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The State of NASA: Five Bold(en) Points February 10, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Aviation, Space Exploration.
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Yesterday, Doug spent the day at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) attending a #NASASocial event dubbed #StateOfNASA. A multi-center event, the plan for the day was to listen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s State of NASA presentation (you can view the speech on YouTube: ), planned concurrently with the release of the FY2017 Federal Budget, and then to see how NASA’s part of the budget is reflected in the particular missions of the respective centers. AFRC’s bailiwick is aeronautics, and, as the day played out, Doug got a firsthand look at the work that AFRC is doing to make aviation Greener, Cleaner, Safer, and Quieter.

  1. NASA is the #1 place to work in the Federal Government.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (with help from Deloitte) conducts a worker satisfaction survey of agencies in the Federal Government. The survey is divided into small, medium, and large agencies, and NASA was ranked #1 in the category of large agencies (which seems happen with some regularity, since NASA was also #1 in this category in 2013 and 2014).

  1. NASA’s FY2017 Budget is $19B.

An article at the Christian Science Monitor points out that this is less than the $19.3B that Congress approved for NASA in December. This remains in line with the just under half of one-percent of the federal budget that NASA typically receives.

  1. More venture capital was poured into the commercial space sector last year than in the previous fifteen years.
(Blue Origin)

(Blue Origin)

  1. 1000 companies support NASA’s commercial space programs.

Dragon Capsule from SpaceX (Lofty Ambitions photo)

  1. Administrator Bolden loves his NASA people.

Administrator Bolden is known to be an emotional guy. This was on display twice during his presentation, both times deservedly so. (Doug got choked up too.) Bolden’s voice first cracked a bit when recounting the story of NASA Langley research mathematician and Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner Katherine Johnson, but he got very choked up when discussing the people of NASA.

5 Southern California Airports February 3, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.

A380 Cruising Altitude


Santa Ana Airport, Orange County Airport, John Wayne Airport—all one and the same. This recently expanded (now the second-busiest in the Los Angeles area), but still very manageable, airport is our top choice for convenience, with several nonstop options to Chicago. Bonuses include the larger-than-life statue of John Wayne and the Lyon Air Museum across the runways. And anyone whose destination is Disneyland should consider flying into SNA instead of LAX.

There are aspects that some travelers would consider drawbacks. The runway is one of the shortest in the country, which can mean hard braking on landing. Noise abatement usually requires a full-power takeoff and steep climb so that power can be reduced dramatically relatively quickly. No departures or arrivals are allowed overnight, so delayed planes that don’t make the 11pm curfew are diverted to LAX, with passengers bussed back to SNA (or making their own, possibly more convenient arrangements). These potential drawbacks don’t dissuade us a bit from using this airport as our go-to.


Long Beach Airport is a fun combination of old-fashioned and recently remodeled (in 2012). Passengers walk out on the tarmac to board and deplane, and the baggage area is, though covered, outdoors. The 4th Street Vine Wine & Beer Bar is a sleek new addition, and parking is very close. Flight options are, as you’d expect, limited, but it’s quick and easy and great if Jet Blue works for you. Plus, you’ll recognize it from films like Iron Man and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This airport is just 18 miles from LAX, so it’s a good alternative for more travelers than realize it. LGB is one of the busiest general aviation—charters, planes towing banners, private pilots, cargo, helicopters—in the world. Long Beach has some great attractions of its own, including the Queen Mary.


We generally avoid LAX–Los Angeles–because of traffic and parking (or shuttle) costs. That said, it’s definitely the way to go for any international travel (or travel from Southern California to Hawaii) because the nonstop options for Asian and European destinations are unparalleled west of the Mississippi. Also, the international terminal is swanky.


We flew out of San Diego from our recent writing residency for a one-day trip to Illinois, and the airport struck us as terrific. We imagine traffic getting there could be terrible at times, since the airport is situated near downtown and right on the water, not directly off the I-5, but we had no delays. The view was great, the terminal was clean and airy, and every step in the traveling process was quick. Visiting this airport made us want to get back to vibrant San Diego itself more often. In addition, there’s a train to Los Angeles so visitors to LA might consider flying into San Diego for bookend days there.


We’ve ended up in Ontario a couple of times, because connections were missed and we wanted to get as close to home as possible that same day. Ontario and Burbank (Bob Hope Airport) each have small airports that are alternatives for anyone flying into Southern California, especially on Southwest. Ontario is 38 miles from downtown Los Angeles and does a lot of cargo business in conjunction with the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, but Ontario isn’t much of a destination in and of itself, as might be Disneyland (SNA) or Long Beach. Still, this airport is easy to get in and out of and remains our backup.

30 Years after Challenger January 28, 2016

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JANUARY 28, 1986. The last, brief ascent of space shuttle Challenger  

ChallengerCrewToday, on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident, Chapman University accepts the papers of Allan McDonald to be housed in Leatherby Libraries. His papers join those of a Roger Boisjoly in the library’s archives. Read McDonald’s guest post at Lofty Ambitions.

We’ve also written before about Challenger at Lofty Ambitions, so take a minute to search. If we weren’t at a writing residency (without wifi) working on our book Generation Space, we’d likely write more today. But we are writing about space in other ways, and there are plenty of articles and books out there. We recommend especially Margaret Lazarus Dean’s cover story in Popular Mechanics. Here is the link to the cover: https://cdn.ccomm.hearst.com/assets/media/80bd0ff8de6206e7282f187a9fbf51988e4c103d.png

5 Writing Residency Rituals January 27, 2016

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We’ve written a lot about our residencies at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony these last few years, including about some of the ways our approaches and experiences repeat and change. Here are five of the constants—besides writing and revising—this time, which echo the past too.


Doug finished The Great Gatsby and is now in the midst of James Michener’s Space, a fictional tome that spans from World War II through the early Space Age. A mention of the latter will surely find its way into the revision of Generation Space, which is the focus of this residency.

Anna finished Silence, a book by John Biguenet that’s part of the Object Lessons series to which she’ll contribute Tumor. She started reading Waste, another book in the series, to get a sense of the range for the series. She’d already read a couple of others before submitting the proposal she wrote during our last Dorland retreat.

The Hill

The colony and its two cabins for visiting writers, artists, and composers are situated on a steep hill, part of a mountain range. We walk the hill every afternoon, usually twice. Doug often runs it a couple of times, too. This exercise is a way to calm the mind, reinvigorate the body, and appreciate the amazing landscape that surrounds our work. It’s a ritual we’ve maintained through every residency here, skipping a day on The Hill only occasionally, a result of heavy rain or exhaustion. The time out of the cabin for physical exertion seems to make us more productive at our desks.


DoritosMany colonies supply meals to residents, but, at Dorland, you’re on your own. As we’ve written before, we allow ourselves taco-flavored Doritos, a lunchtime side or an evening snack. We also stock up on a sourdough wheat bread available at Sprouts and all-natural peanut butter, a quick, filling breakfast or snack. We rely on cans of soup and frozen macaroni, pizza, and veggies. Sometimes, we panfry fish or cook pasta, but we keep meal preparation and cleanup quick and simple. We generally treat ourselves to one dinner in town each week, a break that reminds us the rest of humanity is out there. All our meals here are breaks to sustain writing, not events in and off themselves, even as we enjoy them.


We don’t set an alarm, and the day falls into place anyway. We write and revise to exhaustion, often crawling into bed earlier than we do at home and reading for a few minutes. We sleep deeply, occasionally fitfully. We wake but don’t rush, then we’re back at our desks. The day’s sections fit together and rationalize each other’s role in the whole, and we fall into each moment more easily, not thinking much about past and future that seems necessary at home.


PonteGrapesWe don’t drink every night, as that might slow our overall progress. (Caffeine, we admit, is a daily staple, though seemingly less pressingly than at home.) Temecula, though, is wine country, and we like to support the local economy, so we treat ourselves to a bottle from Ponte or Bel Vino now and then. On Monday, we built a fire in the stove and poured a couple of glasses of Ponte’s Meritage. The cabins have no heat, and, while space heaters suffice, a fire in the stove was an especially cozy complement to a relaxing evening halfway through our residency, a time to talk about what we’d accomplished and what’s left to do.

5 Reasons to Apply for a Writing Residency (and where to apply) January 20, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing, 5 Things.
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Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

Dorland Mountain Arts Colony

We’ve done writing residencies together at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and Ragdale. Doug has been to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and Anna has been to the Vermont Studio Center (read about both HERE). These opportunities were possible because we were awarded scholarships, were able to cover our own travel costs, and could get away from our jobs for at least two weeks (or four!), so we understand that it’s not possible or easily doable for every writer. We’ve even created our own writing retreat in Santa Fe and hope to be able to do that again soon. Our experiences lead us to encourage other writers to apply for a writing residency or create even a short one of your own. Writers have different reasons for seeking a residency, and those reasons can shape your application as well as how you spend your time during a retreat.

If you don’t have a project…

…the writing retreat is a respite in which you have time to think and test out ideas. When we’re in the midst of our daily and weekly routines, it can be difficult to pause long enough to figure out what the next piece of writing should be and to plan how to accomplish a book-length project. The seemingly empty time of a writing retreat offers the freedom to imagine and map, to read, and to begin drafting.

If you are at the beginning of a big project…

…a residency can give you a running start so that you go back to your regular life with a critical mass, with writing that feels as if it’s taking shape and has some heft. Without writing the first sentences and paragraphs (even if those first paragraphs written are the end of the piece), you can’t finish a poem or story or book. The focus of a retreat makes beginning less daunting, makes the long haul ahead less intimidating.

If you are in the middle of a big project…

…it’s easy to get stuck in the middle, procrastinate by doing other tasks, and feel overwhelmed by what’s left to accomplish. You may be stuck at a crossroads, knowing that crucial decisions must be made before the rest of the novel or poetry collection can unfold (before you have to do more writing). Or you may be stuck because you’re unable to sustain a regular writing habit and feel distant from your project. A writing residency may be the best remedy for this common problem of getting stuck in the middle. If you have something that’s taken shape and you know where it’s going, you may benefit especially from focused time to move from one stage to the next.

If you need to finish a project, large or small…

…a well-timed writing residency can help you get through that last stage quickly. Poet Jane Hirshfield writes, in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, “Every good poem […] begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration. […] By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” It’s difficult to sustain the concentration needed to all the way through a piece of writing and especially difficult to remain open when the end is in sight. A writing retreat can give you the extra mental room to maneuver as a project seems to narrow toward its finish.

If you need to revise a big project or polish several smaller pieces…

…it’s easy to lose the sense of the forest for the trees and vice versa. A writing retreat can give you the time to move back and forth between re-envisioning and editing. While revising can be done piecemeal, sustained attention to revision can help ensure that all the parts are equally well crafted and fit together. A writing residency also allows you to set something aside for a day or two so that you can read it with fresh eyes. When we aren’t rushed, we probably make fewer mistakes and catch more missteps.

Convinced? Click HERE for a guide to 20 artist/writer residencies and retreats. Or take a look at the searchable directory of conferences and centers from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

5 (Best) Science Writers to Read January 13, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Science.
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BestAmScience2015Tis the season of annual anthologies, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing is one that we pick up and read every year, usually as soon as the fall semester wraps up and it’s hit the bookstore shelf. In last year’s edition, we looked at first lines to see what we could glean about how essays about science work.

This year, we recommend five books by writers in The Best Science and Nature Writing 2015:

Allison Hawthorne Deming

Essay: “Spotted Hyena”

Book: Science and Other Poems

Atul Gwande

Essay: “No Risky Chances

Book: Being Mortal

Leslie Jamison

Essay: “The Empathy Exams”

Book: The Empathy Exams

Sam Kean

Essay: “Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient”

Book: The Disappearing Spoon

Rebecca Skloot

Editor of this year’s volume

Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

5 Chicago Macy’s Planetary Windows January 6, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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Kids of all ages are fascinated by space!

Kids of all ages are fascinated by space!

We did not post last week. For the first time since this blog started in 2010, we missed a week. After a weekend away, we’d been scheduled to fly back home on Monday. Though weather had cleared up hours before our flight and though our aircraft had arrived (albeit an hour late), American Airlines had canceled a lot of flights that day and knew quickly that our flight would have no crew. No seats were available to us for either our home airport or even LAX until Friday night. So we spent almost a week in Chicago (thank you, Aunt Maggie!). More than five years of weekly (and mores at times) posting, but we hadn’t queued up a post ahead of time for last week.

On New Year’s Eve (Wednesday, when we should have had a post), we walked around The Loop and, to our surprise, found that Macy’s holiday windows had been designed for Lofty Ambitions. For readers celebrating Epiphany today—the holiday for the arrival of the three wise men (astronomers?), who followed a star (conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn? comet? supernova in the Andromeda galaxy?) to see baby Jesus—and for those readers whose holiday spirit has waned, we share the images of Macy’s planetary celebration. (And yes, there are six photos, but we’re catching up here so it’s a bonus, not a miscount.)







5 Photos of Apollo 8 December 23, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. By Christmas Eve, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were circling the Moon. Having been the first humans to leave Earth’s orbit, they returned to Earth on December 27. We’ve written about Apollo 8 HERE and HERE. This week, we celebrate the anniversary of Apollo 8 with 5 images provided to the world by NASA.


Apollo 8 crew leaving for launchpad, with Lovell waving

Apollo 8 crew leaving for launchpad, with Lovell waving




Jim Lovell and a cramped capsule view

Jim Lovell and a cramped capsule view

Photo of the Moon, with the large crater Goclenius in foreground

Photo of the Moon, with the large crater Goclenius in foreground




5 Things that Were True About Phil Dick, a Personal Reminiscence December 16, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Guest Blogs, Writing.




Writer Philip K. Dick was born on December 16, 1928. Eleven films have been based on his books, including Blade Runner and Minority Report.

Our colleague Jim Blaylock, steampunk legend and author of Homunculus and the ongoing Langdon St. Ives series, was a friend of PKD. He shares his personal reminiscence here as our guest blogger.


  1. Phil came up with useful or interesting “concepts” as if he had a bottomless bin of the things. On the night I was first introduced to Phil (by Tim Powers at Phil’s house in Fullerton in 1975), Phil was messing around with a trilobite fossil that he had fairly recently acquired. He insisted that items with great age picked up a sort of juju from the passing years, that they were imbued with an accreted magic—something you could sense, although there was no evidence for it. (I was carrying a magic Peruvian bean in my pocket that very evening, and so I was pre-possessed to agree utterly with the notion. And there was a bottle or so of zinfandel that was perhaps also persuasive.) I’ve used this notion of the magic of small personal objects in one way or another in maybe half of my novels and stories.


  1. Phil was arguably the funniest person I’ve known. On that night we first met, he convinced Powers and me that his research had led him to uncover an ages-old secret plot that had resulted in the murder of hundreds of people, including Jesus Christ and Ambrose Bierce. The KGB was on the watch for people who knew of this plot and whom, as a result, they were certain to murder. Phil lived in constant fear for his life, he told us, and now, on this dark, winter midnight, when it was almost certain that the KGB was monitoring the house, Phil was revealing the secret to us. At this point it was too late to stop him, and, for the rest of our stay, we watched for movement in the moonlit shrubbery beyond the front window. Tim imagined (for reasons he couldn’t quite explain) that an enormous copper baby’s head would at any moment rise up grinning from behind the juniper bush. Somehow this made perfect, hideous sense to me. I have a vague memory of awakening my wife Viki at around two a.m. in order to explain it to her, babbling about the death of Ambrose Bierce in the Mexican desert, the ever-watchful KGB, and the floating head of death. I remember her turning the bedside lamp off with a calm deliberation and going back to sleep. Next morning, Phil called Tim on the phone, laughing. “I really had you two going last night, didn’t I?” he said.


  1. Phil was immensely serious about music, keen to find the best recording of Wagner and the best equipment to play it on. He paid a premium price for something called Cobra Cables, for instance, in order to improve the quality of his stereo, and he had the speakers situated just so on either side of his favorite chair in his Santa Ana apartment, and it was a restful day when he and our pal K.W. Jeter weren’t tinkering with the tweeting woofers, chasing another half percentile of sound and clarity. Around that time, Phil discovered that he wasn’t hearing what he ought to be hearing out of the left-hand speaker, and he worried about it insistently for a few days. Coincidentally, he went off to the doctor for a physical, and the doctor told him that he was deaf in his left ear. “Thank God,” he said, “I thought it was a problem with my stereo.”


  1. One of Phil’s very favorite books was A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. He considered it one of the great books of the world. I bought it and read it at his suggestion, and discovered that he was entirely correct. When I read the letters he wrote as a child from boarding school to his mother, I understood why. (The letters were published in the first volume of The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, edited by Underwood Miller.) When my son John was going off to kindergarten, I couldn’t read the last several pages of the book without weeping. I’m not sure I can read it today without weeping. People condemn the book as merely sentimental, but I suspect that St. Peter will slap them silly when they get up to the Pearly Gates, if they make it that far. When my sister, a zoologist, read the last chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in which the toad is discovered to be a mere android toad, she burst into tears. Phil would have liked that, I think, for all the best reasons.


  1. Phil was a Dean Swift snuff aficionado—not the shredded sort of snuff a person crams beneath his lip in order to spit black gobbets all over the place, but finely ground aromatic tobacco that one sniffs up one’s nose to facilitate a good sneeze. Dr. Johnson was a famous snuff taker as well—very elegant wrist action, apparently, a very delicate, gentlemanly sneeze. Dean Swift offers a Dr. Johnson blend, which was one of Phil’s two favorites, the other being Wren’s Relish. I was a Wren’s Relish man myself, although I wasn’t any sort of connoisseur and mainly used it when I was hanging out with Phil. He always had a basketful of cans on his coffee table, the basket surrounded by a fine brown powder. For a time after Phil died in 1982, I looked into buying a can of Wren’s Relish, just to have some on hand (or to have some on the back of my hand). I wasn’t really in need of any vices, but I had a sentimental attachment to it. I never got around to sending in an order, however, and, after a time, I simply gave up on the idea, realizing that I was trying to hold onto something—or to someone—that had already passed away.

5 Socks for Space Nerds (great gifts!) December 9, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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We found 5 space-themed pairs of socks to share. In fact, we had to limit ourselves to these Top 5 great sock gifts for the holidays.


These constellation socks are stretchy and extra-comfy and even a little dressy. Available from Sock It To Me, which has more space-themed socks.


Fun socks that (mis)represent the Solar System, with brightly colored planets against the dark background.


A dress sock featuring an Apollo astronaut. The image might not be clear to others at first glance, and the seam is a bit awkwardly placed. Still, these knee-highs make a bold statement.


Great everyday socks. They really go with everything. Available from Happy Socks, though this is their only space-themed sock right now.


Yes, it’s Spocks! Available from the Star Trek shop, which also offers Star Fleet Academy socks in all three uniform colors.


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