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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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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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92310, Goldstone

In the construction zone

Dear ——–,

I forgot my steel-toed boots, so one of the guys handed me these hard plastic green toe covers, lovingly nicknamed “Klingon war boots.” I got up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning to drive out to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex to check on the beginning of “major surgery” on the historic 70-meter “Mars antenna.” The main part of the work is replacing part of the runner and grout in the hydrostatic bearing assembly, which enables the antenna to turn sideways. The scale of this thing was immense. I had to go up several flights of stairs to get up even to the level of the steel runner. About 9 million pounds floats on a film of oil about the thickness of a piece of paper over this runner, so it’s incredibly important for the runner to lie flat. (After 44 years of constant wear and tear, it no longer does.) I was surprised by how brisk it was out there. The chill came from the wind, which was blowing at about 20 miles an hour. “A mere breeze,” one of the Goldstone staffers explained.