Friday, May 30, 2008

Not Fast Enough ...

You know when it's Friday afternoon, and you're almost done with your work, and you think you might be able to get away a little early, then somebody walks in, and that somebody has something terribly urgent that must be done right now, and it really is important, so you can't really leave and you're stuck not only staying 'til the normal departure time, but maybe even a little later? Well, I think that just happened to me.

My boys are not going to be happy.

It's Friday

I'm burned out. I've been working every day for the last 6 days, and I'm pretty well done. I've committed to taking my boys camping tonight, which, for all intents and purposes, should be fun, but I'd rather just go home, lay down on the couch, and take a nap. But, I gotta be a good dad, so it's off to camping we will go.

When we leave, on the other hand, is another story. I'm waiting for a script to finish running, which should help us know when we have opportunities for MRO to talk with PHX a little easier, but it's messy and taking a long time. I made the mistake of coding it into "csh" instead of something faster, but it will take less time just to let it run than it would to rewrite it, and it must be done today.

When it is done, though, I'll be heading home ASAP -- even though I've got a meeting I'm supposed to attend.

As for how the radio is working on MRO -- there's been no change. We've had 16 successful sessions, with the 3 bad sessions that vex us. Currently, the Phoenix project has written us off as a viable relay asset (which is the right thing to do) until we get it figured out. The radio guys haven't got a solid theory, yet, as to why it's doing it, and we can't replicate the problem in our ground testbeds. They've got "fault trees" growing out their ears, and are down into the dirt of analysis. There will be daily meetings with the anomaly resolution team (which, thankfully, I'm not part of) until they get it straightened out.

As for me, I just have to keep things going -- being available to answer questions when they arise.

I need to go home ...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Historic Words

Before we attempted it, I knew it was something historic. Management was concerned about taking the picture because they were nervous about us messing up an already tested sequence against which we had simulated and practiced. Knowing how it was to be implemented, that seemed like the least of our concerns, so I was somewhat frustrated by the continued reluctance of management, even after we did our best to explain that it was a very low-risk change to the plan. We eventually ended up doing dual development on the command sequences -- one with the image included and one with it excluded. It was twice the work, but it's understandable how management would want to mitigate the risk at that point, despite how much work it was. Now I am so glad that I helped push to make this happen. said:

LOOK OUT BELOW! In the 50+ year history of the Space Age, no spacecraft from Earth has ever photographed another spacecraft landing on an alien planet--until last Sunday. High above Mars, the powerful HiRISE camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter watched Phoenix parachuting safely to its landing site in the martian arctic.

Although Phoenix seems to be descending into a 10-km-wide crater named Heimdall, "that is just an optical illusion," says Alfred McEwen, HiRISE principal investigator at the University of Arizona. In fact, "the lander is 20 km in front of the crater" and in no danger of tumbling down its rocky slopes. After this photo was taken, Phoenix drifted on by and landed in a rock-free field of icy polygons--just where mission planners wanted it to go.


The State of Things As They Are

Well, so the radio seems to be behaving much, much better since yesterday, though we still don't know why it had a problem. Apparently, the radio tripped a "power-on reset", and it took slightly too long to recover, and the rest of the spacecraft thought it was broken and powered it off. We scrambled to power it back on, but we saw on the next recording session a similar thing, but the reset was speedy enough that the spacecraft didn't power it down. What's weirdest of all is that we've had 7 overflights since then and we haven't seen the same thing again.

Bottom line: the root cause is not known at this time, neither is a workaround. Electra can not be considered a reliable relay link.

In other news, the spectacular image I posted yesterday was taken approximately 20 seconds after the parachute deployed, and 3 seconds after the heat shield separated. The lander was in-flight, about 760 kilometers away at a viewing angle of 26 degrees below the horizon (or 64 degrees from our normal viewing angle of straight down, or nadir). Apparently, the scale of the image is about 0.76 meters per pixel.

We also believe we have precisely pinpointed the lander, though the coordinates don't currently match where the Phoenix project believes they are with other data. In the pictures, the lander itself is somewhere about 68.224246 N latitude (in aerocentric coordinates) and 234.247463 W latitude. I'm sure there's some geocachers out there, who would be interested in knowing that if you were to go there on Earth you'd go to the middle of the (quite desolate) Republic of Sakha in Russia. Very cool.

It's All A Matter of Perspective

Sure, the MRO UHF radio (Electra) may be suspect, but a friend of mine emailed me the following.

Subject: And you thought a safed electra was bad.......

Space station's sole toilet out of order

Things could be worse!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

You Win Some and You Lose Some

On the heels of a very successful first day after landing, we experienced a glitch with our radio. Something appears to have gone wrong at the beginning of a recording session this morning. I came in to work, looked at the spacecraft telemetry, and immediately scratched my head. The spacecraft was using a different clock than the one normally provided by the UHF radio, and the radio was powered down. In addition, a bunch of "red alarms" had been tripped in the telemetry and things looked wacky.

I arrived just moments after it happened, so was on the ground floor during most of the early discussions. At this time, we're looking to power the radio back on, as we believe it is safe to do so, and we will attempt to perform the relay sessions with Phoenix we have planned for later this afternoon. While that's going on, our radio and spacecraft people will continue to look at the telemetry gathered during the "event", in hopes of figuring out what it is.

In the meantime, this glitch cost the Phoenix project an entire day in their mission, if not more. With only 90 days to spend, that hurts. The overflight was their primary commanding session for the next day of activities, and we expected to return a lot of data to them for analysis, as well. Instead, they will have to wait for the next opportunity to command via Odyssey and will have to queue up the data to be transmitted via Odyssey until we can say for sure that MRO is up and reliable again. Hopefully we'll get to the bottom of it, soon, but while we're zeroing in on the problem, we're not there, yet.

I was thinking today was going to be boring, too. Hah!

Amazing Photograph

So yesterday's released image of the Phoenix lander in descent was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of that image. Even the imager people were so intent on looking for the lander that they missed the proverbial forest for the trees. Check it out:

It's stunning. The caption from the HiRISE folks reads:

So it turns out that the descent of Phoenix is actually visible in the browse scale image. This image is reduced in scale by a factor of ten which reduces a lot of noise. What’s more astounding is that directly line-of-sight in the background is giant Heimdall Crater! Yesterday’s image made everyone’s jaw drop but this one is mind-blowing. The tiny image below is linked to the browse scale image.

This oblique view has been rotated so the crater is facing up. Phoenix, caught in its Promethean act, is between 8 and 10 kilometers above the surface, descending in the foreground at a distance of approximately 20 kilometers from the crater. It’s landing site was ultimately beyond the crater’s ejecta blanket.

The inset is an enhanced version at full resolution, showing some details of the parachute.

I also found out that this image was taken about 20 seconds after the parachute had deployed. Good timing!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Holy Smokes

I can't show it, yet, but the full image of the landing image is phenomenal. It shows a crater at an oblique angle somewhere around 60 degrees with a little white speck. The little white speck is the picture I previously posted (apparently viral on the internet now ...). The image is humbling in so many ways. Mars is so huge, and our spacecraft is so little. How we managed to capture that image with the enormous technical challenges that are there is evidence of a combination of great engineering and plain ol' dumb luck. I'll take it. Amazing.

I'll post the image when I can tomorrow after the next press conference.

The Next Day

Phoenix is still on the ground (shocker!) and things seem to be going very well. I'm home right now, after having gone to bed at about 12:30 this morning. This morning I've been reading the email traffic since I left last night. From the looks of it, we did get the picture of the lander during descent, and it appears that it was released, so I'll include it here:

The caption for the picture reads:

From a distance of about 472 miles above the surface of the Red Planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its HiRISE obliquely toward Phoenix shortly after it opened its parachute while descending through the Martian atmosphere. The image reveals an apparent 30-foot-wide parachute fully inflated. The bright pixels below the parachute show a dangling Phoenix. The image faintly detects the chords attaching the backshell and parachute. The surroundings look dark, but corresponds to the fully illuminated Martian surface, which is much darker than the parachute and backshell.

Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of about 7.8 miles and a velocity of 1.7 times the speed of sound.

The HiRISE, acquired this image on May 25 at 7:36 p.m. Eastern Time. It is a highly oblique view of the Martian surface, 26 degrees above the horizon, or 64 degrees from the normal straight-down imaging of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image has a scale of 0.76 meters per pixel.

You can lighten the image a bit to see some of the background of Mars.

It should be interesting to see how things are when I get to work. I've asked our navigators to pull together a movie of the reconstructed trajectory of both Phoenix during it's terminal descent and MRO so we can see exactly when/where the image was taken.

In other news, it's the Memorial Day holiday. The kids are home from school today (and driving us nuts). My wife fled the house to go clothes shopping and to buy a tree for the back yard just to have some time away. She's been front-and-center in the fight to potty-train our youngest (which is going very well) while I was at work yesterday, so she really needed the break.

Anyway, even though I'm here with the kids, they're all distracted, and my mind keeps focusing on work. Kind of a tough thing to let go, since my life for the past year-and-a-half has been centered around getting ready for Phoenix to get to Mars. They're there now, things have mostly "fallen" into place, and things are going smoothly. Everybody's doing their jobs as I trained them to do them (looking pretty good, if I do say so myself), and the software and operational strategies are hanging together.

With Phoenix on the ground, it would be easy to feel relief. Truth be told, what is to come for Phoenix will be harder on the team than what has already happened. With Mars Science Laboratory launching next year, they will be knocking on our door now to do testing and development for them, too. Not exactly a break. Time will tell, though.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Few More Hours Later

We've got some of the data back from our imager. There's a white smudge in it, but we're not sure that's the lander. We're still looking, and still waiting for the rest of the image to show up (it's a 0.6 gigabyte image!). The lander spit out it's parachute 7 seconds late, which would've put the parachute deployment about 5 seconds into the image (by my calculations), if it's in the image at all. This means if the lander passed through the imager's CCDs before the parachute was deployed, we'd see a single white smudge. If it passed through after the parachute deployed, we should see two white smudges.

Again, we're not quite sure what we've got. By the time the experts figure it out, I'll probably be asleep, and it will be splashed all over the news in the morning (if we got something good).

As it is, Phoenix appears to be healthy and happy on the ground. It is sitting above the Martian arctic circle, so the race begins to complete it's mission before it goes into "permanent" shadow in five-ish months, and is buried in carbon dioxide ice that snows out of the atmosphere.

The poor people working on the project will be living on "Mars time" (roughly half an hour longer than a normal Earth day), shifting their work schedule daily to try to take advantage of every day on Mars (which we call a "Sol").

The press conference is ongoing right now. They've given a happy shout-out to MRO, as we are intending to image the landing site as soon as we possibly can. It should be interesting to see where they really are on Mars. Pretty exciting!

For me, I've got a meeting to go to in a half hour where we expect to hear if we will be allowed to overwrite the EDL data onboard in favor of additional overflights, the first of which is in a few hours. I had hoped we would have the HiRISE image to show in that meeting, but it's not to be, I don't think. All Phoenix data is flowing through our system just fine, and things are looking good. We've got some people running around right now trying to update the coordinates for the landing site (since they're way off from where they estimated) for our first image in about 6 hours ... should be good!

A Few Hours Later

Phoenix is on the ground. They've returned data (and pictures!) via Odyssey of it's surrounding terrain. The surface looks solid, as the landing footpads haven't sunk into the surrounding "soil". Everything is very flat, with only small rocks nearby to look at. This makes the landing people very happy, because it's a very safe place to land, but it's not so interesting scenery to most (except the geologists).

The MRO open-loop data has returned and we've got a complete product on the ground. Phoenix can now take that data and extract additional data regarding the descent. Since everything is going so well, that data isn't likely to be of much use, but the descent engineers are fascinated.

These images are some of the first images returned from the surface of Mars near the Phoenix lander. They're fascinating in their own right, not because of what they contain, but by virtue of how they were taken and received. These images were taken by the imager atop the Phoenix lander, stored for a few hours, then transmitted to the orbiting spacecraft Odyssey, and relayed back to Earth, traveling 15 minutes 20 seconds at the speed of light, where they were received at the Deep Space Network and transmitted to JPL (where I work), then transmitted to The University of Arizona and published on the web, where I downloaded them and then put them on this blog. Cool.

Here's one of the solar arrays and one of the foot pads. Awesome.

Waiting Again

So now that Phoenix is on the ground, we're waiting for MRO to get re-oriented and to begin transmitting all the data it recorded during PHX EDL. There shouldn't be much to learn from the data since the Phoenix signal through Odyssey was maintained all the way down (phenomenal! no plasma blackout!), but once it's on the ground, we can then start downlinking something unique that we took ...

We tried to take a picture of Phoenix while it was descending, dangling from it's parachute. We may or may not have got it, but we shall see! We're hopeful, and if we got it and if it's any good, wow! It would be nothing short of awesome -- a real first. We'll see!

Still waiting ...

Phoenix Has Landed!

Now get to work!

People are Already Clapping

A bit premature, I think. They're excited because they see data flowing from Phoenix to Odyssey. MRO has started recording.

Atmospheric entry is in 5 1/2 minutes.

Got a call from my in-laws on my cell phone ... yeah, like I'm going to answer that right now.

Slew Complete

MRO has completed it's slew to an absolute orientation. We see telemetry flowing from the spacecraft. Our high-gain antenna is now pointed directly at the Earth and we're transmitting normal engineering telemetry. In about 15 minutes, the spacecraft will load the command sequence that will configure our UHF antenna to record open-loop the UHF spectrum. Phoenix is now 33 minutes from entry.

Our First Glitch

I hope it's the only one we have. One of the antennas at Goldstone, CA (DSS-15) is having some issues with their uplink system (an "uplink interlock" issue), so they have stowed the antenna. We still have DSS-25 tracking MRO, so we're good for downlink, but we're single-string there now. Not a big deal, but it is a glitch.

Update 4:04 pm: They have just reported that they will be back up and running and should be ready to receive MRO's signal in a few minutes.

We're Ready

Really, I told you so! I just got off the voice net with all the subsystems. This is what they told me:

Systems = nominal
Electra (our UHF radio) = go
Telecom = nominal, signal is good
ACS = nominal, reaction wheel speeds are low, speeds match predicts
EEDAT (our data accountability team) = configured and ready
GDS (our ground data system team) = ready
Ace (our uplink people) = all nominal, ready
Flight Software = onboard memory buffers are empty, ready
Payload = all instruments are off except HiRISE, as expected; configured and ready

See? Loads of fun. I reported this status to my mission manager and then to the Phoenix project. Having everything nominal is always good. Next step is to move our solar arrays and high-gain antenna then to slew to an inertial position waiting for Phoenix to arrive.

Still Waiting

We're about 2 hours and 20 minutes out. We're bored out of our minds. We've spent a lot of time just figuring out how to bring up several of the monitors around the room. We spent over half an hour puzzling out the sound system so we could hear NASA TV. It's truly a good use of our time ... right?

We did, however, do our voice checks on the voice network. Everything's going smoothly. In the next half hour, we'll watch as the spacecraft powers down the last MRO instrument that needs to be powered down prior to Phoenix EDL, and then I'll do a readiness poll of the various teams on the MRO project to assess our "readiness" to support EDL. All told, aside from any failures, we're as ready as we're going to be for this.

People have started to show up. The project manager came with two bags full of cookies. My good wife sent a big half-sheet cake for consumption later today after Phoenix is on the ground.

Waiting for Phoenix to Land

So we're 3 1/2 hours from the landing of Phoenix on Mars. MRO has properly de-saturated it's reaction wheels, turned off several of it's instruments, and is now waiting to turn off one more before beginning final preparations for the landing of Phoenix.

I'm in a separate building from all the hub-bub that is on NASA TV and the other news broadcasts, so we're isolated from that chaos. People here are serious, sober, impatient, and, for the most part, just silently watching the clock. Most of us are surfing the web trying to distract ourselves from that clock, which is ticking inexorably towards the final conclusion of this thing called "EDL".

It's so far away.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sea Turtles

My wife and I love sea turtles; we're completely infatuated with them. We're not crazy-dopey over them, though, because we don't have posters around the house, stuffed animals in every corner, and statues littering our bathrooms, but we really think they're neat. We enjoy watching them in all forms of media (the sea turtles in Finding Nemo, for example, absolutely crack us up). Ten years ago when I went to Hawaii I had the good luck to see a sea turtle in Hanauma Bay while I was snorkeling. I got a decent picture, and it was great to be so close to one in the wild. My wife was jealous.

So it was that when we went to Hawaii last month, we were really hoping to see some sea turtles. We weren't disappointed. Even though we didn't see any when we went snorkeling, we did go to a place locally called "Turtle Beach" on the north shore of Oahu. We didn't think we'd see any turtles at all, as none were around on the shore, but upon walking down the beach we saw people gawking at the waves off shore. Upon closer inspection, the turtles were actually out there among the shallow rocks, just frolicking in the waves.

We watched them closely and saw them pop their heads up out of the water intermittently. We think we saw two sea turtles. They were out among the rocks off shore and as the waves rose and fell, we'd see the rocks rise above the water. Because of that, it was difficult sometimes to tell if the dark things we were seeing were the turtles or the rocks. After teasing us for a long time, one of them actually came close to shore. My wife ran over and started snapping pictures like the paparazzi.

(Image 1612)

(Image 1641)

Before too long, she walked out to the water, stood in the surf, and recorded the following video.

(Movie 1621)

She was only a few feet away from the sea turtle, and was giddy over the whole thing. She had never been that close to a sea turtle before, certainly not one that lives in the wild, so it was quite the experience. I really enjoyed just watching her and her childlike awe, let alone the turtle. My wife is an amazing woman, who truly appreciates and wonders at God's creations. For that, I am grateful.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Laie Temple

My wife and I are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We're temple-goers to boot, so a trip to Hawaii wouldn't really be considered successful for us if we didn't make the pilgrimage to the Laie Hawaii Temple.

Staying in Kailua, it was a gorgeous, one-hour drive up the coast to the little town. We passed sites that we had seen previously while kayaking and appreciated the fine scenery beyond that. We were struck by the narrow, winding road that had mountains climbing nearly vertically to our left, with the ocean lapping the rocky shore just feet from the road on the right. The weather wasn't very cooperative, so we weren't able to get a very good picture.

Finding the temple was pretty easy. We had a map, but didn't even need it as there's a sign right off the main road that points to where it is. When you pull into the road which leads that way, it's impossible to miss the temple, because the road goes for hundreds of yards straight towards the temple itself, with expansive stretches of lawn with amazing flowers and trees along the way.

(Image 1599)

(Image 1601)

Looking away from the temple to the west, the view is unobstructed all the way to the ocean. The temple grounds have terraced pools with fountains and water flowing from pool to pool. It was quite pleasant just being on the grounds. The temple itself has some intricate carvings. We found out later that the carvings on all four faces of the upper part of the temple represent the four primary books of scripture that we use: The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. Pretty cool stuff.

(Image 1609)

After going into the temple, we were struck by how small it was. From the outside, it seems like it would be a pretty big building. For us, coming from Los Angeles (which has the biggest of all the temples in the world), it felt claustrophobic.

(Image 1608)

The people were very friendly and it is always a good thing to do a little service in the temple. It took us far longer than we anticipated to finish up in the temple, but it was a wonderful experience. We're glad that we took the time in our vacation to go experience that sacred place.

(As an interesting aside, after we came home from our vacation, I heard an interesting story about how the Hawaii Temple was protected during the attack on Oahu by the Japanese during World War II. It's a fascinating story about how mechanical failures prevented one bomber, in particular, from destroying the building. The pilot of the bomber many years later met a set of missionaries in Japan, related the story to them, and then joined the church. It's a completely unsubstantiated bit of Mormon folklore, but it's still a nice story.)

Phoenix is Almost There!

Phoenix is almost to Mars. It will be there in a few days. A "Mars Scout" mission, the people working the project, with the blessing of management at the highest levels in NASA, have turned the measly little "it's okay if we lose this one" mission into a "must succeed at all costs" mission. This means that they've spun up the entire Mars network to support them for their Entry, Descent, and Landing this upcoming Sunday. This includes getting Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (my mission), and the European's Mars Express synchronized in their orbits so that we can all record the paltry 8 or 32 kilobits per second signal that Phoenix will transmit while it enters the Martian atmosphere and comes in for a landing near the north pole of Mars.

Truthfully, honestly, it should be awesome.

We've been busting our tails getting ready for this for months now, and with only a few days to go, I've got some funny emotions waffling inside me. For one, I really just can't wait to get it over with. Getting Phoenix to the ground, one way or the other, will be a relief of the highest order. At the same time, I am nervous, too, and it's not even my mission! So many things can go wrong, and losing this vehicle would be a real shame.

Yesterday, though, I finally figured out what it is I'm mostly feeling. I feel like I did back in college in the days before final exams. It's that feeling that you know something difficult is coming, but you've prepared as best you can for a long time. While some last minute cramming might be helpful, no amount of additional preparation is really going to make much of a difference to what will happen. In college, I was either ready, or I wasn't (and typically didn't do very much last-minute cramming). Now, it's the same way. We're either ready, or we're not.

We're ready. Now we just wait and watch.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Philosopher's Walk

The last night I was in Heidelberg, a friend and I went and took a walk to the north side of the Neckar River. There's a walkway that runs for miles on the hills above the river called the Philosopher's Walk. There's statues of "famous" philosophers (I hadn't heard of any of them ...) and lovely views across to old Heidelberg.

(Image 3119)

The way up was a steep incline, troubled by construction in the road. We took the "lower" path, which was still quite high, but apparently had more expansive views. Certainly, it seems any "view" of Heidelberg includes the castle.

(Image 3120)

We also stumbled upon a little park up on the hill. We saw this fun-looking gizmo that seems to be a combination of a merry-go-round and a seesaw. The kids were having a blast on it, but I could totally see "lawsuit" written on the side of it. Wish I were younger so I could've kicked those kids off so that I could have played, and not felt bad about it!

(Image 3134)

We had been told that there was some sort of amphitheater up the hill. Rumor had it that the Nazis used to have rallies at this amphitheater, so my friend and I were curious as to what it was. We didn't find it, but we did find this funky tower.

(Image 3136)

We climbed up it and found a cauldron on the top. It was totally cool and filled the entire top. We were even more surprised to hear voices floating down from up inside. We couldn't see them, but some people had climbed up on top of it. They were insane, because the only way to get up there was to climb up the edge of the tower and dangle 80 feet off the ground to haul themselves up there. Wacky.

(Image 3136)

It's funny how climbing up is always a different experience from climbing down. We didn't realize until we headed down just how high up we really were.

(Image 3146)

Along the way, though, we saw some spectacular scenery. The following picture is perhaps my favorite picture of the entire trip. It's just so peaceful and reminds me of the remarkable serenity that I felt walking through the forest. The only thing missing? My wife on my arm.

(Image 3165)

The Heidelberg Castle

I've been home from Germany for several days. Getting back into regular life is complicated, but I'm very happy to be home with my family again (and they missed me, too!). As expected, I gave my family a little slide-slow of all the photographs I'd taken while I was there. One thing that my wife laughed about was that I had so many photographs of the castle itself. In hindsight, I think she's right, but what else could I do?! The castle was just so awesome and it really was the focal point of the entire town. So, here are some pictures of the castle that I wanted to share.

This was taken at the beginning of my river cruise of the Neckar River. The old medieval town is in the forefront.

(Image 2912)

This is the "front" face of the castle, as seen from the Neckar River, and is the most exquisite except for the one on the inside.

(Image 2924)

This is a shot of the front "patio" of the castle.

(Image 2837)

Here's a "great stone dragon", visible from the front "patio" of the castle. I have no idea what purpose it serves, and it's not in a place that it could be considered decorative.

(Image 2838)

This is the interior wall of the castle. One of the tour guides said that this wall shouldn't be in the castle because it was "too beautiful, too French". Notice that above the first level there's blue sky through the windows. No, it's not a ruin with the back having fallen off -- it was designed this way to give the appearance of grandeur on the inside, to provide place to put the meaningful statues (which meaning I, um, don't know), and to intimidate visiting dignitaries.

(Image 2831)

This is a massive wine cask inside the castle. It's not the biggest one, and that's nobody I know, but I took the picture while that woman was standing for scale. Can you imaging filling that thing with anything, let alone wine? What if it fermented badly?! In any case, the biggest one (around the corner to the left of this one) is big enough that they built a little dancing platform on top of it. Crazy.

(Image 2839)

Here's a shot of me off on the eastern wing of the castle grounds. The grounds went on forever and it was a great hike through some gorgeous forests.

(Image 2816)

Here's a photograph of the back of the castle. This turret has walls a dozen feet thick, but the French really wanted to destroy the castle, so spent an enormous amount of effort trying to destroy it. For this part of the castle, the best they could do was split it open and drop half of the turret down to the moat. Notice that the broken part is still intact, but has fallen and tilted.

(Image 2802)

This is a shot of the park across the river from old Heidelberg. This park stretches for miles along the river. The intent of the shot was to get the park, but look! There's the castle in the background.

(Image 2855)

One day I went with a friend up "Philosopher's Walk" on the opposite side of the Neckar River (another post to come on that). What did we see? Of course, the Heidelberg Castle.

(Image 3120)

This shot is from the "Old Bridge" looking up towards the castle.

(Image 3183)

Here's a view of Heidelberg itself from the castle. Great view.

(Image 2817)

This video is of the interior of the castle. It speaks for itself.

(Movie 2832)

It was an awesome place to visit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Presentation Today

Today was the big day -- the reason I am here in Germany. I presented my paper entitled: "Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: Aerobraking Sequencing Operations and Lessons Learned". The audience was even bigger than I anticipated it would be. I had maybe 100 people in attendance. Granted, about half of those were people from my place of work, but I'll take what I can get.

Anyway, it went very well. I came in under time, but then fielded far more questions than most people do. It turns out that the European Space Agency is considering doing aerobraking as an end-of-life experiment for the currently flying Venus Express. They want to email me, and I told them they could. I don't know how useful I might be to them, knowing they don't pay me and there's about a zillion ITAR restrictions on what I can tell them, but hey, they can ask.

In addition, there's a proposal currently on the table for a future NASA-sponsored Mars mission that will likely want to do aerobraking, too, and they should be mindful of the information in my paper. Turns out one of their systems engineers knows they'll need a project system engineer in about a year if they get funding for their mission, and he said he'll keep me in mind. (** wink wink nod nod ** Yeah, sounds weird, but this truly is how business is done in my industry ...)

Needless to say, the audience was impressed, it seemed. One fellow that I've worked with in the past was so enamored (it's weird to use that word, describing my own work) by the presentation that he wanted to know who my immediate supervisor is so he could put in a good word for raises this year. I was quick with a response.

In addition, my manager two levels up was also in attendance, and he has repeatedly said that he really enjoyed my paper -- and equally enjoyed the presentation. It must be good, I guess, but whatever.

Here's a few pictures that were taken by a friend of mine.

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And here's a picture of my celebratory dinner afterwards -- a German dish of white asparagus (a local delicacy) wrapped in ham and a crepe-like pancake covered in a creme sauce, and a salad on the side.

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It was absolutely delicious.

Anyway, now that I'm done with that, I think I'll go hiking tomorrow ... ;)

Cruising the Neckar River

Last night I went with the bulk of the conference attendees on a cruise down the Neckar River. It was great. The boat we were on had a flat top, and two floors beneath. They fed us finger foods (lots of them), which weren't the tastiest -- they were typical German fare with weird (to me) cheese and meats. Aside from the bread and the fruit, I didn't really go for it very much. They also had a lot of alcohol, so most of the people on the boat were well liquored up, but not obnoxiously so -- these are professionals with their peers, after all, right?

Anyway, the trip up the river was spectacular. We didn't go very far, but it still took us two hours to go up and back because we were moving so slowly. Heidelberg is at about 49.4 degrees north latitude, so even though the cruise left so late (we pulled away from the dock at 6:50), it was still light out when we returned two hours later due to the Earth's inclination at this season. It was amazing!

What I really loved about the trip was just taking it slow and watching the ever-so-green scenery scroll by. There were houses on the hills that looked European (um, cause, they, like, are) and I could envision knights and kings and forest battles with swords and axes. It was beautiful. A few pictures follow:

People sailboating and paddle-boating on the river.

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The "old bridge" that is just below the castle with the other of our tour boats in the foreground.

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A steeple of one of the local churches with a lift up the mountain behind it.

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The oh-so-smooth river.

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A picture of the moon.

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The castle on the hill, lit by the sinking sun.

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Funny thing, though -- I'd been noticing odd things throughout the day. Many people were very late for the conference. Some people kept sunglasses on all day, even inside. Others sat around look melancholy and not conversing very much. I finally figured it out that all these people had hangovers! For a "rocket scientist", it sometimes takes me a while to catch on. All I could do was laugh.

The Palatinate Museum

Tonight I went to the Palatinate Museum, otherwise called the Kurpfälzisches Museum der Stadt Heidelberg. Their website is best viewed in German, but you can see an English version here. It was absolutely awesome. I'm very confident it would've been even better if I could read German!

As it was, I took off from the conference at about 2:30 pm and headed over there, expecting it to be a pretty short visit. I walked in to this little entrance and then went inside the front entryway. The woman sitting there didn't speak English very well, but I finally convinced her that I wanted to see the museum and paid her the 3 Euros to get in (a major bargain, I found out).

She handed me a little map of the place (which was badly designed, by the way) and then I started walking around. I was stunned. Inside this "little" museum, which I found spread around the entire courtyard behind the building all the way to the next block, on four floors, was material from a variety of different times.

In one section of the museum, they had an entire exhibit set apart to discuss the ancient inhabitants of the area. They had either the real thing or a replica of the jaw of Heidelberg Man. They had dioramas depicting guesses at ancient life with plenty of pottery, hunting tools, and diagrams of ancient living structures.

In the cool, dark basement they had ruins from Roman times - lots of wreckage of Roman construction, such as leftovers of the Roman bridge that used to span the Neckar River here in Heidelberg, with Latin written all over it. They also had complete statues of various historical figures (none were familiar to me, but again, I can't read German!), busts, and other distinctive rubble.

They had an entire exhibit on the ancient gods that the local people used to worship (primarily Jupiter and Mithra -- yeah, Mithra! They even had a replica of a mithraeum!). They had additional exhibits that spoke about the transitions in religion of the local population from this to Christianity, including lengthy discussions on the building of the local churches (Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist) and monasteries.

They had very full exhibits showcasing old painted portraits of the local kings, queens, and other royal family members. Art was all over the place, some in really good shape, others totally beaten up. They had one area where they had sketch drawings displayed in dim light that apparently they rotate in and out because the paper can't survive the bright light and the ambient conditions for long periods of time.

They had display cases showing coinage that was collected by local royalty over hundreds of years, dresses that illustrate the styles worn throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and more pottery and fine dishes than you can shake a stick at from periods all the way back to Roman times. I was very impressed with the dioramas showing the Roman legions invading town and the original paintings of the castle on the hill that show the castle in various stages of completion. They even had several complete sets of skeletons in their natural configuration that they transported from a nearby archaeological site and put under glass in the floor, with the relics that were found with the remains.

My visit to this museum was totally awesome -- my short visit turned into a 3 hour excursion, and I couldn't even read the signs on the exhibits! I'm a museum geek, and it frustrated me that they wouldn't let me take my camera with me. After I left, I really wanted to buy a book about the museum so I could have more information, but they didn't have any (even in German) that were complete enough for my taste. I was very disappointed. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the chance I had to go visit, and I consider this a true, hidden gem in little ol' Heidelberg.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Heidelberg, Day 2

Today is Sunday. I woke up at 9 am, which means I got nearly 12 hours of sleep last night. I am stunned, simply stunned, that I slept so long. I honestly can't remember the last time I slept for 12 hours. It's nuts. Even in Hawaii when I was on vacation with my wife, we didn't sleep that long. Well, clearly my body needed the rest after the 10 hour 40 minute flight yesterday and 9 hour time-shift. Looking in the mirror, my eyes are both totally blood-shot, my right eye especially. Maybe this second night's sleep will do me better, as I won't be sleeping too long or too short.

Anyway, as it was Sunday this morning, and as I learned that church doesn't start until 1:30 pm (that's, uh, 1330 military time, which everything is listed in around here), I woke up and had plenty of time to relax. I slowly took a shower, slowly had breakfast, slowly ironed my shirts (for the whole week!), and slowly had my lunch. It was one of the most relaxing mornings I've had in ... um ... well, a long time.

Just after noon, I left the hotel room and started walking. The church is about 1 1/2 miles from here (okay, that's about 2 1/2 kilometers around here ... everything's in metric! Do you even know how long a 15 centimeter Subway sandwich is?! It's the short one! *doh*). It took me almost an hour to walk it, but I took my time and enjoyed myself on the way.

The ward I attended was the English-speaking military ward. Apparently there's plenty of U.S. military people around here at the various mini-bases near town. Funny how it is, though, even in a military ward they practice Mormon Standard Time; church started about five minutes late and people were trickling in even after the sacrament was done.

Somehow, showing up a half hour early, I managed to pick the one spot in the entire chapel where all the families with little, noisy kids usually sit. In this particular ward, that'd be towards the back right of the chapel, when viewed from the stand. Kids were everywhere! The strange part is that the kids were all very young. It took me a while to figure it out, but most of the families are young families on assignment from the States. Their nursery was a zoo while their young men and young women meetings were a ghost town. It was strangely unbalanced. In addition, the ward was mostly composed of short-timers who were either on the way in or on the way out of the ward -- that's the way the military does it, though, and they were used to it. It seemed only slightly more stable than a student ward.

One thing I realized as I was sitting behind a little girl that kept giggling at me, next to two little boys who were fighting over Legos, and in front of a few little girls who kept crying, is that my experience walking around town suggests that kids are actually pretty rare. Most families I saw had one child, maybe two, but certainly never as many as most families in the ward had -- three or four or more.

To the typical German, it seems that kids are rare -- families are small. All the children I saw were accompanied by adults; their lives seemed to be miniature versions of adult lives. While it was true that most adults were interacting with their younger children, it seemed that the adults were basically dragging the children around doing the things that adults in the States do when children are not around. Very strange. And the teenagers? Never did I actually see them with their parents. And they were all over town. Double very strange.

So back to church. It was Mother's Day today (I've really gotta make it up to my good wife somehow ...) and the program was, of course, about Mother's Day. It seems that the military ward keeps all the same holidays as back in the States, the kids go to American-sponsored schools, and they interact almost exclusively with other English-speakers. That, too, was kinda weird.

So, uh, back to church. Sacrament meeting was pretty interesting. The whole congregation sang, and sang loud. There was one woman who was extremely warbly, screechy, and opera-y. At first, I suspected that the rest of the congregation sang so loud in an attempt to drown out this other women. Later in the meetings, somebody commented about the military drills they do, and it occurred to me that the men sang out so well because, well, they're used to hollering, "Sir! Yes, Sir!" at the top of their lungs.

The talks were very good. The youth speaker was a young woman who got up, chewing gum like a cow, and started making really dumb jokes. It was evident she wasn't comfortable up there, and she admitted that she had "googled" for material for her talk that very morning. Nevertheless, after she got down to the business of talking, it was quite moving to hear her as she described how her father had recently been killed in action, and that she was so grateful for her mother who has been helping her through this terrible experience. After she spoke, she went and sat down with her mother, who put an arm around her. I counted 5 kids, and there may have been 1 or 2 more I couldn't see.

The next speaker was the wife of the 2nd Counselor in the Bishopric. She was very nervous, too, but gave a great talk about several good mothers in the scriptures. She started with Eve and described how it must have been to watch Cain and Abel go at it, and how difficult it must have been knowing that not all of her children would be saved; she was a truly brave woman who sacrificed so much for what she knew to be right. She also spoke about Ruth, to whom her future husband once said, "... all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman." Tough to beat that. Then she went on and spoke about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and what a remarkable woman she must have been. As she was carrying Jesus, she must have been somewhat of a social outcast, knowing the public circumstances of that child's birth.

Then she mentioned a few people I didn't know about, Eunice and Lois, the mother and grandmother of Timothy, of whom Paul the Apostle said, "I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day; Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy; When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also." It was by the amazing testimony of these good mothers that Timothy became the man of faith that he was.

The last speaker spoke of testimonies. He said that there's several ways to find out if the church is true. First, one can examine the "blueprints" of the church by reading the scriptures, examining the attributes of the church mentioned therein, and then comparing the known churches of the day to find one that most closely matches. Second, one can live the teachings of a church to find out how they work out. Third, one can inquire about the "deep" questions of life (where did we come from? what's the purpose to life? is there life after death?) and see if the received answers are satisfying enough. But at the end of the day, the speaker said that the thing that must truly occur is that one must be instructed by the Holy Ghost. Real truth is unchanging, eternal, and can be gained exclusively by the instruction of the Spirit. It was a pretty cool talk.

After Sacrament Meeting I went to Gospel Doctrine where they had a lively discussion on the Noah/Abinadi story. The discussion veered everywhere it seemed since there were some wild cards in the class, but the teacher did admirably pulling things together. One interesting question was posed about why Abinadi instructed them not to touch him lest they be smitten if it was true that Noah wasn't going to listen in the end, anyway. The answer? Somebody else was listening, and Abinadi wasn't done delivering the entire message. The first thing Alma did was write down all the words of Abinadi, and clearly there was something in the latter part of that message his people needed -- and that we need today. Good stuff.

The third hour I went to Priesthood Meeting where all the men were together. There were 8 visitors -- a very high number, even for their ward, apparently. By the time we were all done introducing ourselves, a third of that hour was over. After introducing who I am and what I do, the 2nd Counselor of the Bishopric pulled me aside and asked that I attend Deacon's Quorum with him. I agreed and went in and filled these 12- and 13-year old minds with all sorts of information about Mars, about the complexities involved with a Mars mission, and most importantly about how things in life can be hard (like getting to Mars), but we can look to our Savior for support. They're young, so I doubt it made any difference to them, but I sure had fun.

Afterwards, I took a walk along the Neckar River. Apparently, nearly the whole north bank of the river near downtown Heidelberg is given over to a public park. It was really neat walking along the river with people playing frisbee, soccer, volleyball -- even table tennis! Families were out for barbecues and tons of people were out sunbathing. Apparently, it's been raining for weeks and so the locals are just nuts about being out in the sun right now.

One strange observation I made, though, is that Germans don't smile unless actively amused. They don't smile to strangers, nor do they wave or nod their head in recognition. And they never say anything to anybody unless they intend to carry on a conversation. Maybe it's just me, but that's the way it seems. I smiled at people in my passing all day long, and received more double-takes than I can count! I think I'll keep doing it all week long! ;)

Anyway, so it's evening -- I need to crash soon. I missed calling my wife (on Mother's Day!) because I socialized too long with friends from home who arrived today when I registered at the conference center. She's at church as I type this -- I left a message and I hope they call me on "Skype" so I can say hello later tonight (they'll have to wake me ...). It's been a good day, though -- I think I walked over ten miles!

Heidelberg, Germany

Two (?) days ago, I flew from Los Angeles directly to Frankfurt. The flight was an exhausting 10 hour, 40 minute flight. It was cramped and uncomfortable and the woman next to me, though extremely pleasant, kept talking to me when I was trying to doze off. I did my best to sleep, but it just didn't work very well. Upon landing, it was 10:40 AM in Frankfurt, and I was already bleary-eyed. My eyes, even as I type, are completely blood-shot.

In any case, I got off the plane and had to face a long walk to the baggage claim. Happily, it didn't take too long, and I was able to go through "customs" -- actually an unmanned gate (this is certainly not the U.S. with all our paranoia) -- to curbside where I was able to pick up the shuttle that would take me to Heidelberg.

Before doing so, however, I had to exchange some U.S. dollars for Euros. Of course, being at the airport, the exchange rate was terrible (1.71 dollars to 1 Euro), but I had to pay the shuttle guy. I made the mistake of exchanging $140 of the $200 cash I was carrying there, as I later found out that the hotel I was staying at would exchange at a rate of 1.54/1. Ah, well, it's only money, right? :(

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After the one-hour shuttle ride to Heidelberg, I was dropped off outside the hotel, where I went in and got settled. Even though I really felt like just laying down and going to sleep (it was 4 AM, after all, wasn't it?!), I decided to go walking. One of the sights I really wanted to see was the castle, so I just started walking in that direction. I'll have a separate post on that later.

Heidelberg is a beautiful little town. The area I'm in is the "old" part of town, and they really do mean old around here. Various versions of the castle itself has been on the hill above town since sometime in the 12th century. The roads are narrow -- some have been closed to cars -- and the buildings are typically European, stacked side by side with shops on the ground floor and residences above. There are many chapels and cathedrals in the area, which seem well-groomed but under-attended.

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The people here are very nice. Nearly everybody I've had the need to speak to has spoken English. Interestingly, I've discovered that one really doesn't have a need to speak very much at all in general interactions. As long as you can pay people what you owe them, a simple smile and a head nod are acceptable. You'd be surprised how far you can get by using the following word: "Visa?".

Speaking of "Visa", apparently this little town, even though it is a big tourist town, doesn't really use credit cards. The reply to my "Visa?" inquiry was almost always "no." Only the bigger establishments are willing to accept them, and so it is that I'm stuck having to use cash for every little thing. I've been nickeled and dimed (do they call them nickels and dimes?!) so that I have maybe a third of my money left. This is not too alarming to me, though, as I'll be at my conference the balance of the week, and shouldn't have need to buy much more. I hope. I really hope. I might need to find an ATM ...

I really enjoyed walking around yesterday. I saw quite a few neat thing, and I'll post some pictures later. One funny thing, though, was that I ran into some Mormon missionaries here. Not just two, but a whole group of them. There were about twenty of them milling around the area.

Eventually, the missionaries congregated in front of one of the college buildings, where they lined up and began singing church hymns. It was fascinating to watch them. You can imagine 20 young missionaries standing in front of a statue of Robert Bunsen (they namesake of the "Bunsen" burner) singing with all their hearts while locals and tourists alike walk by with either curious expressions or a desire to get anywhere else fast.

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Occasionally, someone would slow to listen, and one of the missionaries would peal off to go chat with them. I watched for a while, and while I was there, the experience was a resounding failure. Just down the street were street performers who were variously just looking funny, playing some rock music (which was very good), or attempting a bad form of Jazz. The missionaries' company wasn't exactly spiritually focused.

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One street performer, a guy with a guitar, made the unfortunate choice to start playing right in front of the missionaries -- he quickly scooted once he saw what was happening. One man did have an interest in talking with them -- a rotund, old, bearded man with a book that had "Bible" written on the back with a bunch of other words in Germany. He basically took one set of missionaries aside and started reaming them. I have no idea what he was saying, but it was evident he was loud, rude, and very much interested in debunking what the young missionaries had to say. It was quite fascinating watching the two young Elders struggle to get a single word in, let alone try to answer any of his accusations.

Strolling the streets was sure a neat experience, though. There were so many people milling about and it felt very safe and secure. Even though it's a tourist town, I didn't feel any of the unease I usually feel in touristy places (Where's my wallet? Is anybody looking at me funny? I have to stay in crowded places. Are there any policemen around?!). There were a lot of Japanese tourists zipping around -- they don't seem to ever linger, but roll in on their buses, take a million pictures, then roll out. The locals, apparently, detest them.

One thing I'm still trying to figure it is what these people actually survive on. I went into several stores looking to stock up on some food for a few days, and from what I can tell, these people live exclusively on pastries, chocolate, and alcohol. They had the token fruit around, but one little row of fruit is nothing compared to a larger row of chocolate, and the three rows of alcohol. Very odd. Perhaps they just eat out all the time?

I haven't quite ventured into that realm, yet. I stopped at Subway and at McDonalds, and I will probably wait until I have a wing-man (a good friend is arriving today) before I try to order any "real" food at a restaurant. Food prices seem reasonable (though I wish they'd take Visa!!), which is quite welcome on the heels of my previous Hawaii trip where prices were not anywhere near reasonable.

Last night I forced myself to stay up until about 9 pm, then crashed. I blinked awake at 3 am and went back to sleep, and then woke up again at 9 am! I had slept for twelve hours! And my eyes are still blood-shot. I'm hoping I adjust or else I could be presenting my paper in a few days looking like a psychopath.

As for today, I'm going to church. The missionaries told me that there's an English-speaking ward (branch?) that is meeting today at 1:30 pm -- a change from their usual 9:30 am time-slot (why a change for this week only?!) and very different from what was on the website. Then I'll wander through downtown again, probably walking by the river towards the conference center where I can register tonight. It should be pleasant.

I'm having a good time, but I miss my family -- especially my beautiful wife, whom I wish was here so she could experience this, too.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Halona Blowhole

My wife and I love geology. We don't know much about it, but we love looking at geological formations and marveling at the wacky things that nature can put together (or take apart). One of the things we really enjoyed in Hawaii was finding various blowholes around the islands that we visited. One of them is called the Halona Blowhole, and is located on the eastern coast of Oahu.

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Last year when we went on our cruise to Mexico, we went to Ensenada where the locals proudly proclaimed that they had one of only two blowholes known in the world -- what they proudly call La Bufadora (the, um, "blowhole"). We were skeptical, and quickly found out that that the locals were, um, blowing smoke. There's at least a dozen good-sized blowholes around the world, and we discovered a small one we didn't previously know about on Maui (not the Nakalele blowhole, but one to the west of what are sometimes called the Olivine Pools).

Anyway, we think these little geological gems are simply amazing. My wife gets very nervous around them, and while we were kept well away from La Bufadora in Mexico, in Hawaii we were able to walk right up to them. My wife literally was pulling on my arm to keep me from going over next to them. I laughed and reminded her that it's only dangerous if you fall in, and despite what she sometimes thinks I really do have a healthy sense of self-preservation, some evidence to the contrary.

In any case, the Halona Blowhole didn't disappoint us. It was spouting well and frequently. I managed to get my wife to go near it to get this photograph.

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Much later, when her paranoia levels decreased, she dared me to go over and sit down next to it. I don't think she believed I'd do it, but I took my chance and quickly ran over just in time to get a face-full of water. It was beautiful.

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Since blowholes really do need to be seen to be believed, I've included a little video here. It's awesome.

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Seeing this blowhole -- feeling the rocks beneath us shake under the awesome force of the waves as they crashed into the hole, hearing the odd "whoosh" sound that comes as the air is forced out right before the "boosh" of the water -- was one of our favorite parts of our trip to Hawaii. (Actually, I think I'm going to end up saying that an awful lot ...) We liked it so much that even though we saw it one day while we were driving by (when we took the video), we decided to go back a few days later to go hiking down by the blowhole. Awesome.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Kayaking, The Sunken Island, and The King of Kapapa Island

All the pictures in this post will be replaced when we get better copies. The pictures came from an underwater camera and the film (which is fine) wasn't processed correctly into the digital files.

Last year, my wife and I took a five day cruise from L.A. down towards Mexico. One of the days, the ship stopped at Catalina Island and my wife and I went kayaking on the ocean. She was really nervous about kayaking on the ocean at that time, but having a guide with us made her feel more confident. It was the first time for both of us, and we discovered that we really enjoyed it.

So it was that one of the things we really wanted to do was go kayaking on the ocean when we were in Hawaii. To save money, we didn't want to do a "tour" kind of thing, like we did on Catalina Island, and just rented a kayak on our own. As it turned out, the place we wanted to rent from was actually only a few blocks away from where we were staying.

We showed up early on our first day there and rented the two-person kayak and what they called a "soft shell" to mount it on top of the rental car. The "soft shell" wasn't anything of the sort. It was basically two strips of thick foam about 6" thick that we put on top of the car. They then provided to us a few straps that we would throw over the kayak (once on top of the car) and put into the car (with the doors open, so we could open the doors later!) and then cinch up.

It was an extraordinarily unsophisticated way of dealing with the problem, but it worked beautifully. We did have some water dripping in through the doors where the straps were preventing the doors from sealing around the roof, which was vexing when it rained, but otherwise it went rather well.

Once the kayak was firmly mounted to the roof of the rental car, we headed north. We drove to Kane'ohe and found a pier near He'eia Beach Park. We had read about a "sunken island" just to the north of there, so we put in -- being sure to bring our waterproof camera -- and started paddling. On our way out there, we were stunned by how blue the water was. Where we were there wasn't much waves, which was really good because my wife was really nervous about being out there on the ocean without a guide to help us if we got into trouble (we never did).

On the way north, we passed a big boat where a bunch of Japanese people were fishing. Actually, I don't know how much fishing they were actually doing. They did have fishing lines in the water, but they weren't paying much attention to them. We did see one guy wrestling with a line that appeared to have a lively fish on the end, but we never saw him actually pull it in (we got bored of waiting).

Anyway, as we headed north, we soon came upon some reef beneath us. It wasn't very far beneath the waves, and we were delighted to actually see it. We get excited over simple things. Well, the reef soon gave way to a sand bar, which we continued to paddle over. On one occasion, I dipped my paddle into the water, and hit the sand bar! It was right below us! We didn't have any idea how shallow the water was, as you can't really tell from above the surface.

Upon paddling a bit further, we found ourselves in the middle of this gigantic sand bar. Big boats full of tourists had beached themselves and people were getting out and walking around waist deep in the water (mostly Japanese tourists, it seemed, decked out in ridiculously over-large life vests). We paddled over to one group and asked them to take a picture of us.

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We moved on and continued paddling. Soon we got to a place where it was actually so shallow that the water only came up to our knees. I got out of the boat and took a picture of my wife with one of the tourist boats in the background.

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It was quite the odd feeling to be standing a mile from shore, standing up in the water.

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My wife wouldn't get out for a while, as she was nervous about things, but I finally talked her into it, so long as I had a really good grip on the boat (she didn't want it drifting away on us!).

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Apparently, this sand bar actually rises above the water level during low-tide. People go out there regularly, park their boats, and have picnics on the "beach". The sand bar is actually a sunken island. All of the Hawaiian islands were formed by volcanic activity, and as the source of the islands drifts away (a hot spot on the continental plate), the "old" islands are eroded away by waves, washed away by rains, and also collapse under their own weight.

This little sunken island upon which we were standing was actually the top of an ancient volcano that had once stood large and majestic above the waves. At the end of the last ice age, the ocean level rose and it was eventually reduced to the mile-wide sand bar that we so effortlessly kayaked over.

Anyway, the sunken island was actually the half-way point of our journey that day. Off in the distance we could see an island ahead. It was Kapapa Island, the top-most part of the sunken island that remains above water even at high tide. As we approached, we found ourselves buffeted by waves coming from both sides of us. It got pretty choppy and my wife got a little nervous. We were so close, though, that we pressed on, paddling with all our might towards this island as waves crashed around us.

As it turns out, the waves flow around Kapapa Island from both the east and the west, crashing towards each other on the leeward side. It was from this direction that we were traveling, so we took the hits as gracefully as we could, but soon found ourselves wobbling precariously in the waves.

Our goal was to avoid having the waves crest over us, and we managed that all right, but it was a very scary experience for my wife. (And for me? I don't get scared.) We proceeded quite far in that fashion before it occurred to us that I could literally just get off the kayak and pull the kayak to shore.

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We made it to shore and were quite relieved. We shed our life-jackets and climbed up the coral-strewn "beach". We walked the entire circumference of the island, enjoying the waves and just being in each other's company.

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It was spectacular. The waves were incredible from out there, and would crash ashore and explode into the air.

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The island was completely deserted. We found no structures there, just a wrecked boat and a few old fire pits. For that brief moment in time, I was the King of Kapapa Island! We stayed away from the interior of the island, however, 'cause there were big, gnarly spiders everywhere in the shrubbery. (Nah, I wasn't scared.)

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Along the eastern edge of the island, we could see the volcanic rocks eroded away from the bottom up. It's amazing that the ocean tides are such an irrepressible force.

(image 5, cropped to show the overhang)

Soon thereafter we decided we wanted to actually eat something -- Kapapa Island is no tropical paradise to be marooned upon, that much was clear. We got back into the kayak and paddled back the 2 2/5 miles to the dock. Going back was easier with the wind and the waves at our backs, but we didn't stop to rest much on the way -- it was exhausting work.

All in all, I think we spent about 5 hours out there on the ocean. Without a tour guide, my wife was nervous, but she did amazingly well, and by the end, she was as comfortable on the kayak as I was. I was so proud of her. We had a great time.

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