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On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
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On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.

Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.

We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.

Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.

On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.

Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”





Neil Gaiman on Being a Writer October 27, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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James P. Blaylock

Last night, we sat in the audience at a super-secret appearance by Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, Coraline, The Sandman, and much more. He’s in Southern California for the World Fantasy Convention, so he agreed to appear at a fundraiser for Orange County High School for the Arts on the condition that he be rewarded by dining with fellow writers Tim Powers and Jim Blaylock and that no press be contacted, no public publicity be done. Jim, our colleague at Chapman University, let us in on the secret, and we gladly paid our cash to support artsy, ambitious teens.

These teens treated Neil Gaiman like a rock star, squealing at his very presence, wriggling with nerves when he spoke, wondering whether he’d see them winking at him from the back rows. Gaiman himself talked about the weirdness of fan adoration, recounting a couple of stories about tattoos. One man at a book signing showed Gaiman a tattoo of The Sandman, asked the author to sign underneath, then returned before Gaiman had wrapped up to reveal the freshly tattooed autograph still bleeding a little.

Proof of Gaiman

The reason that we’re writing about Neil Gaiman is partly because we were refreshed by the sight of that many young people, especially girls, excited about writing, particularly science fiction and other genre writing. We’re also intrigued that, after the conference, he’s touring on the West Coast with his wife, who’s a musician, so they are collaborators. Click HERE for more info about their sold-out tour and how they used Kickstarter to fund it.

But mostly, we’ve written this post as a follow-up to yesterday’s post, “The Luck and Obligation of Writing.” Neil Gaiman certainly didn’t have time to read Lofty Ambitions yesterday, but in the Q&A last night, he reiterated some of what we said.

Gaiman talked about large projects as akin to slow hunches, though he didn’t use that term. He doesn’t think writer’s block is an accurate description of what happens to writers when such a project stalls. He admits that he gets stuck, but then he writes something else. He admits he has good days and bad days at writing. In fact, echoing Leslie Pietrzyk’s discussion of whether writing is fun (see yesterday’s post), Neil Gaiman says of his bad days, “[On those days,] writing is as much fun as a particularly horrible trip to the dentist.” A writer goes back the next day and writes again, or at least reads over the draft to figure out where it went off the rails.

What fascinates Neil Gaiman is that, at the end of a writing project filled with those good and bad writing days, it’s impossible to tell the mood or difficulty behind any page or passage. He claims something very close to the following (but we’re not sure our pen kept up with every word): “You can’t tell which is which […]. It’s all much of a muchness. […] How you felt as you were writing has less to do with the final thing than you thought.” In the end, the novel is all of a piece. The bad days don’t show. The bad days helped get the novel written.

Neither does Neil Gaiman wait for inspiration. Instead, he’s a daydreamer, always thinking, always wondering in that curious way we, too, like. That invites what we call serendipity, but what Gaiman talked of as “two things coming together” for the first time or in a new way even though he’s “thought about it a hundred times.”

So, like us, Neil Gaiman suggests that curiosity invites serendipity. Often, his method is to start asking weird questions. What if? That’s how he nurtures a hunch. Knowing the crowd, Neil Gaiman posed the following weird question: “What if Jim Blaylock always kills and ritually eats one student at the end of every term?” Anyone who knows Jim Blaylock as the soft-spoken, laidback, engaged teacher begins to ponder what it might mean for the person you least suspect to do something more outrageous than you’re used to imagining. And one thought leads to another—and to more questions. Granted, Gaiman’s questions tend to be a bit creepier than our own, but writing is often a way to answer questions, solve problems, and satisfy curiosity.

Importantly, Neil Gaiman also echoes Malcom Gladwell and Diane Ackerman (see yesterday’s post), repeating someone else’s belief that a writer must write a million words to get that early, crappy stuff of his system and reach the real work of writing. (Ira Glass says something similar in a video we’ve posted below.) That’s akin to the ten-thousand hours that Gladwell asserts is necessary for expertise. It’s important to get through those many beginning hours as quickly as possible, to reach expertise while there’s still time to use that wisdom. As Gaiman said last night, “The more writing you do, the better you’ll get at it, the better you’ll get at the craft of it.”

Neil Gaiman captured our sense of obligation, too, but in a way we’d never considered. He spoke of a point in his twenties when he realized that, if he didn’t try to become a writer, he’d think on his deathbed, I could have been a writer. And he wouldn’t know whether that was true or whether he was fooling himself. So he decided to give it a serious go, to find out whether he could become a writer, to remove doubt. He doesn’t seem to have any other question about what he might have been and is comforted to know that, on his deathbed, he will say, I was a writer.

The Luck & Obligation of Writing October 26, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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Are we lucky? Or are we obligated?

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about this these questions as writers together, writers separately, and in terms of our larger professional and personal lives.

Leslie Pietrzyk

Last month on her Work-in-Progress blog, novelist Leslie Pietrzyk wrote about whether writing is fun: “‘Fun’—it seemed such a curious word for the constant, endless, soul-sucking struggles with the muse, with the marketplace, with the self. It struck me that no matter how long the list I was asked to give to describe writing, ‘fun’ would never be a word I would choose.” It’s not that she doesn’t want to write, to spend her time writing. It’s not that writing isn’t rewarding and enthralling. But Leslie argues that fun implies mindlessness, and writing is all about mindfulness.

We’ll admit that, by many definitions, we have fun writing. But just because we get a rush from writing and the related activities doesn’t mean we don’t work really hard. In fact, whatever fun there is in writing makes a writer work harder. If writing is easy, you’re probably not doing it right. And doing it easy isn’t much fun, once you’ve done it the hard way. As Richard Bausch says in “Letter to a Young Writer,” “You are trying to do something that is harder than just about anything there is to do, even when it feels easy.”

Over the last year of travel to follow the end of the space shuttle program, we faced a few moments at the Space Coast in which one of us was on the verge of tears and the other was about to pass out, but then something amazing would happen. We’d finish a good post, or we’d talk with an astronaut. Writing may not be as demanding as mountain climbing, but we, like many writers engrossed by large projects, come up to the edge of our interwoven intellectual and physical limits every now and then. And at times, the day-to-day writing feels like trudging uphill with no end in view.

Richard Bausch

Richard Bausch puts this idea another way: “The thing that separates the amateur writer from the professional, often enough, is simply the amount of time spent working the craft. You know that if you really want to write, if you hope to produce something that will stand up to the winds of criticism and scrutiny of strangers, you’re going to have to work harder than you have ever worked on anything else in your life hour upon hour upon hour, with nothing in the way of encouragement, no good feeling, except the sense that you have been true to the silently admonishing examples of the writers who came before you—the ones whose company you would like to be in and of whose respect you would like to be worthy.” In writing, working hard pays off not with mastery per se but, rather, with new challenges that demand additional effort. Really, there’s no end in sight.

Figuring out the plot arc for a novel and how characters develop in relation to that arc is rarely easy for any writer. But it’s harder if you work on the novel—or any large project—only once a week or once a month. Writing a novel is a little like “the slow hunch” Steven Johnson describes in Where Good Ideas Come From: “Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there’s an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matter and the hunch disappears.” (See Steven Johnson’s TED Talk HERE.) A lot of people want to write a novel, but the idea slips away. Even when you’re in the midst of a draft, if your plot sequence or a character’s motivation is murky, if your doubts mount and your pages don’t, distractions become especially distracting.

Novel Revision

If distraction feeds distraction, then attention feeds attention. Daily writing practice—even if that’s rereading, note-taking, outlining, and not actually drafting or revising pages—keeps your mind attentive and also makes your mind more attentive. In other words, if you skip a day of writing, you lose that mindfulness carrying over from the day before, and you don’t move forward. If Doug has worked on his novel four days in a row, he’s likely to say, during our evening walk on the fifth day, “Do you think it would work if I—?” And he can talk through whether that change would because the novel isn’t a murky memory from a week ago.

Let’s say one writer puts in seven hours, one hour every day for a week. Another writer puts in seven hours, but all in one day, then doesn’t look at the novel again for a week. Either way, it’s seven hours, and adding up hours matters. As Malcolm Gladwell claims in Outliers, “[R]esearchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” (See Gladwell’s TED Talk HERE.) If you look at the writing life from that viewpoint, it’s certainly important to rack up hours as quickly as possible in hopes of reaching expertise before it’s too late.

But a project is about more than the sum of those writing hours. It’s also about a given timeframe. We’re spending hours on the blog week to week, but that doesn’t get our novels finished. We need to keep our minds on our separate projects too. The writer working daily on a large project becomes attuned, cultivating serendipity, happening upon lucky accidents and connections, finding a useful tidbit of information for which she wasn’t even aware of looking. Yesterday, in fact, as we were editing this blog post, the new issue of Poets & Writers arrived and, in it, “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity.” One of the four steps Ellen Sussman recommends is daily writing: “If I’m writing every day, four pages a day, then the novel stays in my mind during the hours I’m not writing.”

Lofty Editing

Of the two writers—the daily writer and the one-long-stretch-when-the-mood-strikes writer—who will get the most accomplished the next time she sits down to work on the project? Will that eighth hour feel different to each writer, depending upon whether the last session was yesterday or a week ago? Momentum, in addition to number of hours, matters. Diane Ackerman says in The Alchemy of Mind, “Inheriting a talent doesn’t insure [sic] that one will use it, but it does raise the likelihood. […] What we like to do becomes the thing we do often, and the thing we do often becomes the thing we do best.” Doing the thing often—writing the blog together, writing our novels separately—makes us better at doing the thing.

Of course, we really like long stretches of writing time, those rare weekend days in which hours of writing are bracketed by pancakes and a DVD. And we don’t pretend that we’re really able to work on our individual book projects every single day. Some days, too many other things must be accomplished. We have other jobs obligations, and then there’s doing laundry and dishes.

Cathy Day

We also understand the difference between actual work on “the big thing,” as Cathy Day calls it on her blog, and talking about the large project. We’ve heard about writers who over-talk their novels from start to finish with friends and never bother to write much. Instead of that wheel-spinning aboutness, which might feel like being a writer, we work toward mindfulness, which seems possible only with near-daily hands-on—literal hands, if possible, metaphorical hands when necessary—effort.

As writers, we lean toward thinking of ourselves as obligated, perhaps because that fosters or forces responsibility to our collaborate and individual projects. It fits the way our writing process works, or the way we want it to work. We’ve come to this stance together, though we might have come to it separately, because it makes sense for the way we want to balance our collaborative and separate projects. Sometimes the writing mood descends upon one of us, but neither of us tends to wait for inspiration, which seems akin to luck, instead believing such a thing can be cultivated. Whatever luck or inspiration we have obligates us to earn it. Whatever obligation we feel makes us appreciate a stroke of luck or good will or seemingly perfect timing.

Interview: Kathryn Thornton October 24, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Today, we continue our video interview series with four-time space shuttle astronaut Kathy Thornton. Thornton became an astronaut in 1985, a pretty good time to get into the lineup. Her first mission was STS-33 in 1989 on Discovery. She flew on Endeavour twice, on STS-49 in 1992 and STS-61 in 1993. Her last flight was on Columbia, for STS-73 in 1995. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame last year. She’s on the engineering faculty at the University of Virginia.

When we interviewed Thornton last year, Anna had already talked with Mike Coats (see video HERE), a shuttle astronaut and the Director of Johnson Space Center, but the Lofty duo hadn’t conducted any interviews together. After Discovery’s launch had been scrubbed, we happened upon a bunch of astronauts at the Visitor Complex, but we hadn’t planned ahead. We took a few minutes to prep questions, then dove right in, beginning with Kathy Thornton. You’ll notice our lack of practice in this video: we introduce ourselves but not the astronaut, and it’s a pretty short conversation. Since then, we’ve developed our interviewing skills, and we jumped at opportunities in the News Center. In fact, during subsequent visits to Kennedy Space Center, we could have talked with Michael Barratt (see video HERE) or Mike Massimino (see video HERE) for hours, though that may have as much to do with astronauts’ range of skills as our progress with this Lofty Ambitions project.

Writing Apart, Writing Together October 19, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Recently, we wrote about the relationship between our collaborative writing projects (writing together) and our individual writing projects (writing apart) as well as what happens when we have written together while being physically apart. You can read “Writing Together, Writing Apart” HERE.

Lofty at the Launch Pad

We’re learning some lessons as we make our way into our second year of blogging, lessons that apply to the other big projects we write together and especially separately. One thing we’ve come to recognize is the importance of daily writing, or at least putting a hand on the project every day. On the busiest days, that may mean merely sharing a link to Lofty Ambitions on Facebook, grasping for the least little connection to a daily practice.

Part of what explains why we’ve been able to write this blog is that we committed to a regular weekly schedule that established habits to support that schedule. At first, that meant a collaborative post every Wednesday. Then, we started doing occasional additional posts, usually when the news or an event anniversary triggered an idea. Later, we added guest bogs and, more recently, video interviews. The regularity and the schedule’s predictability keep our minds on the project. We discuss the blog when we take an evening walk, we pitch and outline new topics over beers at a local watering hole, and we dissect previous posts, especially our series posts, looking for something important we might have missed or something worth expanding. Our blog writing is on our minds every day, and we’re planning, drafting, or revising more days than not.

This summer posed particular problems for our regular pace and the way we like to collaborate. Anna was away at Sewanee Writers’ Conference for two weeks, then Doug traveled to the Space Coast for almost a week to see the GRAIL launch. No evening walks, no brainstorming together over beers. Particularly disconcerting was the time change, so that when we talked on the phone, we each were in a different part of the day. When Anna called home before bed from Sewanee, Doug was heading out for a run. When Doug called home from Titusville after drafting a post, Anna was eating dinner. Not only did writing apart mean we were physically separated, but also that our mindsets were not synced up in the day’s arc.

Lofty at Bandelier National Monument

All our previous trips to the Space Coast had been together. This time, Doug had been chosen for the official GRAIL Tweetup, and Anna couldn’t miss the second week of the semester. This Florida trip was different than merely writing while apart, as we’d done when Anna was at Sewanee. At the Space Coast, we’d already established routines together. We had shared memories there. We’d used our four trips to Florida to learn how to be better collaborators, to be in sync and productive. But this time, we had to write together on a specific, unfolding topic far from each other: the GRAIL launch.

Before Doug left, we had outlined a plan for our series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” but that outline changed daily as news developed and we thought of additional content. The outline made us feel better and served as a necessary safety net, but the end result doesn’t match the initial plan for the series.

Doug had to gather the bulk of the content by himself for several posts. Anna had to trust that a post would show up for her to revise and that she wouldn’t have questions about what something meant. Doug had to trust that whatever he sent would be revised and posted while he slept. We gritted our teeth and believed that it would all make sense in the end, and we’re pretty sure it did.

Lofty at THATCamp Vancouver

While Doug was attending the GRAIL launch by himself, it wasn’t as if he was working alone. Doug relied on range of social media tools (after all, he was attending a Tweetup) in a greater capacity than ever before, so he drew from a virtual community. For our previous trips to the Space Coast, we attended the shuttle launches as members of the media, and we relied heavily on face-to-face interactions with our colleagues in the News Center and Annex. Although many members of the press are also social media mavens, some are still catching up or even ignoring social media technologies (in one memorable exchange, Doug tutored a press corps member on the relationship between Twitter, Tweetups, and NASA’s social media strategy). Given the nature of a NASA Tweetup, with its 150 actual attendees and hundreds of other interested observers tweeting about the GRAIL launch and related activities, Doug was able to stay current with Space Coast information and events. And we were able to keep up with each other day to day, each of us leaving virtual crumbs for the other to follow.

Doug’s GRAIL work also was heavily influenced by our new iPad. Our previous divide-and-conquer methodology gave us the flexibility to send one of us out to an event or to sniff out news tidbits while the other stayed with the laptops and continued working. We finally took the plunge on iPad for this go-it-alone trip, and it worked well. Now we find ourselves using the iPad for research and writing every day. The iPad isn’t a substitute for our paper notebooks or our Mac laptops, but it makes it easier to keep our hands on our writing projects every day. A daily writing practice is difficult to maintain, so if a device makes it feel a bit easier or a bit closer to one’s fingertips, that’s good.

Lofty after Atlantis's Last Launch

Mostly importantly, though, Doug’s work habits were shaped by years of being a researcher and a student: show up, pay attention, and take damned good notes. That’s really what a daily writing practice means: show up, stay focused, and get some words on the page.

Since Doug’s return from the Space Coast, we’ve returned to our more usual patterns for writing the blog. We’ve learned, though, that one of us can sometimes take the lead and run with an idea without brainstorming together first. This method offers a certain kind of collaboration and conversation, but we don’t want to take turns post by post. We don’t want to take a break or lose momentum. We don’t write any blog posts completely separately, in part because we have our own individual projects outside of the blog for writing separately (we’ll write more soon about working on our individual projects). But it’s good to know we could take turns in a pinch.

Our blogger habits—talking things through with each other, sharing outlines and drafts, writing very much together through the process—keep the blog on our minds day to day and make this large, ongoing project easier. That’s a lesson for our individual projects as well. Habits of daily attention make large projects easier.

Guest Blog: Kelly McMasters October 17, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
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We’ve written about various things nuclear at Lofty Ambitions. (Click HERE for a post on “Radioactivity and Risk” that includes additional links at the end.) In fact, we’re in the midst of a series called “In the Footsteps” (Part 9 HERE) and will talk about that work next month in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library. Our last guest blogger who wrote about nuclear issues was Ann Ronald (see that HERE). For this week’s guest blogger, as in that earlier case, we’d read the book but never met the author.

Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley, a memoir that’s being made into a documentary film. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, River Teeth, Newsday, and Time Out New York, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination and teaches nonfiction writing at mediabistro.com and in the School of the Arts and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. We hope to meet Kelly, perhaps next February at the AWP Conference, where Anna has organized a panel about writing creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.


KELLY MCMASTERS (photo by Mark Milroy)

Down the highway from my childhood house on the south shore of Long Island, rows of tall, scrubby pitch pines stretch their gnarled branches up to the sky. Their rough, plated trunks stand close together, creating a thick wall along the William Floyd Parkway. If the traffic is moving slowly enough, drivers passing by can catch a glimpse of a tall, barbed-wire fence snugged a few feet into the forest. This fence surrounds hundreds of acres of the island’s Pine Barrens, and hidden in the center sits the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear facility run by the federal government.

I grew up in a reactor community, but because of these Pine Barrens and because of the secret nature of the laboratory, my family didn’t know until it was much too late. We moved there in 1981, drawn by cheap rent, the proximity to the ocean, and a job for my father. Other neighborhood fathers worked at the lab, mostly in support capacities like maintenance, cafeteria, post office, or IT, but the full nuclear reality of the place was never understood, even by those employed there. Everyone thought it was just a lab, full of white-coated scientists who poured things into beakers and scribbled into notebooks, certainly nothing more nefarious than a few animal experiments.

(photo by Philip Trypuc)

This changed in 1989 when, after years of hand-wringing and covert testing, the facility was listed as a Superfund site. Local newspapers devoted covers to the story, and the findings were bleak: Three nuclear reactors had been built at Brookhaven, and all three had leaked.  Soil and drinking water was contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154. Fish from the rivers whose headwaters started on the lab property tested high for heavy metals and local deer registered high levels of Cesium 137 in their bodies. Underground plumes of radioactive tritium stretched out towards Shirley. But my hometown was not the only place affected. Beneath the Pine Barrens is the recharge basin for one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country, serving more than three million people on the island. The lab and its leaking reactors were located right in the center. It would take 300,000 years for the radioactive material released to reach levels safe enough for human interaction. That’s longer than Long Island itself has even existed.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster six months ago, ghost names from the past have been shuffling up from the sands of our collective memories, like the soft bodies of silver-gray stingrays, invisible until a flap of their wings sends up swirls of sand, muddying the water and pulling them into focus. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Enola Gay. With these names, nuclear fears have jumped back into the spotlight: A string of earthquakes and wildfires across the United States have shuttered reactors, an explosion at a French nuclear power plant (the safest! the smartest!) injured four workers and left one person dead, and Iran’s first nuclear power plant powered up. All while the nuclear lobby continues to insist that reactors are clean and green, a friendly fix-it for our oil and coal gorged economy, ignoring the fact that they aren’t economically viable or insurable and that we still have no plans for the ever-accumulating waste.

But while the natural disaster scenarios and stories of radiation-laced milk, crops, and human bodies in Japan splash across the headlines, another string of names marches quietly in the background. Braidwood. Limerick. Indian Point. Vermont Yankee. Yucca Mountain. And Shirley. My hometown of Shirley has been struggling along with a class-action lawsuit brought against the lab for damages to health and property and the environment. Like Shirley, the reactor communities of Braidwood and Limerick complain of cancers, autoimmune diseases, high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, skin diseases, and other mysterious ailments. Like Shirley, reactors at Braidwood, Limerick, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee have leaked tritium, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and various other pollutants. In fact, a recent study showed that tritium leaks have been found at 48, or nearly three-quarters, of U.S. reactor sites.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was tasked by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a long-term epidemiological study on the health effects and risks in U.S. reactor communities. During the Fukushima emergency, U.S. officials recommended that Americans within a 50-mile radius of the compromised reactors evacuate. According to 2010 census data, one-third of all Americans, or 116 million of us, live within a 50-mile radius of a commercial nuclear reactor. Add in the national laboratory system, of which the Brookhaven National Lab is a part, and that number only increases.

Even though one in every three Americans is potentially effected, and even though reactor communities have been calling for such studies for decades, before the NAS study began, there had never been a large-scale study of low-level radiation from nuclear reactors and their effects on human health, making it convenient and easy for the nuclear lobby to discount any connection between unexplained cancer clusters and other health issues and proximity to nuclear reactors and all that they spew. There is moderate hope that in a few years this may change with the NAS results, though most understand that, these days, scientific studies have become nearly as political as tea. But those of us who have lived in reactor communities know enough.

So forget about the tsunamis. Forget about the earthquakes and the floods and the wildfires. The real danger isn’t in the natural disasters or the worst-case scenarios. Before we get to Blue Ribbon Panels about the unsolvable waste issue, the dirty fuel harvest cycle, and the insanely high and uninsurable costs to build, we need to address the human cost of the simple, everyday operation of the reactors themselves and the leaks, spills, accidents, and releases that come with each reactor. We need to do this before the names of Braidwood, Indian Point, Limerick, Shirley, and the other nearly one hundred reactor communities join the ranks of the ghost names of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.

I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses October 14, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Press Briefing: Discovery Not-Launch

This week has had us taking some account of history while looking forward to the transitions afoot. In fact, we just ran into Barb Epstien, one of our blog subscribers and a fellow Knox College alum.

Press Briefing: Endeavour Not-Launch

Earlier this week, on the day that we were at the California Science Center watching the title transfer from NASA to that museum for space shuttle Endeavour, Virgin Galactic announced that Mike Moses was joining their effort to make commercial human spaceflight a reality. Mike Moses is the Launch Integration Manager for the Space Shuttle Program at Kennedy Space Center. Now that there will be no more space shuttle launches to manage, he’s decided to move on. As he puts it, “I couldn’t just push paper around and write requirements for the next 10 years so I’m going to take another shot at it here in the commercial sector.”

From Right: Mike Leinbach, Mike Moses (Endeavour Launch)

We know why Virgin Galactic wants this guy. Heck, if we could invite him over for dinner, we’d like to hang out with him too. Mike Moses was a fixture at the pre- and post-launch press conferences we attended. He and Mike Leinbach (referred to at KSC as The Two Mikes) sat down with the press to explain each success and each delay. Moses is utterly professional, thoroughly knowledgeable, and incredibly engaging. He can talk the technical talk with the engineers, and he can compare shuttle parts to household items so the journalists who don’t usually cover aerospace can translate stories for their readers. Most importantly, Mike Moses was the guy who choked up or got teary eyed with every success.

Press Briefing: Atlantis Launch

Mike Moses was clearly thrilled to be part of the space shuttle program and proud of what he and his whole team accomplished, especially over the final launches of each remaining orbiter. When the two Mikes entered the press briefing room for the last time, we led a round of applause for them and for all the work they’d done, perhaps the first round of applause the press had enthusiastically given these two men. At the final post-launch press briefing, after Atlantis had taken to the skies, Mike Moses, knowing that he’d never again experience a day like that, concluded his opening remarks by saying, “I can’t express again how proud I am to be sitting up here after a good, successful launch today.” NASA wasn’t laying off Moses, but his job ended that day in July.

You can read the news story at Reuters HERE and in an interview at Discovery News HERE.

Watch the videos below to see Mike Moses answer questions posed by the Lofty Ambitions duo!

I Remember California: Title for Title October 12, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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California Science Center

Yesterday, we rose early and braved the traffic, driving almost two hours to the California Science Center because that museum will be the new, permanent home of space shuttle Endeavour. Earlier this year, we saw Endeavour on the launch pad. We were at Kennedy Space Center for its last not-launch and its last launch, which was the first shuttle launch we witnessed in person (all our posts in the Endeavour series are listed HERE). After Atlantis took to the skies, we toured Endeavour as it was being de-processed in the Orbiter Processing Facility. On Tuesday, the title for this orbiter was transferred from NASA to the California Science Center, and we wanted to be present for #EndeavourLA. Who knew that, like your car, a spacecraft would have a title? View it here: Transfer Order.

Four years ago, this was exactly the kind of event that we were hoping to experience when we discussed moving to Southern California. We first discussed the possibility of coming to Chapman University and Orange in December 2007, during a holiday car ride in downstate Illinois (a ride we will take again tomorrow as we make our way to Homecoming at Knox College). Aviation nerds that we are, we were already well acquainted with rich aviation history of Southern California. Howard Hughes’s HK-1, the Spruce Goose, made it’s only flight in nearby Long Beach Harbor (for Spruce Goose curator’s guest blog, click HERE and more Lofty goose HERE). Douglas Aviation’s game-changing DC-3 was designed, built, and first flew from Santa Monica. And the speed of sound was first broken by an aircraft in the nearby Mojave Desert (the 64th anniversary of this event is in two days, on October 14th).

STS-134 Commander Mark Kelly

Even so, we never dreamed that we would be involved in a pursuit of this scope. We certainly hadn’t considered writing this blog together, and we had no plans to watch in person the space shuttle’s final launches. In fact, even this time last week, we fully expected that today’s post would be the third part of our series on the MCAS Miramar Air Show (parts 1 and 2 are HERE and HERE). We have some unfinished business to address about our history with air shows and how it led to our collaborative endeavors. We also have two more posts about writing as a couple in the pipeline. We had plenty about which to write without this week’s trek into L.A. But as ever, chance has intervened, Doug made a quick call to get us on the media list for #EndeavourLA, and here we are. When does a project take on a life of its own? How does it reach a place where, almost daily, new tidbits feed into it?

Used Shuttle Tires

Shortly after we arrived at the California Science Center yesterday, we headed into the main hall. In front of the stage were six used shuttle tires, from Atlantis, Columbia, and Discovery, complements of Dryden Flight Research Center. We also recognized a friendly journalist face. Rob Pearlman of collectSPACE is covering each orbiter as it makes its way to its museum home, and we reintroduced ourselves. As we found at Kennedy Space Center, journalists tend to share information in a give and take. He told us about the group press interview with the astronauts, and later we gave him a tidbit.

June Lockhart & Mark Kelly

Upstairs, the VIP party was wrapping up, June Lockhart from Lost in Space was chatting with people, and four STS-134 astronauts were soon shuffled over to a table where they answered questions for the press. This was the first time we’d seen the last Endeavour crew since the astronaut walkout before sunrise on May 16, 2011. Mark Kelly, Greg Johnson, Mike Fincke, and Andy Feustal looked great (Roberto Vittori—or Ricky Bobby, as Mike Fincke called him—and Greg Chamitoff couldn’t make the event). (More Lofty notions about the STS-134 crew HERE.) Afterward, we walked down the stairs with Mike Fincke, close enough to touch his shoulder, while Greg Johnson joked around on the escalator beside.

STS-134: Kelly, Johnson, Fincke, Feustal

What did we learn yesterday? On the space shuttle, M&Ms are worth fighting for, but, as Greg Johnson said, “You don’t have Diet Coke like I’m addicted to here on Earth.” He was also pleased with the effects of zero gravity on astronauts’ height and pointed out that he and his fellow crew could use a few inches but had shrunk right back down upon return. Greg Johnson became an astronaut because, in his words, “When I was seven years old, […] I watched Neil Armstrong step on the Moon.”

Mike Fincke

Mike Fincke knew he wanted to be an astronaut when he was three years old. He assured the crowd, including the school children from the science center’s elementary school, that NASA has just hired a group of astronauts. He’s told his own daughter, “Both boys and girls can be astronauts.” Both in the press briefing upstairs and in the Q&A in the main hall, he emphasized that the space shuttle program had opened spaceflight to a range of people. “It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or how much money your parents have.” That said, “It’s a technical field” so science, engineering, and math matter. Based on STS-134 and his earlier stint on the International Space Station, he also pointed out, “We need our toes, our big toes specially, to push off” and move around the shuttle or ISS. “Imagine you feel like your normal self,” he said of being in the zero gravity of space, “except you can fly.”

Mark Kelly & Greg Johnson

Enthusiasm, science and math education, and toes. That’s what’s required to be an astronaut. As we watched the astronauts watching their own home movie of STS-134, we were reminded that astronauts are a special type and also just like the rest of us. They were captivated by the video footage of their journey, sometimes whispering in each other’s ears or pointing at a corner of the screen. “We had fun morning to night,” Andy Feustal said (and morning and night come around more quickly in orbit). Anna pointed at the screen herself, pointed at herself on the screen in the astronaut walkout segment, though we couldn’t actually make ourselves out in that predawn crowd from May. The home movies of these four astronauts are our home movies too, not just for the two of us at Lofty Ambitions but for our generation.

Signing over the Title

Maybe we’re already becoming nostalgic about the space shuttle and about Endeavour in particular, which Mark Kelly pointed out was made from spare parts to replace Challenger. He joked. “I think having a reusable spacecraft is only slightly more expensive” than those built for one-time use. This reusable spacecraft won’t be reused again. It will go on display next fall, if all goes well, and then later will be moved to a second, permanent display in the vertical position to be exhibited as if ready for launch, with its solid rocket boosters and orange fuel tank. But that’s years off; engineers are still working on how to make sure the vertical display will maintain the orbiter’s structural integrity for at least 250 years.

Jeffrey Rudolph, new shuttle owner

The STS-134 crew believes the California Science Center will be a good home for Endeavour, in part because of the millions of people who will eventually see it in person. They don’t want the orbiter significantly altered or Hollywooded-up. Jeffrey Rudolph, CEO and President of the science center (and Monday’s video interview HERE) agrees, pointing out that the engineer who gave him his tour of Endeavour at KSC (that’s Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Kim Guodace HERE) told him this is her baby he’s getting.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

That’s not to say that there won’t be a big homecoming party next fall. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that Endeavour would arrive on a B-747 that would circle the city three times before landing. Then, a parade from LAX to the museum. James T. Butts, Inglewood mayor for just seven months now, couldn’t be happier that the parade route goes through his town. His father worked on the X-15 at North American Aviation, and he’s long admired the journey “to boldly go where men cannot survive without special equipment.”

Space Shuttle Program: $209,000,000,000

Orbiter, Shuttle Endeavour, OV-105: $1,980,674,785.00

Our Lofty Memories: Priceless (not without cost, but still, pretty darn priceless)

Interview: Jeffrey Rudolph October 10, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Endeavour ready for last launch

Bright and early tomorrow morning, we’ll face L.A.-area traffic to make our way to the California Science Center, the future home of space shuttle Endeavour. At a ceremony on October 11, 2011, the title for the orbiter will be turned over to the science museum.

Only four orbiters exist, and only three of those flew actual missions in space. On April 12, 2011, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced that one of those workhorses would return to the place it was built, Southern California. By the time we traveled to the Space Coast to see Endeavour’s not-launch and then launch, we knew that orbiter would end up in our back yard.

Who knows when the space shuttle will actually get here? The space isn’t ready yet, and Endeavour will need to travel farther than any of the others to its museum home. But the title transfer is an important step, and we want to be there. If all goes well, we’ll share the rundown in our regular Wednesday post. You can also click HERE (launch photos) and HERE (our tour with Stephanie Stilson) for our previous up-close-and-personal looks at Endeavour.

STS-134 Crew Walkout (not-launch)

We already know that astronaut Mark Kelly is among five STS-134 astronauts (for our STS-134 crew overview, click HERE) expected to be present at Tuesday’s title transfer. Mark Kelly, the commander of Endeavour’s last mission, retired from NASA on October 1. His retirement ceremony was held last Thursday in Washington, DC, where Representative Gabrielle Giffords (Kelly’s wife) and Vice President Joe Biden joined the celebration. We’ve written about Mark Kelly before (click HERE and HERE).

Of course, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an official from NASA, and the head of the California Science Center will be part of the ceremony too. Oddly, STS-134 crew member Greg Chamitoff isn’t listed in the press information about the event, even though he has family in Southern California. In fact, he’s said before that some rides at Disneyland are rougher than a space shuttle launch. Maybe Chamitoff is still in Australia as a guest of the University of Sydney (click HERE to see his lecture there about STS-134).

Guodace & Her Baby

When we were at Kennedy Space Center this past spring, we interviewed Jeffrey Rudolph, President and CEO of the California Science Center, about Endeavour’s future homecoming. In a bit of serendipity, one of the qualities of the universe that we most value, Doug had a chance to interview Kimberly Guodace during the GRAIL Tweetup. In some amiable chit-chat after that interview, Doug mentioned that we had written a series about Endeavour and STS-134 and that, as a part of that series, we had videorecorded an interview with Jeffrey Rudolph. Kim, who became a Lofty Ambitions guest blogger (click HERE for that post), chimed in that she had guided Jeffrey Rudolph through his tour of Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center. Coincidence? Absolutely, and not at all. We share that video interview of Rudolph today as part of our ongoing interview series on the second and fourth Mondays of every month.

MCAS Miramar Air Show (Part 2) October 5, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration.
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Last week, we wrote about “Writing Together, Writing Apart.” We’ve been thinking about those issues a lot lately, and we’re in the midst of drafting a couple more posts about how we write as a couple and as individuals and how we work together on a writing project and separately on different projects.

This past weekend, our visit to the MCAS Miramar Air Show reminded us that our writing together comes out of some shared activities that helped shape and solidify our relationship way back when. This week, we take some time to recount our Sunday of gaping at the sky (click HERE to see more of our PHOTOS in Part 1), but we’re also in the process of weaving this description back into our grappling with writing as a couple.

The annual MCAS (Marine Corp Air Station) Miramar Air Show, as you would expect from the name, has a decidedly military vibe. Most air shows have a present and past military presence, but Miramar is more of that than any other air show we’ve attended. This year’s show had the added mission of honoring the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation. The program is labeled “A Salute to San Diego,” with the following text just beneath: “1911 ~ Birthplace of Naval Aviation ~ 2011.” A quick glance might give the impression that the first landing on and take-off from an aircraft carrier took place in San Diego. In fact, those events took place 500 miles away in San Francisco. (Click HERE for a blog post, published on the actual 100th birthday, 18 January 2011, that contains some fantastic photographs of the events.)


This year at Miramar, the day’s signature event was the thirty-minute MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) Demonstration Team. As befitting the ground part of MAGTF, there were tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees careening about on the tarmac. But the real appeal for us were the numerous aircraft: C-130s, F/A-18s, AV-8Bs, and CH-46s just to name a few. Our eyes were pointed skyward watching the F/A-18 Hornets flashed by in high-speed passes at 600 knots. (We think that’s what the announcer said, but, of course, it was a bit loud at the moment he said it.) That’s just over 90% of the speed of sound (661 knots or 761 mph at sea level, which was about where we were, since Miramar means sea view).

We’ve never before seen as many helicopters in the air at once. In fact, this was the first time that either of us had seen an MV-22A Osprey up close and personal. The Osprey is a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft that the Marine Corps uses to move troops. The Osprey blends (some would say breaks) the characteristics of a fixed-wing aircraft with a helicopter. Or rather, with two helicopters, since the Osprey’s enormous blades and engines are mounted on both wingtips. The blades are so large that the Osprey can have them in the fully forward position only once it is airborne. It’s an odd, yet somehow very impressive-looking, machine.

Harrier, hovering

If we had only two words to describe the AV-8B Harrier, another VTOL aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory, they would be LOUD and improbable. The first time we encountered a Harrier at an air show was at the Quad City Air Show in the early 1990s, one of our first forays to such events together. Back then, a volunteer walked through the crowd to pass out orange earplugs and warn that the air show wouldn’t be responsible for our hearing loss if we chose to forego the offered hearing protection. We had our own earplugs on hand this time, and we admit we used them.

The Harrier is descended from a 1960’s British aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, and Harrier pilots have been flying amazing maneuvers for nearly fifty years. This past Sunday, part of the MAGTF demonstration featured two Harriers flying, or hovering, really, perched atop shimmering towers of hot jet engine exhaust as they made their way down the runway at improbably slow speeds. That particular demonstration is among the least improbable bit of flying that the Harrier can do. Later in the day, a solo Harrier demonstration featured a vertical takeoff, another improbability that we’d seen twenty years ago on the shores of the Mississippi River. Ready for more? How about slowly flying sideways? Definitely another tick up the improbability scale.  At just about the point that your brain begins to wonder whether this some sort of videogame, the pilot throws the Harrier in reverse and confirms the surreal. These Harrier demonstrations never get old.

The Blue Angels

A full day of sun, sound, and standing on concrete took its toll. The Blue Angels were scheduled to begin their display at 2:45 pm, but they were delayed. It’s difficult to leave an air show before the last act, but by 3:00 pm, we were ready to call it a day. Besides, we’ve seen the Blue Angels several times, and our aching knees and backs were as pressing as our need for lunch. We headed for the exit slowly, lingered at the car with the doors open to cool it, and hoped to catch a glimpse of the Blue Angels before we drove away.

As we’ve written several times at Lofty Ambitions, serendipity sometimes catches us, and that’s what happed on Sunday. Just as we were finishing lunch at a restaurant on the road between the air show and the freeway, the sound of jet engines roared overhead. We rushed out into the parking lot and caught the Blue Angels show from a completely new vantage. We had positioned ourselves at a randomly chosen sandwich shop. In fact, we had stopped at a different place first, but it was closed. This randomly chosen sandwich shop just happened to be on the Blue Angels’ flight path. Roughly five minutes after the show started, Doug heard a gentle rumble behind us and turned to see four jets approaching in a diamond pattern. In just a few seconds, it became clear that they would fly directly over our heads: 200-250 feet above us at nearly 500 mph. The F/A-18 Hornets came over our position as a single jet, a pair of jets, and in the diamond formation at least a half-dozen times. By pure chance, we’d managed the best seats in the house.

All during the Blue Angels’ routine, cars spontaneously pulled into the same parking lot where we stood and emptied of families who plopped themselves down onto any grass they could find. An Indian family emerged from the Indian restaurant. Adults were as awestruck as the children. We all spent the next twenty minutes staring into the sky, looking at fast-moving flashes of blue and yellow. On that first pass overhead, a young boy standing not twenty feet away from us started spontaneously shouting and cheering. Anna was doing the same thing. The sounds that air show crowds make are different from the trilling ooh’s and ah’s of a fireworks display. Air show crowds gasp with punctuated yelps of wow’s and oh-my’s, as if surprised by every pass, every loop, every zipping into the distant clouds.

We are aviation nerds. Despite what we know about the physics of lift and gravity, of thrust and drag, the fact that a big metal contraption can manage controlled flight boggles our minds. One of the reasons that we like air shows so much is that, despite the complicated politics and ethics on display, the aircraft themselves have the power to turn anyone within the line-of-sight and earshot into an aviation nerd, if only for a couple of hours, if only for a few minutes in a strip mall parking lot.

We end this post on a different topic, with a video of Steve Jobs, giving the Commencement Address at Stanford University in 2005. Steve Jobs died today, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. We drafted and revised this post on Mac laptops and are long-time Mac users. We like especially the way Steve Jobs talks here about learning widely and about the role of serendipity.


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