I've written millions of words on a diverse array of topics, and though I'm proud of just about everything to which I've ever signed my name, not all pieces are created equal. Six-thousand-word essays on space exploration and 700-word briefs on the shape of a Pringle (it's a hyperbolic paraboloid) aren't quite the same thing. As such, I have compiled a short list of things I've written that should give you a good idea of what I write and how I write it. N.b. that I am a freelance writer, so if you see something whose style might work well in your journal, please fire me an email. I'm certain that we can make some beautiful art together.
The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx
"The main entrance to Kennedy Space Center materializes at the end of a six-mile stretch of road, the 405, a thin black ribbon laid across the Indian River. Down this runway of a highway every morning, the orange Florida sun rises dead ahead, its rays dancing on the Indian, and all is flat and wide, horizon and water alike, and on the narrow banks running along the road, separating asphalt from fresh water, the occasional sabal palmetto springing from thickets of reeds waist-high. If you are an astronaut and you're driving to work, Cape Canaveral is as indelible a vista of Earth as you might want before climbing into your capsule and flying to space.
"To the northeast, far across the Indian, is a massive white cube — a structure impossibly large even from six, seven, eight miles away. The American flag is painted on one side, and NASA's blue and red logo — the 'meatball,' as old-schoolers call it — is painted adjacent. This is the Vehicle Assembly Building — the VAB — perhaps the best known of any NASA building on Earth. It is the largest single-story building in the world, and every millimeter of its 160-meter height is necessary. It is where rockets are assembled. From a distance, it is surrounded by nothing, though once on the grounds of Kennedy, a scattering of buildings can be found circling it, tiny birds at the feet of some lumbering mammal — offices and fabrication centers, a cafeteria, press buildings."
The Littlest Boy
Foreign Policy magazine
"Leading up to the operation, during four days of preparation, Army regional experts briefed them on routes of infiltration and anticipated enemy patrols. The team pored over aerial photographs and an elaborate mock-up of the target -- a large, slightly U-shaped building. It's situated in a wide, open area with a roving guard, but at least the team won't have to sneak inside.
"Hanging awkwardly from the parachute harness of Davis's intelligence sergeant is a 58-pound nuclear bomb."
"This was bigger than the United States, as the enthusiastic international response suggests. It is a milestone for humanity. Fifty-eight years ago, with Sputnik I, humankind gingerly dipped its toe into an ocean of black. In 1969, we took a giant leap. On July 14, 2015, we learned how to run. And yet, for the scientists, engineers, space administrators, support staff, and family members present, "human achievement" isn't quite right either. From the outside, these are glorious firsts — well done, species! — but the men and women in the trenches of the Applied Physics Laboratory do this every day. They're the ones who machine every screw and type every line of code. They're the ones who slug it out with appropriations committees and develop new ways to harness the laws of physics. They write the papers for scientific journals, with titles like 'Potential Collateral Effects in Stable Hafnium Isotopes Due to the S-Process Production of the Short-Lived Radionuclide 182Hf?.' To those of us on the outside, exploring Pluto just happens. Insiders know that such things are made to happen."
Margaret Kivelson Figured It Out
The New York Times
The data was like nothing Margaret Kivelson and her team of physicists had anticipated.
It was December 1996, and the spacecraft Galileo had just flown by Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. The readings beamed back to Earth suggested a magnetic field emanating from the moon. Europa should not have had a magnetic field, yet there it was — and not even pointed in the right direction.
“This is unexpected,” she recalled saying as the weird data rolled in. “And that’s wonderful.”
It would be the most significant of a series of surprises from the Jovian moons. For Dr. Kivelson’s team, the mission should not have been this exciting.
She and her colleagues had devised the magnetometer returning the anomalous data. The instrument’s job was to measure Jupiter’s massive magnetic field and any variations caused by its moons. Those findings were likely to interest space physicists, but few others. Dr. Kivelson’s instrument was never supposed to change the course of space exploration.
And then it did. Dr. Kivelson and her team would soon prove that they had discovered the first subsurface, saltwater ocean on an alien world.
11,800 Writers in a Room, and What I Saw There
Those not in or around the business do not necessarily know this. It is very hard to explain to, say, your tipsy uncle during a holiday gathering that, no, the novel isn't ready yet, and yes, it has been in progress for well over three years, and that this is normal—and yes, you are working on it—and that even when the book is finished, it doesn't just go to the printers and hit shelves a few weeks later. And once it does come out—yes, goddammit, I really am working on it—the first question asked by tipsy uncle is, "Are they making a movie of it?" and, statistically speaking, "they" probably are not, and this news is received as some kind of failure, like the book just wasn’t good enough or something. And then you (i.e. the author) are advised to write a book like Harry Potter, because J.K. Rowling is doing quite well (“She’s richer than the queen!”), and perhaps my favorite of all familial declarations, "I'd write a book but I just don't have time," as though a craft you've devoted ten thousand hours to honing is something you do because of a light schedule in a tranquil life. This is almost always followed by the familial postscript, “I’d like to write it from one of those villas in Tuscany.”
Getting the Dirt on Creation—Inside OSIRIS-REx's First Close Look at Bennu
A month before the AGU conference I am spending time with Lauretta and the rest of the OSIRIS-REx science team for the mission’s first spectroscopic glimpse of Bennu. The then-unknown evidence of ancient water existed at the time only as a thin beam of 0s and 1s—a 120-million-kilometer tether connecting OSIRIS-REx to Station 54, a giant radio dish in Madrid that is part of the Deep Space Network for interplanetary communications. That data stream from the distant asteroid would further travel from Spain to the Michael J. Drake Building of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Named for a late founding father of planetary science and of OSIRIS-REx, the Drake Building is nondescript and tucked away off-campus in a quiet residential neighborhood on the north side of Tucson. Yet on the morning of November 5, 2018, it may well be the planet’s epicenter of planetary science activity, housing dozens of frenzied scientists poring over fresh imagery just sent back from Bennu.
When Congress Puts NASA on Hold, Planets Don't Wait
The New York Times
The United States asks NASA to do an extraordinary amount with very little money. Explore Mars, document climate change, stop doomsday asteroids, find life on Europa — all for less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. But budget uncertainties on Capitol Hill, including delays in federal appropriations legislation and temporary government shutdowns, measurably harm the American space program. Even the threat of a shutdown can have a far-reaching impact on scientific projects, often in unexpected ways.
"One by one they flickered to life. Venus, first, in 1962, and two and a half years later, Mars. Our spacecraft flew by those planets, orbited them, and became manmade meteors streaking toward the first soil we couldn’t generically call "earth." Later, when we grew ambitious and confident in our abilities, humanity reached for the outer planets, probing Jupiter and Saturn in 1973 and 1979. Each mission turned conjecture into fact, invalidated old assumptions, and brought us closer to one day answering the two fundamental questions of existence: where did all this come from, and where is it headed?"
The Second Launch of OSIRIS-REx
“Okay, it should be coming down,” says Church. Engineering data will arrive first, and afterward, it should take a few minutes for each image to arrive: The spacecraft snapped dozens over a few hours. The energy of the room intensifies, and the scientists discuss camera fields of view and what to expect of this first image. After 13 years of planning, everyone has to know all of this already, but what else can you discuss? The bit counts projected on the wall tick torpidly upward when they tick at all. Church types with a kind of gleeful aggressiveness and takes quick breaths.
The team members break the tension with jokes about colleagues doing Facebook Live (the sort of outreach now part of every NASA mission in recent years) and facetiously ascribe any subsequent personal faults to their newfound Hollywood attitudes. (“Process your images? Yeah right—I’m basking in my likes!”) They discuss Pen-REx, the mission’s stuffed penguin-disguised-as-a-Tyrannosaurus-rexmascot, and how she figures in possible Lockheed motives for slowing the downlink. (“Give us Pen-REx if you want the data!”)
“This is the longest five minutes of my life,” Church says.
"As the reader soon learns, Jimmy has bowel cancer, and the novel revisits an area Doyle explored previously in The Van: what it means to be a man at middle age, with life chiseling away at previous points of masculine pride. In that novel, Jimmy Sr. endures a painful midlife crisis triggered by the loss of his job. The ebbs and flows of Ireland’s economy are forces no less powerful than gravity in Doyle’s work. Jimmy Sr. tries to sustain some measure of self-respect, and the respect of his family, even as his identity as breadwinner and 'man of the house' slips away. The Van tracks how he fills empty, emotionally paralyzing days, and how he copes with the small setbacks: Christmas gifts that cannot be purchased, home improvements that cannot be made, and pints with the guys that cannot be bought. It explores how he rediscovers his identity through the start of a small business (a chipper van), and how he overcorrects in the worst ways and crashes back down to Earth."
Why Is NASA Neglecting Venus?
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.