Some Words for Memorial Day

Years ago, before my thoughts were preoccupied by work and family, I used to write poetry in addition to science fiction. I still write from time to time, as evidenced by the Hutt Publishing tab, but for some reason, the poems have pretty much dried up.

I wrote this poem over a decade ago when my grandfather was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a decorated veteran of World War II. Sadly, I could have also written it after my father’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a Vietnam veteran who was critically injured in combat. I’ll tell his full story another day. Suffice it to say, he didn’t die in combat, but I think this fits well with the theme of the day.

This Folded Flag

The flag was folded
The horns sounded
A shot rang out
Tears then did fall
I strangled my thoughts
With stoic resolve
Pursing my lips
Against further emotion
Another fold of the colors
Another shot rings out
I glance to the rows
Of stone upon stone
And know how he fought
Full of pride and glory
His head raised high
Full of heartened duty
Surrounded by those
Of singular purpose
But the Earth beckoned
To return what was given
And no man has strength
To resist that call
The flag is folded
The final shot sounds
And I whisper beneath air
My wishes and hopes
But sorrow belies pride
And tugs at my heart
For though I do not speak
My thoughts cannot hide
So rest with the winds
That sound across this land
Knowing what you gave
To the children of all
And know of our pride
In all you have done
Know that I remember
With each taught fold
How you touched my life.

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Raising My Girls

When my wife was pregnant with each of our children and more so with each girl we had, a lot of people assumed that I really wanted to have a baby boy.  To me though, that was never important.  I had no preference either way; I never had any preference to begin with.  To me, I still planned to share with them whatever I could, to show them my interests and my dreams, and share in their interests, hopes, and dreams.

Now, that’s not to say they don’t naturally gravitate towards certain things that I am more than happy for them to do on their own or with their mom.  The first toy that each of them played with was typically a baby doll and a baby stroller.  We also own way more Barbie dolls and Disney Princess merchandise then I could have ever imagined.  But in that dress-up box, just below the Rapunzel dress is a Clone Trooper costume.  In addition to a Barbie playhouse, we also have a Dragon Castle.  We have Barbie’s corvette, but also a Jurassic Park electronic T-Rex.  We have GeoTrax train sets, Legos, Matchbox Cars, Star Wars toys, Transformers, and Nerf guns in addition to the Step 2 Kitchenette and Diner.

I want them to have the same opportunities as any other kid, regardless of being a boy or girl.  We’ve signed up our oldest to play on mixed tee-ball and soccer teams.  There was one instance, during the tee-ball practices, where I saw one of the other dads expect less from my oldest just because she was a girl.  I was a bit surprised at how sensitive I was to that.  It sounds odd, but I talked to her about doing a better job and trying harder, because there was no reason for her to not be as good as any of the other kids out there.

My girls also like to play video games.  The first game I played with my oldest was Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii.  She loved to sit on my lap and be the helper, collecting different things through the game, while I played through each level.  Now, she and her slightly younger sister like to play through games.  I’ve read several articles that talk about the rise in “girl gamers”, but that’s a term I hate.  Yes, my kids are girls who like to play video games, but they’re no different than any other kid who plays games.  Yes, Disney Princess games interest them more than racing games, but they also happily play Lego Star Wars or Wii Sports or Super Mario games.

About a year ago, I introduced my oldest, now 6, to the old 1985 Transformer Cartoons, and I gave her a box of my old toys.  Yes, the cartoons are cheesy, silly, and devoid of much of a redeeming story, but she likes to watch them.  My middle daughter likes to watch the Clone Wars cartoon and the Star Wars movies with me.  She’ll often ask for me to play Star Wars with her.

Granted, our approach to play is different.  When they play dinosaurs, the dinosaur family goes on vacation; when I play with them, the T-Rex is on a rampage.  For them, the Transformers are taking the kids to school; for me, it’s all about robot battles.  So I recognize that there are plenty of psychological differences in how we view the world.  This isn’t about people being the same; this is about people giving them the same opportunities.

My wife feels that the girls want to play with Star Wars, Transformers toys, and the like because they want to do something with me.  For me, I want them to play with whatever they want and they aren’t limited to dolls or things that are pink just because of their gender.  Will this help them be better people when they grow up?  I don’t really know, but I do know I will have given them an opportunity to be interested in whatever they want, not what someone else wants them to be interested in.

Their role and their place in society is not defined by their gender; their role is whatever they choose it to be.  Am I confusing their gender?  Will they be psychologically scarred by this?  I doubt it.  They do plenty of “traditional” girl things.  I’ve just exposed them to things that they might not normally gravitate toward.

So what is the end result of my influence on my girls? In answer to that, I present this video of my daughter as Darth Vader.

Not just twiddling our thumbs: What the training community does during a joint Shuttle-ISS mission.

International Space Station Post 19A

When the Space Shuttle launches on a mission to ISS, it represents the culmination of a year or so of hard work from the teams of instructors that have trained the astronauts and flight controllers to safely execute the mission. There’s a separate team responsible for training each vehicle. The training leads and instructors on those teams have spent hour after hour with each member of the crew reviewing the tasks to be performed, practicing those tasks, and trying to make sure the crew is prepared for any contingency that may occur. Likewise, they have worked with their flight controller counterparts, making sure that the ground team can handle any situation thrown at them, that they understand the priorities of the mission, and that they understand everything that needs to be done in order for the mission to be a success.

Just because the shuttle launches, that doesn’t mean the job ends.  At a minimum, the training team will spend the time observing how the actual mission unfolds.  In training, we often wind up simulating or training equipment that has never been used or operated in the real world.  We base our training on the best understanding we have of how that equipment or component will work based on studying hardware and software manuals or observing testing of the new component.  That means that when a piece of equipment is turned on for the first time in a mission, it’ll be the first time everyone, from the ground team to the crew to the instructor team, sees how it works in the real world.  So during the mission, we watch and we learn.

We’re also watching to see how well the crew and flight controllers handle all the mission activities.  We want to know if we prepared the crew and flight control team for everything we should have.  Was there anything we should have done better?  Or was there anything different we should have focused on?  Was there anything unforeseen that we need to make sure is covered in future missions.  Yes, we’ll talk with crews afterwards to get their feedback on this directly, but we don’t excel in our jobs without being proactive about finding ways to make the training better.

Beyond even that, we want to see what problems the crew or flight control teams experience during the mission.  We want to see how they handle the problem and we will file that problem away for potential future use.  We constantly try to predict what types of problems or malfunctions will cause the most amount of trouble for the mission.  We want to make sure everyone involved can handle those worst case scenarios.  Despite our constant poking and prodding of any potential weaknesses, the real vehicle always comes up with new and inventive ways to challenge everyone involved in operations.  We learn from those real world malfunction scenarios, get ideas from those, and then use hem in the future when training for the next mission.

Besides observation, the training team does support the mission in other ways.  If a complex problem does occur, the training team will try to recreate the problem in one of our simulators.  We’ll try to replicate the conditions on the real vehicles as exactly as possible, so that the flight control team can figure out a solution to the problem and keep the mission on track.  When it’s needed, the training team will work to have the simulator in the right configuration in a matter of hours.  During that time, the ground team will put together possible responses to a given issue.  Then, they’ll come in and practice their response.  We’ll potentially go over the next worse failure as well, so we can stress test the malfunction response.  Given how tightly scheduled all of our missions are, everyone needs to move quickly in order to make sure we get everything we need to done.

In addition to all of that, while the training for this mission has ended, training for the next missions is still ongoing.  At any given moment, there are some 30 astronauts in training for future space station missions, in addition to that training continues for the final shuttle flight, STS-135, as well as for upcoming Japanese and European cargo vehicle missions, and finally for the upcoming commercial cargo missions.  So while the shuttle mission unfolds before the world, there’s still plenty of work going on behind the scenes getting us ready for the next mission, and the one after that, and the one after that, and on and on.

What is the endgame in the search for Exoplanets?

Exoplanet illustration via Wired

One of the most interesting areas in Astronomy at the moment is the search for Extrasolar Planets, or Exoplanets.  These are planets that exist outside of the Solar System.  To date, 551 Exoplanets have been confirmed, with the possibility of over 1200 more recently announced by the NASA Kepler team.  Most exciting, a team of French Researchers announced yesterday that they have confirmed that the first exoplanet which could support life has been discovered.

Gliese 581d, first discovered in 2007 with seven times the mass of Earth and roughly twice its size, has a carbon dioxide atmosphere.  This is the first of what could be millions of potentially habitable planets in the galaxy.

Consider that to date, the majority of planets discovered are large gas giants as big or bigger than Jupiter.  It makes sense that as we first look for planets in the cosmos, that we will find the largest of them.  Consider also that several of the popular techniques for detecting planets favor finding planets that have short orbital periods (Kepler has yet to confirm a planet with an orbit longer than 40 days).  As we refine our techniques for planet detection, we will find more and more smaller, Earth-like planets.

The question becomes, then what?

Once a planet is found, we can analyze the light produced as it passes through that planet’s atmosphere to get a rough idea of the gases that make up that atmosphere.  We can tell if a planet has a nitrogen rich atmosphere.  We can also tell how far a planet is from its sun and whether or not it resides in its system’s habitable zone, where a planet can potentially maintain water on its surface.

So in a decade, we’ll have potentially discovered hundreds of planets that could maintain life.  This is where things really start to get interesting.  Once we know a planet could support life, the question becomes is there intelligent life?  Is there a developed society?  On the fringe of things are a couple of researchers who believe we should be able to detect the evidence of asteroid mining.  This would be a sign of a fairly advanced civilization, especially considering we don’t yet have the capability to do that, though I would argue hat’s mainly because we don’t put the money into it.  Once Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos figure out how to reap the profits from asteroid mining, I have no doubt we’ll be there, but that’s another post for another time.

Of course, another possible method of determining if there’s a civilization there will be through just listening.  SETI has been using radio telescopes for years to try to listen for signals from alien worlds.  We have been unintentionally sending signals to space since the dawn of radio.  SETI has been listening for years to see if it could pick up the those signals from another world.  They scan the sky without much guidance as to where to look.  With the discovery of potential life-supporting exoplanets, you now have the ability to do a more guided search.

So, we can discover planets.  We can tell if those planets could support water and whether or not they have an atmosphere.  We have a small chance of being able to tell if there’s an advanced civilization there.  What do we do after we suspect there’s life in them there planets?  Do we just say ‘hey, that’s pretty neat’ and stop there.  I have a hard time seeing that.

I imagine the next step will be what I’ll call the Hawking debate: do we risk alerting a potentially far superior alien civilization to our existence and the risk that they would wipe us out or do we trust that they will be benevolent in their intentions once we send them the “we are here” broadcast.  I do imagine there will be real scientific debate about this, but I think the desire to push the boundaries and explore the universe will win out.

This is where a planet like Gliese 581d becomes really interesting.  Gliese 581d is a relatively scant 20 light years away.  A signal in that direction would only take 20 years to get there and 20 years back.  40 years is a lifetime, but it’s certainly a plausible length of time for an experiment of this magnitude.  Many experiments last for decades or more.  Something like this would be low-cost and low overhead; we would just need to remember to keep listening at the right time.  So we could try to let that civilization know we are here.

So what do we do after that?  Do we send a probe a la the Voyager spacecraft?  Right now, the fastest spacecraft in existence, Helios 2, travels along at a snail’s pace of ~150,000 mph, which doesn’t quite match the 670,616,629 mph that light travels at.  So, without some substantial breakthroughs in the speed of spacecraft, sending any type of probe to Gliese 581d will take a really, really, really, really long time.  My question is, if we know there’s a civilization in this system, is that the impetus needed to devote research dollars to develop new propulsion systems?  Or to go really out there, lead to more research into wormholes, a theoretical mode of travel fairly common in science fiction.

Of course, the ultimate dream would be to actually send someone there, but that’ll have to come after the invention of the wormhole generator and interstellar travel.  So, the best bet for this option may be cryogenically freezing yourself and see how far technology has progressed in about say 300 years.  Maybe then we’ll be able to get a firsthand glimpse of Gliese 581d.  Sure, other science fiction hypotheses exist such as a generation ship, which families would theoretically live in for hundreds of years and cross the cosmos and a more traditional rate of speed, but I’m fairly confident we’re a ways off from that technology, too.

So, we won’t be visiting the alien worlds that are being discovered any time soon, but contact would definitely not be out of the question.  The question there is, should we?

Congratulations to the NFL owners for finding a way to screw up a good thing.

Today it was announced that mediation between the players and the NFL owners would be halted until June after the next courtroom milestone. I’m not intending to recap the gory details of this craptacular labor fight. Frankly, I’m sick of reading about the details of this. I just want what every other fan wants, which is a chance to follow actual football news without the backdrop of greedy owners trying their damnedest to wring every last penny of profit out of the game.

The NFL has worked hard over the last decade to turn the distraction and entertainment the league provides into a year round affair. The days of only being able to follow your favorite team during the months they are actually playing games have longed passed. Now, football is essentially a year round affair, with brief lulls in February and June. When the season ends, you follow your team into free agency, evaluating every move right along with them. After that, you turn to the gala spectacle of the NFL draft where every team gets the guy they want and everyone is a future superstar or diamond in the rough. After that, you get your first glimpses of the team they could field as minicamps are run in May and June. Finally, the actual playing of football can be glimpsed on the horizon as training camp opens in late July or early August.

Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly unhealthy obsession with all of it. I’ll watch every hour of the draft either on TV or now streaming to the iPad. I’ll check profootballtalk.com incessantly during the free agent period to find out not only who my favorite team is rumored to be interested in but also who their rivals are picking up. When minicamps roll around, I’ll watch the coach’s interviews, check out the still photos from practice, and even watch film of the drills. In late July, I’ll pick up Football Outsiders Almanac and read through the statistical breakdown of every team in the league.

In short, the NFL has become my primary diversion outside of work and the struggles of the real world. I don’t have to worry about budget or deadlines, I can just bask in the ever-increasing details of this modern-day gladiator tournament.

Coming out of college, my first purchase for myself was a DirecTV satellite dish just so I could get the NFL Sunday Ticket package and watch every game the Philadelphia Eagles play. The Eagles went 3-13 that season, but I’ve had the Sunday ticket package ever since. Over the years, I’ve been to Eagles games in Houston, Dallas, Oakland, and of course Philadelphia. I’ve done game charting for Football Outsiders and recorded detailed play-by-play data of games throughout the season. I’ve written guest blog posts for FO and the now defunct Igglesblog. Naturally, I run or participate in at least 3 fantasy football leagues a year.

Except I can’t do any of that this year. This year, I read through details of how the owners cancelled the existing collective bargaining agreement because they wanted an additional billion dollars of revenue taken out of what’s currently going to players salaries. I read daily updates on the latest in lawsuits, appeals, and media pandering. It all feels too much like work.

I also read heart-breaking stories about the heroes of my youth, like Andre Waters, and players who I saw give their all to the team, like Kevin Turner, and I can’t help but feel they deserve every penny they earn in this sport. I shudder to think what will happen to Brian Dawkins, possibly my favorite player of all time, in another 10-20 years. Will he turn into another Waters or Dave Duerson?

Yes, the players know full well they’re going to be beat up and physically abused in their career, but that doesn’t mean they should expect to be crippled, mentally or physically, for the rest of their lives. A coal miner knows the risks of the job too, but that doesn’t mean he’s at fault if he dies because the mine collapses or he doesn’t get compensated if he develops black lung. In the same way, it shouldn’t be acceptable for players to expect to wind up permanently debilitated because they chose to play this game.

So I want most of every dollar I pay to go to the players who are giving their all to win, not to the greedy bastards who strongarm taxpayers into paying for stadiums, who sell ridiculous personal seat licenses that allow you the right to buy season tickets, or who charge full price for shoddy exhibition games. I have no love lost for owners like Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder who seem hell-bent on sucking every last dollar out of the fans’ pockets. (For some reason, I have a slightly higher opinion of the Rooneys, Bob Kraft, Maras, and Jeff Lurie, though maybe it’s just because they aren’t as overtly money-grubbing or they just have better PR people.)

Now, I’m not going to make a ridiculous claim about not watching or going to games once it resumes, but I am going to have to seriously think about dropping the hefty chunk of change now required for Sunday Ticket if they’re only going to have 8 crappy games this fall. However, I’m an admittedly hardcore fan and if I already feel this disenchanted with the whole mess, how do the casual fans feel?

The owners would do well to remember that nothing lasts forever. Rome fell, the Titanic sank, and even the almighty NFL can fall from grace. The only question is, can anyone save them from themselves?

Simulated: A Look Inside Spaceflight Training

He would soon regret not wearing his brown pants on this day.

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many *combat* drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.
Drake: S**t.
Hudson: Oh, man…

via IMDB

In Aliens, James Cameron excellently framed the ability of Lieutenant Gorman to lead his Colonial Marines into combat through this exchange on training.  The inference is clear, ‘simulated’ is not as good as the real thing.  ‘Simulated’ doesn’t really prepare you to lead your troops into combat.  No one will ever argue that simulations are a true substitute for real world experience, but for spaceflight training, simulations represent the most practical way for NASA and other space agencies around the globe to prepare astronauts and flight controllers for the risks of human spaceflight.

NASA runs simulations almost daily for several different reasons:

  1. To see if new personnel have the knowledge, ability, and mettle to be flight controllers,
  2. To practice for a specific mission and ensure everyone on the team knows their roles and responsibilities,
  3. To make sure the activities for a given mission day are practical or sequenced appropriately,
  4. To ensure everyone involved is ready for the worst case scenario.

Why do we need to do all this in simulations?  That’s a pretty straightforward answer.  We simulate something because it’s either too expensive, too risky, or not practical to train on-the-job while in space.  You don’t want the first time you learn how to respond to a fire on-board the International Space Station to be the first time you ever practice how to put out that fire.  You don’t want the first time you figure out what to do when a Space Shuttle main engine fails to be during launch when one of the main engines fail.  You want to know what to do in those situations as innately as possible so that instead of thinking about what to do, you are reacting and doing what you need to do.  It’s the same reason that sports teams practice plays again and again, you want to develop muscle memory, instinct, and quick reactions in order to best handle the moment.

We also don’t want to find out in the middle of a serious failure on-board the ISS or Shuttle that a flight controller can’t handle the stress and makes poor decisions under pressure.  When that moment happens, the existence of the vehicle could be threatened, the continuation of a program, and most importantly, lives could be on the line.  You have to succeed, you have to remain focused, and you have to be able to do the right thing.  So we practice, we practice, and we practice some more.

Just what is a simulation?  In many ways, it can feel like a giant video game.  NASA uses highly detailed and complex computer models to create a simulation of the real ISS or Shuttle.  The simulator model has to behave appropriately in every way possible: it needs to follow the laws of physics as it travels through a virtual Earth orbit, its components such as air conditioners, smoke detectors, etc., must behave as they do on the real vehicle, its virtual atmosphere must behave like the real thing (e.g. heating up when heaters are on, carbon dioxide levels rising due to crewmembers breathing etc.), it needs to give you a visual representation of what you’re supposed to be seeing (e.g. when do you see the runway during shuttle landing), and it needs to let you know what you should hear or feel in a given activity.

Now, it’s not practical or cost-effective for us to fully simulate everything to this level of detail.  So we have to prioritize the things that we think really need to be as lifelike as possible.  If something could threaten the life of the crew or the existence of the vehicle, we put a high priority on recreating that and practicing how to respond to those situations.  We also need to simulate enough of the vehicle to give the flight control team a plausible feeling of reality.

One of the cardinal rules of simulations is that you do not acknowledge that you are ‘only’ in a simulation.  That gives the impression that you are not behaving as you would in the real world and are not taking it as seriously as you should or would in real life and as such aren’t responding with the appropriate urgency.  The onus is on the trainer to create as immersive an environment as possible.

One of our challenges in training is to create the most realistic representation of the vehicle.  For every piece of equipment added, NASA has to decide how do you train it.  Is it important enough that we need an exact replica on the ground?  Or is it okay to have something that just looks like that piece of equipment?  Or do I need even need that and I can just get away with a picture of the thing?

One thing we absolutely cannot simulate is the microgravity environment astronauts experience in low Earth orbit.  We try our best in spacewalk training through the use of a large pool i the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, but we have no way of truly reflecting that feeling of weightlessness, at least not until some fundamental breakthroughs that lead us into a capability only found in science fiction.

That doesn’t stop us from creating real stress in our flight controllers or crew in their training.  Hopefully, when all is said and done, they’ll recognize, unlike Lieutenant Gorman, when it’s necessary to pull their team out because they’re about to get slaughtered by some ruthless xenomorphs (aliens*).

*-This should not be taken literally and does not mean that we train astronauts how to deal with alien encounters.

For My Mom and My Wife

A few words on the two most important women in my life (though three more are a close second) who have helped me become the man I am today.

My mom was an incredible, self-made woman.  The oldest of three sisters, she overcame quite a bit in her adult life and taught me much along the way.  My biological father abandoned us when I was two when we were living in California far from the rest of her family.  My father left one day while my mom was at work, leaving me home alone to fend for myself.  After that, she picked up the pieces and we then moved back east to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey.  A couple of years later, she met and married my adopted father, a disabled Vietnam veteran.  He was a good man, with his own tragic story which I’ll save for another time.

I think I hear John Denver cuing up a song...

My mom fostered my interests in all things science and science fiction.  She took me to see Star Wars when I was two and then bought early copies of them on videotape so I could watch them over and over. She would buy me any toy that helped foster my creativity from Lego to Lincoln Logs to Star Wars toys to Robotix; there was nothing she wouldn’t get for me.  She introduced me to video games, her favorite was the Legend of Zelda on the original Nintendo, and would bring me in to finish the hard parts.

My mom also taught me a lot about relationships.  She taught me that a marriage required hard work, patience, understanding, and perseverance if it was to last.  She guided my adopted father through his recovery from alcoholism and his struggles with the trauma of war.

My mom showed me that you could succeed and excel in life through hard work and dedication.  Professionally, she remade herself as needed.  She started as a draftsmen, then moved to retail for a while, before returning to a technical field and becoming a self-educated civil engineer.  She eventually found herself as the second-in-charge at a small civil engineering company in the Philadelphia Suburbs.

My mom also passed on to me a love of animals.  She never met an animal that she wouldn’t try to take care of, be it cat or dog or bird or deer or even skunk.  She fed them, cared for them, and protected them as best she could.

My mom was extremely proud of my career at NASA.  She loved to call me from her car on the way home from work and talk to me about the job.  She thought it was amazing when I traveled to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  I don’t remember seeing her more excited when she came to visit and I was able to give her a tour of Johnson Space Center.

Hello

My wife is the mother of three daughters.  She encourages them in every way.  Be it through dance or gymnastics or reading or trips to the zoo or museum, she tries to grow them any way she can.  She sets no limits for them and encourages them to try anything and everything. She emphasizes to them that they can grow up and do whatever they want to do; the only thing that limits them is their dreams.

My wife buys me video games to play with them at every opportunity.  She loves it when they sit with me to play a round of Super Mario Galaxy or we play together for Wii Party.  She wants them to enjoy the same things their Daddy does.

My wife tries to pass on to them a love of nature.  We take trips to the mountains of Colorado or visit farmland in Mississippi where she will introduce them to the outdoors, to wildlife, and to the beauty of the natural world.

My wife recognizes the moment and when something is important to my daughters, she makes sure that I am there, doing what I need to do. My wife is a tireless mom, going from appointment to appointment, place to place, store to store, wherever they need her to go.

My wife is a wonderful role model for them, intelligent, hard-working, patient, sincere, fun-loving, family loving, and kind.

The great tragedy in all this is that my oldest daughter was born on January 31, 2005 and my mom died on February 12, 2005.  The greatest sorrow I hold is that my mom never knew her grandchildren.  She would have loved them, absolutely loved them.  I can only wish that my wife and my mom would together have shown them how great a woman can be.  My wife and her mom are more than up to that task, but there are plenty of days when I dream of what might have been.