Moons of Earth and Saturn

The New York Times has kept me busy of late. In the special section commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I had two pieces: one on the future of the American astronaut corps, and another on the haunting restoration of the Apollo Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center. Another piece I am particularly proud of is the announcement of a mission to Titan, the mysterious moon of Saturn, and the only place in our solar system other than Earth with standing liquid seas.

Image credit: The New York Times

Image credit: The New York Times

NASA Announces New Dragonfly Drone Mission to Explore Titan
(The New York Times)

Because of the nature of its atmosphere, Titan is a very Earthlike place. Chemically, it is much like our world’s primordial past. The surface pressure of Titan is one-and-a-half times the surface pressure of Earth, and the same sorts of interactions between air, land and sea take place. Titan thus has familiar geology. Methane on Titan plays the role that water plays here. Its methane cycle is analogous to Earth’s water cycle. It has methane clouds, methane rain and methane lakes and seas on the surface.

“There’s going to be a tremendous change in the fabric of how we see Titan as a world,” said Dr. Ralph Lorenz of Applied Physics Laboratory, the Dragonfly project scientist in an April interview. He predicted that features of Titan will be, “recognizable, but different in flavor from what you see on Earth and Mars.”

That might include the things that wiggle. Complex organic molecules fall from its atmosphere onto the surface of Titan, gather over long periods of time and can be processed further. If cryovolcanoes erupt on Titan’s surface, as data from the Cassini spacecraft suggests, the organic material can mix with liquid water. Sunlight, at the same time, drives the moon’s photochemistry, introducing energy to a system primed for life.

NASA Reopens Apollo Mission Control Room That Once Landed Men on Moon
(The New York Times)

Apollo mission control had been abandoned in 1992, with all operations moved to a modernized mission control center elsewhere in the building. Center employees, friends, family — and anyone, really, who had access to Building 30 — could walk in, take a seat, take a lunch break and take pictures.

While they were there, they might take a button from one of the computer consoles. Or a switch or a dial, anything small — a personal memento from an ancient American achievement. The furniture fabric and carpet underfoot grew threadbare. The room was dark; none of the equipment had power. Wires hung where rotary phones had once sat. The giant overhead screens in front of the room were damaged, and the room smelled of mildew. Yellow duct tape held carpet together in places.

“You knew it wasn’t right — you just knew,” said Sandra Tetley, the historic preservation officer at the Johnson Space Center. “But it was not a priority. We are an organization that’s moving toward the future, so there is not a budget to do things like this.”

The project began in earnest six years ago. The anniversary loomed, and that was the catalyst to fix up mission control, and to do it right. “We wanted to meet a high standard to restore it, and we were able to meet this 50th anniversary,” Ms. Tetley said.

As New Space Race Beckons, Astronauts Face Identity Crisis
(The New York Times)

Christopher Ferguson trains from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A recent day for him was typical: five hours in a launch simulation with the mission operations team. He trained alongside Sunita Williams, herself a two-time space flier and veteran of the space station.

Halfway through the session, the two swapped roles, preparing for situations that might arise on an actual mission. The balance of the day was spent planning timeline management when inserting a crew into a rocket, so that when the hatch closes, all the right things are on the inside, and all the right things are on the outside.

The difference between Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Williams is that Mr. Ferguson does not work for NASA. He works for Boeing and will fly on the first crewed mission of Starliner. Boeing and SpaceX are part of Commercial Crew, a NASA-supported program that has tasked American companies with building spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the space station. NASA has relied on Russia’s space program for launching astronauts since the last shuttle returned to Earth in 2011.

A Roundup of Recent Work

It’s been a busy few weeks. Here are a few recent pieces I have had written, and snippets of each.

Neptune’s Moon Triton Is Destination of Proposed NASA Mission
(The New York Times)

Visits to the outer solar system are usually conducted as NASA flagship missions that cost billions of dollars, like the recently concluded Cassini mission to Saturn or the Europa Clipper spacecraft set for launch in the 2020s.

While these projects have produced significant achievements, smaller, less pricey missions also might advance planetary science. On Mars, for instance, no single spacecraft did everything, but in aggregate and over time, the robots sent there revealed the planet’s watery past and set the stage for future astronauts.

That’s why the scientists behind Trident proposal, which will be formally presented to NASA later this month, are seeking support under the agency’s highly competitive Discovery program, for missions that are supposed to cost less than $500 million.

Europa Mission Gets New Instrument to Look for Signs of Habitability
(Scientific American)

NASA is changing one of the key scientific instruments on Europa Clipper, its next major mission to the outer planets of the solar system, and has brought in a scientific luminary to lead it, project leaders announced today. Clipper is set to orbit Jupiter and study Europa, the icy Jovian moon, across multiple flybys. Earlier this month, NASA headquarters terminated the mission’s ICEMAG magnetometer instrument, citing overruns in its estimated budget. The move left the spacecraft without an essential tool to study Europa’s interior ocean, where astrobiologists hope extraterrestrial organisms might be found.

Margaret Kivelson, a professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, will lead the effort to develop a simplified magnetometer to replace ICEMAG. The instrument will measure Europa’s magnetic field and gather data on the ocean’s depth and salinity. Kivelson previously led the magnetometer team on the spacecraft Galileo, which orbited Jupiter in the 1990s. She is credited with discovering the ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell.

How NASA’s Opportunity Rover Made Mars Part of Earth

MER came in the aftermath of failed mission proposals by Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis; Larry Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Steve Squyres, a professor at Cornell University. Each of the three had been beaten by David Paige of University of California, Los Angeles, whose ill-fated Mars Polar Lander was selected for flight by NASA.

“During an [American Geophysical Union] meeting, I stopped Steve in the hall,” says Arvidson. “I said, ‘I’m a pretty sore loser. How about you?’ And that was the start.” Arvidson, Squyres and Soderblom merged their various teams and set about writing a joint proposal to get a rover on the Martian surface.

NASA Considers a Rover Mission to Go Cave Diving on the Moon

Once it reaches the bottom of the pit, Kerber says, Axel would explore the cavern floor, providing humanity’s first close look at the subterranean realms of the moon. The rover would carry six times as much tether as it needs, so however far the bottom of the cavern is, Axel should be able to descend deeply enough to discover what waits below.

“The bottom of the pit is total exploration. We have enough time to just see what the heck is down there. We are thinking a monolith,” Kerber jokes, “or a big door covered in hieroglyphics.”

Manuscript Submitted, and Back to Work

On December 31, I handed in my manuscript for ONE INCH FROM EARTH. From start to finish, genesis of an idea to a 180,000 word manuscript, took four full years. The first eighteen months were spent researching and writing what became a book proposal. After Geoff Shandler of Custom House bought the book in a preempt, it was off to the races. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. The final two months, in particular, nearly killed me. I spent years fantasizing what I would do the moment the manuscript was completed. Here is what I did. I hit “send” on the email to Geoff and Stacia Decker, my agent, and promptly—literally within the hour—fell into terrible illness. My family and I had a celebratory dinner at a local favorite restaurant, and not even the champagne could rescue the event. I was absolutely sick and exhausted, as though my body had been holding it all in, worked for me, fought diligently to keep me going, succeeded, and promptly surrendered. I survived, more or less, though it was tough going for a few days.

Once edits conclude and the book is released in 2020, I hope the world agrees that it was worth the effort. Now I begin work on the next proposal. Long book projects are very lonely endeavors, but ONE INCH FROM EARTH was worth every second of it. My next one will be pretty exciting, too.

My freelance work fell largely by the wayside over the last couple of years, though recently of note: I embedded with the OSIRIS-REx team during the final approach of Bennu for the first spectral observations, and wrote about it for Scientific American here. (This is part of my ongoing coverage of OSIRIS-REx, one of the best missions NASA has ever launched.) Lee Billings gave the piece a sublime edit. I also wrote a nice piece for Smithsonian on sample return missions. Jay Bennett there was also a dream to work with, and I will be covering the 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science conference in March for him. That’s a good update of where I am at today. I will hopefully have more to report later.

How Observatories Give the Sky to Earth

You don’t notice the city below as you drive the twisting road that climbs Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s nine o’clock at night with a moon nearly full, and the road looks a little bit like it might lead to a horror movie cabin in the woods. If you didn’t know where you were driving, imagine the weirdness of the scene. The crazy noodle road that winds through movie theater darkness. You reach the summit of the little mountain, and here’s this... museum? Open in the middle of the night? It’s a little unnerving.

The parking lot is lit but barely, leaving the snow at its boundaries the color of macaroni and cheese. Even inside the lobby, the lighting seems low (or maybe it’s just your eyes). There’s an auditorium here, and a small, curated exhibit on asteroids. To your immediate left, though, is a gift shop where you also buy admission. Taking in the full scene, if the staff member behind the register said, “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Brown” I’d have turned and run away, checking for zombies at my back. But those are first impressions. Of course this place is remote, on a mountaintop, and open at night. It has to be! It’s in the business of looking at the stars—it’s an astronomical observatory.

The Lowell Observatory was built in 1894 by Percival Lowell of Boston. (Also happened that year: Coca-Cola was first bottled and a patent was granted for something called a “motion picture.”) Lowell the man was a mathematician and scholar, a world traveler who studied Japanese culture and wrote monographs on what he saw. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, he devoted himself to the study of the planet Mars, and to that end, decided to build a telescope. He chose for this project the distant hamlet of Flagstaff, not even a village in those days, but boundless with opportunity for astronomical study, with its big open skies and cloudless nights.

In addition to his Mars work, Lowell was a proponent of the theory of Planet X, which said that something out there was pulling on Neptune and Uranus, and that it was almost certainly a planet. He searched in vain for this lost world, and brought in other telescopes, but it wasn’t until 1930 that this ninth planet was finally found by an astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh. Though Percival Lowell was long dead by then, his association with Planet X would be his legacy, as Pluto (note the letters P and L) was discovered at the very observatory he built.

The Milky Way  (Credit:  Kevin Baird )

The Milky Way (Credit: Kevin Baird)

If you don’t live in a Flagstaff or somewhere like it, you might possibly have never seen the night sky. I was in my late twenties before I had any idea that you could actually see the Milky Way from Earth. I found the galaxy by accident, driving one night through Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. Even if you’ve never heard of Tongariro, you’ve almost certainly seen it before: it was the setting of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films. There were no lights around, and for whatever reason my traveling companions and I stopped to chat, and I looked up and was gobsmacked by what I saw. It was so vivid, so colorful, so many blues and greens, teals, whites. It was space as seen only in movies! It was like Stellar Cartography on the Starship Enterprise!

Light pollution washes out the sky in so many places, towns and cities big and small, and as a consequence, generations have come and gone without understanding the fuss about space. For most of us, space is as theoretical as the inside of an atom. We’ve seen astrophotography and imagery from spacecraft, but however much we might know it to be true rationally, on an emotional level our primitive brains can’t cope. We are here and it is there.

Which is where such observatories as Lowell come in. Today the observatory on Mars Hill is alive and open to the public. In every building are astronomers playing host to the cosmos, explaining, beguiling. On its grounds is the Lowell Mausoleum, where the man himself forever guards his bequest. A rotunda museum, once the facility’s science library, houses artifacts from the observatory’s history. There are three operational telescopes there, and yet no research is conducted with them. (Those facilities are located on Anderson Mesa, a few miles away.) The purpose of the telescopes is to give us back the galaxy. You can see a picture of Saturn’s rings and feel nothing, but see Saturn’s rings with your own eyes, and suddenly you feel the Earth spinning on its axis and flying about the Sun. Suddenly, it hits you: space is real, and it isn’t some place out there. We’re part of it, one sphere of many circling just another star, which is itself as commonplace as a grain of sand.

Lowell is unique for many reasons, but none more than the Pluto Telescope Dome, the stubby tower from which Clyde Tombaugh toiled and triumphed. Today the telescope itself is off for refurbishment, but the moonlit dome beckons all the same.* You approach it, and it’s freezing outside and snow and trees are everywhere, piled high and reaching for the sky, and when you get there, you feel the connection, only this time it’s human rather than astronomical. I touched the door and door frame and the stones adjacent comprising the wall. At some point, I reasoned, Tombaugh would have touched the same places walking in and out of the building night after night. I just wanted to feel that connection through time—it’s that kind of place, the observatory.

It draws you in, this place where discovery is possible, where science is breathed, where space is an arm’s length away—and it descends on you, envelops you. I was alone there that night, and I’m sensitive by nature, but even the most hardened among us, ages spanning the full breadth of the Sphinx Riddle, must feel it, because observatories, these monuments to wonder, dot the landscape from sea to sea and around the world. Some are tiny: a plot of land where amateurs haul out their Celestrons, and some are massive, the Grand Canary Telescope, that colossus bestride a volcano. Each is as important as the other to the extent that they are the conduits between the universe and the creatures of the Earth. We long to see the sky, to see the infinite, and Lowell, beautiful Lowell, creepy Lowell, reminds us that we can do more than wonder. We can discover.

On the drive away from the facility, down the hill with its twists and meanders, there is an overlook of the city of Flagstaff below. Cars are parked, a half dozen, their passengers taking it all in. It’s beautiful, this tiny, giant town, sprawled beneath a sky that is ours.

* The telescope has since been refurbished and returned to Lowell.

The Second Launch of OSIRIS-REx

Over at The Atlantic, I describe the OSIRIS-REx flyby of the Earth, and what I saw with the science team. Here is a snippet:

Hours after the Earth gravity assist, the hallways of the Michael Drake Building feel like an Aaron Sorkin movie. Mounted to a wall in the lobby is a digital countdown clock labeled TIME UNTIL EARTH GRAVITY ASSIST. Just after launch last year, it read 374 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 59.9 seconds. It now reads 000 00 00 00.0.

When team members aren’t working, they’re walking and talking or huddled in hallways and doorways discussing the flyby. The images. Prospects and possibilities for the data returned. What might we learn about this third planet from the sun? some joke. Is it habitable? Will there be water? But the spacecraft might indeed return usable earth-science data. The only question presently answerable is whether or not the team will come into the office after midnight and set about studying the data, or wait for more civilized hours of the morning. The scientists seem galvanized by the prospects of doing real science with a real spacecraft and an instrument payload that they conceived and carried to construction.

You can read the rest here

Pluto as Planetary Coming of Age

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, highlights the wide range of surface features on the small worlds. Working with the New Horizons mission team, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved the themes to be used for naming the surface features on Pluto and its moons. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, highlights the wide range of surface features on the small worlds. Working with the New Horizons mission team, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved the themes to be used for naming the surface features on Pluto and its moons. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Kirby Runyon cuts the figure of an astronaut, and you just know that he would be helpful in a bar fight, but you also get the impression that he would defuse things for you before it got that far. He is a young man and a newly-minted Ph.D., and with an abstract submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference late last March, stepped into a white-hot spotlight with an international audience. He and one of his co-authors, Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, have taken a swing at the question of planethood.

Runyon’s definition of a planet is a single sentence in length: “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has enough gravitation to be round due to hydrostatic equilibrium regardless of its orbital parameters.” In other words, a planet is a ball in space that’s not a star. That means, yes, Pluto is a planet. It also means that the Moon is a planet. Europa is a planet. Ganymede is a planet.

In comparison, the newly-established definition of a planet by the International Astronomical Union states: “A planet is a celestial body that is in orbit around the Sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” In this regime, were Ganymede knocked from orbit around Jupiter and into orbit around the Sun, it would still be Ganymede, but might suddenly, according to the IAU, be a planet. At an instinctive level, this feels wrong, like saying that if a dog climbed onto a bookshelf, it would then be a cat. The astronomy view categorizes a planet based on what it orbits. Runyon’s assertion is that a planet should be defined by what it is.

What imbues Runyon’s definition with resilience is that it doesn’t seek to somehow overturn that of the IAU, and he has no intention of submitting it to the IAU for consideration. “If certain types of astronomers want to have an orbital dynamic definition of a planet,” he says, “and that’s useful to them, fine. But most scientist who study planets are more aligned now with the geosciences than they are with astronomical scientists. And that definition of ‘planet’ just isn’t useful to us. It doesn’t help us communicate our ideas.” Informally, planetary scientists have always called all sorts of bodies in space “planets.” But formally, too, in peer-reviewed literature, technical moons are called planets. Runyon lists scores of such references made both before and after the IAU redefinition.

This is in part about the coming of age of planetary science. It is a young field, a single generation old, the plucky upstart once the exclusive domain of physics, then of astronomy, but whose constituent sciences now include geology, chemistry, and biology. Mars was once something you look up at, a dot in the sky. Celestial. Now it’s something you look down on from orbit, or across from the surface. It’s terrestrial. Geophysical.

“Carl Sagan said, ‘In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts,’” Runyon tells me as we talk outside the convention center where he presented abstract. This isn’t a heated argument, and he counts Mike Brown, the famed “Pluto Killer,” as a friendly correspondent. Let the astronomers do what they want, he explains brightly, but leave us—i.e., geologists—out of it. The concept isn’t even unique. “To astronomers studying the composition of stars and nebulae, especially stars, they call anything heavier than element number two―anything heavier than helium―a metal. That’s just a convenient word for them. No one’s fighting about this,” says Runyon. “They know what they mean when they say metal, and it’s different from the common definition. You take the spectra of stars, and you see there’s oxygen and nitrogen and argon in stars’ atmospheres, you call that a high metallicity star. And that’s fine. Metallurgists aren’t fighting them over the word metal.”

Kirby Runyon presents his research on Martian sand sheets. (Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute)

Kirby Runyon presents his research on Martian sand sheets. (Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute)

This matters beyond the arcane world of scientific abstracts and poster sessions. Very rarely does a scientific debate spill into the public sphere and draw not only keen interest, but steely opinions. Evolution, certainly. The age of the Earth in some religious circles. But you don’t often see finger-pointed assertions over scientific nomenclature. The Washington Post doesn’t give a thousand words to disagreements over the precise definition of “suevites” (a type of rock formed during impact events) though scientists do debate its usage. This matter of Pluto, however, is both consequential and easily understood. Everyone has their own take on whether it is a planet.

Under Runyon’s definition, there are at least 110 planets in the solar system. This seems at once absurd, but resolves into something very interesting. He explains that the idea of planets being something you must memorize is a pointless exercise. Memorizing the periodic table of elements doesn’t make one a chemist. But just as the table itself is elegant and informative, plot all the planets on a table and you get something equally elegant. Terrestrial planets, gas giant planets, ice giant planets, dwarf planets, exoplanets, each arranged and subgrouped with common characteristics. Europa so plotted might be categorized as an icy dwarf satellite planet.

And suddenly, rather than rote memorization, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and so on, you have an ambitious and quite possibly tectonic effect on education. Rather than eliminating things to learn―Pluto itself has been rendered ontologically unsound since the IAU announcement, disappearing not only from textbooks but also consumer goods and media―you have the introduction of worlds that rarely appear in the classroom, Makemake, Mimas, Miranda and more. The conversation about Pluto has arguably been a net positive for the public, whose idea of the solar system is too often limited to plastic beads on wires circling a light bulb.

An invested public with a robust science education is as important as ever before. Even with our pedestrian terrestrial political problems, it’s a good time to be a human being. We stand on a precipice of sorts, in which asteroids, planets―even stars―are accessible not only by scientists with instrument-laden spacecraft, but soon by the working man and woman. One easily imagines a real future in the lifetimes of our children in which “planet” relates not to hydrostatic equilibria or accretion disc formation, but by something inherently more utilitarian. Planet will be a shorthand for something vaguely accessible by humans and our tools for long durations. Somewhere useful. Somewhere with a horizon commensurate to that which the human mind has evolved to expect. Can I drive a shovel into the body and pull up raw materials? In plain science fiction terms, can I land my spaceship on it? Is it round and can I fly my gas mining barge through it?

In both the very short term and very long, what is or isn’t a planet is not particularly important. In the middle, however, in our present-day future in which dot-com billionaires want to put people in space, and not in capsules of three, but transports of hundreds, and they say this with authority and are investing the capital to make it a reality, suddenly “planet” is a word due to be handed back to the people. Given a better spacesuit, if I lived on Titan or Mars, is there a measurable difference in bodies? This land is your land.

Q&A: Margaret Hamilton, Who Landed the First Man (and Code) on the Moon

Though you might not recognize her name, you know Margaret Hamilton’s work, and you quite possibly know her face. She led the team responsible for the on-board flight software for the Apollo command module and lunar module. A black-and-white photograph of Hamilton standing next to a stack of code has reached iconic status, for reasons obvious: here is a woman pioneering the field of computer science at a time when the discipline was almost exclusively male; a laboratory director of software engineering before “software engineer” even existed as a job title; and an achievement to her name that defies comparison with any other human endeavor.

She didn’t stop at landing astronauts on the moon. She contributed also to Skylab, the first American space station, and to the space shuttle. In 1986, she founded Hamilton Technologies, Inc., a software development firm. Last year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on the Apollo program and for her contributions in the field of computer science to “asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.”

A new picture book about Hamilton was published last month by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Written by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley, Margaret and the Moon recounts Hamilton’s story and brings children to the harrowing landing of the Eagle. Computer science doesn’t come immediately to mind as a rich field from which children’s literature might grow, and yet Robbins and Knisley deftly tell a story that is at once moving and exciting. It is a testament to the skill of the author and illustrator that the book will be for many readers the first biography they ever read, an early introduction to the Apollo program, and an inspiring story of how science and engineering are done — and the book excels at all three.

In an interview by email, Hamilton tells me about her journey to the Apollo program, equality in STEM, and her contributions to the computer science discipline. It has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Margaret Hamilton with her code (Credit: MIT Museum)

Margaret Hamilton with her code (Credit: MIT Museum)

What were the circumstances of the famous photo of you standing next to that towering stack of code?

MHH: The photo was part of the information that MIT provided to the news media during the time of the Apollo 11 mission. The following was excerpted from a description of the photo in an MIT document: “Taken by the MIT Instrumentation Lab photographer in 1969…Margaret is shown standing beside listings of the software developed by her and the team she was in charge of, the Lunar Module (LM) and Command Module (CM) on-board flight software team”.

Each listing in the stack of listings contained Apollo guidance computer source code. For every mission there were two listings; one for the command module and one for the lunar module. Two of the listings were for Apollo 11, one for the Apollo 11 command module and one for the Apollo 11 lunar module. Other listings in the stack contained source code for future “to be” missions (e.g., Apollo 12, Apollo 13…) that we had been working on concurrently along with the source code for Apollo 11.

Is the Apollo program something that pursued you, or did you pursue it? In other words, how does one join the most ambitious engineering endeavor in human history?

MHH: At the time, I was working at MIT’s Lincoln Labs on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment air defense system, developing radar registration surveillance software for detecting potential enemy planes, on the first AN/FSQ-7 computer (the XD-1). I had always planned to attend graduate school at Brandeis and major in abstract math, but I got sidetracked. Sometime within the 1963–1964 timeframe, I heard the news that MIT had received a contract from NASA to develop the software for “sending man” to the moon, and that MIT was looking for people to work on this project. I immediately called MIT to see if I could be involved in what sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. Within hours, I set up interviews with two project managers at MIT. Both of them offered me a position on the same day as the interviews. I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I told them to flip a coin to decide which group would hire me — hoping for the project manager to win the coin toss, who, in the end, did win. Fortunately, that is what happened, and I was on my way.

There is a greater effort today to correct the gender imbalance in the fields of STEM. What advice would you give to aspiring scientists and engineers?

MHH: The type of experience and education one has before entering the fields of STEM as well as other fields is key. I have found it helps to have both a “streetwise” experience and a formal education. From a streetwise perspective, the more jobs a young person has (and the more varied), the better prepared one is for going out into the world. Learning how to work with and getting used to being around different kinds of personalities and challenges helps one to have the flexibility needed to understand others, and to deal with the unexpected. It provides a better foundation from which to make career choices, including who you choose to work with and for whom you choose to work.

Regarding the formal part of education, one would of course want to take courses directly related to the particular field of STEM of interest (e.g., computer science). But, it is also important to learn and be around other kinds of things like music, art, philosophy, history and formal linguistics; any of which could help improve one’s being an excellent problem solver; and to have a more global perspective on things. The ultimate goal is learning how to think.

Women cannot be expected to solve the gender imbalance problem alone — especially on an individual-by-individual basis. Too often it is the symptoms of the problem that are being addressed by well-meaning efforts today, when the real problem has been and still is our culture. Things are still being done (and accepted as such) out of ignorance. It is not uncommon for an organization to pay women lower salaries than men for the same position, and to relegate women to the lower positions in an organization. And if not, women often have to work or fight harder than their male counterparts to be an exception. Most would agree that the STEM fields are still dominated by men; that discrimination does exist. In fact, some things seem to have gone backwards and are more difficult now than they were in the sixties. Some ways in which discrimination manifests itself can be quite different today — especially now that we have the internet.

Unfortunately, various types of communication over the internet can serve as convenient places to “hide” in, encouraging “faceless,” pervasive practices, making it harder than in earlier days to confront those intent on perpetuating disinformation that can be quite harmful to those on the receiving end. A case in point is the use of historical revisionism, in any form conceivable, to minimize the accomplishments of an individual or a group of individuals; a not uncommon practice when it comes to the affect it has on women and minorities. Solving just this one part of the problem, itself, is indeed a challenge that can only be totally addressed at large.

One seemingly small event can change everything, for better or worse, because everything is somehow related to everything else. When the most powerful and influential leaders and organizations in the world make it possible for women to hold the highest positions (not “almost” the highest) in their organizations equal (not “almost” equal) to what is available to men, we all benefit, including the leaders and organizations themselves. When large corporations refuse to conduct business with and within countries who do not allow women to have the same rights as men, we all benefit. The more all of us work to uncover discriminatory practices and the more those in power promote non-discriminatory practices as being a positive thing, the more we all benefit.

Margaret Hamilton in an Apollo command module (Credit: NASA)

Margaret Hamilton in an Apollo command module (Credit: NASA)

What most worried you during development of the Apollo software, and how did you and your team solve it?

MHH: The greatest challenge was that our software had to be man-rated; which meant lives were at stake. Failure was not an option. Not only did it have to work; it had to work the first time. Not only did the software, itself, have to be ultra-reliable, but the software would need to be able to detect an error and recover from it in real time. It did not disappoint.

The task at hand included developing and integrating all of the software for the command module, the lunar module and the systems software shared between, and residing within, both the command and lunar module; making sure that everything would play together and that there were no integration, communication, or interface conflicts (i.e., data, timing or priority conflicts). Updates, submitted from hundreds of people, were continuously being made over time and over the many releases for every mission; making sure that the software would successfully interface to, and work together with, all the other systems including the hardware, peopleware and missionware.

Because of the never-ending focus on making everything as perfect as possible, anything to do with the prevention of errors was not only not off the table, but it was top priority both during development and during real-time where it was necessary to have the flexibility to be able to detect anything unexpected and recover from it at any time in a real mission. To meet the challenge, the software was developed with an ongoing, overarching focus on finding ways to capitalize on the asynchronous and distributed functionality of the system at large in order to perfect the more systems-oriented aspects of the flight software. Such was the case with the flight software’s system-wide snapshot rollback capabilities and priority displays together with its man-in-the-loop techniques. Our software was designed to be asynchronous in order to have the flexibility to handle the unpredictable, and in order that higher priority jobs would have the capability to interrupt lower priority jobs, based on events as they happened (especially in the case of an emergency).

Each mission was exciting in its own right, but Apollo 11 was special; we had never landed on the moon before. Just as the astronauts were about to land on the moon, everything was going according to plan until something totally unexpected happened. All of a sudden, the on-board flight computer became overtaxed. The software’s priority displays of 1201 and 1202 alarms interrupted the astronaut’s normal mission displays to warn them that there was an emergency, allowing NASA’s Mission Control to understand what was happening, and alerting the astronauts to place the rendezvous radar switch in the right position. The priority displays gave the astronauts a go/no go decision (to land or not to land).

It quickly became clear that the software was not only informing everyone that there was a hardware-related problem, but that the software was compensating for it. With only minutes to spare, the decision was made to go for the landing. The rest is history. The Apollo 11’s crew became the first humans to walk on the moon, and our software became the first software to land on the moon. An explanation of what happened, and the steps taken by the on-board flight software to “continue on” to landing are briefly described in my letter to the editor, “Computer Got Loaded”, published in the March 1, 1971 issue of Datamation.

The development and deployment of this functionality would not have been possible without an integrated system of systems (and teams) approach to systems reliability and the innovative contributions made by the other groups to support our systems-software team in making this become a reality. The hardware team at MIT changed their hardware and the mission planning team in Houston changed their astronaut procedures, both working closely with us to accommodate the priority displays for both the command and lunar modules for any kind of emergency and throughout any mission. In addition, the people at Mission Control were well prepared to know what to do should the astronauts be interrupted with the priority displays.

Since it was not possible (certainly not practical) on Apollo for us to test the software “before the fact” by flying an actual mission, it was necessary for us to test our software by developing a mix of hardware and digital simulations of every (and all aspects of an) Apollo mission which included man-in-the-loop simulations (with real or simulated human interaction); and variations of real or simulated hardware and their integration.

Astronauts who have walked on the moon often describe a certain listlessness once they get home. As an engineer key to that achievement, are you left with a similar feeling? What sort of feeling follows?

MHH: Of course, I would be hard put to even begin to compare feelings of my own to that of an astronaut who walked on the moon! Do you mean by a certain listlessness that I may have experienced a letdown or feeling of depression, because of the fact that nothing could ever follow that could be as exciting? I do not remember a time, following a major event (like landing on the moon) or a major project (like Apollo), when there was a real chance (or when I took a chance) to reminisce and miss the action. There was always something happening immediately thereafter that seemed to be exciting in its own right.

I have always been more “wrapped up” than not, with wasting little time in capturing lessons learned from an experience and doing something about it so that we could apply that knowledge on the adventures to follow. Towards this end, I have found that it helps to focus on learning from the past, not living in it. There was always an adventure to follow that would have its own kind of excitement. I do want to say, however, that what we have been doing over the years with our computer science-related work is much more exciting because of the lessons we learned from Apollo.

Describe your work on Skylab and the space shuttle.

MHH: Skylab was a continuation of the Apollo command module on-board flight software, with new software added for new Skylab requirements. We defined systems software requirements for the Skylab and the Space Shuttle on-board flight software as a result of many of the lessons we had learned from Apollo. Among other things, we performed an empirical study of the Apollo on-board flight software development effort, resulting in formalizing lessons learned. Part of the requirements for Skylab and the Space Shuttle originated from this work.

As a pioneer in the field, what would you say is your greatest contribution to the discipline of computer science?

MHH: For whatever success I have experienced in my work, the credit goes not only to those I have learned so much from and have worked with, but also to the errors I have had the opportunity of having had some responsibility in making, without which we would not have been able to learn the things we did — some with great drama and fanfare, and often with a large enough audience to not want such a thing to ever to happen again!

Having been through some amazing experiences such as those involved with the Apollo on-board flight software, one could not help but do something about learning from them. With initial funding from NASA and the Department of Defense (including the Air Force, the Navy, and the Army), we performed an empirical study of the Apollo effort. This resulted in a systems theory, based upon a concept of control, that has continued to evolve based on lessons learned from Apollo and later projects. From its axioms, we derived a universal systems language together with its automation and its preventative development paradigm.

Margaret Hamilton poses with an MIT pennant inside an Apollo lunar capsule model. (Credit: MIT Museum)

Margaret Hamilton poses with an MIT pennant inside an Apollo lunar capsule model. (Credit: MIT Museum)

We continue to discover new properties in systems defined with this language. Among other things, we learned that with the use of the language there are no interface errors in a system definition and its derivatives (one of which is its software); and integration within a definition, and from systems to software, is inherent. Along the way, it became clear one day that the root problem with traditional approaches is that they support users in “fixing up wrong things” rather than in “doing things in the right way in the first place.” With a preventative paradigm, instead of looking for more ways to test for errors, and continuing to test for errors late into the life cycle, the majority of errors including all interface errors are not allowed into a system in the first place, just by the way it is defined. Testing for non-existent errors becomes an obsolete endeavor. For each new property discovered, that, in essence, “comes along for the ride,” there is the realization of something (e.g., testing for interface errors) that will no longer be necessary as part of the system’s own development process.

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing was written by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley. It is available in bookstores everywhere.

How a Small NASA Mission Might Change the Course of Space Exploration

Resource Prospector rover ( NASA Advanced Exploration Systems )

Resource Prospector rover ( NASA Advanced Exploration Systems )

When explorers roamed the New World, they didn’t set foot on uncharted lands and unload from their ships lumber and food. They didn’t send for armadas back home, asking for fresh supplies to stay well fed and in warm beds. Rather, settlement required the necessities of life to be hewn or harvested, and what they unloaded from ships were tools and seed. It was called the Age of Discovery, but it was as well the age of cultivation, the age of construction, the age of contrivance, and, yes, the age of conquest.

We live today in the New Age of Discovery, with explorers like Alan Stern and Lindy Elkins in the roles of James Cook or Bartolomé, and New Horizons and Psyche are our plucky robotic vessels pressing forth into the unknown. As human spaceflight completes its interim retooling for its own push into the final frontier, the requirements for settlement remain unchanged from centuries gone by. You can’t bring with you everything you will need. Survival in the wilderness means subsistence farming and dogged resourcefulness. But how do you do that on another planet?

NASA’s working on it, and the first critical step is a project called Resource Prospector. If their plan works, humanity might one day look back on Resource Prospector as the mission that launched a thousand ships and forever changed the course of human exploration.


“The essence of humanity is to be explorers,” says Jacqueline Quinn, “but today we are bound by what we can carry on our backs—meaning what we can put on our rockets and send up. Until we cease that reliance, we will never break free.” It is obscenely expensive to lift things into space. The workhorse rocket used by NASA is the Atlas 5, which costs more than $10,000 per pound to lift something. The math alone renders impossible the dream of long-duration, large crewed exploration missions, let alone permanent ones.

The solution to this problem, Quinn tells me, is a process called in situ resource utilization. ISRU, as it is abbreviated, is the creation of usable commodities from extraterrestrial materials. You don’t fly bricks to the moon. You make them from lunar soil. You don’t fill a lake on Mars with water from Earth. You make it from elements on and in the Martian ground and sky. Need to fuel your spaceship for the ride back to Earth? All you need are carbon and hydrogen and the right machine to make methane. And so on. There’s a sense of daring to ISRU. It is a new kind of space travel. You’re exploring the solar system without taking everything you need. You’re setting stakes on another world with the intention to live off the land.

It makes sense, of course, and it sounds easy, but it’s never actually been done on another world, and is, in fact, very hard. Quinn, who is based from Kennedy Space Center, is the Resource Prospector payload project manager. She has spent the last decade helping to develop ISRU, and Resource Prospector is the outgrowth of those efforts. Its mission is to go to the moon, study the lunar soil, and determine how easily the water within can be accessed. Its heritage traces back to the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission in 2009, which discovered water in the south polar region of the moon in a permanently shadowed crater—that is, a crater that hasn’t seen sunlight in over a billion years due to the moon’s low tilt angle.

RP, as the team calls Resource Prospector with the sort of familiarity that Luke Skywalker has with R2, is a rover about the size of a golf cart. At a glance, its design suggests Pathfinder—that golden body, those strange wheels, that solar panel roof (though RP’s panels are steepled). The resemblance is fleeting, however, and the rovers are otherwise entirely different, as the massive vertical drill jutting from its core makes clear. This isn’t a robot made for passive observation. It’s not a tourist; it’s a miner, and when it lands, it has work to do. Those wheels (four rather than Pathfinder’s six) don’t just steer. They articulate. It can climb hills covered in soft soil. When RP is stuck in loose material, it can twist and lift its wheels and “army man crawl” to firmer ground. It’ll need that kind of mobility, too, because it’s designed to drive for kilometers across austere and uncharted lunarscape and into those permanently shadowed lands, where no human or robot has gone before.


The mission will work like this, according to Jim T. Smith, the lead systems engineer for payload on Resource Prospector. As the rover drives across the lunar surface, an onboard neutron spectrometer will collect data on the soil one to two meters in front of the rover, and one meter below the surface. This data will in turn be correlated with data already collected by previous missions to determine the distribution of hydrogen (including H2O ice) and other elements. (Where RP studies the moon at a “human scale,” orbital data has a much poorer resolution of 60 kilometers per pixel.)

“The first instrument we use is almost like a metal detector on a beach—a neutron spectrometer,” says Smith. “As we traverse the surface it is continually counting epithermal neutrons emanating from the moon. When we see the correct signal and we believe we’ve found a good hydrogen source, the rover is equipped with a drill capable of penetrating one meter down into the surface.” The drill can do two things: It can excavate material to the surface for inspection with a near infrared spectrometer. This will determine if there is water ice present or hydroxyl or whatever. The drill can also capture material at precise depths as far down as one meter and deliver it to individual crucibles, which are then heated by an Oxygen & Volatile Extraction Node (OVEN), which is an oven.

Quinn explains that the oven drives off the gasses, which are analyzed by a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. It will quantify the constituents present. “Remember, we’re in almost perfect vacuum,” she says. “Being able to physically contain water in a mechanical device and get it into a sealed vessel, so those resources don’t sublime is as important as the original detection. The volatiles may be there, but if you can’t get ahold of them and put them in some sort of vessel, then it’s not doing you a whole hell of a lot of good.”

The last step in the process is perhaps the most poetic and will certainly have the greatest resonance with the largest number of people back on Earth. The vapor will be condensed on a cold finger, forming a water droplet, which RP will then image. The picture of a water droplet beamed back to Earth will mark a turning point in human exploration. Scientists will have drilled into another world, pulled up material, and extracted it as something we can use, something we need.


Resource Prospector is a pioneer in the sense that it is an explorer venturing into unknown territory, but also as it relates to the employment of technology. It will be the first NASA robotic mission to drill deeper than seven centimeters into an extraterrestrial body. It will be the first time we’ve driven into a permanently shadowed region on the moon. It will be the first time NASA has operated on a pole of the moon with a very low angle from which to collect sunlight for its panels, and from which to maintain communications back on Earth. It will be the first time humankind has created a usable commodity from raw material on an alien world. And it might prove to be the first mission to really kick off the commercial race to the lunar surface.

”This whole idea of utilizing the moon and its potential local resources to actually enable exploration architectures is the hot topic right now," says Daniel Andrews, the project manager for Resource Prospector at NASA Ames Research Center. “I can't tell you how many times I'm approached at conferences by commercial parties who say ‘I hope you guys really do get the answers you want from RP because I need them for a business plan that we're putting together.’”

Andrews has more than once been approached by entrepreneurs hoping to use lunar soil to make feedstock for 3D printing. “We’re talking concrete building materials,” he says, “including concrete!” Volatile material utilization is also on the agenda of many companies who hope to make water, usable oxygen, rocket fuel, and other things. Andrews foresees a time when companies are dropping ISRU pallets onto the surface of the moon and filling bottles with volatile-derived resources. “These companies would commoditize volatiles making them available to those who wish to buy it, including this space agency and others. This could be the beginning of a whole new paradigm.”


If fifteen years from now an astronaut sets foot on Mars, some might well look back and claim that Pathfinder started it all. It wasn’t the first mission on the ground. There were the Viking landers, of course, and a series of orbiters and flybys. Those missions, however, somehow belonged to antiquity, to a time of black and white televisions and the prospect of atomic annihilation in the Cold War. Pathfinder seemed to come out of nowhere—a mission of peace and wonder that captured the collective American imagination not just for Mars, but for all exploration beyond our little blue marble. It was the mission that allowed NASA to marshal its resources with the support of the people footing the bill. If there is a journey to Mars, Pathfinder was the first step.

Thirty years from now, when there is a moon village of scientists and explorers, and a thriving lunar industrial sector actually based on the moon, people might say, “It might have died with Apollo if not for a little robot called RP.” We harnessed the resources on this world to send a four-wheeled miner to another. And when it got there, it, in turn, harnessed resources it found there. It advanced the cycle. And when people saw water—not mysterious slope lineae or promises beneath an ice shell—but the pure stuff that might have flowed from a tap back home, they were ready. Water! That was the thing that made the public decide at last that we can go to other places. That beyond the colossal intellects of scientists and engineers, there’s something else out there to keep us alive—something ethereal and nourishing on a spiritual level: mother nature.

Hello #LPSC2017

This year I will be covering the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference for and mental_floss, and will add things I write there to this post. In the meantime, if I'm set to interview you there and you're wondering what else I've written, here are a few pieces that might help you along.

UPDATE: Well this is much delayed, but here are a few pieces I wrote from LPSC.

Pluto as Planetary Science Coming of Age

When Every Planet Is Funded but Your Own

How Venus Will Get Its Groove Back

How the Europa Lander Will Search for Life

Comet 67P Changed as It Approached the Sun


Why Is Nasa Neglecting Venus?
The Atlantic

A generation has now gone by since the agency set a course for the second planet from the Sun, and with this latest mission opportunity lost, the earliest an expedition there might launch (from some future selection process) would be 2027—nearly 40 years since our last visit.

For centuries, it would have been inconceivable that Venus would be in such a predicament. In the 18th century, Venus was the organizing force in international science. When humanity was finally able to stretch its arms toward the solar system, the first place it reached for was Venus. It was our first successful planetary encounter beyond Earth, and was the first planet on which humans crashed. It would later would host our first graceful landing.

Venus and Earth are practically twins. They’re alike in size, density, gravity, and physical makeup. They are both in our star’s habitable zone. Scientists have discovered no other adjacent planets in the entire galaxy that share such similarities. And yet somewhere along the way, Earth became a cosmic paradise for life as we know it, and Venus became a blistering hellscape. Beneath its sienna clouds of sulfuric acid is the greenhouse effect gone apocalyptic. At 850 degrees Fahrenheit, its surface is hotter than Mercury, though the planet itself is much farther from the Sun. A block of lead would melt on the surface of Venus the way a block of ice melts on Earth.

The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx
The Week

Until "Liftoff!" nothing happens, and then everything happens. The billowing smoke, the white fire, the upward movement of the launch vehicle — it happens immediately and all at once. The fire is one long continuous and controlled explosion, but the word and attendant imagery — explosion — never enters the onlooker's mind. What you see is the opposite of an explosion. What you see is control. Total and utter control and focus. The rocket's fiery tail, it's not even fire. It is a prize fighter working a speedbag. Such focus! Such control! The rocket, its motion is somehow nauseating, not because it lacks grace, but because it possesses so much of it. You light a bottle rocket, and you hear sssssssss and then sssshhhhhwwwwwww as it suddenly zips into the sky. The Atlas 5, though, rises slowly, a methodical rejection of gravity. It is a ballerina. Grace. Grace.

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

How a Tiny Moon Rover Might Change the Course of Human Exploration

When explorers roamed the New World, they didn’t set foot on uncharted lands and unload from their ships lumber and food. They didn’t send for armadas back home, asking for fresh supplies to stay well fed and in warm beds. Rather, settlement required the necessities of life to be hewn or harvested, and what they unloaded from ships were tools and seed. It was called the Age of Discovery, but it was as well the age of cultivation, the age of construction, the age of contrivance, and, yes, the age of conquest.

We live today in the New Age of Discovery, with explorers like Alan Stern and Lindy Elkins in the roles of James Cook or Bartolomé, and New Horizons and Psyche are our plucky robotic vessels pressing forth into the unknown. As human spaceflight completes its interim retooling for its own push into the final frontier, the requirements for settlement remain unchanged from centuries gone by. You can’t bring with you everything you will need. Survival in the wilderness means subsistence farming and dogged resourcefulness. But how do you do that on another planet?

NASA’s working on it, and the first critical step is a project called Resource Prospector. If their plan works, humanity might one day look back on Resource Prospector as the mission that launched a thousand ships and forever changed the course of human exploration.

The Moon Base Mirage


Over at The Atlantic, I write about the looming, phenomenally stupid pivot by NASA away from Mars and toward the moon. A snippet:

American moon partisans owe a debt to Europe, which has tended the lunar flame during the ascent of Mars. Perhaps the most prominent moon advocate on Earth is Jan Woerner, the director general of the European Space Agency. Since assuming the post, he has argued persuasively that a “lunar village” is the natural successor to the aging International Space Station. It would be, in his view, a celestial point of harmony for a terrestrial species in discord. There is a problem, however: the Europeans have committed virtually no money to a moon village, and Russia, ESA's would-be partner in the venture, has no money to commit. They have already been forced to downsize their presence on the ISS due to costs, and have delayed plans for robotic exploration of the moon. (The head of the Russian space agency admits that Russia “does not have financial capabilities for advanced space projects.”) Lacking unity among member states, to say nothing of technology development and financial resources, what ESA really needs is for the United States to fund and spearhead such an effort. NASA's sights, however, are firmly fixed on Mars. With the presidential transition, however, and a new NASA director still to be appointed, lunar champions at home and abroad see an opportunity to abandon the Journey to Mars program and set sights a little closer to the Earth.

To that end, ESA is on a moon base public-relations offensive, from the light and easy (magazine spreads and aspirational illustrations) to bare-knuckled politics (publicly pressing the NASA administrator on the issue.) The overt message from Paris, where ESA is headquartered, is: We're doing this. The subtext is: While NASA plans a fantasy mission to Mars that will never happen, the rest of the world will be driving moon buggies and mining helium-3. But ESA’s campaign is powered by handwavium, and for all the illustrations of lunar domes and our great big blue marble over the horizon, progress on the moon base ends at Photoshop. If the U.S. doesn’t build the base, it won’t get built.

You can read the rest here.

Rogue One



Rogue One is infinitely better than Episode VII, and here are some brief and scattered thoughts as to why. Where the latter asked Hey what can we replicate?, Rogue One again and again and again seems to ask What can we do differently? Where can we take chances? As a result, Rogue One—which tells a story whose ending we've known since 1977 and whose general outline we've considered for just as long—surprises from the first minute. Episode VII, on the other hand—a film about which we knew nothing—indeed, a film whose writers loudly disclaimed and invalidated the entire "expanded universe" of hundreds of novels so as to have a free hand in storytelling—somehow managed to be derivative and styrofoam-ish, a shiny new sports car whose owners resolutely drove under the speed limit.

By the time I saw the original Star Wars, things like the Death Star and and Darth Vader were fixtures in popular culture. I'm not sure that they were ever scary, exactly. One was something that was always going to be destroyed, no question, and the other was always Luke Skywalker's father and destined for redemption. Accordingly, their presences in the films were less existential threat and more challenges for heroes to overcome. The story was never, "Will our heroes succeed?" Instead, it was: "How will they succeed?" This does not diminish the original trilogy in the slightest because the storytelling is superb, the universe inventive, and the characters and their arcs absolutely nailed.

The same should apply to Rogue One. That is to say, the question from the first frame should have been "how," because we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the Death Star plans will be stolen, and the battle station eventually destroyed. And yet I never felt comfortable during this movie. I never felt that sense of: "Ahhhh! OK, that's great. That makes sense. Very good! That explains that!" Instead, I spent its duration wondering if they were going to pull it off. If they were going to survive. If this thing—this rebel alliance—would ever get its act together. There was never a sense of inevitability. The writers never tried to be clever or convince me of their cleverness. They simply wrote a damn good story that was thrilling and scary and wrenching. They didn't lean on expectations; they launched from them.

A lot of this has to do with the style and tone of the film. If A New Hope is Patton, Rogue One is Saving Private Ryan. People die. Good people sometimes act with cruelty and callousness. When someone gets shot, they feel it and you feel it. Even the Stormtroopers—bodies through which our heroes wade in every other entry in the series—earn the sympathy of the audience. Our heroes gun down a squad of white-armored baddies, and you sometimes flinch. Those guys didn't ask for this. They weren't torturing puppies and snatching babies from cribs. They were probably drafted, sure as hell didn't want to be at whatever meaningless posting they were given, and basically just wanted this whole rebellion to go away so the galaxy could have a little peace.

And the Death Star! My god, that thing is terrifying, a looming, hulking presence whose power is so well known and yet when used even sparingly wrenches the viewer. When it appears on the screen, you start to worry. You feel its danger and terrible possibility. And you feel the reasoning behind its construction. If you live in the Star Wars universe circa. Episode IV, you've been at war all your life. You're tired. There has never been a moment of peace, and dammit you've earned respite. If it takes building a giant weapon to stop this "destructive conflict," so be it. It's worth it! It's a simple solution to a messy problem.

And messy it is. Our heroes in this movie do bad things and suffer terrible losses. They pay dearly to steal the plans to the Death Star, and I'm not sure I can ever see the original again without thinking about that. That's good storytelling.

Contrast all of this with Episode VII. It feels silly to type this about fictional characters in a fairy tale universe, but having seen the sacrifices that went into building and destroying the Death Star, it's insulting to audiences and heroes alike that the writers of The Force Awakens lazily said, "Well let's just give the bad guys a Super Death Star that can destroy an entire solar system. How do the good guys stop it? Let's just have Han say some technical handwavium about flying lightspeed into the shield, and they all just shoot at it until it blows up. Who's up for lunch?"

Rogue One made Episode IV better because both are superbly crafted. They strengthen one another. Rogue One shames Episode VII because Episode VII is lumbering and stupid. It highlights all of that film's weaknesses. It reveals how ordinary VII is, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. For all the scorn they've unfairly received, the prequel trilogy is never ordinary. It is never lazy. It is never derivative. And just as Rogue One makes the original film better, the Clone Wars series and Rebels improve the prequels, and vice versa. What a playground George Lucas has crafted over 40 years! What a latticework on which epics can be hung!

A final thought that bears noting. Rogue One makes very apparent something unexpected in the Star Wars universe: that the Jedi are holding storytellers back. If you're a writer and you have in your sandbox invincible, magic heroes, then there's no problem that can't be solved through invincibility and magic. It's deus ex machina stretched over two hour intervals, and a magic arms race is the only solution. How do you stop magic, invincible heroes? By creating magic-er, invincible-r villains! How do you stop them? More magic! More invincibility! After a while, the audience is driven to the brink of total exhaustion and nothing matters because everyone can do everything. (Marvel films have the same problem.)

Rogue One (and the original trilogy) work precisely because nobody has superpowers, or because there's such a tremendous imbalance in said power that it's nullified, more useful skill than anything else.

Episode VIII has finished shooting, so if there is a halo effect to Rogue One, it won't be felt in that film, and whatever story has been set up in the sequel trilogy will have no choice but to play out as designed. Because Disney will drown us in Star Wars until the crack of doom, there is hope, however, for films in the far future. I lament that the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie is squandered, though.


The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx

Earlier this year, I covered the rocket launch of OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid, study it, collect a sample, and return to Earth. My account of the launch has been published by The Week. I really do think it's the best thing I've ever written and I hope you enjoy. Here is a little snippet:

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

You can read the whole story here.

An Automated Year


This year robots took over my life. It's not just my book project, which is centered around robots that explore the universe, but also in my home. We got a Roomba, a couple of Nest thermostats, and an Amazon Echo and a few Dots for different rooms. Each of these devices has had a significant, positive effect in ways I never expected. Moreover, they've become weirdly anthropomorphized and are all but members of the family now, or at least, really interesting houseguests that refuse to leave.

I knew I'd love the Roomba from the very first time I learned they existed, so maybe my expectations were simply set that I'd like it no matter what. We call her—it—Margaret, after my beloved dog who died a couple of years ago. Margaret was always—always—at my feet, and the Roomba, for whatever reason, always seems to start her vacuum cycle in the kitchen, where I'm usually to be found standing around. In other words, she would bump into my feet as if to get my attention.

The joy of the machine, though, is the way she—it—I'm just going to stick with she—can be either programmed for specific times, or activated manually when I'm away from home. It's hard to describe the Marie-Kondo-like Zen that overtakes you when you come home to very clean floors. Previously, I'd vacuum regularly, but it's never enough when you have kids and a cat. (I'm allergic to cat hair.) Our beloved Margaret, though, is always on the job, and dirt and dust and dander never has a chance to settle before being sucked away. This means that while it lacks the out-and-out power of an upright, it keeps the floors clean through sheer attrition.

Not that it isn't powerful. This model (a Roomba 990, I think) is surprisingly heavy and its suction apparently very, very robust. Moreover, its storage canister is quite large, meaning it can easily vacuum most of the first floor of the house with little difficulty. Its design is ingenious. I particularly like the propellor-like sweeping brush that reaches every little cranny of the house, along baseboards and beneath cabinets, the feet of chairs and table legs, and so on. Uprights don't do that, and uprights can't vacuum beneath the furniture. Margaret can. She gets stuck on occasion. Our sofa is high enough from the ground in front that she can get under there and do the job, but the back of the sofa is a shade too low, and angled such that she can sometimes get wedged in there. I've since blocked this danger zone with a heavy marble beam that I had lying around from a remodel. It's hidden from view, and the Roomba touches it and turns around. Problem solved.

There's not quite as much to say about the Nest thermostats. I mean, they're thermostats—let's not get crazy. Of note however is how effectively they urge the user (my household in this case) to conserve electricity. When nobody is home, the air conditioners switch into eco-mode, which basically means they do not run. When people are home, because they are so responsive and easy to manipulate with smart phones (more on this below) and even the Apple Watch, it's so convenient to just say, "Ah, no one is upstairs. I will set the air conditioner to 80, or heater to 50." I particularly like the monthly emails that not only give you an "eco rating," but compare your household with others in the area.

The thing that has most changed our lives this year is the Amazon Echo, and Alexa, the artificial intelligence within. Alexa is wonderful. Alexa is everything that Siri promised to deliver, but never did. (Number of times I accidentally trigger Siri on a given day: 5,000. Number of times I want to trigger Siri: maybe 1, previously: "Siri, set a timer for 5 minutes"—a task supplanted by Alexa.) The problem with Siri is that she's just not really good at anything. Sports scores, I guess? Apple seems really proud of Siri's ability to tell you the score of the big game. "Siri, what is the score of the Saints game?" but if I have to take my phone out anyway, I'll just call that up on an app and get all sorts of great contextual information as well. Siri in a perfect world would be able to replace the announcers at sporting events. At present? She's just a slower way of getting staid information.

Alexa is most powerful when she is ubiquitous. We started with an Echo in the living room / kitchen. (It's an open floor plan.) You just say out loud, though not loud, really—you can whisper to her—"Alexa set a timer," and she sets a timer. (We do set a lot of timers, I guess. Cooking, homework, etc.) And you say things like "Alexa play NPR" or "Alexa play Frank Sinatra," and the whole thing is just so convenient, so good, so transparent that you find yourself talking to her like she's some really smart and plucky servant. "Alexa, how do I spell Cincinnati?" Or, "Alexa, play some study music." I've written previously about my love of Christmas music, and Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora in particular. Guess what? "Alexa, play Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora." And she does, and it's wonderful. And she can control that too. "Alexa, I don't like this song" or "Alexa, turn up the volume."

She also controls the Nest thermostat. "Alexa, set the hallway thermostat to 75."

Alexa, what's on my calendar today? Alexa what's the high? Alexa, play Jeopardy! (really).

The real power of Alexa is the way she can interface with other applications or devices. There's the Nest thermostat, but also things like Wunderlist (which I live out of)—"Alexa, add 'Write a blog post' to my to-do list," and there it appears—or with my car's computer system. "Alexa, lock my car."

One thing I never thought I'd use, ever, ever!, but find myself using quite often is the Alexa's shopping capability on Amazon. We always run out of coffee. Now when it's low, however: "Alexa, order more vanilla biscotti flavored coffee." / "Your order history says you previously ordered Folgers Gourmet Selections Vanilla Biscotti Flavored Ground Coffee, 10 Ounce. It costs $4.73. Would you like me to order it?" / "Yes!" And she does. Two days later it's waiting for me, courtesy of Amazon Prime and FedEx.

Eventually Alexa proliferated across our home. This works really well with Amazon Music Unlimited, which I feared would only allow a single stream at time, but seems to have no limit. People in different rooms can listen to whatever they want.

Does it do everything I want? Not yet. There are some pretty obvious things that I wish would be implemented soon. "Alexa, play Christmas music on all of my Echoes." That doesn't work. The devices, as best I can tell, have no knowledge of the existence of each other, even when they're on the same wifi network.

"Alexa, find a Christmas movie and send it to my Fire TV*." She doesn't do that, either, again, because she has no knowledge of other Amazon devices.

"Alexa, set the alarm on my daughter's Dot for 6:15 a.m." Again, no dice, because she has no idea that other devices exist.

The only other shortcoming I can think of is that she's not very good at carrying on a conversation. Once you issue a command or ask her to do something that she cannot, she's done. And you have to start over. "Alexa,...", "Alexa,...", "Alexa,..." It's a little too much like talking to a distracted child. It forces you to be a little too condescending. The beauty of Alexa is that she's more like a friend or a companion. When you have to keep demanding her attention, the balance of the "relationship" is thrown a bit off.

I expect these oversights will be solved eventually. I'd also love to be able to use them as a kind of intercom system—"Alexa, call my daughter's Dot." But features are added every month, and other companies seem pretty good about writing apps for Alexa, so I suspect the wait will not be long for these abilities and others that I've not yet considered.

In total, these things have had a really positive effect on our home. The Roomba was expensive, there's no getting around that, as were the Nest thermostats, though all of their prices seem to have plummeted during the Thanksgiving shopping holiday. The Echo was $179 when I bought it, which turned out to be an absolute steal not only for the features, but because the speaker on that thing is Bose-like. Just extraordinary sound quality. The Dots were $39 over the holiday, and we picked up a couple. I intend to get more when prices fall again.

Are there privacy implications for all of this? Yes, with an asterisk. The devices do not open connections with Amazon until you say, "Alexa." And as mentioned previously, she's a little too quick to stop listening. Could she be hacked? Could be be recruited by the NSA to learn the intimate details of my life? Probably. But considering the number of computers, smart phones, video game systems, tablets—even my cable box!—that have "always listen" capabilities, the truth is if They, however you define They, want to listen, they already can and already are. Amazon has a really good track record with security, and I'm going to place my trust in them until they give me a reason to do otherwise.

* Regarding the Fire TV: One thing the awesome convenience and utility of Alexa has done is brought us firmly into the Amazon ecosystem. We long ago gave up on the hokey Apple TV. There were too many apps that we wanted to try, such as Sling TV, Amazon Video, or FeelIn, that were denied on the Apple TV because the system was closed. (It has since opened up, though we're too far gone to look back.) We switched to Roku—we got one for free from Sling TV for giving it a try (we didn't stay with it because it lacked a couple of the very few channels we actually watch). Roku is wonderful! But Fire TV does everything it does, and also interfaces nicely with Amazon Music Unlimited, and Photos. So we invested in one. So far I'm pleased. I'm not a big TV person in general, but the device (the Fire TV, not television in general) hasn't yet offended me, and is smooth and light compared, again, with the clunky Apple TV (version 3, the last we tried).

[image credit: Six Colors]

The Day After Tomorrow

The city of Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas have just endured the meteorologic equivalent of a zombie movie. The flood, it seemed, came from nowhere, in all directions, patiently overtaking everyone and everything. There was no hurricane, no Weather Channel Special Event. No "Megastorm Rudolph" or whatever. It was a rainy day, and then tens of thousands of people became homeless and lost everything they owned. The floods seemed to have no logic behind them—places flooded that haven't flooded in centuries, if ever—places where it was not just improbable that flooding would occur, but laughable—impossible. It was like The Day After Tomorrow, the awful movie in which one day there is sudden global freezing, or something, due to climate change. I don't doubt climate change or its human accelerant, but when it does come, I doubt I'll go to bed in a humid Louisiana summer and wake up to find Antarctica in the backyard. But the flood was exactly like that. People went to bed and woke up to a foot of water in their house, and they weren't even the least fortunate of the victims.

But a zombie movie, that's what I've thought about this week. Because the flooding just seemed to happen, and in places that, to a layman, seems to have been in random places with no concern for elevation or location—here, not there, here and here and here but not one road over. It's like Poseidon was throwing darts. It didn't seem even to be related to the intensity of rain. So there's been a general feeling of: It's coming. They're coming to get you Barbara! This threat, inexplicable. You cannot outrun it. You can't prepare for it. Stack all the sandbags you'd like—the water will not relent.

In most zombie movies you see How It All Started. Some scientist playing God, or whatever, and then doomsday. But for most characters in such a movie, that's not how it happens. For them, they're eating breakfast and down the road come the zombies, lumbering along, hungry for brains. What do you do? Where do you go? That's the flood. And like any good thriller, the first thing you have to do is get rid of cell phones, because isolation is key to scaring someone. In Baton Rouge, AT&T was able to oblige, its wireless service collapsing immediately after the flood began. No calls in or out. You're alone and whether or not your family is flooded or trapped or dead is a terrifying mystery.

My house was not flooded, though it was just dumb luck that it didn't. Our number wasn't called. But I keep thinking of the people who lost everything. Very, very few of these people had flood insurance because they didn't live in flood areas. It would have been like having blizzard insurance, The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding. And so they've lost everything they own, have no house, still have mortgages, and will get little to none of their money back from insurance companies. How do you recover from that? It's inconceivable. And yet for thousands of people, that's their life now. But it's so much worse than that, because businesses were flooded too, and aren't likely to open tomorrow, if ever. Now you're homeless, destitute, deeply in debt, and you don't have a job or income.

In truth, I've not paid much attention to the national news because when actual news is happening the national media is at its worst, the industry having long pivoted to a tawdry form of entertainment. Had reporters parachuted in, they would have sewn only the seeds of chaos, like foreign spies inciting Third World riots. But I was mortified to find a day after the city was submerged—residents desperately working to rescue neighbors, friends, family—that no major paper condescended even to mention on its front page the tragedy, the catastrophe, the liquid apocalypse that had befallen Louisiana. It was a clarifying event. Here is how little you matter. In truth, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities—obliterated Denham Springs, 80% of its residents submerged!—probably don't matter much to the rotation of the Earth. But simply as fellow countrymen, one would expect a tip of the hat. An empty gesture. No speech by the president. Nothing from the Dorito-hued con man running for president. A single tweet from Hillary Clinton, presumably the next president. Less than 140 characters of text. We didn't even rate a Very Special Edition of her propaganda podcast. Thanks Hillary. Baton Rouge citizens who are #withher know now that it's a one way #with.

But there again, it's been amazing?—I hate to use that word, but here we are—how meaningless the national spotlight has been. It's been a deliverance to avoid the stampede of politicians posing for photographs in shelters, their best Very Concerned faces plastered on. Will this look good on my website? This is the front of my reelection brochure. They're not here, and nobody misses them, exactly. It's just a principal thing. And to see the response of the community—you hear "everyone came together" and you roll your eyes, but here, that's exactly what happened. The moment the flood started, the Celtic movie studio opened one of its massive sound stages and started a shelter. Local fishermen raced their boats into subdivisions and down highways, going house to house, rescuing strangers. The Cajun Navy. Not because they were somehow directed or coerced, but because it needed to be done, and who else was going to do it? People used Facebook to ask for help, or to ask for someone to check on a loved one (AT&T was down when it was needed most!) and strangers in their boats would see the request, and steer toward the houses in question. This improvised emergency response—a bunch of guys in fishing boats, a film studio with an empty building, shared status updates on Facebook—was exponentially better than any "managed" disaster response I've seen in my lifetime. Please don't help us—we don't want another Katrina! Donation centers have sprung up everywhere—donation centers alone could have pushed the flood water away. My daughter and I went to Walmart to buy items to donate, and it was like the whole store was doing the same. People just pushing shelves of toiletries and baby items and foodstuffs into grocery carts to give away. So many people have volunteered that volunteers have been turned back. Those same volunteers took to social media to learn where help was needed, and went there instead. Roving bands of mercy facing down the zombie menace, the overnight Antarctica.

I don't know what happens next. Nobody does. School is back in session, which is good. But even in the letter from my daughter's school announcing the reopening, a sad aside: school is reopening in part so that parents can begin recovery efforts without also having to attend to the kids. The community will survive this, but it will take so many years. At least there is some clarity as to where we rate on the national scene, and the knowledge that whatever comes next, we can handle it.

An Ode to the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a best friend to both journalists and students, and is one of the few devices in my arsenal that have made a measurable, positive impact on my career. I bought my pen in 2010, making it quite old in tech years, and while it is beginning to show its age (the digital screen no long lights sufficiently that I can read it), it has proven to be a workhorse and a staple of my satchel. When conducting an interview, I generally bring my pen, a spiral-bound Livescribe notebook, and also a small, Philips digital audio recorder, for redundancy. (I've yet to lose a single minute from either device due to technical problems, though we buy insurance not for what has happened, but for what might happen. And as an added benefit, on occasion one mic can clarify audio that is muddled on the other.) The way the Echo pen works is this. I take notes by hand in my Livescribe notebook. The pen records both the audio being spoken, but also the pen strokes as I write them in the notebook. When I later download a note-taking session to my computer, I can see my notes being written in real time as the audio plays. (This is super useful when drawing diagrams of things being explained.) But a computer isn't even necessary for the process, at any step, ever (save backups, which can go directly to Evernote, where handwritten notes are then made searchable—one of many Evernote miracles). Sans computer, you can also take only your little spiral-bound notebook and pen, go off somewhere, plug headphones into the pen (or just use the pen's speaker) and open the notebook. Tap the pen on any word of any note you've taken, and the pen will almost as if by magic begin playing the audio recorded at the exact moment you wrote said note. This is a game changer, and adds a level of prevision to notes and direct quotes that must surely be unparalleled in the history of notetaking.

Here is an Amazon link to the Livescribe 2 Echo. N.b. that I make no money on this link, as Louisiana is ineligible for affiliate linking.

Note further that I've said nothing about the much newer Livescribe 3, which I own, and despise, for the following reasons:

1. It is not self contained. If I want to use a Livescribe 3 pen, I have to have my phone present (which is not always possible depending on the security policies of institutions at which I conduct interviews), and more unnerving, I have to trust that Livescribe's general execrable software will not crash on my phone, midway through an interview, leaving me missing key parts of interviews. More importantly, such mission-critical failures force me to disrupt the flow of an interview in order to reload the app and fiddle with the pen to get things reconnected. This is simply a deal-breaker. Audio recorders can sometimes be ever-present warnings to interview subjects that You-Are-Being-Recorded-So-Hedge-Everything-You-Say-on-Penalty-of-Career-Suicide. (Not that I generally, if ever, ask such loaded questions, but when you're being recorded, every question can feel that way.) This risks leading to stilted, toothless, mealy answers. But not generally. Once an interview begins, I start the recorder, aim it, and within 10 minutes or so, it is usually forgotten because we are used to being surrounded by technology. Moreover, people generally focus only on a single thing or thought. During an interview, that single thing is the question at hand. The recorder thus melts into the table and is soon forgotten. But start fiddling with your fat pen and iPhone, and suddenly the recorder returns to the forefront, this time glowing in phosphorescence.

2. I am left-handed. The designers of the Livescribe 3 (smartly) rejected the weird Livescribe 2 cap in favor of a twist-to-extend-pentip model. So far, so good. But they positioned the twist-to-extend band in the dead center of the pen. If you're right handed, that's no problem. As you write, the downward pressure of the pen against your hand acts as a kind of locking mechanism keeping the pen extended. (The pen extends by twisting the band counterclockwise.) But if you are left handed, the downward pressure of the pen against you hand constantly twists the band clockwise, thus unlocking the pen and retracting it. The upshot is that every few paragraphs during furious note taking, the pen suddenly retracts and thus powers down and generally loses connection to the app, disrupting everything. (See point 1.)

3. It is a missed opportunity. The downside of the Livescribe Echo is its bulk. It's like writing with a fat Crayola marker. This is because it has to pack audio recording equipment within its shell. By outsourcing the audio stuff to the phone for the Livescribe 3, though, the new pen should have shrunken considerably, to something more in line with a Sharpie marker. Instead, and inexplicably, they went the opposite direction, making the Livescribe 3 more like a Magic Marker. Whether this was a design choice (though I cannot imagine how) or poor internal engineering, the result is all of the bad with none of the good. You lose the self-contained pen while gaining a fat pen relying on Livescribe's notoriously unreliable software.

I've not yet given up on the company, though, and hope that the Livescribe 4 addresses these issues by: 1. Returning the recording component of the device to the pen's internals, while 2. Taking advantage on 7+ years of technological advancement to shrink the internals to give us a pen closer in size to a traditional pen, and 3. Move the pen-tip-twist-extension to the top side of the pen, when one's handgrip does not result in inadvertent twists.

I will report back when the next pen is released.

On Mass Shootings, Baton Rouge, and the Sorry State of the World

After the tragic slaying of three police officers in Baton Rouge (following the tragic slaying of a black man by police officers) I was asked by The Atlantic to offer a view from the ground, and I did. I'm happy with the way the piece turned out, though the 1,000 words lost in the edit made less clear the thesis of the piece, which is: The civil strife in the city, which made national news, was actually very localized in Baton Rouge, and easily avoided. The assassination of police officers has made it a city-wide tragedy—a fresh wound felt by all and impossible for anyone to ignore. I received some pushback on Twitter from people suggesting that I was somehow justifying cop-killing, which is the exact opposite of what I wrote in the essay. (Those people likely did not read the piece, but rather, the headline, which I did not write.) The city is reeling, and is unlikely to recover for a very long time. The piece can be found here.

Over at The Week, I wrote about firearms and the terrorist attack in Orlando, and suggested that Alexander Hamilton was pretty clear in the Federalist Papers about what a "well regulated militia" means. My suggestion: rather than wait for gun confiscation, which will never happen, or the next mass shooting, which definitely will happen, why not follow the Second Amendment to the letter? If the right to keep and bear arms is to maintain a well regulated militia, why not mandate militia membership in order to own a firearm, and let local militias police themselves? Small groups are very good at identifying problem individuals in their ranks, and militias would have a vested interest in doing so. Moreover, in keeping with the Framers' intentions, militias would have to meet once or twice a year; it would keep gun ownership a state issue; and it would confer civil obligations on gun owners. You want a rifle? That's fine. But you need to be proficient with it, understand firearm safety, and be ready to be called upon to use your weapon in defense of the United States. That piece can be found here.


It has been very difficult keeping this news a secret. Thankfully, it has now been reported in Publisher's Marketplace, so here is the announcement:

Brown Gets Close to “Earth” at Custom House

For HarperCollins’s Custom House imprint, Geoff Shandler preempted world rights to David W. Brown’s One Inch from Earth. Brown is a contributor to the Atlantic and the book, which Dunow, Carlson & Lerner’s Stacia Decker represented, is about NASA’s Europa mission (established to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Jupiter). Custom House said the book features “persevering scientists as its heroes, the planet Mars as the villain, and an unlikely savior in the form of a Tea Party congressman on a mission to find a second Garden of Eden on Jupiter’s moon.”

A lot of hard work went into this. The proposal took a full year to write—longer, in fact, than my last book—and involved more research, interviews, travel, and luck than I ever could have imagined. (There are no shortcuts when doing good work.) Of course, the hard part is yet to come.

My agent, Stacia Decker of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, is one of the most competent, sharp, and fabulous human beings I've ever had the good fortune of knowing, and she parlayed the proposal into an tremendous book deal with the most exciting imprint in publishing today. (At lot of adjectives in that previous sentence, and every one is accurate.) I am over the moon at the idea of working with Geoff Shandler, who previously edited some of my favorite books ever, including Into the Beautiful North, a masterpiece by Luis Urrea.

Finally, I am honored to write this book and to tell the story of men and women whose work will transform science, philosophy, religion—you name it. One day we will all know their names, and it's a privilege to do my part in making that happen.

(I know this reads like an Oscars speech, but it's a pretty big moment for me, and I intend to live up to expectations.)

Worlds That Weren't

Some mornings I drive around absently in search of a place to work. It is a passive act, and I find myself making turns the way I imagine flocks of birds decide to veer left or right. It is a blue feeling to the extent that there is feeling at all, something to do with, perhaps, some fear that the work is transitory? The rational part of my mind prevents any of this from becoming disquieting, though. My career is fine, my health is fine, my life is fine. But it all changes. We get older. I get older. It is deeply unsettling to scroll through one's Amazon order history. I did this recently. Things bought, clothes, books, shoes, trinkets. I scrolled back a full decade. For each item I could summon some very real hope or need or intention that I felt at the time. I will wear these shoes to do something important. I will buy this camera and learn photography. A nice belt for some party I might attend. Maybe I could start wearing suits every day. A microphone to start a podcast. The lives born in my mind—lives that never came to pass. Why didn't they? Time. Practicality. Why did I buy that bandana? Did I think it would make me David Foster Wallace?

These are the tabs open in my web browser. A recipe for mini tiramisu; 5 vibrant takes on classic hummus; Operating System Development Series; The little book about OS development; Beyond Hubble: Meet the Telescopes of Tomorrow; How to Make Twitter Actually Useful; 23 Foods You Can Make in a Muffin Tin; Cake Batter Waffles; 7 Recipes You Can Make in a Coffee Mug. Why do I want to make so many foods using unorthodox cookware? And do I expect time to present itself during which I might develop a hobby operating system?

Such frivolous tabs, purchases, and coffee shop flocking do not carve much into my productivity, and they might even enhance it. A temporary workplace that sparks joy. Nice shoes that I have worn, and will wear again. The flash of whimsy that lights some tiny part of my brain when I think about making a chocolate chip cookie in a coffee mug. Perhaps the doomed little worlds we all spin into being make the one in which we actually live a little easier, a little better. We try them out, these tiny singularities, and live them out in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. And then they are gone, and we get back to the business of life, and trudge along on our distinct little paths.