Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer Vacation, Part 2

In my prior entry, I described some of my experience, and sense of beauty and passion, of my vacation trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.  Now, I would love to tell you that not all of my vacation was technology geek focused, and that would be true.  (I went to two plays, including a performance of The Merchant of Venice set in 1930’s Chicago.)  In addition to the history of aviation and space flight, I spent time in the National Building Museum’s exhibits of the World’s Fairs and Exhibitions of the 1930s (entitled “Designing Tomorrow”), and Lego(TM) models of several iconic buildings from around the world.   But, all of that was an appetizer, a warm-up, for the primary emphasis of the week:

I went to Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Atlantis and STS-135.

From what I hear, the traffic and crowds were intense, and potentially overwhelming, but I did get to miss much of that.  (Just the families of the astronauts took up 18 busloads of guests.)  Because of the Avicenna Academy participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, I was invited to access just a few miles south of the KSC launch complex.  There I met Amanda Arceo, the lead (and heart) of the Avicenna project.  She, some of the students, and members of the Academy’s board were in attendance as part of the celebration of the participation of these amazing student researchers.   (You can read more about Amanda’s launch experiences at the NCESSE site.)  It was an exciting morning, with lots of the hopes and promises of the entire Shuttle Program and NASA in general symbolized in the periods of clear skies among the cloudy morning, and uncertainties all the way through the launch hold at T-minus 31 seconds.  Commander Ferguson’s pre-launch message was one of the highlights for me, as he spoke of the capabilities of a people who dare to attempt bold goals and work hard to achieve them.  (If I can find a recording of those remarks, I will certainly link to it.)  Eventually, we got to zero, and the flames from the engines became brightly and intensely visible over the water and trees at KARS.  (Because of the cloud cover background, this was an even brighter display than the previous launch I witnessed, during mid-afternoon of a nearly cloudless day in August.)  A few seconds later, the ground (and our bodies) shook with the echoes from the launch pad.

Yes, there were more tears.

I remember being a college frosh in April of 1981, in the “Lobby 7” of MIT with others craning to watch one of the television screens for the first launch of Columbia and STS-1.  For STS-135, there was a lot of bittersweet memory, and thoughts, and hopes.  When will we be able to go see astronauts launch from Kennedy Space Center again?  I’m not sure.  Is the space program over?  No, but I do believe that it will look very different in 5-10 years than at any previous time in my adult life.  Would I want to be involved in whatever comes next?  Of course—that’s what I designed my life and career to be able to do. 

So, was this vacation, or work?  Neither, and both—attending the launch of STS-135 was a form of passage for me, and a gift, and a piece of sacred experience.  I was there, and it is a memory I can carry with me.  That is beauty, and life, and passion—and isn’t that worth doing when you get the chance? 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer vacation, Part 1

One thing that I will have trouble understanding about blogs... if you blog about your work, you can spend time at work blogging.  If you blog about your vacation, and tie it to your work... there's a risk of spending time blogging about your vacation instead of having your vacation.  So, I hope you will excuse the delay in this first of two little blurbs about how I spent the week of July 4.  (Pictures to follow.)

I've heard for a long time that you have to go to the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.  However, most times I am in Washington, I am car-free and with a tight schedule--both factors that limit the ability to get there.  But, on Tuesday, my best friend and I decided to take a trip, as part of my aerospace history vacation.  It's one thing to see pictures of a museum on a website.  However, it's pretty amazing to go into the front hallway of the Center, and off to one's left, is a bunch of planes.  (Since it's the Smithsonian, you just walk past the security desk, and you're in.  No hiding the goodies from view, or waiting for you to pay your admission (other than the $15 parking fee).  No preparation, or pretense.  Instant immersion.)  Normally, I'm a pretty calm and circumspect engineering type person.  And, to be honest, I don't remember aircraft silhouettes or production specifications.  But, the first experience I had of the exhibit was about a dozen planes dating from before 1930, suspended from the ceiling or sitting on the floor, or mounted in various poses.  Samuel Langley's monument to elegant failure (scaling up a small test model doesn't always get you a working bigger system).  I had never seen this concentration of prior flight before.  Wood and canvas, bold new experiments in pushing back the frontier of the heavens.  Life and dreams from over a century ago.  I got every one of the airplanes' names wrong.  The planes were displayed, almost as though encased in amber, flies from a past age.  One was even unrestored, with canvas frayed and torn from flapping in the winds and a century of waiting for its story to be told.

I broke down and started crying.

I've cried at sunsets, and night skies filled with stars, and expanses of oceans, and wonderful music, and exquisite poetry.  People understand those things as beautiful, as precious, as transcendent.  How can an old plane garner that response?  Because, to me, such museum pieces speak of the history of science, technology, and society.  I get a sense of the passions of those who built and flew those planes, and their desires to do something that spoke to their souls.  That's beautiful to me, too.  It's how I feel with some of my research.  It gets me excited when I see a student getting turned on about their internship, or their research project.  It's an expression of what I have always called, signs of life.  And that is overwhelmingly compelling.

There were lots more experiences, and dozens of photos, and wonderful stories about the history of flight and space travel.  No more tears, but lots more enjoyment and excitement and wonder.  Since I was on vacation, I resisted going into lecture mode when listening to kids talking about their newly-blossoming enthusiasm and learning about a particular aircraft system or element of human physiology.  It was nice to just drink it in, on a summer day.  That's a good vacation experience, whether you're a passionate engineer or not.

Stay tuned for Part 2, with mosquitos, more tears, and flames against the sky.  (Yes, I went to the STS-135 launch.)  

Friday, July 1, 2011


From an astronomical perspective, it's only been summer for 10 days now, since Solstice on June 21.  I worked it out, though, that my "summer" (in other words, the time between the end of Spring Semester and start of Fall Semester obligations) is approximately half over on that date.  However, the life of an academic is never really "done," and of course Space Grant obligations operate on a 12-month basis.

My latest INSGC-related activity was at the Purdue Alumni Club of Dubois County, and its annual Grissom Memorial Scholarship Awards (and golf outing) on June 23.  Lots of people say that the worst day golfing is better than the best day at work.  I would tend not to agree with that in general, but hey--in how many other jobs can one say that a day golfing is a day at work?  Here I am, in my "Work Outfit," in a picture from Kent Olinger:

See, I'm wearing my NASA Space Grant Director hat, and the INSGC pin.

Any rumors of me becoming a golf pro are drastically exaggerated.  However, I did actually hit a ~60 foot putt with my foursome, clearly witnessed.  It's amazing how a couple of great shots do manage to offset even a day's worth of mediocre play... and for me, this is my first full season of golf.  Ever.

I was also able to award $1500 scholarships to four outstanding young students from Southern Indiana who are attending Purdue this fall.  You know, this is the real reason I go to this event.  Fortunately, the scholarship committee enjoyed the surprise element of this award, so I got to work up to this surprise, and I admit to truly enjoying the expressions on the faces of the students and their parents.  By the time of this photo, they're starting to have it set in (photo credit again goes to Kent Olinger):

(I did get changed into something slightly more work-relevant--a Purdue Space Day polo shirt.)

Well, after a quick trip to Toronto for research meetings (one of my areas of human factors research is team coordination and performance improvement in radiation therapy), I'm back in the US.  Our joke is that this is the "North American Autonomy Celebration Non-Productivity Very Long Weekend": Canada Day is today, and US Independence Day is Monday.  Unfortunately, I couldn't stay in Toronto long enough to see the Philadelphia Phillies play the Blue Jays for a Canada Day matinee.  Hey, and it's Canadian Football League Opening Weekend!  (Just because I do aerospace, doesn't mean I prefer the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  Any team highlighting that they're BC, though...)

Next up for me... an actual vacation.  I'm taking time off.  Hold it.  Part of my vacation is to go to the STS-135 launch, and celebrate the Avicenna Academy participation in the SSEP program.  So, when vacation includes work, most people say it's not vacation.  When your work includes justification to take a trip to Florida for a historic and memorable event like the last Shuttle launch...

Talk to you soon.