It takes a rocket scientist
Posted on March 13th, 2013 by george.
Our family had the privilege of spending this past weekend on Isla Holbox, a barely-inhabited island off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, famous for its lack of cars, kite surfing, whale shark diving, and some of the most remote and luxurious seclusion one can find in the 21st century. As we walked back to our palm-thatched palapa on Saturday night under a sky filled with more stars than can be seen anywhere in Florida, I found myself fantasizing, as anyone in that situation would, about picking up roots and moving to that idyllic paradise awash in sand and turquoise. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how little I would have to offer. Not just in terms of my toddler-level Spanish, but in what I could possibly do for a living. Repair bikes and golf carts? I’d already seen local residents doing it themselves on the side of the unpaved road. Captain a powerboat for sightseeing or whale shark encounters? Men with years of experience in the local waters and an uncanny ability to locate picturesque wildlife can wait days for a customer. Give scuba lessons? This is not Cancun. The kind of people who know enough to know about the existence of Holbox and who put in the effort required to get there are the kind who arrive prepared to dive or uninterested in doing so. I have no experience as a cook and there are already plenty of great restaurants. Hotels range from resort to boutique to spa to hostel to campsite, so there’s no niche to be found, and I have no starting capital. Can’t grow much beyond coconut and a few tropical fruits, and there are fishermen galore. What the heck would I do? For my day job I consult on spacecraft avionics (spacecraft are not exactly abundant) and at school I study the science of planets, much of which is based on celestial observations that rely upon billions of dollars in telescopes (many of them taxpayer-funded) and an army of tens of thousands of highly educated scientists and engineers. My research requires thousands of dollars worth of equipment in a multi-million-dollar building at the second largest university in the wealthiest country in the world. I say this not to boast, but merely to reflect upon the level of infrastructure required just for me to do my job. During that walk on Holbox, I joked about setting up an observatory on the island, considering that it’s the clearest sky I’ve ever seen from sea level. But who would run it? Who would refine and analyze the data? Why place it there, in a location so remote that building it would be twice as expensive as it would near a city, when a mountaintop location would allow for much better observations and ultimately better science? Holbox deserves to remain as it is. Sleepy, wild, secret.
Today we hopped back on the first world treadmill with our arrival in Orlando. Thankfully we had the buffer of Cancun in between, or the contrast might have been too shocking. There were more people in the security line at the airport today than there were on the entire island this past weekend. We arrived to wide highways with smooth pavement, bright signage, street lights, access ramps and shiny new cars to fill all the lanes. The pace of life here is dizzying compared to days spent on a sandbar fifty yards from shore and breezy nights in slowly swaying hammocks. I listened to the patois of our jovial driver as we rode from the airport to the parking facility, and wondered how often he reflected on life in the States versus the life he left behind. As we exited the overnight parking lot, Rafael, whose bowels were undoubtedly loosened by the low pressure at cruising altitude, decided to gift us with a levee-breaching evacuation. We pulled over in the employee parking lot so we could use the office restroom to change his diaper. Lorenia sent me back out to the car for a change of clothes. I sat down in the back seat to rifle through his diaper bag, leaving the door ajar, with the keys in my pocket. As I bent over at the waist, the key fob locked the doors. I pulled the keys out and unlocked the doors again. Finding no clothes, I stepped out to return inside and ask if she wanted me to unpack the fifty-pound suitcase buried in the trunk for a new onesie. As the door shut, the horn honked. My heart sank. There, on the rear seat, was the key fob, which had fallen off my lap as I got out. I can only guess that the car locked itself a second time after enough time passed with no new doors opened. It has probably been more than a decade since I’ve locked the keys in the car, and I felt like an absolute idiot. I’d already missed a day in the lab, and now I was going to miss my afternoon class waiting for an expensive locksmith. I ran back inside to tell Lorenia, and we just so happened to catch our driver as he was leaving work. He called over to the mechanic, who was at our car within five minutes with two plastic wedges, and inflatable bag that looked like a blood pressure cuff and a long hooked rod. Two minutes later the door was open, alarm blaring, and we thanked him profusely and got on our way. Side note: while it may be difficult to start a modern car without a key, it is absurdly easy to get inside without breaking anything, as long as you have the right tools. Thanks to the kind and unassuming mechanic, I made it to my class on time, and enjoyed an hour-long videoconference with the astrobiology discipline scientist at NASA headquarters, discussing the last few decades of unmanned spacecraft exploration of our solar system and the likelihood that we’ll find life beyond Earth.
Here, then, is concrete, empirical, quantifiable evidence that we are absolutely reliant upon one another to maintain our civilization. It’s easy to lose sight of meaning in your life, because you never get to witness the causal repercussions of what you believe are simple, banal, boring actions. That mechanic will likely never know how he enabled my life, but he goes to work and does his job every day anyway. Kindness and service are acts of faith; we do what we can and trust in the benefits we never see. My pursuits, my profession, my purpose, and my life would all be utterly impossible if it were not for the daily effort of the entire human race, and the sum total of all the efforts of our ancestors to get us to this point. That is what makes us all family; not where we are born or who our relatives are or what language we speak or the job we do or the per capita GDP of our country of citizenship. How we treat others, what we do to help, the contributions we make that have no immediately evident effect: these are the acts that enable all of the pinnacles of human achievement, from science to art to literature and everything in between. All we have to do is be the mechanic.
Posted on February 4th, 2012 by george.
My friend Sean asked me a question yesterday, and the answer is not only something I’m learning about in school this semester, but something I’d like to share here.
Q: So, what’s the deal with planets and galaxies? I have always presumed that planets orbited on roughly the same plane around the sun. Is this true, or do they travel about diverse axes from each other? Additionally, I have always presumed that galaxies are spinning away from a central point, on roughly the same plane, in the cosmos. Is that accurate or are they shooting in a more linear fashion away from each other?
A: Your presumption about the planets is correct. The eight planets in our solar system orbit in roughly the same plane (within a few degrees). It’s called the ecliptic.
One of the strikes against Pluto as a planet is that its orbit is tilted 17 degrees from the plane the major planets orbit in.
A galaxy, on the other hand, is totally different than the solar system. The former is characterized by distributed mass, while the latter has point masses (mass concentrations in the form of planets). Yes, gravity is still the force at work in both systems, but there are so many stars per unit volume of a galaxy that their mass is effectively distributed along a density curve, like the atoms in a frisbee. And let’s not even get started on dark matter, which makes galaxies rotate faster than they would if stars were the only matter present.
There is no center of the universe (that’s a difficult one to explain, but I can try to cover it later if you’re curious). Galaxies interact with each other gravitationally, they cluster together, and they collide with each other. All the while, spacetime itself is expanding (but that too is another story). Their interactions are not collisions in the traditional sense, though, because individual stars almost never impact each other. It’s like two clouds of smoke full of embers passing through each other. Yes, their dust and gas is heated and collides and forms stars, but it’s not like two cars crashing. It’s also a crash that takes millions of years to happen, so you can put that slo-mo camera away.
It takes our Sun 250 million years to make one orbit around the galactic center. Considering the Sun is only 4.57 billion years old, that means for its entire life, and the entire life of the solar system, it has made only about 20-25 galactic orbits. So in galactic years, the Sun is only a twenty-something. And from what we know about stellar evolution, it’s only going to live into its forties before becoming a red giant, then devolving into a white dwarf that will live to a ripe old age of who knows how many billion years. All that doesn’t matter for the Earth, though, because the Sun is getting about 10% brighter every billion years (which is probably why life didn’t arise here until about a billion years ago). That means that in about four more galactic years, it’ll be too hot on Earth’s surface for liquid water to exist. So we’ll have to be gone to other planets long before our oceans boil, and four billion years before the Sun swallows the Earth as a red giant. Who knows, maybe we’ll terraform Mars by then and it will be warm enough to walk around outside.
Furthermore, the Sun doesn’t orbit the galaxy like a planet orbits a star. Yes, planetary orbits evolve, but over millions of years, not from one orbit to the next, and they may be elliptic, but they stay in one plane. Because all the mass in the galaxy is widely distributed and the Sun is constantly interacting with nearby stars, the Sun does not travel in a plane around the galactic center. It oscillates up and down in the galactic disk about three times per orbit. So imagine it tracing the surface of a kruller donut with only a few flutes.
So now to your actual question: the galactic structure of the universe is achingly beautiful. It looks like round and spiral pearls made of hundreds of billions of stars, and all those pearls are strung out like cobwebs around vast stretches of empty space. If you consider how long it takes for the Sun to orbit the galaxy, just imagine how long it would take for galaxies to orbit some fictional center of the universe; one orbit would be many times longer than the age of the universe. Astronomers and cosmologists term these large scale structures of the universe walls, filaments, and voids. So you can imagine it as a frothy soup of soap bubbles of different sizes where inside the bubbles are large voids of nothing, and between the bubbles are superclusters of galaxies.
Our Milky Way is part of a local galactic group of 54 galaxies, which is itself part of a mind-boggling huge group of galaxies called the Virgo Supercluster. But the Virgo Supercluster is just one of several “nearby” superclusters, which are themselves only one TINY region of the universe that we can ever see due to the finite speed of light and the amount of time since the big bang.
If you have the patience for the large image to load, this graphic should give you a good idea of the different structures at different scales within our glorious, illimitable universe.
Posted on May 25th, 2011 by george.
Contrary to what you may have seen in movies like Apollo 13, life in the Launch Control Center is not terribly glamorous. Sure, we get the occasional visit from the first family, Nobel-prize winning physicist, or other celebrity or dignitary. And the chief administrator of NASA is there almost every time.
But they just smile and wave at the crowd after MECO (Main Engine CutOff, when the vehicle is safely in orbit), or make a statement about how proud of us they are or how we’re the greatest launch team in the world (Russia, Japan, China, Europe, India and private companies notwithstanding).
For the most part, though, our task is tedious: monitor every single system on the vehicle as the tanks are filled, the fuel cells powered on, the auxiliary power units spun up, the hydraulics pressurized, the inertial measurement units calibrated, and so on. In general it takes more than ten thousand people about half a year to recover, safe, refurbish, repair, test, upgrade, checkout, assemble, integrate, rollout, load, retest and otherwise prepare a space shuttle for launch. The 72-hour countdown is relatively brief when compared to the processing flow, and the launch itself, at just over eight minutes, is shorter still. For the engineers who witnessed Challenger, though, who are intimately familiar with the incredible danger involved in the controlled explosion we call rocketry, those nerve-racking moments can last a lifetime. That’s why one of my colleagues, Sunshine Menendez (not his real name, but sarcastically indicative of his demeanor), characterizes our job as “six months of boredom followed by nine minutes of sheer terror.”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicate ballet, and I could list hundreds of maddeningly complex components that must be in perfect working order and playing nice with each other before the candle is lit. But when things go as planned, it can feel like the countdown takes forever (understandable, given that it’s three days long). Then, toward the end, things get very tense. By the time the final minute rolls around, it’s quieter than an empty library. No one even coughs. The computer takes over at T-minus 31 seconds, the main engines light at T-minus six seconds and come up to full thrust, and then within milliseconds of T-zero the SRBs are lit (by another rocket, inside them!), the explosive hold-down bolts are shattered, and she’s away. We all look to the huge windows at the front of the room, not exactly sure where the shuttle will pop up, since we can’t see her on the pad. Then there she is, screaming by, lighting up the sky whether it’s day or night.
Blink and you’ll miss it. If you’re all the way in the back of the room, like we are at the Flight Controls console, you get to see the orbiter for a grand total of three seconds. Then we watch it on TV like everyone else, while continuing to monitor our respective systems (even though Houston takes over as soon as the stack clears the tower). After MECO we pose for photos, then it’s downstairs to enjoy some well-deserved beans.
Back when STS-134 was the final scheduled flight, I was proud that I’d be a part of the ultimate launch team, and that my vehicle, Endeavour, would have the honor of being the last to fly. Even though Atlantis is now the orbiter that gets the curtain call, I’m not upset. For the crowning space shuttle mission, I get to be a tourist just like everyone else, watching the clouds of steam rise from the pad when the SSMEs are lit, witnessing the alacrity with which the vehicle leaps from the pad, and, barring the kind of cloud cover we had for the penultimate launch, following the spacecraft from the ground all the way into the heavens. Just like the rest of the million people who travel to Cape Canaveral from around the world, I will wait in eager anticipation of the moment when the crackling vibrations from those fiendishly hot nozzles whip through the air to my ears, catching up with the spectacle of light and reverberating through every organ in my body.
I might even leave the camera at home.
Posted on April 13th, 2011 by george.
I posted this on Facebook yesterday and got such a response I decided to crosspost it here. The following is my response to a question Patrick asked me yesterday.
Patrick: If my body temp is 98.7, then why does 82 degrees feel hot? Wouldn’t it have to be hotter than me (which is hard, I know) for it to feel hot to me?
George: We were just discussing this on Sunday. Your *core* body temperature is 98.6 degrees F on average…that’s why you have to measure it on the inside of your body: mouth, ear, rectum, etc. Put a good thermometer to the surface of your skin, though, and you won’t measure 98.6. Your skin surface temperature is lower than 98.6. It can be anywhere from 70 to 90 degrees F, depending on the person. And it varies all over your body. For instance, extremities like fingertips, which are long, skinny, and surrounded by air, are naturally going to be much colder than large, flat surfaces like your chest, or warm crevices like your armpit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The nerves in your skin that tell you if you’re feeling hot or cold do so by measuring heat flux. Flux is just a fancy word for transfer. Heat is not something you can hold; you can hold temperature, that is, the random motion of your atoms. But heat is by definition only a transfer of energy. Your body obeys this law of physics. You touch a hot stove, and heat is transferred TO your body, which is much colder. Your nerves measure the influx of heat energy, send a signal spike to your brain, and your reflexes pull your hand back before you know what happened. When you hold onto an ice cube, your hand transfers heat from your body TO the ice. Your nerves measure the outflux of heat, realize it points outward instead of inward, and tell you that the ice feels COLD. Your nerves can only measure change in temperature, not absolute temperature.
This is why you can become accustomed to a particular temperature. It’s like the examples of the frog in a pot of water on the stove…turn the temperature up slowly, and he’ll never notice when it finally boils. Sit in a hot tub long enough, your blood vessels dilate in order to increase surface area which allows larger heat flux from the water to the regulated blood temperature, and you “get used to it.” Jump in the pool, though, and the heat flux is very large for the first few seconds. The pool may be 85 degrees, but it FEELS cold, because your now-hotter body is rapidly rejecting heat to the water. Give it a few minutes, though, your blood vessels constrict to reduce heat transfer, your brain saturates with the “cold” signal from your nerves and starts ignoring them, and now you’re “used to” the temperature of the pool water.
Add to this fact that your body is always using the chemicals in the food you eat to power your cells, and a byproduct of this power generation is heat, which your body uses partially to heat itself, but must reject the excess to the air via convection, or to whatever you touch via conduction. It’s difficult to get rid of much energy at all through radiation, the least effective method of heat transfer. We have this problem on the space shuttle, which is why there are giant radiators on the inside of the payload bay doors. Nonetheless, your body does radiate a little. This is why you show up on infrared night vision goggles as a bright green blur: you produce much more radiative energy than a tree. Remember: you’re a warm-blooded mammal.
Conduction, or bringing into contact two solids, surface to surface, is by far the most efficient method of heat transfer. The second best is convection, in which you transfer heat between a solid and a fluid, or between two fluids. The least efficient is, as mentioned before, radiation. This is why you get hypothermia in water much more quickly than you do in air, even if they’re at the same temperature! Think about it. Would you rather stand in 72 degree air for an hour without moving, or 72 degree water? Obviously air is a better insulator, and allows you to retain more body heat. The REASON it’s a better insulator is microscopic: the distance between the molecules, called “mean free path” (just the average distance they travel before they bump into each other), is MUCH larger for air molecules than for water. Water molecules are, in fact, so tightly packed together that they’re actually *further apart* in solid water. But that’s another story. Because water molecules are so close together, there are more of them available per square inch of your skin to rob your body of heat. So the amount of heat transfer from your body to 72-degree water is much higher than from your body to 72-degree air. This is why you can get hypothermia in water that is well above freezing. It’s also why you’re so hungry after going swimming: your body has been burning extra calories just to keep you warm in the water.
Your metabolic rate controls how much heat you need to reject. It varies from moment to moment and person to person. This is why two people can be in the same room and one feels hot while the other feels cold. One person needs to reject more heat, but the air isn’t cold enough relative to their skin temperature for efficient heat transfer to take place. This person feels hot. The other person’s metabolism is such that their body wants to retain heat to keep their core temperature in a stable operating range, but that same air is cool enough relative to THEIR skin surface temperature that it absorbs more heat than their body wants to give up. This person feels cold. If the rate of heat transfer available with a given air-to-skin temperature gradient balances with the amount of heat your body wants to reject, you feel like Goldilocks: just right, neither hot nor cold.
Topics related to this discussion are exercise, which increases body temperature; sweat, which through evaporation absorbs large amounts of body heat to provide the latent heat for the phase transition (liquid water to water vapor); circulation, which is of paramount importance in regulating localized body temperature (see also cold feet, frostbite, hypothermia); and blankets which insulate your body, i.e. reduce the rate of outward heat flux, and allow you to stay all toasty when the air is cold by not allowing your body to lose heat to the cold air. As every school kid knows, whales have a lot of blubber because they spend so much time in frigid water. Blubber is just fat. Fat is a great insulator. We all have it, to varying degrees, and it’s a very good thing (not just for heat retention but also quite necessary for cushioning internal organs and protecting muscle as well as vital energy storage). Some people have more fat, some less. A person with low body fat is usually going to feel cold at room temperature, but quite comfortable at the beach, in the sun, or in the tropics. A person with high body fat feels hot at room temp because they’re walking around with several blankets wrapped around them, and their body has to work extremely hard to push heat through all that insulation in order to regulate their core temperature.
So, to sum up, even though your core temperature might be 98.7, you felt hot when the air was 82 degrees because the temperature of the surface of your skin was less than 82 degrees, so heat was flowing from the air into your body, and your nerves told you as much.
Patrick: You just blew my mind. And Paolo’s. And soon, Johanna’s.
George: Hahaha ok good. Always happy to help.
Posted on January 24th, 2011 by george.
we’ve watched your star’s slow sway
for a long time now
since before you noticed your spin
causes your star to rise and fall in your sky
and named that a day
since before you noticed your tilt
brings you many days of heat
followed by many days of cold
with equilibrium in between
and named those seasons
since before you watched your abnormally large moon
wax and wane
or noticed its effect on your vast oceans
of dihydrogen oxide
at first all we could parse
were those two failed stars
the one sweeping a wide path
locking your solar system’s angular momentum
in its gargantuan grip
the other with those beautiful rings
at first mere pixels from our point of view
beyond them two icy giants
blue and green
it took time to detect you
your planet and its rocky sisters, anyway
as they buzzed around your calm star
time to sense your thin envelope
and read its signature
across these limitless reaches
when last we sampled your planet
it was ruled by thunderous lizards
who grew wings
by the time we picked up your scent
we saw those bursts of light
those heavy elements hanging in your air
your first stumbling baby steps
foolishly turned on yourself
missing the potential of your own knowledge
we’ll be here
for the next kalpa at least
until this star runs out and we wander again
at least as long as your star lasts
or your precious seas survive
hung so perilously close to that nuclear furnace
that you’ve moved from worshipping
we’ll be here
as you grow
and slowly gain a nobility
commensurate with your fortunate place among us
you will know us
when you grow eyes
that can see beyond
Posted on December 5th, 2010 by george.
the only in a squad of four
lounging by the pool
saw what we were looking for
but took me for a fool
magnetism drew us near
coyly made a case
anachronism’s feinted fear
while truth lay face to face
interrupted strangely then
by another dream
give me five but had a ten
plus one becomes sixteen
joined force against the evil one
let fly and made the chase
hunter, hunted on the run
we tread without a trace
introductions on the stair
drawn out from in the wall
the cube as black as sixteen’s hair
and not exactly small
convinced he’s more than binary
she listens to his tale
with heart beyond the pale
a flash of light and then he’s gone
we turn to find the source
the author of this heinous wrong
from that assassin force
but for our target it’s too late
we find him in disguise
in canine costume can’t escape
no matter how he tries
we find a quiet laundromat
with basins in the rear
a single patron calmly sat
nothing, we thought, to fear
with evil locked up in the back
we go out front to plan
and celebrate our clever knack
for catching such a man
her movements whisper how she feels
she twirls in close to say
I want to hear the dancing heels
on our wedding day
we fail to notice in our bliss
the patron sitting there
whose face unravels as we kiss
revealing hatred’s stare
then quicker than a blinking eye
our necks are in her snare
we perish there, sixteen and i
without a worldly care
The words I do not utter
The thoughts I do not voice
The photos I don’t take
For taking is thievery
The memories I’ll never share
And the ones I let slip
The moments I refuse to tarnish with my speech
These are the most important to me
For the greatest things in life
Are ineffable, indescribable, transcendent
And attempting to capture them
They will always elude you
And you will rob yourself
Of that moment
That deep breath
That knowing smile
It is only by letting go
That we can begin to grasp
Posted on April 15th, 2010 by george.
My friend Amin asked me today, in light of President Obama’s speech, if I thought the new plan for NASA was a good thing or a bad thing. First, let me say thank you to the President for taking the time to visit the Kennedy Space Center, and recognize that the last time we had the Chief down here was during the Clinton Administration. Landing Air Force One at the Shuttle Landing Facility is a serious gesture, and I appreciate that. I believe the President when he calls himself a champion for space exploration, not least because he’s promised an extra $6 billion to NASA over the next five years, even while the country is in an economic crisis. That’s commitment, if you ask me.
As for the plan, it is what it is. I don’t make the call. I toe the line. One of the unique aspects of our system of government is the term limit; it doesn’t always make for the greatest continuity of vision for NASA, but we deal. I’m grateful to have a job here, doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I know we’re capable of building a heavy lift rocket to rival the Saturn V. I’m glad Orion gets a second chance as an ISS lifeboat. I have high hopes that SpaceX will succeed and Falcon9 will make access to LEO cheaper and more routine.
Everyone is so resistant to change…but that’s life. You really have to let go of what you can’t control if you want to have any chance of being happy. It’s much easier to describe the set of what you can control: your own actions. That’s it. So I chose to work here. They tell me what to do, and I try to do the best job I can. That’s all you can ask of anyone.
I don’t get too caught up in the Team America rhetoric. I have more respect than I can express for what NASA and the United States have accomplished. But I’m just as happy to see other nations succeed with the peaceful exploration of space. Look at what just happened today: India launched a rocket with a homegrown cryogenic third stage. It failed, tumbled out of control at 11,000mph.
Hey, we’ve been there. We feel your pain, India. But you’ll analyze the failure, address the problem, learn from your mistakes, and move forward. Just like the Corvette racing team at Sebring this year, after the two Vettes collided in the pits.
Yes, I am a broken record, but I’ll say it again until it sinks in: we are one human family. I look forward to the day we can all collaborate, instead of everyone reinventing the rocket ad infinitum. Not that it’s not a good engineering exercise. But think of what we could achieve if we pooled our resources and worked together instead of competing, much less fighting. Gather the brain trust of every country in the world? Take all the money we spend trying to kill each other and turn it toward social justice, education, science, discovery, and exploration? We’d already be on Mars. We’d be on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Permanently. Today, Antarctica. Tomorrow, the solar system. Our fortunes would be diversified, and I can’t even begin to imagine the technologies we’d develop and how it would improve the lives of all humans, no matter which rock they ride. It’s an unspeakably beautiful universe out there. Look a little further: can you see the day we set off to another star?
What matters to me is the question, “Are humans exploring space?” The answer is a resounding yes. Humans have lived in space, nonstop, since the year 2000. There are more planetary probes and telescopes in space and on the ground than you can shake a stick at. Spaceflight is exploding worldwide. We learn new things every single day. And let’s not forget: if it weren’t for the Russians, the Europeans, the Canadians, the Japanese, and all our other brothers and sisters, the International Space Station wouldn’t be possible. I don’t care what percentage of the bill was footed by the United States: everyone helped.
How soon we forget that when we grounded the shuttles after the Columbia accident, ol’ Soyuz was the only ride in town. How convenient that we omit that the very first satellite lofted by humans launched from Kazakhstan. Yes, that’s right, the same Kazakhstan that Sacha Baron Cohen lampoons. Now, when the whole fleet retires, we get to thumb a ride with Yuri again, and pony up a little gas money. Let me be the first to say: that’s not a bad thing. Suck it up, America. Show a little humility. And a little gratitude.
I think it’s high time we Americans stopped thinking about everything in terms of us. You wanna lead the world? Fine. Take the lead by inviting others to help. The ISS is an incredible precedent, and a model for international cooperation. We would be fools to let the bonds we’ve forged with this effort slip away. Let’s propose a new vision that everyone can take part in. Let’s throw our weight behind it, and put our money where our mouths are.
It’s not a party if you’re the only kid there.
Endeavour landed yesterday on its penultimate mission. I tweeted about it, noting that there are only four space shuttle missions left on the manifest. My friend Patrick just asked me what’s next for NASA after the Shuttle retires. My reply on Facebook turned into an essay, so I thought I’d share it here.
What comes after the Shuttle? All the things about NASA that don’t make the headlines will continue. Some even get more funding. The Shuttle has been the poster child for 30 years, but in the meantime, NASA has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of climate dynamics, earth observation, deep space astronomy and cosmology. Robotic planetary and solar exploration, cutting edge research in biology, materials, aeronautics, energy generation, propulsion, you name it, have all continued. Shuttle launches are sexy. But when they end, perhaps a little more light will be shed on everything else NASA does. Cassini, the robotic probe that has taught us more about Saturn and its moons than we ever knew before, just got a seven year life extension. And human space exploration isn’t dead; the Falcon 9 rocket just went vertical last week, with a test capsule that SpaceX claims can be human rated. Static test firings of the Falcon 9 could come as early as this week. Private subspace (read: Virgin Galactic) should come online this year. The Russians are cranking out Soyuz launches like Henry Ford did Model Ts. Europe, Japan, China, & India all have launch systems. The Shuttle will stop flying, but humans won’t. Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll resurrect the HL-20. Or the X-33. And don’t forget: the Air Force has a spaceplane now.
Humans have had a continuous presence in space since the year 2000, thanks to the International Space Station. Think about it. For the last decade, a single second hasn’t passed that someone wasn’t zooming over your head at 17,500 mph. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but that’s the reason I answered a question about NASA’s future with international and private examples: as we go forward, this will be a cooperative effort. It’s one planet. One home. That is an inescapable fact. We are one species. Why not pool our efforts? There’s no need to reinvent the rocket just because you live in a particular spot on this planet behind some imaginary line. There’s no need for every country to send an individual probe to the moon or Mars just because we hoard information about our solar system as if we own it because we were the first to discover it. A fact is a fact; congratulations on learning it first. Now SHARE.
Newsflash: you can’t see borders from space. In my book, that means they don’t exist. They are mere constructs, accidents of history, that everyone seems to agree upon. They are fiction. Made up. There is true reality, and then there is that of which we are convinced. Exploration is inevitable. So is growth. I hope the void left by Discovery and the other shuttles makes room for the spaceships…and discoveries…of tomorrow.
Let’s say you’re looking for a job. You find an announcement for one that matches your skill set, apply, and get an interview. You show up, the interview goes well, the boss is nice, and the job sounds great. You agree on a fair salary, and discuss benefits. You’re just about to sign on the dotted line when the boss jumps in.
“Oh, I almost forgot. There’s one more task we require for this position.”
“It’s nothing, really. Most people don’t even think about it.”
“After you work here for a while, it just becomes part of the routine.”
“In fact, most of the time we don’t even talk about it.”
“What is it?”
“Well, you may have noticed the track outside.”
“Yeah, I thought that was kinda odd for this company.”
“Sure. It may seem that way. But it’s just something we do. It’s just the way it is.”
“What’s the way it is?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. It was like this when I got here.”
“Fine. Just tell me what I have to do.”
The boss sighs. “Ok. Well. Every morning before you get to work, you have to drive a few laps around the track.”
“Yes, really. And in the evening before you go home. Same number of laps.”
“Oh, it’s fun. A lot of people enjoy it. You can listen to music.”
“Sure. Ok. So this will be part of my normal eight hour workday?”
“Actually, no. We’re gonna need you to make these laps before and after your normal shift.”
“Oh really? We didn’t discuss this when we spoke about salary. And what about the extra time spent away from home?”
“It’s no big deal.”
“Are you going to pay me for my time on the track?”
The boss laughs. “Oh no. We consider it part of the job.”
“Huh. Well, I really like the position. I guess I can make a little sacrifice with my time.”
“It’s no sacrifice, really. Everybody does it. It’s normal.”
“So you said. Will you at least provide me with the car?”
“No, that’s not our responsibility.”
“Really! So you’re making me buy a car.”
“I’m not making you do anything. But you need one if you want this job.”
“How do you propose I pay for it?”
“Out of your paycheck, of course!”
“Ok, what about fuel?”
“Your responsibility. Oh, and it’ll need to be insured.”
“Yeah. We don’t want you to have to pay for damage to the other cars. It’s optional if you want to insure your own, so you don’t pay for damage out of pocket.”
“Yeah, we all start work at the same time in the morning and leave around the same time in the afternoon, so we all hit the track together. Plus, not everybody’s going the same direction. Gets kinda crazy out there.”
“That sounds dangerous!”
“Well, maybe for a new hire like you. But the more experience you get, the less dangerous it is. You’ll learn how to go with the flow. Just pay attention. We only lose about three out of every 20,000 people.”
“Yeah, they die in crashes.”
“Die?! How many are injured in crashes?”
“Hard to say. But we have emergency response crews, and a hospital nearby, so you won’t need a helmet or roll cage. Or a fire extinguisher. You’ll be fine. Of course, you’ll have to pay for any ambulance rides. But there are bonuses: you can use the car and the track 24 hours a day, even if it’s not before or after work.”
“You know, to get around.”
“Let me get this straight. Every day…”
“Rain or shine.”
“Every day, rain or shine, you want me to give you laps on the track outside, for free, in a car that I purchase, fuel, and insure…”
“It’s a law. You have to insure it.”
“Okay, by law. So I have to drive, without pay, my own car…”
“You can get a nice one.”
“A nice one. That way you’ll stand out from the rest of the field. And there’s less maintenance with a newer one. Maintenance can cost you a month’s pay.”
“Don’t I just need to make the laps? Can’t I get something cheap?”
“Sure, but you don’t want to look trashy while doing it. It could affect your promotion potential. You want to feel good about yourself, don’t you?”
“Oh yeah. And not everybody has to drive the same number of laps.”
“Well, it depends on how far you live from the office. The further you live, the more laps you have to drive.”
“Well I didn’t really get to choose my house based on its distance from here. There weren’t many places I could afford…”
“Not our problem. You can move.”
“Listen buddy, I don’t like your tone…”
“Buddy? You’re the one being interviewed here. I really don’t see what the big deal is; this is how we do business. I mean, I even take my kids out on the track.”
“Yeah. If you drive your kids to school, they have to spend time on the track too.”
“With all the other people out there, all of different skill levels?”
“You bet. And some people knock a few back before hitting the track. Takes the edge off. So we wrote the laws, and now all the cars for sale have seat belts. If your kids are young, they’ll need a car seat.”
“Let me guess: by law.”
“Are there any alternatives?”
“Oh sure. You can ride a bike.”
“In the rain?”
“Yeah, some people do it. Claim it’s good for exercise, whatever that is.”
“They ride bikes. On the track. With cars. Some of which are piloted by alcoholics?”
“Yeah, crazy, right? You can’t ride on the shoulder, either. You have to take the same path the car does. Make ‘em slow down, that’s the law. Of course, drivers don’t like it. Plus, it takes a helluvah lot longer to finish those laps when you’re doing fifteen miles an hour.”
“You’re telling me. So if I get a car, I can go faster than a bike?”
“Up to a point. We can’t have people going too fast. We commissioned a study a while back. The faster you go, the higher the risk. So there’s a speed limit. Plus, we’re trying to help you out, keep your fuel costs down. Oh, and part of your paycheck will be withheld. Taxes, you know the drill. To pay for maintenance.”
“What happens if I just wanna get my laps over with, and go a little faster?”
“You can try, but there are fines. Bigger fines the faster you go. Go too fast, and we’ll put you in jail.”
“You don’t wanna drive? Fine. There’s also a bus that makes laps around the track.”
“Oh! That sounds good.”
“It runs once an hour.”
“I knew there had to be something.”
“Yeah, that’s why we all drive. Those bus riders spend a couple extra hours at the track, waiting for the bus. And the buses are slower. Aren’t too clean, either. I mean, all those people sharing the same uncomfortable seats? No control over the temperature? Honestly, who would want to ride one? That’s why there’s only one bus: not enough demand. And not all tracks have buses. It just depends on the office.”
“This is insane.”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. In fact, I didn’t even have to mention this to you. I just thought I’d do you a favor. You look like a good kid.”
“Thanks. But this is all a little hard to swallow. I don’t have the money to buy a car right now. They cost a significant percentage of the yearly salary we spoke about.”
“Don’t worry! There’s plenty of financing out there. You can just make payments. In fact, you can have them taken right out of your paycheck.”
“For something that has nothing to do with this job.”
“Sure it does. We all do it. We just don’t get paid for it. Don’t think about it too hard, champ. You’ll get used to it.”
“What are you waiting for? Sign right here!”
If you commute to work by car, you are an unpaid racecar driver who finances the race team, pays for the car, and underwrites the fuel and maintenance. You race on a track with speed limits that requires insurance. Everyone on this track is going a different direction, and has a different finish line. There is no prize for crossing the finish line when you’re supposed to; it’s just expected. You pay taxes to maintain the track. You risk your life every day on this track for your job. They don’t compensate you for your time, and they make you pay for it. All of it.
Emily Haines says it far more succinctly than I can.
“Buy this car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car.”