Countdown to Perseverance


This Thursday, at 7:50am EDT, Mars 2020 (and the Perseverance Rover) is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, FL.

If you can’t physically be there for the launch, you can watch it on nearly any streaming service including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Just search for NASA TV or JPL. It maybe on cable and network TV, whether or not they pick it up, but it’s worth checking when it comes along.

Mars 2020 is the largest, most complex Mars mission to date. Designed, built, and perfected by my colleges at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the billion dollar project took years to come together. Now, it sits on the launch pad going to the final bells and whistles in hopes the July 30th launch window is a winner. Build in the shadow of it’s predecessor, Curiosity, which launched and landed in 2012, Perseverance is heading up in search of signs of previous Marian life.

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos. 

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

The launch window starts on July 30th and goes through August 15 with time frames varied over those weeks. The one problem is, if we miss the August 15th date, the window closes for a couple years. So, it’s go time.

The State of Sport


Hello again from La Crescenta / Glendale, CA. We are still on lockdown, and when we seem to take a step forward, we take a step back. The city announced on Friday that barbershops and hair stylists could open, and some restaurants can have in-house dining. Yet, since Saturday, we’ve been on early evening curfew. So even if I did get my hair cut, I couldn’t show it off after sundown. So it is generally status quo.

What isn’t status quo is the continued opening up of the sporting world. I make no bones about my love for sports, and that background of an event here and there is what is the least obvious thing that I miss. I miss it bad.

Part of it is how it ended. There was a 48 hour period where sport after sport suspended operations, some delaying the inevitable with early plans to play without fans, but that didn’t last long. In fact, the week it all went down, I had big plans. Two friends and I had planned a guys “pseudo-bachelor party” weekend in Nashville, centered around a hockey game. The guest of honor is a big Flyers fan, and they were playing the Predators. Over three or four days, our conversations went from”I’m all in”, to “I am in still even if they don’t play”. to “maybe we should hold off”. Three months later, no hockey, not hockey playoffs, not even a planned date to return.

Hockey, though, is one of the sports that do have a plan. When they get the go ahead, they will start a 24 team playoff that looks complicated on paper, but is going to be fun. They’ll play it at designated host cities where the entire Western conference will play in one city, and the Eastern in another. Nascar made it back early, racing in front of empty stands, and packed a bunch of races in the first few weeks that they might get in a full schedule by year end. Even if I don’t want to, I got to talk about basketball because De3an Innes is a Clippers fan. NBA are still trying to figure out what to do, and might have player problems when they get there. An NBA plan includes some regular season games, but players on teams out of the playoffs have said they won’t play. MLB is likely the most messed up, because players and owners are arguing over the pro-rating pay.

NFL is likely the least effected, though may play in front of empty stadiums. If you missed it, the NFL Draft was a spectacle. I love watching the draft anyway, but they did it remotely including cameras in houses for many of the teams. The Commish Goodell’s basement chair (and the rumors that he was replacing window screens between rounds) became a talking point. The star of the show happened when the NE Patriots made their first pick, the cameras went to Head Coach Bill Belachek’s house, which looked like he was set up on his dining room table … except it wasn’t him. Sitting at the computer was Nike Beleachek, the family dog.

Since I love sports of all kind, I would be remiss to ignore world wide sports … in fact I insist. This weekend, the National Rugby League, Austraila’s rugby league, returned to empty stadiums and piped-in crowd noise. I’m a passing fan of the NRL, but when it’s good it’s great. What I like is that one stadium has seats only on two sides, and in the end zones, resident houses are close enough to see the game … so they set up scaffold and invited their mates. On June 12, my really favorite Australian Sport – Aussie Rules Football – returns. They are being so careful that they have only set a schedule for the next month. Soccer is making a comeback. Germany’s Bundesliga has been back for almost a month. England, Spain, and Italy won’t be far behind with dates set.

What has benefited from the lockdown is eSports, or competitive computer games. What can be suprising about eSports for the uninformed is how massive it is already. The foundation of the eSports community is in Asia/ In South Korea, the top spectator sport is competitive Starcraft II .. and has been since the game was released, only because it replaced the then biggest sport, Starcraft, which had been huge since the late ’90s. A personal favorite, League of Legends (which deserves a blog to itself) is so big world wide that with World Finals drew more viewers than the Super Bowl. Players, most of them not even old enough to rent a car, can make over a million dollars a year playing professionally.

While eSports prefer games to be played in stadiums or studios – part for the fan involvement, and part for the competitive integrity — the lockdown allowed for the games to continue remotely. Networks like ESPN, FS1, and NBCSN, hungry for something to show that wasn’t a replay, routinely show eSports. The main ones are sports we know, like NFL Madden, or NBA 2K, or motor racing simulators; but they still find a way to make compelling TV. Whether or not support continues when we get live sports yet to be seen, but at least they are getting the attention they deserve.

For any sports fan now, we can take what we can get. It might even be professional cornhole, which is a thing, but it’s still something.

And I guess that is what we have right now … “It’s still something.”

Hello From the Other Side


Hey there. Y’all miss me? It’s your friendly neighborhood idiot, finally breaking the seal on the bear cave and writing some meaningless words onto the blog. It’s been nearly three months since my last post, and yes the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame, but maybe not in the ways you might think.

For the record, I did not get COVID-19 and until just yesterday followed all the rules placed on us for Los Angeles County, Glendale, and California. You won’t hear me downplaying the situation in this blog either, as by now most of us know someone affected by the disease. That’s not why I stayed away from the blog.

I’ve mentioned this before in passing, and more directly in person, that I find it really hard to blog when I am in an unhappy place. For the last two-and-a-half months, I was in that unhappy land. The obvious points people would make would be “yeah, your life situation during a shelter-in-place must be difficult.” Well, my life situation is a home with just my dog, TV, video games, and take-out is what I used to call ‘a weekend off’. No, my unhappiness was a mixture of things. For one, I bought into the fear and found myself exceedingly anxious when I left the house. For two, the weather – at least early on. Most of March was raining, so even when we wanted to get out of the house we couldn’t – and that creates some unhealthy habits. Also, I had a horrible run of bad luck or bad timing for things. The kicker of which was when the DMV dropped me a snail mail to tell me my license was suspended, which meant by the time it arrived I had been driving on a suspended license for 5 days — when I called them, they said “yeah, our mistake, we’ll fix it”.

Part of the reason why you didn’t see any blogs is the bear cave itself. Normally, I don’t write anything at home. Most of the time, I write at my friendly neighborhood Starbucks – which you can guess isn’t an option now. I tend to compartmentalize locations. I don’t like writing at home for the same reason I don’t like working from home – home is where I chill. Writing, in particular, needs me to be somewhere with little distraction, and the bear cave exists to be as distracting from the rest of the work as possible. I’ve managed to develop a working environment at home, but writing is another thing.

So how was I able to get myself to write a post today? I broke the rules.

Instead of spending memorial day weekend not watching sports; I got out of the house. My great friends, Chadd & Heather Creed, purchased a home during the pandemic in the heart of Temecula’s wine country. At their invitation, I threw the dog into the car and drove down to spend a couple days with them. Of course, the change in scenery is refreshing, and their kitchen table makes for a nice distraction free blog location – but more than anything, being here with friends makes me happy.

Of course, this isn’t over. While counties around Los Angeles are opening up, LA County isn’t. In a future post I’ll probably dig into what life is like these days, but that life continues. How I really feel about it all comes down my anger at a statement I keep hearing: “The New Normal”. For me, that suggests that our bar of life has shifted, and it’s up to us to get used to it. I disagree. This maybe new, but there is nothing normal about it. We are not meant to hide in our homes, avoid gatherings, and stay six feet apart. We were meant to be around each other, talk to each other, and hug each other. This new whatever is becoming more damaging than the disease. The goal shouldn’t be to protect as many people as possible, the goal should be get us back to Normal as fast as possible.

So that it. Sorry I have been missing, and I can’t promise I will be blogging a lot soon; but I want to get back to normal too. If that means crapping out some blogs, that’s what I will do.

Spreading Like a Virus


Hello from Southern California, where overreaction and spreads like a virus.  Like much of the world, there is a fair bit of concern over the coronavirus (COVID-19) around the area.  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in it since you can’t clear your throat without someone thinking you are as deadly as the plague.  I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor about it, but like I said, it’s easy to get caught up in the panic.  The infection rate is going to be really high, and while the death rate is not going to ever be as high as it currently is, it’s still going to exceed the everyday flu.  In hopes to raise my spirits about this mess, and just for the interest of capturing a moment of in time, I thought I would describe some of what is going around me with this thing.

For starters, it wrecked some exciting plans.  I was supposed to be on an airplane tomorrow to Orland to spend a couple days at the NASA Quality Leadership Forum, a forum of NASA’s quality leadership, as you can probably guess.  I’ve attended it in the past and enjoyed it in the past, but this time I was slated to be a speaker.  Me, a hundred or so folks in ties, and a slide show.  It isn’t happening because of NASA Headquarters cautiousness.  Granted, it probably was the safe path to take, and it likely will still be held at a later date, but it still was a missed opportunity for me.

Instead, I am here this week.  Like I do every week, I went to buy my groceries on Sunday.  I tried to follow suggestions that I should keep my pantry stocked for 2 weeks worth of food, but that recommendation suggests I can plan that far in advance … and that my pantry can hold two weeks of food, heck my kitchen barely holds enough room for a sink.

Buying groceries was a goofy adventure, though.  You really know what people think are staples in a panic in these situations.  The bread shelves were fairly empty (though only the cheap brands).  Rice was generally sold out.  Chicken soup.  Eggs.  Pasta and Pasta sauce.  All of these were hard to come by.  Spam, in particular, was gone completely.  The spam shelf was like a black hole of nothing (surrounded by chili).

Of course, there are shortages of hand sanitizers and face masks.  The sanitizer makes sense.  The loud statements from people in the know, however, say that wearing masks don’t keep you from getting sick – just keep the masks from those who already are sick or those who really need masks.

The run-on toilet paper makes no sense.

At work, like I said before, they are being cautious.  There is a partial travel ban.  International travel requires a mission-critical reason, and only to locations that aren’t considered a significant threat.  Also, international travelers won’t be allowed back on JPL for 14 days.  Domestic travel is unrestricted but discouraged.  Many NASA centers held a telenetworking day (a day when everyone capable was encouraged to work from home) on Friday to test their ability to have people not come in.  JPL didn’t fully participate as we are going through some IT changes that aren’t ready for such a test.  Big flags went up when it was reported that someone at the NASA Ames center in Silicon Valley tested positive for COVID-19, and the whole of the facility went on mandatory telenetwork.  We are set to get a briefing tomorrow – ironically during a townhall (though one that is virtual only, but wouldn’t that have been funny).  The message here continues to be the usual message from everyone – wash your hands, stay home if you are sick, avoid large groups of people.

Like all situations like this, it’s easy to make jokes.  We try to think of different ways to greet people other than shaking hands — Nerds like the Spock ‘live long and prosper’ salute; I like jazz hands; others do fist bumps or foot taps.  I like sharing a meme where Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is getting rejected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Neil:  Hands
CDC: Yes, wash them for at least 20 seconds
Neil: touching hands
CDC:  No, please don’t touch hands
Neil: reaching out
CDC: avoiding that too
Neil: Touching Me
CDC: oh hell

Then, of course, it has to be said that this is still something to be taken seriously.  Just follow the simple rules.
Wash your hands, a lot, for at least 20 seconds.
Keep the areas that are common to other people clean, or clean things you come in contact with.
Cover your mouth with your arm when you cough or sneeze; and if you do it into your hands, wash them immediately.
Symptoms are coughing, fever, shortness of breath – if you get these, go see someone.

I think I failed at keeping things fun, but my fingers stay crossed I can still laugh about this later.  It’s been a rough last four months for a lot of loved ones, and all it takes is one loved one to be effected to make this not funny anymore.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and see you on the other side of this panic.

The Unreadable Critique


In one of those Facebook memories, I was reminded of something from two years ago that was a strange new adventure for me. Sitting at the Downtown Montrose Starbucks, where I am sitting as I blog today, I was editing a short story hours before submitting it to a critique group.  It would be the first time I would share a work of fiction to anyone I actually knew.  In fact, the group I was meeting with included published writers, and this was the first time I shared something with actual professionals.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well.  The most memorable critique (and it was meant and received in a supportive way) was “this is unreadable.”  That may have been the harshest critique, but it followed a majority of negative comments.

It didn’t discourage me.  Well, it did, but it made me get to work to hone my craft.  Take the feedback, and get better.  I had a sense of purpose from the process.  Picture if you will, the timeframe.  I had been living in California for a year by then, and six months into house payments the squeeze of the cost of living was starting to circle me.  While I was enjoying myself, I started to repeat a motto:

“It’s time to start turning my hobbies into profit centers.”

Okay, maybe that comes across blunt, blunter then it should.  I have hobbies, and I like to do them because I enjoy doing them.  It’s just that until recently, I never really tried to exploit them.  Which, come to think about it “exploit” doesn’t sound any better.  I wasn’t expecting to go running to the bank, I just wanted to take my free time and my investments in those hobbies and make it so they were still fun with at worst make it no longer a losing effort.  The fall before, I took long strides to expand my band judging skills, including venturing into winter color guard (something that might be a blog later this week as I get into that new season).  Trying to explore what I could do through writing was something completely different.

Honestly, I am a long way from doing anything that suggests I can turn a profit on writing.  My interest is in writing a novel-length story.  To do that first, you have to type up a novel-length story; which is way harder than it sounds.  I’ve mentioned I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, and have accomplished over 50,000 words on five occasions.  I can honestly say that those attempts resulted in completing one novel – and it sucks.  I’ve actually worked on four novels throughout that time, but struggled with a full plot, or put myself in situations where I scrapped ideas for a number of reasons.  As a great meme once said:

“Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Teach a child to write a book and they will be tormented their whole life by self-doubt.”

Joining the critique group was my next big jump into this process.  Editing.  Let me tell you, editing is hard; especially for someone like me.  I tend to visualize a story and tell it based on what I see.  The problem I face is getting the words on the screen to match both what I visualize and what I thought I told.  I”m sure if any of you read my blogs before you have seen more than a few grammatical or typographic errors.  I obviously wouldn’t have done that on purpose, heck I might even though I wrote those items correctly.  A critique I got often early on was to read what I wrote out loud so I could hear what the issues are.  It never worked for me because when I read it, even to myself out loud, I was saying what I wanted the words to say not what they actually said.  A word speak app has helped with that, but I battle some common issues (like I wait for that “you are mixing up tenses” every time I submit to the group).   Web tools help like Grammarly has been a lifesaver — I even use that for work e-mails and reports.    As a friend I know from another writer group told me:

“When I finished my first novel in college, my professor said, ‘good job, maybe in 10 years you will be done editing and be able to publish’,”

All of this is what comes before the final stages of preparing a novel, which is honestly more of a dream than a step along the way.  There are editors who do the hard sweep of everything.  There are beta readers who look at the whole of the book for feedback.  Then you go into the brutal failure rich world of publishing.

I plug away regardless, putting together what I can when I can to share with the critique group.  Their varied backgrounds lead to great commentary and critiques.  Some are a prolific young adult or romance novelists.  Some are short story specialists.  Some are into SciFi, some into fantasy.  Some focus on the hard details of what I submit, picking away at each inconsistency that needs to be resolved.  Some look at the conceptual flow to see if the story is entertaining or interesting.  Some focus on pacing.  Some focus on character.  Some just tell me “you’re mixing up your tenses”.  In return, I do my part and give my feedback to what they submit when I can.

I’d like to sit here and say that the person who found my work to be unreadable at my first submission had changed his heart, but I can’t.  Sadly he had a sudden illness and passed away just before New Years.  Before then, I had consistently shared my thanks for his feedback, which remained honest – good and bad.  That’s all you really want from a critique, honesty.  Because if you know what works and what doesn’t you’ll always get better.  Because as I say all the time in my real job:

“It’s not what we do wrong, it’s what we do about it.”

A Rover’s First Miles


Sometime either in the near future or the near past, JPL’s next rover will begin its journey to Mars.  For over five years, JPL has been planning, designing, building, and testing the Mars 2020 mission; the target towards launch this upcoming July.  It is essentially a redo on the continued successful Mars Science Laboratory rover commonly known as Curiosity.  Mars 2020 (which will get it’s own fun name soon) has been our flagship program for as long as I have been here.  I even blogged about it last June:

Mars 2020 is Coming

The assembly took a few months a mid-last year, testing a few more months until the beginning of this year, and now they are ready for the next stage.  A cross-country road trip.

Mars 2020 will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a date yet to be made public but likely around mid-July.  To get the mission to Florida, they boxed everything up and put the mission on the smoothest rides they could get.  The mission’s departure date, arrival date, route, and progress isn’t made public just in case there are security risks; however, here on the lab, we are pretty aware of the increased activity in the high bay where it was assembled and the funny looking trucks coming and going from the area.

Getting the mission to Flordia isn’t as easy as you might think.  For starters, there’s a lot to it.  The rover, which is the size of a small SUV, is pretty bulky even when it’s in a stowed condition like it is now.  There are three other components that have to go with it.  The heat shield attaches below the rover for entry into the Mars atmosphere.  The rover will be slowed to the surface using a unit called the ‘sky crane’; which uses a series of parachutes, a lowering crane, and thrusters to place the rover gently on the Martian surface undamaged.  Then the cruise stage, which is essentially the propulsion system used for course corrections between Earth and Mars.  When the mission arrives at the Cape, all of that hardware would need to be tested and checked out before the final assembly begins.  The testing and assembly require fixturing and other hardware, so there are trucks and trucks just full of ground support equipment.

I say trucks, but that is just a guess.  There would definitely be trucks leaving JPL because nothing else would work around here to carry anything out of the lab.  The challenge with any spaceflight hardware is that they are pretty sensitive to vibrations.  That’s why it likely won’t go by plane.  Flying, whether you notice it or not, is constant shaking even when there is no turbulence.  Sure, the mission will see a fair bit of vibration on the launch, but that’s a couple minutes – not four or five hours.  Usually, the hardware is only flown in its final assembled condition if there isn’t a better option (like flying overseas).  Sometimes, the hardware is transported by boat simply because even that is less of a stress on hardware than by car, but that’s usually just amongst the gulf states.

I guess I like to picture that the mission is riding in a truck there because it makes for a great visual.  A convoy of space hardware in containers running hard across the open road.  I could even see it being like Mad Max: Fury Road complete with a guy strung up playing a guitar shooting fire from its end.  Then again, I still love the idea of The Great American Road Trip.  I’ve personally driven coast-to-coast five times and driven in every state in the country, love what I see when I do it.  I’m even considering making the drive myself to watch the launch this July, with the pup but without the flame-thrower guitarist.

Adventure awaits for our Rover.  This trip is the first of many many long miles passing by thousands and thousands of people who will wish it well on it’s journey.  Sure it will be on the back of a vehicle, but soon enough it will be on the top of a rocket.  After that, he ventures out on his own on a planet that we can only dream about standing on.

Expecting LA’s Best


Here’s a hint, when talking to kids about NASA, expect the unexpected.

There are a couple days now that I list under my “favorite JPL Days of the Year”, and one just passed.  About a week ago, I volunteered to present at a local elementary school as part of the Los Angeles School District’s LA’s Best program.  This afterschool program funds and supports afterschool clubs in the areas of interest that 3rd thru 5th graders may be interested in.   Honestly, the kids that are in attendance a fair big distance from picking where they end up, but our involvement does seem to spark a heck of a lot of excitement over space and science.

This is the third year I volunteered, and what really kicked this event off that separated it from the previous two was that  … I got training before I walked in the door.  The last couple of times, I had to miss the training and didn’t know what to expect.  Now that I  know what to expect, I got told what to expect.

And still, things went unexpected.

The process always goes – I walk in, I say I work for JPL, then I ask if anyone has any questions.  The following half-hour is nothing but hands in the air and randomness.  Most of the time, they are asking fundamental space questions – for instance, each year I was asked what was in a black hole, and how many planets are there in the universe. – both questions with weird answers and I am not the one to ask, but I’m the one in the cool JPL shirt.   I tend to get the kids focused on JPL missions — what’s coming up, what’s going on, that sort of thing.  That’s easy for me to do because that’s the stuff I get interested in.  Where things go off the rail is the intangible questions.

I mean, I like that I had engineering minds trying to figure out how they could throw a camera down a black hole,  I like that the scientists from the year before were debating what constitutes a planet.

This year, they got personal.

They asked me why I wanted to work for JPL.

They asked me what I wanted to do with my career … 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders asking this.  Sometimes my own management won’t ask me that question.

They asked me what was the biggest failure in my life.  Not what NASA or JPL’s failure. … mine.

Then came the question that forced me to think fast, but had the greatest reaction:
Girl:  “How much money does JPL pay you?”
Me:  “Enough that I can afford a dog.”

As much fun as answering questions was, we spent a little time watching a rover drive over a speed bump on my IPad before building straw rockets and making a mess.

In many ways, what I was doing could come across dumb or goofy., and I am already rolling my eyebrows at whatever my dad (the retired teacher) is going to say about inspiration and junk.  Then again, I walked into that event with someone in mind.  My high school chemistry teacher, the one person I can point to that would have led me down an engineering path, passed away the day before the event.  It’s still etched in my memory the day he taught us about Avrogado’s Number (aka a mole, aka 6.02 x 10^23) by sitting on top of the bench at the front of the class.  I thought of that and I thought, there are stranger ways to inspire people.

A Pupdate Long Time Coming


As I was milling about the house last night and thinking about this little old blog, it hit me that I hadn’t given a decent Pupdate in a long long time.  At one point, the most popular thing about the Bear Feed was posts about my dog, because let’s face it – he’s hella more interesting than I am.

For those of you new-ish to the Blog (I’m talking to you, Dean, just to see if you are paying attention).  I am talking about Auggie, also known as Auggie the Doggie, AugDog,  Pooper, Pooper Dooper, Farty McFartFart, Dummy, Buddy, and legally known as AKA Fullthrottle’s Gold Rush King.  You may get a few other names I use for him as we go along, but you get the point.  Auggie is a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier, important to know because that officially classifies him as an ‘aggressive breed’ in California (more on that later).   He came into my life a little over seven years ago just weaned from his momma and has been pooping up my life ever since.

For the most part, there isn’t much to update about Auggie, he’s just chill.  Little Dude abides.  When I work, he has his routine.  We get up, he does his business, he sleeps all day, I get home, he does his business, I give some belly scratches, and then he sleeps on my bed in the places least comfortable for me.  He’s always been a fan of looking out the window, so I have pushed a recliner into one corner allowing him to get up the three feet to see out the big windows.  Occasionally, he needs to protect me from the evil delivery people or evil squirrels or evil dogs that barked at him first; but otherwise, normal days are normal.  When I am around the house, it can be more of a pain – because SleepyPuppy needs to follow me everywhere and that means he can’t get in his 20 hours of sleep a day.  Plus there is the constant need to tell me to let him go outside even though he just went out 20 minutes ago.

Auggers is generally healthy too.  This year marks the first year he is (in dog years) older than me.  He had a shoulder issue a couple years back, a bone chip that the vet suggested was degenerative and something likely we need to watch for as he goes along.  Oddly enough, the best thing to help this is for him to be a sports fan.   Because Augolicious loves the Green Bay Packers, he wears their jersey all the time (or at least, I put him in the jersey).  This actually helps apply pressure to joints that could degenerate.  Occasionally, I will see a limp or a hitch in his step suggesting he’s feeling pain, but he’ll try to hide it as long as he can.  Other than that and a weird yeasty thing in his ear that was itchy (and he would tend to miss and hit his eye leading to a couple days in the cone of shame), he’s doing pretty good.

Where people do worry is the time I have been spending away from him.  I’m not heartless, I worry about that too … a lot.  That being said, it’s a little bit par for the course.  For the most part of his life, I used PetSmart’s PetHotel to board him.  I started using them in Alaska out of sheer convenience.  They were the closest boarding facility to my house, literally a half-mile away.  We did all our pet shopping and we practiced a ton of our dog training in those aisles.  They loved him there at that South Anchorage branch, too – and I am not just saying that they would send an announcement over the loudspeakers when Auggie came in to be boarded so they could all greet him.  After we left Alaska, it just became a safe choice.  As a national brand, I can rely on each location to have his vet information, background, and contact information without much concern.  Plus I knew their rules.  Because Auggie is an “aggressive breed” (I can’t “quotation mark” that phrase enough, mind you), PetSmart has restrictions – the biggest is he can’t play with other dogs.  So, he just has to play one-on-one with a human (kind of a lose-win if you ask me).  When I lived in Boston, I didn’t have a PetSmart handy, but I drove around with him everywhere … and I mean EVERYWHERE … so when I did board him it was at a local pet hospital where they still loved him (one girl would always do the “Auggie Butt Dance” to mimic the way he gets fired up when seeing people he likes but still has to walk).

Thing is, it’s not the place I keep him.  It’s the amount of time I keep him there.  Auggie spent nearly half his time in boarding in November and December.  In one of my previous posts, I said goodbye to a dear friend.  I went to the friend’s funeral, but the one thing that almost kept me from going was that I had to put Auggie back into the PetSmart after less than 24 hours being out, and that’s after week after week after week.  I was so worried about it, I took a minute to talk to one of the PetSmart people if I was causing any red flags.  I had been in there enough that while I felt I could trust him to be honest with me.  What he said has stuck with me:

“It’s not the amount of time people leave their pets here.  It’s the people themselves.  We know Auggie enough that we know you enough.  And we’re not worried about you.”

So, that’s the news of Fuzzball.  Feel pupdated now.

Let’s Have a Talk About the Jedi


Alright.  I gave you space.  I gave you time.  I gave you every chance in the world to get yourself up to speed.  I’m ready to risk the heartbreak, the arguments, and most of all the spoilers.

It’s time we discuss Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker – also known as Episode IX (or 9).

I am guessing 99% of you know what film I am talking about, but if you crawled out from under a rock or was marooned on a deserted island for the half-century, let me just give you the scope.  I am, of course, talking about the epic space opera Star Wars.  Starting with eponyms 1977 film, moving making and special effects were radically changed on the back of a storyline and characters that were so easy to love that it was easy for any five-year-old to follow it for the rest of their life.  As the “Episode” suggests, this was the 9th and final in the original ‘trilogy of trilogies’.  There is a plan to make more movies, and the scope of the Star Wars universe is handled in different media, most publicly these days in the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian”, less publically by the now canon 1978 holiday special, but from the scope of the original plan by the show’s developer George Lucas, this was the last of it.

So how did as a Star Wars loving public handle it?  Well, like we handled most Start Wars things for most of the life of the Star Wars Saga … with a lot of bellyaching.

For the record, I loved Rise of Skywalker, but let me get back to it.

The second film released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) is commonly considered the best of all nine films.  Heck, Empire is sometimes placed on a level with the greatest films of all time.  Keeping that in mind, seven films followed, none which matched the greatness of Empire.  The problem I have is that it can be an unfair comparison.   Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) was very good, but was hated by some in the nerd community because of Ewoks – little furry creatures that save the day late in the movie.  Are Ewoks as cool as droids?  No, but that’s no reason to spread hate on a film.

Now, for you Star Wars fans, this isn’t leading me to start to defend Jar Jar Binks — I think we all know where is going to go.   After nearly sixteen years waiting for a new Star Wars movie, the initial crawl told us we would be reward with  – a trade dispute.  The trilogy of episodes I, II, & III wasn’t good, to say the least, but they aren’t without their positives.  Those films failed due to poor dialogue and stale performances through all three movies.  In hindsight, however, much of the mythos, story, and breadth of the Star Wars universe was established in between the whining and establishing the high ground.  The biggest was in The Phantom Menace (Episode I) when … well … let me get back to that point.

After another twenty years, we were finally rewarded with sequels.  I was incredibly excited about this because regardless of what you thought of the prequel trilogy, it was a story we already knew.  I had literally gone nearly 40 years without learning something new about the force, the galaxy, any of that.  The Force Awakens (Episode VII) was a reward.  Some liked it, I loved it.

Where the controversy arose came in the next installment The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) released a couple years ago.  The Star Wars production team made a change in the writer, director, and everything – and many feel this was a problem.  So, I stand by my opinion that I liked the film, though I like it less now than when it first came out.  Again, it was new, it was the world I liked.  It was better than the original trilogy because the performances were energetic, heartfelt, and rich with depth.  It just went in some odd directions.  Rotten Tomatoes, a  site that tracks film reviews to see how people feel about a film, pointed out that film reviewers loved The Last Jedi, but the fans didn’t.  I kept saying “if you don’t like this film, then you don’t deserve nice things”.

This brought us The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX).  Released in December, I sat with my 3D goggles on hours after it’s release soaking in the IMAX screen for one last go at it.  In short, I loved it.  There were a fair bit of things they did for fan service, but I am a fan and I liked to be serviced.  This film made me laugh out loud, it made me cry real tears, and it made me think about life itself – and put simply, that makes for a very full set of emotions.  I wouldn’t say it stuck the landing the same way Avengers: Endgame did earlier this year, but it was still incredible.  The thing is, the original trilogy was good because actors (even unknown actors) were given the freedom to throw themselves into loveable characters.  One of my favorite moments in all nine movies was the “Light Speed Skipping vs. Dropping a Tree on BB-8” banter near the start of this film – timing, comedic, and rich against sounds dubbed in later was gold.

Then, of course, I started hearing the bellyache.  There was anger over the surprise return of the villain.  There were a lot of beefs about the surprise powers showing up throughout the film.  There were complaints about the ending and open questions.  But most of all, I have heard a lot of people making a stink about the “Diad”.

Put simply, the last three episodes centered on two opponents.  One a Jedi, one a sith (or a bad guy like Darth Vader).  These films focused a lot on how the two seemed to be drawing together but were challenged by their commitment to their side of the force.  In this last film, they gave that a name, calling it a diad.  Some pointed to it and tried to say it was nothing but a forced love interest.  I pointed to it that the whole nine films was leading to that final conclusion.

From nearly the first words spoken about the force, they said it was what creates balance in the known universe.  The balance was the keyword.  During most of these series, the dark side controlled things, which sent the force out of balance.  However, Episode I starts with the Jedi in full control of the force without a single Sith lord known.  They even suggested it was that way for generations.  My argument was, that it was out of balance as well.  The whole of the story followed the rise of dark, the overzealous need to control it, then it’s fall; however, The Force awakened to search for balance and it used the diad to find it.

Granted, tons of questions arose from that, but the bellyaching needs to end.  We were given a massive treat in what this set of movies became.  We were lucky to be given these films, and I feel blessed to have seen them all in the theatre when they were first released.  Star Wars captured my imagination long ago in a small town far far away, and you won’t catch me bellyaching about that.

Xmas Letter 2019


Every year I send out a Christmas Letter to Friends and Family, and I’ve made it a habit of sharing it in the blog for the last few years.  So here it is.

A disclaimer — those of you who normally get it in the mail, they only hit the post office yesterday, so if you want to wait you can wait.


Happy Belated Holidays!!!

Seriously, I couldn’t have written this later.  I am literally writing this on Christmas Eve morning, and it’s going to be a battle to get these little guys to a mailbox in time to spend a lonely Christmas Day in a sorting bin.  Still, it’s here in your hot little hands ready for your read.

Here it is … Your annual Mitch & Auggie Nelson Christmas Letter.

So what’s been going on?  Well, the usual ‘a lot’ and ‘not much.’

For starters, I had a health scare.  Months of ignoring signs that my blood pressure was getting out of control, I went into the ER and stayed at the Hospital for a few days to treat it.  While I didn’t have a heart attack, I was knocking at the door.  While good medication and a doctor helps, I still have some work to do on the old ‘making lifestyle changes,’ but I am getting there.  Truth be told, I was really lucky to have it all happen while visiting my dear friends Chadd and Heather Creed.  Through their support, love, and ridiculously high generocity, I came out the better.

With that little scare, I got to see my parents and brother, who turned it into a summer California Vacation.  It was one of three times I got to spend with them all.  I returned home for my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage like always; however, I returned again in December on more somber terms.  We said goodbye to an old friend from my high school days John Mundt, who helped form a lot of my creativity and passions by just being his own special, weird self.

I continue to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab, a NASA Center based in Pasadena, CA, in Procurement Quality Assurance.  Now here for three years, I’ve passed into that territory where I seem to plan to be here for a bit.  One area that I have found myself working with is the interactions between universities and NASA centers, including the challenges faced with quality assurance expectations at each.  It’s getting to the point that in 2020, I am slated to give presetnations on the subject to the community.  To support that, I’ve visited a few universities and interviewed some of the key people working at those organizations.

One place, and a highlight of my year, was to meet with the Aerospace Enterprise team at Michigan Technological University.  This trip stands out because it’s my alma mater.  I hadn’t visited MTU since I graduated back in 1995.  Things have changed since then, but not too much either.  Seeing all the old buildings, the old streets, the old school was a rush of nostalga, but it was also incredible to talk to people with the experience of twenty years behind me as well.

Another experience I won’t soon forget happened in March.  While attending a meeting in Cape Canavaral, collegues were able to get us access to the Vertical Assembly Facility (VAF).  When you visit the Kennedy Center (essentially where they launch rockets to the moon), the VAF stands out at the place where they stack up the rockets for launch.  This is the massive building you see in nearly every photo of the place.  I got to go inside, I got to get freaked out with vertigo at the higher levels.  I got to see where Apollo, the Space Shuttles, and eventually the Orion missions were built up.  This trip also took us to where the Space Shuttle Columbia debris is stored.  They keep it to help build lessons learned for future missions and have built up protective means ot maintain the debris.  I don’t think I will ever forget when the manger of this department walked up to a spot on a wing’s leading edge and pointed to an area where they were missing material.  He said, “it was here that insulation hit, that’s what eventually brought it down.”  It was history he pointed at.

Work kept me traveling.  Colorado seemed a common destination, but I made trips to Dallas, Austin, Iowa City, Long Island, and Phoenix.

I spent a suprising amount of time in Germany for work.  I spent nearly a week there in October for essentially a half day of business, then returned in December for over a week.  If you know your calendars, that means I was there first for Oktoberfest – a bucket item list long standing in my mind – albeit the Oktoberfest in Stuttgart (considered to be second only to Munich, but still a distant second).  Though by being there in December, I experienced the Winter Markets, and fell in love with the warmth and happiness of such things – and started arguments by saying I prefer the Winter Market to the Oktoberfest.

My hobbies continue to keep me busy.  I continue to remain active in the marching arts activity as an adjucator.  I had a long marching band judging season, with six shows spread out from mid-September to mid-November.  I started juding indoor winter color guard, which is a significant shift for me and I continue to train to be blessed as a real life judge.

I continue to work on writing as well, which is a beast in itself.  I belong to critique groups to help develop those skills but can’t say I am getting any better.  As a joke, someone shared with me: “Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Encourage a child to write a book, and they will face a lifetime of editing, self-hatred, and depression.”  Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to think you are a good writer than letting others tell you what they think.  Regardless, if you haven’t, I’d encourage you to follow my blog I use to keep the world up to date with my idiocity:
Which is also posted on my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts.

Other than that, my world spins on.  2020 should get interesting, as all weird number years seem to do.  JPL is launching our next big rover in the summer, and I have my fingers crossed to sneak away to watch that.  I return to Germany again in January.  Plus, it’s a new year, and new years always bring hope.  So here’s to the hope to you and yours.


From Auggie & Mitch

Merry Christmas
Happy New Year