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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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91109, Pasadena

Watching the last shuttle launch

 

Dear ——–,

I was don’t remember the first shuttle launch, but I remember the principal coming over the loudspeaker in 3rd grade to announce that the Challenger had been lost. We observed a moment of silence. It was a sober note in the booming, self-confident America of the 1980s, of which NASA’s space shuttle program was part and parcel. I remember being mesmerized by Kennedy Space Center as a kid, coming home with a t-shirt showing a shuttle framed by pink puffy paint. All of this contributed to where I am now — at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, writing about robotic explorers to the outer solar system. So at the final shuttle launch, I joined hundreds of others at JPL, one of the key places where our space program began to take shape, to commemorate the end of an era. The whole room clapped and cheered as the engines burned and the shuttle lifted off cleanly. I won’t mourn the shuttle per se so long as America keeps yearning to explore. But I do worry that the harsh economic reality will keep us from pushing boundaries, testing our limits, asking questions about the places we’ve never been. To me, these are the things that make us human.


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91001, Altadena

Inflatable Earth in the classroom

Dear ——–,

I took a class called “Understanding Space” last week as a way to learn vocabulary that scientists and engineers at work throw around with abandon (e.g., bipropellant, angular momentum, delta v). What struck me most was that while physics explains the mechanics of the space, it can also explain some social phenomena. The teacher was talking about how a satellite in a low orbit around Earth is traveling quite fast, with a lot of “kinetic” energy. A satellite orbiting much farther from Earth travels slower, but has a greater “potential” energy in the bank. The situation made me think about how folks who are born into low socioeconomic circumstances have to expend a lot of energy to make it and actively push themselves. Trustafarians whose parents set them up with a high socioeconomic situation, however, can cruise quite lazily through life. They can rely on potential energy (connections, parents, etc.), should they ever need to go to an expensive college or get a job. Of course, all parents want to put a kid in as high an orbit as they can. Maybe the idea is that where you are positioned determines how much energy you need to add to go zooming off on your own, into the stars.


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20546, Washington

Astronaut suit at NASA Headquarters

Dear ——–,

I made a quickie trip to NASA Headquarters this week to be a kind of showrunner for a press briefing on the science results from a comet flyby. On the Supershuttle to my hotel, I was listening to the radio ads, which were promoting things like Lockheed Martin’s tech support, which was deemed to be innovative and “secure.” There was no way any company like that would ever waste money on a radio ad in L.A.! My hotel was right across the street from NASA Headquarters, in the middle of a neighborhood full of bad Le Corbusier knockoffs. Seriously, it was bureaucracy central. Sewell and I struggled to find a place to get a late dinner, settling for a bar/bistro three blocks away at the Holiday Inn. I put on my wool coat and we walked out into a crisp autumn night that made me miss the East Coast a little bit. The next day’s briefing managed to go off without any blow-ups (whew!) and I headed back to the airport Thursday evening. Through the window of my cab to the airport, I saw gold and orange leaves fluttering in the breeze.


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92310, Goldstone

The 70-meter-wide Mars antenna, shortly after sunrise

Dear ——–,

I had to be at the Goldstone Deep Space Network complex by 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, so I got up at 3:30. It felt god-awful to be getting up when some significant portion of L.A. was just drunkenly stumbling into bed. On the freeway, I noticed considerably more cars at 5 a.m. compared to 4 a.m. The only consolation was seeing a ponderous yellow harvest moon setting in the west over the Mojave Desert as the sun rose in the east. By the time I arrived at the 70-meter-wide Mars antenna site, the edges of the antenna were beginning to bask in that golden California light. This visit, I actually climbed up to the apex of the giant antenna. It wasn’t for the faint of heart — the metal that makes up the dish is actually perforated with tiny holes and you can see the ground beneath your feet, some 100 feet below. I also crawled to the edge of the antenna, peered over and quickly crawled back. A stiff breeze blew as birds perched on the antenna and chirped. I could almost make out the strains of Peer Gynt playing on a perfect desert morning.


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92060, Palomar Mountain

Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain

Dear ——–,

We sought out darkness on Palomar Mountain to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I’d never set aside time to watch a meteor shower before, but when some coworkers invited Bryan and I to Doane Valley campground at Palomar Mountain State Park, we said yes immediately. Staring up at the night sky there reminded me how three-dimensional the universe is. The stars glimmered like dewdrops on gossamer cobwebs. A friend pointed out the gray smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own, but probably the most distant object I’ll ever see with my naked eye. The meteors were not as numerous as I imagined, but I probably saw a dozen each night. Some of them were large bright bursts streaking across the sky, leaving a sparkling tail behind them. We also took the opportunity to visit the nearby Palomar Observatory, whose telescopes were used to discover Eris (the dwarf planet that led to Pluto’s demotion) and the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The tour was meh, but I loved hearing about the inspiring words of George Ellery Hale, the driving force behind Palomar’s 200-inch telescope: “Make no small plans. Dream no small dreams.”


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90038, Hollywood

Lunch at Street

Dear ——–,

Bryan and I spent one of the most perfect Saturdays ever. We started off with a leisurely lunch at Street, where we enjoyed sweet-salty Kaya toast, a succulent pulled pork banh mi and Vietnamese corn with a kick of spice. The iced chrysanthemum tea was so tasty it made me think, “Why hasn’t anyone else done this?” (We had to try Susan Feniger’s restaurant after she charmed us on Top Chef Masters.) We headed over to Exposition Park afterward and took a stroll through the rose garden, where we saw an older couple taking wedding pictures and lots of signs saying “no soccer.” We took a moment to smell the proverbial roses. Then we filed inside to see “Hubble 3D” at the California Science Center. It was really amazing to fly inside the nest stars and gas making up Orion’s belt and watch astronauts making repairs on the space telescope. I wish there were some more shots of the galaxy in 3-D, but I guess you can’t go back and make famous Hubble shots (like the Eagle Nebula) into true 3-D after the fact. In a happy daze, we made our way home.


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80331, Munich

Munich city hall, Marienplatz

Dear ——–,

One of the first things I learned in Munich is that bikes ride on the smooth part of the sidewalk and pedestrians walk on the cobblestone part. A few aggravated dings of a bell and near collisions quickly schooled me. I arrived in Munich in the late afternoon Monday and quickly set out for a walk around town. I was struck by how green the landscapes are and how flat the terrain is. California makes you accustomed to perpetual drought and dramatic mountains and valleys. I ended up bumping into one of the scientists here for the same meeting as me near Marienplatz, the main square, and we decided to sit outside, in a courtyard of city hall. I decided to tuck into a sausage sampler for my first Munich meal. Even though I don’t like beer, I figured I should try it if I’m at the home of Oktoberfest. I ordered a tall glass of weissbier. It was actually not bad – light, almost sweet. Even though I didn’t come close to finishing it, Bryan was surprised I drank any at all. It was the first time I understood the idea of beer being refreshing.


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94103, San Francisco

Earth and planetary scientists descend on the Moscone Center

Dear ——–,

Sixteen thousand earth and planetary scientists descended on San Francisco, as they do every December, for the fall conference of the American Geophysical Union. This is one of the few conferences where they serve beer free, every day at 3:30 p.m. I showed up at the Moscone Center on Thursday to talk up the Cassini mission to Saturn and the outer solar system. At least I came armed with an image release about the first flash of sunlight ever seen on another world besides Earth. I expected a lot more reporters, but I think the economic woes befalling newspapers and other media outlets have hit science reporting particularly hard. Maybe it’s a luxury they decide they can’t afford any more. (Health and medicine will probably be fine because those are clear pieces of news you can use. But Saturn might be a harder sell.) I was nervous introducing myself around the press room, but I did my best to highlight what was cool about Saturn’s moons. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some of the reporters will follow up!


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93437, Vandenberg Air Force Base

This picture doesn't do justice to the amazing WISE launch!

Dear ——–,

I couldn’t stop babbling, “Amazing … wow … ” as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer launched from a pad about three miles away from where we were standing at Vandenberg Air Force base this morning at 6:09 a.m. Next to me, Amy Mainzer, the deputy project scientist, clapped with delight and shouted, “Woohoo! Go, go, go!” Here was the moment where, as she described later, she was a proud mamma bird watching her baby bird finally fly off from the nest. A handful of reporters and photographers from papers in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Pasadena were also standing in the field with us. One of them said she was so excited she was shaking. We could hear the rumbling for a few minutes after launch and watched the bright spot fade as the spacecraft blasted away from us. Somewhere out there beyond our sight, the nose cone was opening like a clamshell and WISE burst out and put itself into the correct orbit around Earth. Dawn broke clear and bright a few minutes later.


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93436, Lompoc

NASA scientists and engineers, ready for the launch!

Dear ——–,

At the last minute, I got called up to help NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The drive up took me along the beautiful coastal 101, where the setting sun tinted the clouds pink above the rolling hills. I stopped at the Summerland Winery tasting room just south of Santa Barbara, where I picked up two and a half bottles of their delicious pinot noir and a bottle of dry chardonnay. (We first fell in love with a Summerland pinot noir at the Restaurant at Convict Lake near Mammoth.) I arrived at the WISE launch pad with Whitney, the other media rep, around 8 p.m. We had to surrounder our cell phones at the gate because they were worried about excess radiation — so unfortunately I didn’t get any close-up shots. The Air Force let us and a camera crew stand within a few hundred feet of the rocket. Around 10:10 p.m., the hydraulic machinery groaned and the service tower rolled back along railroad tracks. The blue and white rocket, with WISE tucked into its nose cone, slowly emerged into the spotlight. A light rain began to fall. Hope it stops by tomorrow morning!

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