Monday, April 19, 2004

"...I'm floating in a most peculiar way..."

David Bowie, "Space Oddity"

Congratulations to astronaut Mike "Spanky" Fincke, who launched tonight in a Soyuz for a 6-month journey to the International Space Station.

Mike is a member of the "Sardines" astronaut class of 1996. This is his first flight - a nearly 8 year wait. I hold a special affinity for the Sardines, as they were the first class that came through after I started work in Training. I taught every member of the class, all 44 of them, about the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems on board the space shuttle, and taught most of them about the shuttle's mechanical systems like the payload bay doors and landing gear. And I've taught every astronaut in every class since then at least one lesson somewhere.

But Mike getting hired was a rude awakening for me. He was one of two astronauts hired in that class, for the first time, who were younger than me (Stephanie Wilson is the other). At the time it was disheartening for me and my attempts to apply to be an astronaut - the ones getting chosen were always still older than me so in theory I could explain my not getting chosen on my age. But with him and Stephanie, I couldn't even do that anymore. Maybe, despite my self-delusions to the contrary, I really was being rejected due to my qualifications (or lack thereof), and not my age.

It's tough finding out that your lifelong dream not only won't come true, but can't.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

"I'm a joker, I'm a (black) smoker, I'm a midnight toker"

Steve Miller Band, "The Joker"

Sometimes the famous people who come to JSC get to come here because they're famous. That is, they get special treatment because they're celebrities (Tom Cruise, Aerosmith) or they're heads of state (George HW Bush, Queen Elizabeth) or something like that. Every once in a while, though, someone comes through who happens to be a celebrity but deserves to be there. Like James Cameron, for example.

Yes, he directed Titanic, Aliens, Terminator, and The Abyss, but he also organized some deep water expeditions to the ocean's floor, including an IMAX films of the real Titanic and a TV movie on the Bismarck. Last summer he went out with several crews in four submersibles, and made several dives himself. He invited not the oceanographic institutes (like Woods Hole and Scripps) but astrobiologists and the like from NASA. And he outfitted one of the subs with a 3-D IMAX camera to look at deep sea hydrothermal vents (aka "black smokers").

Why NASA geeks? Well, what's an astrobiologist to do when there's no biology to actually study in the astro? Take him to the next closest thing. Let an astronaut experience what it's like to explore a new world.

Cameron was at NASA this afternoon to show a special edition of the not-yet-released movie, Extreme Life, kind of as a thank you to NASA for helping him out. We saw footage that will not be in the final cut, stuff he put in to give us a little more of an idea how things might work if you use a deep-sea mission as an analog to a deep-space mission. Here's how it was described in today's daily "JSC Today" email:

  • Xtreme Life: An overview of the Scientific and Filmmaking expeditions to the Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents.

    Center personnel are invited to a technical presentation by Oscar-winning film director James Cameron, who will be giving an overview of the scientific, technological, and exploration goals on his recent 3D IMAX filming expeditions to the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean floors. Cameron, his crew, and a group of scientists spent two months at sea using multiple human-piloted submersibles to study and film the "black smoker" hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the East Pacific Rise. Researchers at JSC participated in the expeditions through the NASA Oceanographic Analog Missions Activity (NOAMA), using the similarities between and space deep sea exploration to provide opportunities for advancing mission operations and planning. Experiments and observations were made in areas such as astrobiology, sample collection/processing/ curation, data flow, traverse/dive planning, communications, remote science, science operations, mission operations, human/robotic interaction and telerobotics, human factors, and crew training. Mr. Cameron will show some of the HD footage from the expedition as he describes the technologies and exploration strategies employed to achieve the goals of the expedition and to unravel the mysteries of one of the most fascinating phenomena on Earth.

The footage he showed was unfreakinbelievable. We sat there and watched it with our collective jaws on the floor. Several times he asked if anyone knew what that fish was because none of the marine biologists on board had ever seen one either, or how that particular mushroom-shaped structure composed of sediment could have formed. It was as alien an environment as you could imagine - and he's imagined one or two in his time as a director. More alien, actually, since you know it's real.

In the Q&A that followed, he joked that the only reason he made Titanic was so that he could dive the site. And that gave him the luxury (and clout) to do things like this.

You can have Tom Cruise flying the shuttle simulator with girls drooling all over him because he's good looking. I'll take someone who can tell a good story and make my mouth fall open in wonder.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

"It Isn't Easy Being Green"

Kermit D. Frog

It's St. Patrick's Day. Even a Jew of Eastern European descent will wear a green shirt today. Fortunately I didn't have to go too far out of my way to do it, though, there are only so many goyish holidays I'll support.

So Ray thinks I don't write enough here, while Linda finally stopped asking whether I have had sex with my girlfriend. What's up with that family?

Anyway, March and April (and early May) timeframe is one of the few times it's nice to be in Houston. While it's cold and rainy in the rest of the country, it's gorgeous here, in the mid-70's. My azaleas are blooming, all the trees are green, and you can eat lunch outside. I sleep with my windows open.

Of course, come Memorial Day it'll be hotter than hell and humid as the ocean, but for now it's great.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Those damn kids!

When did I turn into an old man?

I went for a haircut today. As if the bald spot at the back of my head (which fortunately I can't see without the aid of two mirrors) and the thinning hairline in front aren't enough, the stylist actually used the clippers to trim the hair growing along the edge of my ears. What the fuck?

Thursday, March 04, 2004

"there once dog named astro who liked to lick peoples feet"

I have no idea what that means, but someone was looking for this phrase the other day and found me instead.