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Build a Perfect Day

Start with one of these:

Then a nap.

Then this:

Best of all is enjoying it all with special people.

More later, after more sleeping.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Life in the middle

I was born in a no-win situation. My older brothers were born 13 months apart. I came along 4 years later, and in a last ditch effort to have a daughter, my mother and father produced my sister two years after me. Being the baby and the only girl, she ruled the family.

My parents took a fairly laissez faire attitude when it came to sibling disputes. As a young boy, I was at a distinct size disadvantage to my brothers, and by this point in my parents' child-rearing careers, yelling and screaming wasn't going to bring anyone to my rescue. If I couldn't make it into their presence, I was on my own. I suffered many brotherly beatings at the bottom of our basement stairs, caught when I paused to open the door. As I grew older, the lessons became more practical. I made a deal with my middle brother to trade mowing for pool cleaning duty. When he told me I was going to have to do both, my parents left it to us to work it out. I did both.

This policy had one important exception. Sister was "too important to fail" and was accorded all manner of protections, immunities, incentives, bailouts, kickbacks and favors. Sort of like AIG. I was not allowed to hit her or yell at her or through inaction cause any harm to come to her. It was sort of like the 3 Laws of Robotics, except replace "human being" with "baby sister" and "robot" with "what's his name." She figured this out early, and made a habit of torturing me until I lost patience and broke one of the laws, resulting in big problems for me.

It's not that my mother and father were uncaring. I know they loved me more than I will ever comprehend. But they were definitely not from the "everyone is a winner" school of child-rearing. Fair play and the golden rule were important, but competition and natural selection were definitely in play. If you wanted self-esteem, you had better find someone who had some and figure out a way to get it from them. And if you did cross the line, there was a good chance you would be told to "wait until your father gets home." When the dreaded moment arrived we were often "worn out" or "given something to cry about." If my mother took matters into her own hands, we usually would "go round and round."

I used to be pissed about all of this, like most of us resent whatever part of our past we believe is keeping us from being happy. This was before I figured out that (1) happiness is a choice, and (2) happiness is often not all it's cracked up to be. That Tom Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he focused on the "pursuit" part, because that's really where the action is. But I digress.

I eventually realized two other things. First, all of my siblings have had a profound impact on who I am, through actions large and small. When I was about twelve, my oldest brother walked into my room while I was listening to Venus, by Shocking Blue. He berated me for listening to bubble gum music and walked out. I didn't think anything of it until a week or so later when he presented me with a Moody Blues album and said, "Listen to this. It's better." That one act changed my relationship to music, probably to this day.

The second thing I realized was that I acquired valuable skills and some of my favorite personality traits* because of my position in the family. Without any real power, I learned to work through logic and negotiation. I learned how systems worked, and how to find the pressure points.  I learned to watch people, and to listen, and to try understand what they needed.

Oh, I guess I realized one more thing. Eventually, we all have to grow up, grow a pair** and get over ourselves. I was lucky enough to grow up in a beautiful home, with a family who mostly love each other, and no one is in jail, or molested, or on the pipe or living in a cardboard box. Life is good, and sometimes the middle is a very comfortable place to be.

*And some of my least favorite behaviors and traits, but what are you gonna do?

** Of course, pairs come in two flavors.