Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost-Themed Target Ad

Okay, I'm a Lost fan. I consider myself a huge fan, even though I haven't seen the finale, yet, because, well, I'm, still, jet-lagged, and, crashed, early, last, night.

Even so, I stumbled across this advertisement from Target, which I'm assuming was aired during last night's broadcast. Made me snort:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Home Again!

I flew in last night, traveling from Frankfurt to San Francisco and then continuing on to Burbank. It was so nice avoiding the mess that is LAX, and the transfer in San Francisco was so painless, that I hope to not go to LAX again for a long, long time. As it was, my flights were uneventful (which is good, of course), and we followed the sun all the way home.

I left Frankfurt at about 2 pm and arrived at 4:30 pm in San Francisco. I stayed awake the whole flight, even though I was tired, mostly because I felt crowded and all the windows were up so it was daylight. I finally made it home just before 9 pm, with the sun going down just when the sun should've been coming up for me. I'm a little tripped out, but slept very well last night and I think I'm adjusting all right.

I'm just very happy to be home. Now to catch up with everything that was left behind ... a lot of work (which is messy), and church stuff, and family stuff ... the garden needs care as does the sprinkler system, which isn't working well. Ah, everyday life ... I love it!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dinner Party

Last night I went to dinner with the ExoMars people. There were about 40 people in attendance and we had a wonderful time at a local German restaurant. The food was quite tasty and there was everything from a salmon wrap to white asparagus to wienerschnitzel to a delightful "homemade" chocolate pudding. I really enjoyed the meal, and I sat with a group of people from ESA with none of my NASA colleagues around. I'm really glad I did, as we had a great time laughing about the differences between our respective forms of government.

I was regaled with a story about how simple it is to get a drivers license in California compared to Germany where it costs a lot and strict tests are required. "You take a test, pay a small fee, and then you drive around the block with some guy ... in your own car!" The irony of the fact that you take your own car, which you presumably drove to the DMV, to take a test to receive a license so that you can drive your own car ... well, the deadpan delivery from the story-teller was simply hilarious.

We also swapped stories about healthcare, raising children, legal run-ins, crimes that have affected us (oddly enough they had far worse personal stories about legal troubles and crime in the United States than I did, even though I live there!), traffic, drive-through ATMs (Exasperated: "To get money, you don't walk to the ATM, you drive to it!"), and the space program. We laughed about how President Obama promised change, and that's exactly what we seem to be getting, for better and for worse.

The weirdest turn in the conversation occurred when one of the people made the connection between the fact that I don't drink coffee or alcohol and the fact that I grew up and went to college in Utah to the fact that I'm Mormon. Normally, I'd take the opportunity to tell people a bit about what we believe, but one of the people in our group jumped the conversation from me being a Mormon to talking about the Catholic problems with pedophile priests and the unfortunate "torture" that occurred at Guantanamo Bay. It sounded like, but I was never clear on this, that he had heard cases of Mormons also abusing children and participating in this torture, but the conversation was at times difficult to follow (between a noisy room and the accents). As far as I know, those connections do not exist (though, I won't lie and say there's never been a Mormon pedophile or a Mormon torturer), but I don't know what he thinks he knows, and I did not want to risk being perceived as confrontational.

So, I walked away last night having been identified as a Mormon, which I was able to clarify as a Christian religion, but not knowing what the others thought about that fact. It seems to me that Europeans are a decidedly unreligious lot, with a distrust of organized religion (the Catholic church, being the dominant church with which they have experience, in particular), and they didn't seem to want to linger on the topic.

The conversation did swerve to the terrorist problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fact that there does not seem to be a very good solution. It was clear that they did not approve of the way that the United States dealt with the war in Iraq, and especially didn't approve of the fact that the U.S. started it. However, I was able to get them to think about it in ways that I don't think they ever had. In particular, one of them admitted that democracy is the natural enemy of authoritarianism, and that a "civilized" society is poorly equipped to deal with one that engages in terrorism.

We spoke about the challenges of dealing with these people that were captured engaging in acts of terrorism, and about how it isn't really clear if you should treat them as criminals or as war criminals, which they agreed should rightly be treated differently.

I shared with them the plotline of a book I'm reading right now, "The Man With the Iron Heart" by Harry Turtledove. It is an alternative history book, which explores what might have happened had there been an active Nazi underground resistance in the aftermath of World War II, which resorted to what we would now consider terrorist acts. It's very obvious that the author intended the novel to be a parable on modern times, and in it the author explores the challenges of dealing with an armed people that don't go by the "rules of war" and to whom human dignity is not universally applicable. I'm not finished reading it, yet, but I believe the resolution to the book will be that the United States will eventually pull out of Germany, not having the stomach to endure the continual additional deaths of our soldiers for a people that doesn't appear to want our help, leaving them to their own devices which will set the stage for a Nazi resurgence.

They were intrigued by the concepts I outlined, and I think we all agreed that there are no good civilized answers to terrorism. One approach would be to lay waste to the communities who harbor and support the terrorists, but that is not something that "western" civilization endorses, and would make us no better than the Nazis in the end. Education seems to be the key, but that takes time and patience, something which democracies do not excel in.

It was a very interesting night. I made some new friends and enjoyed the stimulating conversation, and I am very glad that I had the opportunity to be here and enjoy the hospitality of my hosts.

Meetings at ESOC

My meetings in ESOC have gone very, very well. I met with the Mars Express people and walked through some details of this new relay coordination system for which I'm responsible. We've concluded we want to take baby-steps to get them integrated with it in preparation for support of MSL.

My meetings with the ExoMars people have also gone very well. We spoke about a lot of how relay operations will occur between the ExoMars orbiter and any landers that get to the surface of Mars. Some details have been clarified while others are still open questions. Naturally there are things that the two sides of this partnership disagree about, but so far there's nothing that's fundamentally broken.

It is an interesting experience for me to learn how the Europeans construct spacecraft. They have processes that are certainly different from ours, but most assuredly not wrong, for managing spacecraft development, including in their reviews, documentation approach, etc. Truth be told, fundamentally their approach very closely mirrors ours, and mostly it's a matter of simply understanding how their activities map into what we do. I'm learning a lot and enjoying myself.

In other news, I'm glad I went walkabout the first few days I was here, because I've been indoors working ever since and even if I wasn't, it's been raining the whole time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Walkabout in Darmstadt

I spent the last day and a half walking around Darmstadt, and have really enjoyed myself. For the most part, there's nothing touristy about this place, and there's really nothing that jumps out and says, "You gotta see this!", but even so, it's been pleasant just walking around and enjoying the environment. "Downtown" is a pleasant place to walk around, with lots of shops; and nearby there are a few parks that provide the right amount of green.

Darmstadt, like many cities in Europe, got laid waste during World War II, so there aren't a lot of "old" buildings to speak of. I wasn't able to find any old churches, and even the local "castle" is modernized. What few "old" pieces of architecture I was able to find, and old statues, were fairly rare. For example, in one of the main squares downtown, I found this statue:

I have no idea who this is, and there was no plaque, and I struggled with it because it totally looks like Teddy Roosevelt to me. Apologies that the resolution is so bad; I only had the camera in my phone with me.

There were some more modern statues that I encountered, such as this:

Or this:

I found that this place is really quite green, though. The major park near downtown is lovely, and seems to be very popular with the students who attend the university right next door, and parents of small children:

In the park I did find this cool monument with this awesome, naked, Viking-looking dude:

Nearby was another "park", something called "St. George's gardens", I think, with a nearby church named, I think, "St. Elizabeth's":

It's really quite strange, though, the mix of architecture styles in the downtown area. One one hand, you have very traditional, European-style buildings, such as these:

But across the street, you get very modern type buildings, like this:

On the whole, though, it was a nice time just walking around town. My feet a little sore, my eyes a little bleary-eyed, I went back to the hotel content and comfortable with my surroundings. I'm still a little uncomfortable ordering food at restaurants, but I'll get over that eventually, too. I like this place, but I do look forward to going home.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Germany Again

So I'm in Germany again, this time not for a conference, as I was 2 years ago, but instead for a meeting at the European Space Agency's operations center (ESOC) in Darmstadt. I'll be visiting with some people from the Mars Express mission, and also, primarily, with a lot of people from the ExoMars 2016 orbiter mission. We're trying to figure out some of the details of what's what, as it is a joint mission between NASA and ESA, with general rules for division of responsibilities, and we'll be trying to crisp those rules up a little.

The flights over were pretty straightforward. I bounced through San Francisco, and even though my flight was 45 minutes late out of Burbank, which caused no small amount of concern on my part, we made it in plenty of time for me to catch the non-stop flight to Frankfurt. I actually was fairly comfortable in the plane ... ever since I lost weight, I fit in those little seats a lot better ...

I tried to sleep on the way, but sleep was elusive because the guy sitting behind me kept getting up every 20 minutes, and pulled on my chair to get himself out of his. The jolting back and forth was not conducive to a nice slumber. Even so, I managed to get a little bit of rest, and while I wasn't resting, I watched some of the in-flight movies (Desperate Measures and Invictus and ... um ... something forgettable). I also read a lot. I would've used my laptop for something more constructive, but I'm a little shy when there's somebody inches away who can see everything I type.

So, anyway, I got on the ground and turned on my phone (got it activated for international calling, thank heavens!) only to receive a text message from the ESOC visitor desk, who said there was a taxi standing by to bring me from the airport to ESOC in Darmstadt. I had asked about it last week, but hadn't heard anything, so I was totally planning on taking a bus (for 8 Euros), but I couldn't very well turn the guy away. It certainly was convenient, but I forked over 40 Euros for it. My inward miser groaned, but gratefully I'll get reimbursed for that through work. To top it off, he dropped me off at ESOC, not at my hotel, which he proclaimed was only 100 meters away. Uh huh. It was more like 300 (I looked it up)! Not a big deal, really, but I was hauling wheeled luggage over cobblestone, and it would've taken him, like, 30 seconds to drive me over there.

So, I got into the hotel and happily my room was available so they could let me check in early. It's about 11:30 am at this point, but to me it's 2:30 in the morning. I'm a little weirded out, but still moving, so after I'm dismayed that internet access is going to be 15 Euros per day (again, work will reimburse!) I head out to go find something to eat. It's a little weird walking around in the bright sunshine where you don't speak the language looking for lunch in the middle of the night.

Turns out that Darmstadt is really quite a pretty little town. It's industrialized, don't get me wrong. It's a city, after all, with the crowding and the crime (there's a lot of graffiti), but it also has all the fun things about a city -- a lot of places to shop (which would be better if, you know, I actually liked to shop), big buildings to look at, lots of people to watch hurrying along their way unknowingly telling outsiders a bit about their culture. So, get this, after one afternoon, I figure the following:

* The only people who seem to smile are those that are pushing little children in strollers.
* Most people with children appear to be of Middle Eastern descent -- it's true what I've read about how there's an identity crisis here because of the massive in-flux of Muslim people ... and if the birth rate among the Germanic people doesn't rise (don't hold your breath) ...
* The other people who smile are teenagers who are just goofing off.
* Speaking of the teenagers, it seems they will invariably be wearing black, have a tattoo, or have a body piercing somewhere. Many have all three.
* I think they hide all the kids that are in the in-between ages.
* All the stores open no earlier than 9 and close by 7. But the bars, of course, stay open quite late -- I'm absolutely positive that there's a correlation between those two sentences.
* I saw no obese people. Not one. I'm sure that's because they walk practically everywhere and eat less than we Americans do, even though it seems practically everything is deep fried.
* There are a lot of "pedestrian" cyclists with sturdy bicycles (and baskets!), who use them to get around town. I contrast this with back home where most cyclists have flimsy "street" bikes and ride recreationally. Back home some cyclists get pretty pretentious about it all, with their outfits and their attitudes, but here it's just a good way to get around.
* Far too many people here have a smoking habit. If one were to say "everybody" smokes here, from my observations, they wouldn't be too far off the mark.

A few other randoms:
* Here it is 9 pm and it still isn't dark outside. This "high" latitude thing is really weird, coming from Southern California.
* I had to go buy an electric adapter from an electronics store so I could plug my laptop/phone/razor in to the wall because the old adapter I had doesn't fit the standard outlet anymore (I bought it ten years ago, and things have changed here ...). In the process, I got harangued in broken English by the guy behind the counter because I didn't know what voltage my electronics require ... seriously, who just knows that off the top of their head?!
* I forgot my comb, so I have to go buy one tomorrow.
* I've been to McDonald's twice for meals, because I'm a little intimidated going somewhere else and having to order something when I can't even read the stinkin' menu!
* The hotel has an "Ironing Room" (no joke!) -- basically a closet with an old ironing board and an iron. I still need to go iron all my wrinkled clothes.
* I notice that it's really green here, with stuff growing anywhere that's not concreted or bricked (and even there sometimes). Explains why there's a lot of paving ...

Anyway, it's going to be an interesting visit. Tomorrow, I plan to go on walkabout again, to see what there is to see. I have a meeting at 3 pm with the Mars Express folks, and then dinner with my co-workers at 6:30 pm. Should be good!

I'll be waking up at 3 am to "skype" my family back home around dinnertime. It'll be good to see them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Huntsville and SpaceOps 2010

I went to Huntsville, Alabama, last week for a conference. Short story: I'm glad I went!

Long story:

Truthfully, I usually only attend conferences in "interesting" places, as it is a whole lot of effort to write a paper, get it reviewed and approved and cleared for public release, and then to get work to schedule and pay for the trip. This on top of the not insignificant disruption that being gone for a week has on my ongoing, "real" work and my family life.

"So, why did you go?" you ask. Well, it's because my best friend from college lives down there and I hadn't seen him in something like 5 years. Seriously, that's the only reason I went. Now, it's not the only good thing that I got out of the trip, don't get me wrong. But I'd be totally lying if I told you that I actually wanted to go to Huntsville. Huntsville is a small, military town in the South. I grew up in a small, military town, and I served my mission in the South, so ... been there, done that.

Granted, Marshall Space Flight Center is there, but the conference tour of the facility was full before I realized I needed to sign up. So, my only real incentive was to go see my buddy, and I am so glad I did. Two of the five nights I was there I was able to spend with him and his family, and I loved every minute of it.

My good friend from college used to drive me crazy with his hair-brained schemes and exuberant personality. He was nearly always trying to get his homework done at the last minute (guess who had to help him?) or talking about kissing some pretty girl (guess who rarely did? (or did so too rarely for his tastes?)) or extolling the virtues of space power systems (um, yeah). Seriously, the guy was weird, but he was still my best friend and ever since our paths in life have diverged I've watched his career and family life from afar.

He ended up going to Georgia for graduate school after I got married and wasn't as much fun to hang around with anymore. It didn't take him long before he, too, found a pretty girl to marry, and not much longer after that before they started having children. They have three daughters now (they lost a son a while back) and have another little boy on the way. His wife is the kindest person, and she suffered my presence in her household with aplomb despite being 6 or 7 months pregnant (can't remember exactly ... but she's pleasantly round).

I was so grateful to be there in their home as their little girls very slowly got used to this stranger who so rudely interrupted their nighttime routine. Their oldest daughter is an extremely bright little girl who apparently reads anything she can get her hands on and who clearly thinks deeply about things. Their middle daughter is an exceptionally friendly little girl who told me all about her bunny with its floppy ears and asked me to take care of it when she had to go take a bath; I was charmed. Their baby girl is too little to talk to me, and she was a little fussy while I was there, but I chose not to take that personally.

But it was just so nice to be there. They are a wonderful couple that are doing good in their corner of the world. They have firm testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and keep their commitments to the Lord and His Church. Their home truly does have the Spirit, and it was a warm and inviting place where I felt comfortable immediately. I was so happy to see my friend teach his children during scripture study, and to learn that his wife was going to a women's conference at BYU -- an experience that I know is quite a spiritually uplifting one.

So ... if they're reading this, thank you!

The other night that I was able to spend time with him I went to a meeting of the Huntsville Gem and Mineral Society. Doesn't sound much like a party, I'm sure, but it was really quite interesting. I got to push the button on his computer to advance his slides during his presentation, so I made myself useful. He was presenting to the aged people in the room the merits of building thorium-based nuclear reactors. I'm a true believer now, as are they. What was fascinating was watching how enthralled the people were with my goofy friend as he got so excited about the subject, all the while wearing his political opinions on his sleeve (the crowd was friendly to his views, as it were ...). The people weren't some drooling senior citizens, either, but most were retired army folks who have forgotten more about chemistry and geology than I'll probably ever know. I'm very glad I went.

The conference itself was really great. I had the opportunity to visit with a lot of people that I needed to visit with anyway about some work things, especially some people from ESA. In true conference form, I also trade some business cards, gathered some "conference crap" (pens, pins, patches, gizmos, and other trinkets from the vendors who had booths there), and broadened my understanding of the state of the art of deep space mission operations around the world (bottom line: most are playing catch-up to JPL, but are doing so alarmingly fast).

I also spent some time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which was fascinating. Unfortunately, my timing wasn't so good due to the current uncertainty surrounding the U.S. space program. My overall impression when I left was a feeling of awe at what had been accomplished in the '60s during the Apollo era (seriously, you just can't understand the sheer magnitude of a Saturn V until you're standing beneath one), but, more overwhelmingly, I had a feeling of sorrow. The whole place is effectively a mausoleum to lost spacefaring capabilities -- a reminder of "what could have been".

I also went on a drive-about to see the beautiful, old, plantation-style homes around Huntsville, and to see the beautiful green sights. A funny moment came when I pulled off a highway at a "scenic view" stop, only to find the view completely obstructed by trees.

I also noted that the town has a lot of churches. It's a beautifully green town with an interesting geologic past -- the plethora of strange rock formations and caves in the area are astounding.

I also had the opportunity to go to the formal dinner (underneath the Saturn V at the museum!) and listen to the famous Gene Kranz recount his experiences in mission control during the Apollo 13 mission. It was familiar, but still kind of fun to hear it from him.

All in all, it was a fun trip, and I'm glad I went!

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