When it was becoming clear that fighting the novel coronavirus meant we wouldn’t be able to keep coming to the office, my bosses were annoyingly repetitious with the email reminder that everyone should pack up what they would need to work remotely, and the question, do you have everything you need. I smugly thought, well I have my laptop and an Internet connection at home so yes, I do; stop bugging me.
It took less than two days of working from home—of both my wife and me working from home—to realize a few of the things I hadn’t given any thought to getting prepared. The first thing was, my desk chair is trash.
Actually better to say that it was not built for the task. For years I’ve had a series of very simple height-adjustable, no arms task chairs at my desk at home. They have always been just fine for a quick session at the computer, or even an hour or two playing games or writing a blog post. By the end of my second full day using that chair to work from home, spending some number of hours in the chair in between leg-stretchings and lunch, it was clear this was not going to work. The local office supply store was open yesterday and had a good selection; I made my purchase, brought it home and in an hour I’d assembled it and had it in use. Much better.
Another thing I learned is that our Internet service does have the bandwidth to support two laptops on the Internet simultaneously. I don’t know that everything would still run so well if someone was streaming a movie at the same time, but no one is doing anything like that so we appear to be in good shape. What else did I learn? I learned, again, that astronauts are pretty smart.
Today I learned it from Anne McClain, an Army officer and helicopter test pilot, and world-class rugby player, who spent six months living and working on the International Space Station from late 2018 until last June. (Talk about working remotely!) Well, today she tweeted a great thread of advice about living and working in confined spaces from the folks who have made a science out of that:
Click that tweet to get the rest of the thread, and some good suggestions about “the human behaviors [that] create a healthy culture for living and working remotely in small groups.” Something we will all be doing for the foreseeable future.
The world hasn’t seemed very excited that the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet last week, me included—even after learning that it bounced, twice (when it wasn’t supposed to have bounced at all), before settling down. Landing on the moon in 1969 was much cooler: first of all, there were people involved, and second because the moon is something we all know and Comet 67Pwhatchamacallit is not. There has been little sense of the scale of this achievement, until now: thanks to @TLBKlaus for providing this excellent graphic on Twitter.
Now you’re talking my language…
…suggest that they read this: Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s first person account of his most recent spacewalk, during which he nearly drowned inside his helmet.
…just as I’m thinking about how to uncoil the cable neatly (it is moving around like a thing possessed in the weightlessness), I ‘feel’ that something is wrong. The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.
At first, we’re both convinced that it must be drinking water from my flask that has leaked out through the straw, or else it’s sweat. But I think the liquid is too cold to be sweat, and more importantly, I can feel it increasing. I can’t see any liquid coming out of the drinking water valve either. When I inform Chris and Shane of this, we immediately receive the order to ‘terminate’ the sortie.
As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose…
I try to contact Chris and Shane: I listen as they talk to each other, but their voices are very faint now: I can hardly hear them and they can’t hear me. I’m alone. I frantically think of a plan. It’s vital that I get inside as quickly as possible. I know that if I stay where I am, Chris will come and get me, but how much time do I have? It’s impossible to know.
Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes.
Better not to forget.
This week, January 16, is the 10th anniversary of the last launch of space shuttle Columbia. If you’re interested in knowing what happened at NASA leading up to that launch and what happened in Houston during the flight, read Wayne Hale’s Blog. Wayne is retired from NASA now after a 32-year career that saw him rise from flight controller to flight director to posts within the space shuttle program hierarchy and at NASA Headquarters, including Space Shuttle Program Manager after the loss of Columbia and her crew.
Start with his August 14, 2012 entry and read forward in time: he carefully and colorfully sets the stage, introduces the players and fills in shuttle program background; he doesn’t retreat into engineering jargon; he offers his recollections of the most difficult time in the professional lives of many of the people who make up America’s human spaceflight program and doesn’t spare himself from a close look. He writes of “The Tyranny of Requirements” and the warnings that were plainly there in the two previous flights (for any who could see them), of “Counting Down to Disaster” while “Working on the Wrong Problem.”
As someone who worked at NASA then and now, I’ve found his essays both moving and instructive; I don’t know where he’s going with the story exactly, but I’m eager to read each new installment. I can explain to you what happened to that vehicle as it rose to orbit 10 years ago, and what tore it apart and killed its crew as it came home 16 days later, but Wayne’s point of view on what led up to those events—what caused them, what was responsible—is unparalleled in its accessibility and honesty.
In 2002 I thought we were paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I thought I was paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I was a Flight Director. I was also a husband and a father and active in my community. I thought I could do it all.
I was wrong.
Later on, I will write about the MLK three day weekend that cost us a crew just because we took three days off. But how can you know in advance where the proper balance is between work and life when you work at extreme risk?
While I can’t cite specific studies, my observation of several major NASA projects that have gotten in trouble over the years shows a high correlation with new, added, late, or poorly defined requirements which caused technical issues, increased the costs, and delayed the schedule. Put simply, a good program manager has got to have the gumption to just say no to changes in requirements – even when they are really good ideas.
In the end, I am convinced that the “relentless budget reduction pressures” were a major cause of the Columbia accident that cost us a crew and an orbiter. Not the only cause, but a major cause.
So where do you draw that line, between prudent and acceptable expenses and extravagance? What do you do when you depend on a vehicle that just flat costs more to fly than you can afford?
The rest of the story is coming soon, but you can get caught up now: the story of space shuttle Columbia on Wayne Hale’s Blog is worth the effort.
By turns, this video is remarkable, unbelievable, inspiring, comical, and by the end very very sad, as the object of our attention first comes face to face with its new home, something that looks for all the world like a gigantic aluminum garden shed. From the Los Angeles Times, click the pic for an outstanding time-lapse view of space shuttle Endeavour being moved from Los Angeles International Airport through the city streets to the California Science Center, where it goes on permanent display.