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#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 4) December 17, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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If you want to start with Part 1 of this series, click HERE.

This week, we have a series of Fast Facts about the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) located in Building 230 of the NASA JPL campus. As a part of the recent #Orion NASA Social at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (jointly sponsored with the good folks from NASA Armstrong), Doug was able to take a tour of the SFOF. This was Doug’s second SFOF visit in two months (HERE is the previous recent trip). The guide for the most recent tour was Jim McClure, NASA-JPL Space Flight Operations Facility Manager. Here are some of the things that McClure shared with us.

FACT 1: JPL is a direct consequence of President Kennedy’s moon speech to Congress.

DSN Mission Control

DSN Mission Control

On May 25, 1961, speaking before Congress, President Kennedy made the first of his famous speeches that laid out his goal of putting an American astronaut on the moon before the end of the decade. As our tour of the SFOF began, Jim McClure told the assembled NASA Social attendees that Building 203 was built as a direct outcome

Construction of Building 203 and the SFOF began in July 1961, and it was completed in October 1963. The fiftieth anniversary of its dedication was celebrated on May 14th of this past year.

The SFOF played a significant role in the Apollo program by controlling Surveyor program, a sequence of seven proof-of-concept missions meant to test methods of lunar landing.

Additionally, Building 203 was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The structure is also a part of the National Register of Historic Places.

FACT 2: JPL has been continuously operating for 50 years.

One of the primary functions of the SFOF is serving as an operation control center for the Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN is a communications network for controlling the behaviors of and collecting data from spacecraft. The most recognizable features of the DSN are the enormous antennas (or antennae) that operate at the three locations of the DSN: Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, California, USA. The antennas of the DSN range in size from 34 to 70 meters in diameter (roughly 100 to 200 feet).

A fantastic visualization of the DSN communications operations can be found HERE. Engineers have been operating the DSN from the SFOF continuously—24/7—for more than fifty years.

DSN-DougCurrently, the engineers of the SFOF are controlling and/or receiving data from twenty-two NASA space missions and the spacecraft of a number of other nations operating beyond-the-moon exploratory missions. Doug Ellison, seen in the picture of one of the DSN antennas, provided the following list of missions—22 missions, 27 spacecraft—that are being controlled from the SFOF.








Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Mars Odyssey


Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity


Mars Science Laboratory-Curiosity

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

New Horizons

SOHO (a joint European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA solar observatory)


Spitzer IR Telescope

THEMIS A, B, C, D, and E

Voyager 1

Voyager 2


And there’s more, with missions of Japan, Europe, and India:

Cluster 1, 2, 3, and 4 (an ESA heliophysics mission)

Hayabusa 2 (a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) asteroid mission)

Mars Orbiter Mission (an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Mars mission)

Mars Express (an ESA lead mission)

Akatsuki (a JAXA Venus mission)

Rosetta (an ESA cometary exploration mission)

Venus Express (an ESA Venus mission that was shutdown earlier this week)

That’s a total of thirty-seven spacecraft currently communicating with the DSN!

FACT 3: JPL is the Center of the Universe.

JPLplaqueMcClure related that Charles Elachi, Director of JPL, has long been fond of standing in the middle of the control room, pointing to a spot on the floor, and proclaiming that this is the Center of the Universe. Eventually, McClure decided that there ought to be something official that Elachi could point to that indicated that this was the Center of the Universe. So, McClure had a memorial plaque embedded in the floor.

Doug thoroughly enjoyed his most recent visit to JPL’s SFOF, but it was just one of the fantastic moments of the recent #Orion NASA Social. We may have a few more things to see about this recent adventure. We’d like to say a heartfelt Thank You to NASA’s Stephanie Smith (@stephist) and Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) for their help with this week’s post.

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 3) December 10, 2014

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To start with Part 1, click HERE.

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

The Orion/EFT-1 mission went off without a hitch last Friday. The four-and-a-half hour mission reached a height, or apogee, of 3,600 miles. That’s is as far as a human-rated spacecraft has travelled from the earth in forty-two years.

As a part of the build-up to the Orion/EFT-1 mission, NASA held NASA Social events at multiple sites. Doug was lucky enough to be selected for the event held at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and cosponsored with Armstrong Flight Research Center. In last week’s post, we described the enthusiastic presentation by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Director of Kennedy Space Center Bob Cabana.

The morning session, a streaming broadcast from Kennedy Space Center, continued with panels that addressed a range of Orion-related topics. Mars was much on people’s minds, and many echoed the point that Orion is a stepping-stone to the missions that will send humans to Mars. Dr. Michael Gazarik, who serves as Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, neatly summed up the Mars aspect of the morning’s presentations when he said that we have to learn: “How to get there. How to land there. How to live there.”

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Another interesting moment in the morning’s session occurred when Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, discussed the requirements process for the Commercial Crew Program. McAlister used the space shuttle program as a comparison point. For the shuttle, NASA developed 12,000 requirements. For the Commerical Crew Program, NASA issued 300 requirements. As McAlister put it, with significant but significantly fewer constraints, corporations have encouragement to innovate.

After lunch, the Armstrong/JPL NASA Social continued with more talks and a tour of several locations at JPL.

One of the significant new systems which was developed for Orion is its Launch Abort System. Brent Cobleigh of NASA Armstrong described the testing of the Launch Abort System that took place during the Pad Abort-1 flight test program. That PAD-1 program took place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 500,000 pounds of thrust generated by the solid rocket motors of the Launch Abort System are powerful enough to accelerate the Orion spacecraft to one hundred miles an hour in 0.42 seconds. The earliest setup for this system produced 16Gs of acceleration, and the production version of the system will accelerate at 12Gs in order to reduce the physiological stresses on the occupants. Cobleigh also pointed out that the United States has never used an abort system during a launch. In fact, only once in the history of human space exploration has a launch abort system been used, in September 1983 for the Russian Soyuz T-10a mission.

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

The next presentation was by pilot Mark Pestana about the Ikhana aircraft from NASA Armstrong. Ikhana is an unmanned aircraft system that NASA uses primarily for Earth observation and science missions. The name Ikhana comes from the Choctaw language and means intelligence, learning, awareness, and consciousness. NASA received permission from the Choctaw nation to give the aircraft this name. Ikhana was responsible for the stunning video images of Orion’s return through Earth’s atmosphere (see below). During the talk, it was revealed that the Ikhana’s flight would be available on Flightaware. You can still find the track of Ikhana’s flight in support of the Orion return HERE.

Despite the resounding success of the Orion/EFT-1 mission, it will be nearly four years before the next Orion test mission—Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1)—takes place on September 30, 2018. NASA is currently operating its human space exploration program—actually, all of its programs—under significant budget constraints. The first mission to include a human crew won’t occur until 2021, at the earliest. That flight will take place fully 60 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. It will have been more than 50 years since the crew of Apollo 11 landed on this moon, and, this time, we won’t even be landing there.

All signs are that humanity is going to Mars. But it’s going to take us a while to get there.

To read Part 4, click HERE.

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 2) December 4, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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(If you want to start with Part 1, click HERE.)

Orion didn’t launch today. Perhaps by the time that you read this, Orion will have orbited the Earth twice, completing its mission, but as of about 9:00pm Pacific Time on Thursday, it hasn’t done so.

At one point during the countdown, a ship entered an area of the ocean off the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It might have been a cruise ship, or possibly it was a cargo ship. Further delays in the countdown were caused by high winds. Finally, the EFT-1 mission was scrubbed for today when some fill/drain valves in the Delta IV Heavy’s hydrogen fuel loop failed. Most of these details were discussed in today’s post-scrub news conference from Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

Doug at JPL (NASA photo)

The Lofty Duo couldn’t venture to KSC—it’s the penultimate week of regular classes at our university—and so, like many others, we followed the details of today’s launch through NASA TV, social media, and our favorite websites. And Doug attended the NASASocial yesterday at JPL.

During the news conference today, a journalist who should know better referred to the activities that led to the scrub as an “ordeal” and asked the panel if their confidence in the Delta rocket was undermined by the event. The journalist went even further to suggest that today’s scrub might somehow also cast future missions using Atlas rockets in an unflattering light (though today’s mission has nothing to do with Atlas rockets). This journalist seemed to think that launches go on time all the time, though, as we’ve said before on this blog, the space shuttle had an on-time-launch rate of about 40%.

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

The countdown clock used for decades for such shuttles launches is no longer there. The old countdown clock was rightly considered iconic. The voice counting down to liftoff is familiar to many. Taken together, the clock and calm voice reassure us that everything is going according to plan. KSC’s spiffy new clock has attracted some attention this week. Some have referred to the new clock as an electronic billboard, but it strikes us as a giant smartwatch, that au courant gadget, that might lull many of us into believing that missions go off like clockwork. They don’t.

In following the end of the space shuttle program in 2010-2011, one lesson that the Lofty Duo learned time and again is that rockets go when they’re ready. Scrubs—that means a delay after the tank is filled—are just a part of the rocket business. Lots of people were lamenting the scrub today on social media. Undoubtedly some number of people we know and know of were saddened because they only had enough time in their schedules for a quick trip to the Cape, and now they’ve returned home without seeing a launch.

Being able to keep up with friends’ actions and reactions in more-or-less real time is one reason why NASA has chosen to invest time and energy in maintaining a robust social media presence. This is why NASA has Socials, like yesterday’s multisite event that Doug was lucky enough to attend.

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Charlie Bolden & Bob Cabana Livestream

Yesterday’s Armstrong/JPL event that Doug attended was full of excitement. How could it not be? After a quick round of introductions, the event began with a live stream of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Director of Kennedy Space Center Bob Cabana. Former astronauts themselves, Bolden and Cabana could hardly contain their excitement for this new chapter in NASA’s history, the chapter which was supposed to have begun, officially, earlier today, though, of course, the Orion launch will be also a culmination of effort.

On several occasions, Administrator Bolden referred to the Orion mission as a BFD, most assuredly meaning Big Freaking Deal (or some such even more colorful version of the phrase). We’ve seen Director Cabana in person on several occasions (once on the same flight as Anna from the Space Coast to the nation’s capital), and, in the past, he has generally come across as a serious-minded, sober man. But he was clearly drawn in by Bolden’s enthusiasm. We all were. This launch is a BFD!

Bolden and Cabana reminded Doug of schoolboys on the first day of classes after a happy summer, full of energy and ready for a new year. This is a new school year. NASA is learning how to go Mars, and Orion is our first-period class. Or, as another of yesterday’s speakers, John Miller said: “All journeys start with one step. All space journeys start with getting off of the Earth. Orion is that step.”

Part 3 now available HERE!

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 1) December 3, 2014

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If everything goes well, the day after this blog is posted, NASA will launch its next generation human-rated spacecraft: Orion. The specific mission is known as Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 in NASA-speak. WATCH LIVE at NASA TV (NASASocial events today and launch tomorrow).

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

Orion Flight Test Profile (NASA)

The Orion EFT-1 mission is currently scheduled to launch at 7:05 am EST on Thursday, December 4th. The EFT-1 will send the Orion spacecraft—without a crew—on a two-orbit test-flight. Orion will travel 3,600 miles from Earth. This is the furthest that a human-rated spacecraft has travelled form Earth since the Apollo era.

The flight test will last 4.5 hours, and the Orion crew vehicle will return to the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds greater than 20,000 mph. The reentry will heat Orion’s skin to temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Orion will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean where it will be recovered by the U.S. Navy and NASA.

Orion Ready for Launch (NASA)

Orion Ready for Launch (NASA)

As a part of the run-up to this exciting mission, NASA is hosting a series of NASASocial events spread across nine separate NASA locations. NASA has been deemed the eighth most engaged brand on social media, and the NASASocial program—which originally began as NASA Tweetups—is a significant part of NASA’s social media and outreach programs.

Doug was one of 40 lucky social media users chosen to attend the #Orion NASASocial at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The event was jointly sponsored with the Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly Dryden).

The day’s program went as follows: Morning, Orion NASA Social TV Broadcast; Afternoon session 1, an Expert Speaker Program covering the roles of JPL and Armstrong in Orion; and Afternoon session 2, a JPL tour.

We’ll cover these sessions in future posts. Until then, get a sense of the NASASocial program by looking at write-ups from the previous events that we’ve attended.

#GRAIL (September 2011)

Dryden Aeronautics (May 2012)

NASA Airborne Science Program (January 2013)

#EarthNow (November 2013)

 ALSO PART 2 of JPL/Armstrong available HERE!

Our Spontaneous (sort of) Vegas Wedding November 26, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration.
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This week’s post is a bit different. We’ve taken the week away from our day jobs. Here’s why:

My Sorta Spontaneous Vegas Wedding at OZY’s First-Person Friday

Our Venice Honeymoon (sort of)

Our Venice Honeymoon (sort of)

We hope you’ll click on the link and read about our Las Vegas wedding five years ago. It’s a very happy Thanksgiving story. We’re having a wonderful time celebrating our anniversary, including the Jane’s Addiction concert (it’s the end of their 25th anniversary tour for Nothing’s Shocking) and several good meals thus far (Trevi and Lemongrass thus far). We have plans to ride the huge, new Ferris wheel. (The Ferris wheel’s inventor was born in Galesburg, Illinois, where we went to Knox College.)

If you’re looking for more in “Countdown to The Cold War,” we’ll be getting back to that series. In the meantime, take a look at our post from two years ago, when we were celebrating our third (and 23rd) anniversary. Yes, we visited the National Atomic Testing Museum here in Sin City because that’s the sort of nerd thing we do on our getaways.

Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum, and the Last Sixty Years


Happy Thanksgiving!


Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain (Part 4) November 19, 2014

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If you want to start with Part 1 of this series, click HERE.


Nearly every writing day at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony was the same as the previous day. Day after day, pretty much the same. This was a good thing.

Sunset at Dorland

Sunset at Dorland

My morning routine was the same each and every day: Breakfast, then coffee on the cabin’s porch with some classical music playing in the background. After that, I spent between two and three hours at the table, writing. This was followed by lunch, another several hours writing, a walk or jog on the hill, time on the porch watching the sun go down, dinner, more writing, and, finally, reading before bed. After a night of sleep, it was lather, rinse, repeat.

Only two days of the week differed from this daily schedule. Every Monday morning, I went into town for email and groceries. On Fridays after Anna arrived for the weekend, we went to Barnes and Noble, a movie, and dinner at Yard House. Friday nights became a comforting and easy reward. While they varied from my usual routine, we established a Friday evening routine that we repeated. We even had the same meal each Friday evening. Ordering the same meal wasn’t exactly an intentional part the routine; we merely became overly fond of the gardein buffalo wings and the ahi poke stack.

At some point, I’d certainly like to explore more of Temecula and its environs, but that isn’t why I was there in September. The daily routine, a ritual, if you will, trained my mind and body to understand what was needed each day and the next. Routine was extraordinarily effective and complemented the quietude I lauded last week. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of my transition from the sabbatical back to my ordinary life has been the loss of daily ritual.


Exercise and reading were each part of my daily routine. People who know me know that I love to work out. Just as in my ordinary life, I found that my daily walking and jogging on the road—the steep hill—that leads up from the valley to the cabins was an integral part of my life. Many of my best ideas occurred on the hill. Just the act of giving myself over to movement and to my physical body freed my mind to explore. It was one of the most important times of the day for me.

I write because I read. A lifetime as a reader is one of the things that convinced me to try my hand at writing in the first place. Like many writers I know, I can become engrossed in a book to the detriment of nearly all of other activities in my life. That’s why I avoided the stack of novels that I have sitting next to my bed at home and, instead, focused on shorter pieces and poetry.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard an impressive number of fiction writers recommending poetry as an important part of any writer’s reading. I decided to redouble my efforts in this area, and the Dorland retreat was as good a time as any to rekindle my love for poetry. I also read a single short novel, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition to being of modest length, Siddhartha has a lyric, poetic quality to it. My reading, then, became a daily reminder that my work was dependent on words and sentences as well as on plot, setting, and character.

Grand Summary

Anna Leaving

I’d like to have some grand summary about the importance of setting goals and tracking progress toward them, but that really didn’t play an enormous part in my five weeks on the side of a mountain. I certainly kept track of my progress via word count and making sure that I was moving from one chapter to the next, scene-by-scene. But I didn’t fret about hitting a daily goal, in part because the quietude and routine kept me writing steadily.

In the end, it was really the one big goal—completing a draft—that I kept present in my mind. Each day was simply another step toward that largest goal. I achieved that goal.

And now I have begun all over again, on page one, to revise.

Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain (Part 3) November 12, 2014

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To start with Part 1 of this series, click HERE. To read Part 2 of this series click HERE.


Last week, I wrote about what I accomplished at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in numbers: 76,000 words. I thought generally about how I did that, focusing on one task (completing a draft of my novel) and continually moving forward, instead of allowing myself to revise along the way.

In those five weeks, I learned a lot about myself and how I work. While each writer must find his or her own way through a book project, I find it helpful to hear about how other writers do it and to test out some of those attitudes and practices. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking more deeply about how I managed to write 76,000 words in five weeks and end up with a complete draft (admittedly parts had been drafted earlier this summer during a shorter, self-made retreat in Santa Fe).

I was Alone.

Anna Leaving

Anna Leaving

Although Anna came to visit on the weekends, during the week I was alone. If it weren’t for my evening phone calls with Anna, I wouldn’t have spoken with another human being for days at a time. Dorland is set up so that, if it is solitude you are after, it is solitude you will find.

I knew that being alone would be part of the deal going into this residency. I wasn’t necessarily worried about it, but I was interested to see how I’d handle it because I’m a fairly social person. When you work and live on a college campus, you are typically surrounded by people, and I enjoy a lot of those interactions.

Quiet is a remarkable thing. I don’t just mean the absence of sound, although that is certainly a component of it. I mean to imply the quietude that results from an absence of distractions. Being alone gave rise to a stillness in me that allowed me to create a space where the primary thing in my mind was the work, the novel.

In the end, being alone wasn’t hard at all. In fact, I liked it.

The Internet is the devil.

Dorland Storm

Dorland Storm

For me, one enormous aspect of this quietude was the absence of Internet access. Dorland has cell phone access, but no wifi. While I had my smart phone with me, the size of that device discouraged extensive use for social media, browsing, or extensive research. I purposefully left the iPad, which is more tempting, at home.

When I say that the Internet is the devil, I mean this in the same vein as ‘the devil is in the details,’ and the perhaps greatest source of details in my life—things that I have to schedule and track, generate and respond to—is email. I’ve reached the point in my career, as I suspect many of us have, where answering email only begets more email.

The same is true for all of my various social media outlets. They are self-perpetuating. The more time I spend curating my Facebook and Twitter feeds, the more time I have to spend monitoring and contributing to the outcome of my initial posting.

I understand the importance of these activities in the grand scheme of a writing life, but it was liberating to be free of them for five weeks. In an earlier post, we wrote about Pico Iyer’s notion of ‘The Device Sabbath.’ Iyer takes one day of rest from his devices. I had long stretches without my devices, and it was heavenly.

With these notions as the backdrop, I’ve also been thinking about the role of routine and some other odds and ends. So I’ll wrap this series up next week with those ideas.

Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain (Part 2) November 5, 2014

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Read Part 1 HERE.


My sojourn at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony started on Saturday, August 30th. From that vantage, 36 uninterrupted days stretched out before me.

Encouraging Breakfast at Dorland

Encouraging Breakfast at Dorland

Earlier in the summer, I’d kicked off my sabbatical with a shorter writing retreat in Sante Fe, and it had been fantastic. I’m as taken with my daily word count as any beginning writer, and what I accomplished in Santa Fe led me to develop some overly optimistic projections of how much I could get down on paper in a given timeframe. In some ways, then, those 36 uninterrupted days seemed a vast expanse divided neatly into word-count benchmarks that Scrivener would track for me.

I’m never as productive as when I can focus on a single task. I have several friends who claim that multitasking is their forte, and I can juggle multiple responsibilities with the best of them, but I never feel as comfortable doing that as I do when I’m working on one thing. Though I thoroughly love my current job, one aspect that I miss from my previous job at Fermilab is the ability to concentrate on a single task for long stretches of time.

Santa Fe had been like that for my writing. I had one thing to do: work on the novel. Each day was centered on that simple premise. I wanted Dorland to work like that as well.

The Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence once said,

When I say ‘work’ I only mean writing. Everything else is odd jobs.

I don’t think of being a librarian and a professor as odd jobs, but when I am able to dedicate my days to writing, I get a sense of what she was talking about.

So, when I headed to Dorland, the goal was simple: complete the first draft of my novel.

Porch Companion at Dorland

Porch Companion at Dorland

At first, this goal seemed a daunting task. If I measured my progress on the novel by word count and finished scenes (checked-off against my outline), I was already roughly one-third of the way through the novel when I sat myself down on the side of a mountain. If I was going to meet my goal, I’d have to keep in mind last week’s admonition about perfection from Anne Lamott.

A complete draft would require steady forward progress. No editing. No revising. No looking back. In the beginning, I allowed myself to go back to clean up things if I made a character or plot change that altered an earlier part of the story. A couple of weeks into my Dorland stay, I no longer gave myself that loophole.

Sunset at Dorland

Sunset at Dorland

I left Dorland on Sunday, October 5th. I finished the first draft during my five weeks on the mountain. I even had a few days to spare, and I did let myself go back to do some revising during the last couple of days.

I wrote 76,000 words in that time. And all the novel’s parts are there. It’s complete. Of course, even though the draft is in need of thorough revision now, I’m thrilled with that creative output.

However, I think that the things that I learned about myself and how I work are just as important as that word count. Every writer works somewhat differently and must find his or her own way through a book project. That said, we can learn—and steal—strategies from each other. Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve written before about some practices and attitudes that have helped us stick with large tasks (HERE and HERE, for instance). In the next post, I’ll write about some of the things that I took away from my five weeks on the mountain.

Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain October 30, 2014

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Sunset at Dorland

Sunset at Dorland

Warning—this post uses a bit of profanity. It’s so commonplace in the adult world that most of us take in for granted. That said, Lofty Ambitions has some younger readers. In fact, Anna and I have received email from some parents indicating that they read our blog with their children. We love that part of our audience, and it’s garnered some of our favorite anecdotes over the years.

Just before I went to Dorland Mountain Arts Colony at the end of the summer, I saw the following quote in my Twitter stream:

Novelist’s prime rule: Shitty first drafts. The need for perfection has killed more novels than N.Y. editors.

I’ve left the name of the Twitter user off of the tweet because that person didn’t acknowledge the origin of the quote. It comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Besides the beautiful serendipity of being reminded of Bird by Bird in a tweet (rimshot!), Lamott’s book often comes up when writers discussed their favorite books on writing. In fact, I’ve heard more than one writer express that it’s their absolute favorite book on craft. Here’s the full quote, which I find to be very instructive.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Storm Approaching

Storm Approaching

Although I had never been completely paralyzed by an abject pursuit of perfection, I have on occasion hindered my own progress through attempts to get everything just right before being able to move on. This quote and the intention behind it had arrived at just the right moment. I adopted it as a mantra for my recent stay at Dorland. I vowed that I would move continuously forward on my novel project and that I would worry about making things better—less shitty—in revision.

Some of this was a practical necessity. My sabbatical (or, in the parlance of the library where I work, a professional development leave) was extensive but not endless. The deadline imposed by the end of my leave was looming six weeks in the future, and if I was going to get a complete draft of my novel, something was going to have to fall by the wayside. The pursuit of perfection—a doomed folly in the first place—seemed a perfectly logical thing to give up.

Anna and I are starting to feel a significant connection to Dorland. Like most of us, I grow attached to places. In a midlife discovery that continues to surprise me, the desert has become an important place for me. Years ago, I took a sunrise horseback ride in the desert near Wickenburg, Arizona. For me, during that first desert foray on the back of the horse, it was the colors and the clarity of the light. I later tried to describe the experience to Anna in a phone call. She laughed at me then. Now, Anna and I have both grown fond of the landscape of New Mexico’s high desert near Los Alamos and Santa Fe as well as at Dorland. It’s quiet, hot, dry, removed somehow from the world with which we’re more familiar. The desert reminds us that only certain types of plants and creatures survive in certain environments.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Our stays at Dorland have often included surprises. During my recent stay, an enormous thunderstorm swept over the Palomar Mountains, and it rained. Hard. The hard rain was followed by an even harder hailstorm. Did I mention that it hit 107 F that day? Two of my lizard friends took shelter on the porch of my cabin during the storm. Growing up in Illinois didn’t prepare me to write those words in a single sentence: desert, hailstorm, lizard.

Even though it happened little more than a year ago, one of our Dorland surprises has made into my family lore. This is, of course, the story of the tarantula who came to dinner. My father particularly likes this story. He’s asked me to retell it each time I’ve seen him over the past year. He likes it best of all when Anna is there to add the part that I’ve been accused of leaving out. It seems that my version doesn’t include a supposed squeal that I purportedly emitted upon seeing the tarantula. I have no memory of this scream. I don’t normally doubt the veracity of my wife’s claims, but hers is the only testimony of this event. When Anna chimes in with her bit, my father chuckles loudly. It’s almost a guffaw. I think he likes it that someone is able to keep my ego in check.

If you can’t already tell, I thoroughly enjoyed my most recent stay at Dorland. With five weeks on the side of Palomar Mountain at my disposal, I even managed to learn a few things about my self and about writing. I’ll cover those things in next week’s post.

If you want to read Anna’s different approach to and takeaways from this iteration of Dorland, check HERE and HERE. For more info about our recent Santa Fe getaway, check HERE

JPL Open House 2014 (Part 2) October 22, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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On October 12th, Doug spent the day at the 2014 iteration of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Open House. You can read the first Lofty installment HERE, but there’s more! It was a day full of space-nerd goodness, and one of the highpoints was Site 18: “Flying Saucers for Mars.”

JPLflyingsaucersThis particular site was dedicated to a project known to researchers by the acronym LDSD, the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrators. Low-Density is a descriptor for Mars’s atmosphere, and Supersonic is an indication of the speed range where the balloons and parachutes are useful. To cut to the chase, we’re talking parachutes—parachutes for Mars—and how they work in a low-density atmosphere and at supersonic speeds.

Tommaso Rivellini, one of the EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) engineering leads for the Mars Curiosity lander, describes the problem as this in his article “The Challenges of Landing on Mars”:

Upon arrival at Mars, a spacecraft is traveling at velocities of 4 to 7 kilometers per second (km/s). For a lander to deliver its payload to the surface, 100 percent of this kinetic energy must be safely removed. Fortunately, Mars has an atmosphere substantial enough for the combination of a high-drag heat shield and a parachute to remove 99 percent and 0.98 percent respectively of the kinetic energy. Unfortunately, the Martian atmosphere is not substantial enough to bring a lander to a safe touchdown.

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion, and the wispy atmosphere of Mars—roughly 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere—is just thick enough for a parachute to do its job. So, unlike with Earthbound parachutes, that job doesn’t include gently lowering the lander to the surface. The atmosphere on Mars simply isn’t dense enough for a parachute to bring the mass of a spacecraft to the surface.

Our current Mars parachute designs date to the era of Viking Martian landers in 1976, and those parachute systems have reached their performance limits with the Mars Science Lander (MSL). More popularly known as Curiosity, the size of the one-ton MSL is often compared to a Mini Cooper automobile.

In order to deliver landers to Mars that are larger than Curiosity, or to land in a mountainous region—Mars has the largest mountain in the solar system in the 69,459 foot tall Olympus Mons and four other mountains which are taller than comparably puny Everest—NASA needs new parachute designs. LDSD steps in.

LDSD is suite of deceleration technologies being investigated by NASA. The project is being lead by principal investigator Dr. Ian Clark. Clark earned his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech, and he has been awarded the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Ian Clark at JPL

Ian Clark at JPL

The first LDSD testing mechanism that Clark discussed was a rocket sled used to test the SIAD-R (Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator). This particular device isn’t a parachute. It’s more like an inflatable bladder that encircles the outer edge of a spacecraft’s aeroshell. This device is meant to slow the spacecraft from supersonic speeds (ranging from Mach 2 – 3.5) to subsonic speeds. A look at the videos with this post will give you an idea of the origin of the “flying saucer” part of the “Flying Saucers for Mars” title of this exhibit.

Clark indicated that the rocket sled, which he vividly described as a siege tower, was powered by Cold War-era solid rocket motors that had formerly been used as a part of a missile defense system for Los Angeles. Though he didn’t say it by name, Clark could only be talking about the Project Nike sites that ringed Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to think about these Cold Warriors being used for science as opposed to their original purpose.

The LDSD program also included the testing of a more traditional looking parachute, complete with a billowing canopy and long control lines. In keeping with the rigorous nature of its intended use, the parachute design also required some extreme engineering so that it might be tested in a manner that approximates its use. Because of the low density of the Martian atmosphere, the parachute has to be enormous to generate the necessary amount of drag to slow the spacecraft down. In this case, the parachute that was tested was thirty-four meters (roughly 110 feet) in diameter. A parachute this size is too large for a wind tunnel, and so it has to be tested outside. The parachute test rig resembled a Rube Goldberg device as much as something designed by NASA. For this test, a helicopter carried the parachute canopy aloft. Lines from the canopy (the line was nearly a kilometer in length) were connected via a wench/puller to yet another rocket sled. Once the helicopter released the canopy of the supersonic parachute, the rocket sled was ignited to tug on the parachute to simulate the forces to which it would be subject on Mars. In this test, the peak force generated by the rocket sled and transferred to the parachute was over 90,000 foot pounds. Although the parachute did develop a single tear, the test was deemed a success.

The second flying saucer (the test device really does resemble a saucer) of the LDSD program took part in an extremely ambitious test that was conducted this past summer. An enormous experimental balloon—it has a volume of more than 1million cubic meters and, according to Clark, when fully expanded it’s the size of the Rose Bowl—carried the test device to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Once the balloon reached this height, it released the saucer, and the fun began. A solid rocket motor fired, accelerated the saucer to Mach 4, and propelled it to an altitude of 180,000 feet. It’s necessary to conduct the test at this altitude, because this is the zone where Earth’s atmosphere most resembles that of Mars. At this point, the SIAD device expanded and began slowing the saucer from its top speed of Mach 4. At Mach 2.5, onboard sensors deployed the new supersonic parachute design. In this test, the supersonic parachute failed to fill completely with air, thus pointing out another design flaw. But, this is why testing is done, to find the weaknesses in a design. So it was a successful failure.

The total cost of the LDSD program is about $200M. Considering the price of the Curiosity mission was about $2.5B, this is a small price compared to the cost of real failure.


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