Michigan Tech & Hell Frozen Over

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Houghton, Michigan is in the grips of one of the worst winters on record.  This is saying a lot, as the area averages over 200 inches of snow a year, the second snowiest location in North America (behind Valdez, AK).  The home of my collegiate alma mater, Michigan Technological University (MTU), the area is getting battered by as much as 25 inches of snow and winds over 65 mph.  MTU closed for weather for the third time in a month.  That’s a remarkable data point because they had never closed the school for any more than two days during a school year in its history – heck, they only closed it once the whole time I was there.   The school was brutal enough since it was an engineering-focused campus sending you through class after class of very technical course work – all while trying to survive the 4-to-1 male to female ration during early adulthood (when we were just figuring out how cool it is to like girls).  This to earn a degree at one of the most underappreciated schools in the country — we used to say ‘You want to be respected, go to Ann Arbor.  You want to learn something, go to MTU.  (You want a job at Wal-Mart, go to Northern Michigan U).’  This massive storm comes when students are deep into the throws of their winter session with months of hopeless weather to come.

In other words — MTU today is proof that hell is freezing over.

On a related story … In April, I’m visiting the campus.

I will be presenting a Graduate Seminar on Quality Assurance & Space Flight.  This seminar was born out of a chance meeting last fall when I presented at a conference on Aerospace Quality.  Also at that conference were a group of MTU students presenting on cube sats (small satellites the size of a shoebox) they are working on.  One thing led to another, and we saw connections that could be made to learn how JPL implements quality assurance practices and how MTU can improve on these areas.  We might get time to blossom the discussion further, but for right now it’s kind of an exciting prospect.

Thing is, this is a long time coming in many ways.  I graduated from MTU with a degree in Materials Engineering way back in November of 1995.  I took a day or two to pack my stuff and leave town.  Now, 24 years later, I am returning there for the first time.

It probably is hard to believe that someone wouldn’t visit their old campus for such a long time.  The problem was, it’s just hard to get there.  Houghton, Michigan is located on the Keewanaw Penisula, the finger sticking up on Michigan’s Upper Penisula.  Going due south, it is 90 miles to the Wisconsin border, and then another four hours to reach any significant city.  You can fly into an airport up there, but the actual ‘local’ airport is 30 country miles from town – and then it may get 4 planes a day.  You might say “why not fly into Detriot and drive up from there” … well, it’s almost 10 hours to drive there from Detroit, and the fastest way may be through Chicago (yeah, as in leave Michigan, drive through Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin before driving back into Michigan).  It’s part of what made going to school up there so hard; when you were there you were stuck there – and that’s before you get the snow dumped on you.

So to go back, I needed a good reason.

Turns out I just had to wait until Hell froze over.

More to come on this, surely.  Like I mentioned, it’s been in the works for a while, and though it firmed up a few weeks ago I didn’t really have a good chance to announce it.  So there it is, announced.

Burbank’s Throwback Airport

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One of the odd things about living in Los Angeles County is that I have options on where to fly out of for a trip.  Like … realistic options.  When I lived in Wichita I pretended I had options, because I was willing to drive 3 hours to Kansas City, Tulsa, or Oklahoma City in order to save a couple hundred bucks.  Yet nothing brightens a day like getting to an airport at the crack of stupid to get a connection to a place that you know you still have hundreds of miles to drive home.  Here in LA County, there are three commercial airports – and two more in Orange County (I think … I mean, Long Beach is on one side of the border or the other).   Chances are, I am going to fly out of the two closest to me — Los Angeles International (LAX) or Burbank.   LAX is the choice I take whenever I am flying to somewhere on the East Coast, or somewhere remote.  LAX gets you direct to most places across the country, or at most one connection away.  It’s also a pain in the ass to get to – requiring me to go through Downtown LA, and depending on the time of the day could turn a 40-mile drive into a 3-hour tour — and I am back to dreams of Tulsa.  Yet, it can be much better than my options out of Burbank — but then again, Burbank is … well … kind of awesome.

Burbank Airport even sounds cool on paper.  It’s officially known as Bob Hope Burbank Hollywood Airport.  I mean, it just sounds glitzy, doesn’t it?  Okay, it isn’t all that glitzy it’s actually pretty run down, but these days what airport isn’t.  While mostly within Burbank City Limits, it extends into a neighborhood of Los Angles.  Also, if it isn’t already city hopping with Burbank and Hollywood, it’s owned by the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority.

Burbank always had a history of being the glamorous airport in the area.  Unlike LAX, Burbank’s smaller size made it easier access for smaller planes (though a Van Nuys Airport has taken up much of that lately).  The terminal followed a Spanish styling, complete with multi-floor restaurants that supported a tower right in the center of the building.  Burbank & Glendale supported much of the entertainment industry, so like my complaints getting to LAX, Burbank Airport was just easier for those types.  Burbank even had the edge of mystery tied to Lockheed’s presence.  For most of the cold war, Burbank Airport was also home to Lockheed’s Skunkworks, and where such iconic dark aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 spy aircraft were designed and built.  Lockheed even had to sue the city to get approval to fly those planes out in the darkness of night.

Burbank, as it stands now, is an airport that splits itself hard between the past and the future.  It is antiquated.  Its security area is shoved in a small area that happens to be the only spot between the gates and outside without doors that need to be secured.  Parts of it are even so small that us TSA Pre-Check people have to line up with the ‘normals’.  They’ve shut down gates and seating areas for such luxuries as a place to buy food or a place to go to the bathroom.  They’ve had to build parking structures because these days people drive to the airport … and not just take a ride-share horse-drawn carriage.

The thing is, there are a lot of things I like about Burbank.  Most of the things I like allow me to break my hard-and-fast air travel rules.  The big one is my time of arrival.  I mostly fly American Airlines, and I know that they won’t take a checked bag more than 4 hours prior to departure because … I am normally arriving 4 hours before departure.  I like getting to the airport early because I know a lot can go wrong and am fearless about sitting at a gate.  With Burbank, I’ll leave the house an hour before boarding, knowing I can get to make the thirty-minute drive, find parking, get through security, and still have time to get a bloody mary.  I nearly always check my bags, I rarely do at Burbank.  Thing is, Burbank is small and easy to get through.

On top of that, I am tending to go somewhere easy to get to.  Many times, I am using Burbank to get to the Bay Area (San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, etc).  Southwest flies so many flights back and forth from there (usually an hour flight for all of them) that I can actually do a day trip.  That’s where I literally walk up, with my work bag, get on a plane, fly, do my job, fly back, and get home – without the pup even missing a single bathroom break.  A bigger or more complex airport would make that crazy impossible.

The intangibles pull me in too.  Burbank was grandfathered into breaking some FAA rules.  The biggest one is the runway incursion.   The terminal is practically right on top of the runway.  It’s so close that planes land, slam on the breaks, and turn directly into the gate without any time to taxi.  Poor flight attendants have to rush through their ‘welcome to Burbank’ speech before the doors open.  Also, all the gates are at tarmac level where you walk outside to get to the plane — Southwest even loads from the front and back of the plane.  So you are wandering out there, the Verdugo Mountains looking to the East, and you are taking in this beauty of an aircraft that it seems you never get to see anywhere else.

Plus, it just feels nostalgic.  Yes, the place looks like it was upgraded with paint and drywall so long ago that it all looks like it needs new paint and drywall, but it still drips of the classic era of flight.  You could picture the people who put on suits and dresses as if they are going to a fancy night out only to climb on an oil-soaked prop plane.  You can picture the uniformly dressed stewardesses (not flight attendants, stewardesses) walking in step with massive smiles soaking in the attention.  Burbank is a throwback to days when flying meant something, not just going to work somewhere else.

Soon, though, Burbank will change.  In no small part to those FAA rules that grandfathering won’t take you far enough, a new terminal is in the plans.  Money has been set aside, designs are presented to the FAA, and posters are starting to go up to get support.  As early as 2021, a new terminal will start going up, and things will become different.

In the meantime, we still have the past to look at.

A Missed Opportunity

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It was a somber week at JPL as sadness we somehow knew was coming came to fruition.  Officially speaking, JPL announced on February 13th that the Mars Exploration Rover – B (or MER-B), in combination with the Mars Exploration Rover program (or MER-1), completed its mission.  Emotionally speaking … we lost Oppy.

Oppy was the ‘little rover that could’.  He was a symbol of what smart people could do when they didn’t have a lot to go with.  He defied expectations.  When success seemed a pipedream, he not only succeeded, he exceeded.

Opportunity was the full name of MER-B, a Mars rover about the size of an all-terrain vehicle weighing about 400lbs.  Opportunity, or Oppy for short, was one of two rovers built and launched around the same time.  Oppy’s twin, Spirit, was nearly identical to it’s brother with the only real difference is it would land in a different part of Mars to help collect that much more data.  Their objectives initially were to explore the geological makeup of Mars, understand the soils, rocks, and structure so that further studies could look into the existence of water or life on the Red Planet.  A secondary object was more about a proof of concept.  For the effective exploration of another planet, whatever science platform had to be mobile.  Unlike all previous Mars programs (e.g. Pathfinder, Viking) these rovers were made to move independent of their landing vehicle.  Also, during that time of build and launch, NASA was looking for more cost-effective means to continue their scientific goals.  Building two rovers at the same time was one of those cost-cutting methods.  Another was that the missions were designed for short life experiments.  So what you basically got was two Rovers that were meant to be shot up onto Mars, allowed to roam around for a bit, then call it good shortly after that.

Opportunity was planned for a 90-day mission. He lasted over 14 years.

That would be as if a child was born with a defect limiting him to barely reach an age when he could talk but instead goes on to live a full lifetime … and then two more lifetimes.  The designers knew this was a possibility, I mean, you don’t just magically make something last fifty times longer than expected.  In layman’s terms, what they did was they just chilled out more.  The challenge was always going to be keeping the batteries charged, so they spent more time sunning with the solar panels eating up the rays, and spending less time running it’s more power hungry instruments.  Each day, each year, each chance, Opportunity would send back photos and data of Mars.  It traveled father than any other man-made rover has, exceding more than the length of a marathon.

Of course, they were doing the same thing with Spirit, but Spirit ran into some bad luck.  After six-and-a-half years, it got stuck into some soft sand, and after months of trying to free the rover, they designated it stuck forever, and switched to a stationary mission.  Sometime after that, Spirit failed to check-in.  It had undergone some low power situations, a problem when you can’t turn into the sun, and it’s theorized that the batteries got so low the internal clock reset and the unit could never figure out when was a good time to call home.  Spirit ended it’s mission 6 years, 9 months, & 12 days after landing.

Oppy had his ups and downs too.  In 2005, Oppy got stuck in the sand so deep that it took up nearly half its front and back wheels.  JPL overcame this by recreating the conditions here on earth, including the sand, rover, and surrounding topography.  A couple days later they succeeded in moving just a couple centimeters, but it proved what they could do.  Within a week, Oppy was free and ready to keep rolling.  It got stuck a couple more times over the years and survived seasonal dust storms when the sky nearly blacked out threatening power interruptions again.

Eventually, it was one of these dust storms that did him in.  They said that it took a historic dust storm to end a historic mission.  A Mars year lasts about two of ours, and “annually” there would be a dust storm event above where Oppy drove.  By the time the storm of 2018 was rolling in, Oppy had survived four others, but this one was going to be a doozy.  Temperatures were expected to drop so low that they could break soldier joins.  When Oppy operated in clear skies and highest efficiency, it’s solar panels could collect up to 700 Watt-Hours of power.  During the storms in the past, Oppy reported only receiving around 300 Watt-Hours.  On May 8. 2018 before the storm arrived, Oppy reported an average of 667 Watt-Hours.  June 10, 2018, he reported 22 Watt-Hours, about 3% of what it is capable of doing.

June 10, 2018 was also the last day we received word from Oppy.   Technically speaking, the last transmission sent power diagnostics and atmosphere conditions.  In human terms, we say the last transmission was:
“My Battery is Low, and It’s Getting Dark.”

Three months later, the storms cleared and we began to try to reach him.  He never responded.  We tried again, and again.   For months we tried.

During that time, the emotions started pouring out.  Fourteen years is a long time.  People on the program now were inspired into space sciences because of seeing that little guy launch and land.  Opportunity inspired and gave hope.  While we all knew it would someday end, it seemed none of us were all that ready for it.  Oppy was like our pet, the little guy who would send a message whenever we would call him home.

Earlier this week, JPL sent one last transmission.   Our folks weren’t carrying any hopes for a miracle really,   They chose a song by Billy Holiday called “I’ll Be Seeing You”.   They were inspired by the line:

I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you

I was having a conversation with someone about the end of the mission this week.  They felt sad that all these years, we left him to die up there all alone.  I told them that saying that was unfair, that Oppy was an object not something that we would bury like in a grave.  When they were about to get on me for sounding so cold, I put it like this:

Oppy had a mission to do.  To go up to Mars, and to make it possible that someday man will walk on Mars.  That day will happen.  That means there will also come a day when someone is going to find Oppy, clean if free of dust, and thank him for showing us the way.  I couldn’t think of a better way to remember him.

So … we miss you Opportunity, but we’ll be seeing you.  Some day.

Winter Weather California Style

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We’re having a pretty rough winter here in SoCal.

No seriously.

I mean, yeah, rough winter relatively speaking but it’s still rough.

Don’t think of me as callous or insensitive to what the rest of the country is digging out.  I’m used to the different stages of winter memes, starting from when Northern states make fun of Southern States for closing all of mankind when there is a hint of cold — then a few weeks later there are exaggerate pictures of snow or ice usually including beer — finally the pics of weather reports with something like “please no more” tagged to it.  I’ve been there, I’ve worn the red badge of courage that says ‘two-hundred inches of snow’ to brag to others for all my life.

It’s just that … I live in California now.  If there is one thing you want to count on being good it’s the weather.

This morning, I left the house and noticed that I could see my breath.  Turned over the car, ran the wipers, and the dew of the morning was actually frost.  Took a look at the thermostat, and it read 34ºF.  Like, just a tick above freezing.

This, the first day in a long time that I have actually seen the sun for any period of time.

Yeah, that’s the other side of the winter weather that we put up with, rain and lots of it.  My first winter here in 2017 was one of the wettest; my most used joke was that in the first three months it rained so much that I kept saying “from the sample size of my time here, it rains constantly”.  This winter has seen more volume than consistency, but it’s been a wet last couple of months.  January we saw nearly a third of the annual rainfall, and February is on course to top that.

Now, one thing I am not shy about is making note that folks around here are world-class complainers.  This may actually sound like I am falling into the exact same pattern.  Well, granted, I am.  Like I keep telling folks around here when I talk about my life in Alaska, you get used to things.  Twenty degrees and overcast in Anchorage this time of year we would call ‘beautiful’; yet here it’s more like ‘world ending’.

Truth is, SoCal isn’t made for this weather. I am not saying, we just aren’t tough like cold weather climates, I mean it more literally.

For example, the coffee shop I hang out at most weekends has as much outdoor seating as indoor.  I could lay out how inconvenient that could be, there is a secondary impact.  With the price of land as it is, this little gimmick is a way to maximize shop space and increase customer demand, not to mention cost savings during the hot months to give customers outdoor relief without increasing air condition costs.  In this weather, no one will sit outside, and while some will drop in and leave many just do come in at all.  So yeah, for us customers it’s inconvenient that we can’t sit there; but for the store, it’s cutting into their sales.

JPL is a large campus with multiple buildings up and down a hillside.  Meetings are planned all over the lab, and it’s taken for granted that much of what we do requires walking around or riding around on open-air carts.  Right now, you aren’t sure if what you are carrying will make it safe & dry; but you have little choice to it.

Closer to home, my washer and dryer are in my detached garage.  It’s hard to bring in the dry laundry when it’s pouring rain.  Sure, two years ago I thought it was quirky that my laundry was in another building; but it’s actually common for laundry to be outside the main house down here.  Where I grew up in Wisconsin, we had great times in the backyard during the summer.  Yet, to be honest, we saw that as a treat of that time of the year.  Around here, your backyard is as much part of your life as your dining room.  When I have friends over, we don’t sit inside.

Yet, this isn’t ‘Mitch Problems’.  This is what I mean when I say this world wasn’t not built for this weather.

So, forgive me if I complain a little.

Besides – misery may love company, but it craves attention.

LA’s Best Questions

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Let me start with a quote.

“This is not my first rodeo” — Quote by me, at my second rodeo

Last week I participated in a JPL program that supports a Los Angeles School District program (called LA’s Best) to boost elementary school interest in sciences.  Focused on 3-5 grade students participating in science clubs, JPL volunteers go out to one of the schools and talk to the kiddos there in attendance.   Usually, it is split between random questions from the youngins and an activity.  Or at least, so I have heard.  The activity is easy, because it usually involves simple crafts with a tie back to what JPL does, and usually is wrapped up in no time.

This was essentially my second rodeo, so it shouldn’t be that hard.  I thought I would be ready for anything.  I did my research.  I did my planning.  I collected my items to make for a fun activity.  I talked to people who filled in similar roles.  I walk in the door.  I am early, but so are the kids.  Like last year, I barely get through my name and no more get out that I work at JPL and the hands start shooting up with questions.  I knew this was coming, and I knew this was the main part of the gig … I just didn’t expect the first question.

This little blond girl, a face full of freckles, quick on the draw to raise her hand but shy to ask her question lays it out of me:

“Can I call you Bill Nye the Science Guy?  Because I wrote a song for you.”

Yeah, I didn’t know how to shoot down the dreams of today’s youth so suddenly.

The fun part about these kids is that they are so excited about anything science.  You basically have about 20 kids who are at different levels of understanding who all seem unafraid to ask questions – and that’s part of the hope you get from watching them react to the presentation.  Then again there is a bit of a balance struck.  It’s 20 kids and one science club coach – a volunteer as well, but unlike me she lives in that chaos from day to day.

After that, the questions kept coming fast and furious for about 40 minutes.  We talked about Mars, the Moon, Black Holes, and Rockets.  Most of the questions were what you can expect from elementary students, which is pretty awesome for me since it didn’t take me much to sound super smart:

  • Why is Mars red?
  • Is the Moon a planet?
  • Will the sun ever burn out?

That being said, the questions this year became more philosophical than my previous try.  The questions required discussion.

  • What’s inside a black hole?
    • How come we don’t know?
    • Why don’t we just shoot a camera into a black hole and find out?
  • Are there aliens?
    • Where are the aliens?
    • If we think there is life on Mars, how come they don’t come out and say hi?

I did my best to try to answer questions with explanations.  I mean, that’s what Bill Nye the Science Guy would do, right?  Most of the time, I was able to … except once.  Someone asked me “Is the Earth Flat?”  It took all the common sense in my brain to keep me from saying “Seriously kid?  And you are in the Science Club?”  I probably should have said something like, “there are things that would prove the Earth is flat, but not everything.  And everything we know about our planet proves it isn’t flat.  So science wins.”  Instead, I just answered:  “No”

The coach gave me a look at that point that said “welcome to my world.”

Running through all the questions was like a gauntlet of chaos.  When I thought I could search for moments to refocus these kids, I went on the activity.  I chose something that I work with frequently, mitigating risks caused by electrostatic discharge … or more specifically, talking about static electricity.  We all know the simple games you can play with static, and my thought was to pull out my test equipment and measure the amount of static we can create by simple interaction with static insulators.

That’s when I brought out the balloons.

That’s when the coach gave me a look that said: “oh dear god, he brought them noise makers.”

Yeah, like in one of the funnier moments of the day, as I was cleaning up the carcasses of popped balloons and found about 20 leftover uninflated ones, I asked her if she wanted to keep the extras.  She bluntly said, “No, because they’ll just ask me for them.”

Like I felt last year after my first rodeo, I walked out pretty jazzed about doing it.  I tend not to miss an opportunity to do some kind of outreach if JPL lets me.  Each time I do, it has the same effect on me.  I’ve never had a job before JPL that is not only something I am proud to do, but people get excited about us as well.  I don’t always get involved with the aspects of JPL that really change the world … but JPL does change the world.  When I meet people who are as excited about that as I am, I walk away reminded how lucky I am to be doing what I do.

Maybe next time I will be more ready for the questions.