My Votes on 2016 Alabama State Constitutional Amendments

I won’t get into my national support, but at the state level: Shelby and whoever’s opposing Brooks this time.

I do have brief thoughts about the Alabama State Constitutional amendments on the 2016 ballot (; Ballotpedia also has coverage).  I care about Alabama politics enough to almost get arrested over it.  Here are some irreverent and profane thoughts:

  1. Yes, because Boards of Trustees need continuity, although no one needs the Cub in there in perpetuity (seriously, fuck that guy).
  2. Yes, especially because my wife and I were married at Lake Guntersille State Park.  This amendment preserves funding below a certain level and lets them self-fund up to and above that level if they can.
  3. Yes, because I am tired of having to vote on other counties’ shit.  (See below.)
  4. No, because the crazy independent streak in this state needs tampening down.  Also, if you give government the power to organize but not the power of the purse, you will get shitty government.  We have enough shitty government in Alabama as it is.
  5. No, because I hate the Alabama State Constitution and want it to be repealed.
  6. HELL FUCK NO, because we should never raise the bar for impeaching state officials.  That this sailed through the legislature gave me pause to read through the amendment again.
  7. Yes, because I don’t care but I like Etowah County.  (This is always a consideration in these votes for me.)
  8. No, because I believe that unions have an (unlikely) place in Alabama.  I might be the only no vote in Madison County.
  9. No, because 1) I hate Pickens County and 2) this is probably in place to let some old-fart judge sleep-gavel his way into retirement.  Nope, nope, nope.  Old crusty judges help few in Alabama.
  10. Yes, because … well, I can’t be bothered to care about Calhoun County.  I had to look up where it is.  Oh, Anniston?  I like Anniston.  Shine on, you crazy dreamers.
  11. Yes, mainly because Huntsville will use this judiciously while everyone else will fuck it up, allowing my beloved city to continue to rise out of the miry swamp that is this Godforsaken state.  “You live in Madison!” you say.  Yes, Madison will screw this up, because Madison is always going to screw things up (other than the schools).
  12. Yes, because I think that this is a terrible, terrible idea, but it’s Baldwin County, and … fuck Baldwin County.
  13. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, get rid of those old judges non-judicial officials and legislators.  This is the “Let Roy Moore Back on the Court Bill”.  NO.  You can contravene every vote I have in this list but this one and #6 and I’ll be happy.  Thanks to Tommy Cole for pointing out that this doesn’t affect judges, but it could be an attempt to get the Cub back on the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees.
  14. Yes, because I do actually believe in some limited autonomy and don’t want Montgomery screwing things up any more.  I almost considered a No because I do like it when Montgomery screws up, possibly leading us closer to the Constitutional Conventional Apocalypse, but that’s too risky.

If we ever do get that new Constitutional Convention, I want Lin-Manuel Miranda there to cover the events and write songs.


Hallo from Ísland!  I turn 38 today, and this is the first birthday (and the first time ever) that I’ll celebrate the day off of the North American continent, although I’m fairly sure that, with Þingvellir to our east, we’re actually still on the North American plate.  I have been on both sides of the rift in the last 13 days, though.

I have enjoyed this trip, and I plan to write much more about it by the end of the year.  We do have something like 120 GB of photos to go through.

28 months ago, I was on a journey out of a really dark time in my life, but I didn’t know what was going to happen.  I felt that, in some ways, it would be a restoration.  I didn’t know that my life would be irrevocably changed on my fourth day in that job.

Unfortunately for the both of us, I’ve been sick for the last few days and unable to do a lot of the fun things that we’d been looking forward to.  Danielle got to see a number of them, though, including the Northern Lights, something that she’d always wanted to see.  They put on quite the show while we were here.

My wife Danielle and the Northern Lights near Geysir in Iceland.  She took this one herself using a self-timer while I was passed out sick in our hotel room.
My wife Danielle and the Northern Lights near Geysir in Iceland. She took this one herself using a self-timer while I was passed out sick in our hotel room.

I don’t really know what my 39th orbit has for me.  This past year, we settled in a little bit to being married to each other, I got certified as a flight controller for the International Space Station, had a contract to build a house, got out of that contract because the builder screwed up the foundation, found another house the next day, bought that house, got the old townhouse ready to sell, put that house on the market, celebrated living half of my life in Huntsville, decided to come here to Iceland while owning two houses, and got very lucky to put the townhouse under contract 72 hours before leaving town.

I’d be happy if life slowed down just a little bit this year, but I’m betting that things won’t.  I’ve got a big thing or two lined up in the pipe (more later, if I get around to writing about it; the pace here has indeed slowed), and work never seems to get much slower.  40 is looming, and I’m starting to come to grips with that.  I often remark that I am not old (I won’t be old for another few decades), but I am clearly no longer young.

We’ll be on a plane home in nine hours, and we’ll be back in the US in 15 or so.  This has been a great trip, but as always, I’m ready to be home.  I’ve been a professional engineer since 2002 and in this business since 1999, and this is the first time that I’ve taken two weeks of paid vacation.  I call this growth.

Thanks in advance for all the birthday wishes.

Huntsville, My Home

My first time in Huntsville was at Space Camp.  It’s true — I was one of those nerds.  Even worse, I went to Space Camp (well, Space Academy) twice.  How my parents afforded it, I don’t know.

It was at my second visit to the Rocket City when I first stepped foot at what would become my home for five years: The University of Alabama in Huntsville.  We did an aquatic rescue exercise in the swimming pool that is now filled in and covered by a weight room in Spragins Hall.  I got a one-hour credit for that week in town; I ended up with something like 168 towards my undergraduate degree.

I moved to Huntsville for the first time in mid-August of 1997, fresh from two years at The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.  My MSMS experience made adjusting to college life fairly easy — probably too easy, because I was too lackadaisical to keep my GPA at a 3.5 or higher.  (Note to past self: you really should’ve taken 21 hours your second semester.)  I wasn’t a stellar student, mainly because I had too many non-academic things going on in my life — namely Student Government and my co-op experience.

I didn’t settle down right away because I didn’t really think that I would stay here, and so I moved from a dorm to my parents’ for a summer to a dorm to an apartment to an apartment to an apartment to an apartment to a rental house where I lived in a detached garage to one final apartment to a townhouse that I’ve owned for over 11 years.

That 11-year period is the longest I’ve ever had one address in my entire life.  Such is the life of a military kid.  That house is on the market now, because my wife and I have bought another, much nicer one.  I bought that townhouse thinking that I’d be in it for a few years before getting married.  Try 10.5, kid!

As of today, I’ve lived half of my life in Huntsville, Alabama.  (Yes, yes, I live in Madison.  I hate Madison.  If I cross my cul de sac and walk through my neighbor’s yard, I’m in Huntsville, and that suits me just fine.)  It’s frankly astonishing to me that what I thought would be a launchpad to greater things somewhere else in the country has ended up a base of operations.

I’ll turn 38 in a couple of months, and I realize now that I’ve lived about 2/3 of my life within a four-hour drive of my home — the exceptions being Dayton, Ohio, and San Antonio, Texas.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I figured out once that I’ve only been gone from Huntsville for more than 10 days at a stretch just three times since I moved here:

  1. A summer with my parents in the Mississippi Delta between my first two years of college.  I drove back at least four times over the course of the summer.
  2. Three weeks with my parents in 2012 after my dad had a heart attack.  He needed taking care of, and I was available.
  3. Eight weeks in 2013 when I took an internship at MITRE.

When I look back at Facebook’s Memories gee-gaw, I see the sadness and frustration that built up during those last two experiences.  The longer I was away from home, the more despondent I was.  The last experience was definitely trebled by the fact that I figured out just a week into my internship that there was no way that they’d be able to hire me, as a freeze was on for that group.  (I think it’s still in effect.)

The MITRE thing is funny to me, too, because I was living about ten minutes from my in-laws’.  I was a year away from even meeting my wife.  It’s always interesting how these little jumbles and bumbles keep life jiggling on — like how getting back into aerospace happened because my co-op mentor needed to clone himself and suddenly I was back in his orbit, or how that job led me to meeting my wife, or how we both got moved away from a glovebox project within a week of my starting my current job, or how I’m now studying to work on glove boxes again.

And yet that Saturn V is a marker, a fixed point, a lighthouse seen in most any storm.  It’s a symbol of our city’s (and nation’s) aerospace past, sited near its present at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center, and placed right next to its future leaders at the US Space and Rocket Center.

Sam Cristoforetti and I both went to Space Academy in the summer of 1995.  I like to think that we were there together, although I think that I’d have remembered an Italian girl with a lot of heart.  I don’t know when Kate Rubins went, but she is the first ISS astronaut younger than I am — by all of 13 days.  I watched Sam work on orbit while I was in my training, and now I’m getting to watch Kate kick a lot of ass in her increment.  I may not be a Space Camp Hall of Famer like those two are, but I do my part, I guess.

I can do it only because I came to this little nook of the Tennessee Valley 23 years ago.  I came because my school friends from Ohio were coming here, and I missed them and wanted to see them.  It’s funny then that in searching for a home that I’d left, I found one that I barely knew existed.

Sweet Home Alabama indeed.

#NeverTrump Electoral Math

This one is pretty simple.  Say you’re a standard-bearing GOP voter who is absolutely disgusted with the candidate that your fucked-up primary/caucus season selected.  Your last name doesn’t have to be Bush here.  You could be my dad or my brother, but you’re definitely #NeverTrump.

Trump has the temperament to be a lot of things, but I think that the most likely one is “Andrew Jackson re-incarnate”.  Jackson was so terrible that his party threw him out, leaving him the only President without a political party.  The GOP should recognize that and bar him from office in the first place.

The electoral math is simple: if you vote Republican, you can choose to not vote or vote third party, at which point you make Trump -1.  But if you choose to vote for Hillary Clinton, you’re making it -2, as she gains while he loses.

I support Sec. Clinton for office because I have become far more liberal over the last decade than I ever expected.  I would encourage you to make your vote count double in November if you’re the sort that simply cannot stand Trump and want to push him under whatever electoral rocks he slithered out from underneath.  That said, I respect your right to just go -1.

[An aside: I would expect Clinton to be a one-term President unless the GOP implodes.  She’s pretty polarizing and no spring chicken.  I want to see what she can do, though, given the chance.  18-yo me is so, so confused.]

The Enduring Legacy of Muhammad Ali

I’ve come to understand a little bit of the pull of boxing over the last few months.  I love Sun Kil Moon, and “Duk Koo Kim” made me look up the fighter.  I watched his last fight, his last struggle.  I get the attraction, the primal nature of it.  I wanted to see Ronda Rousey get knocked out that one time, so I watched video of it … a few times.  Then I watched other MMA videos.

And then I got back to the point, which is that any “sport” whose end goal is to cause major damage to the opponent’s brain really isn’t very sporting.  It’s ludicrous that we prosecute street fights and laud prizefights.

Ali deserved better, and frankly, we deserve better.  King was taken from us at 39 by a rifle shot; Ali’s “Parkinson’s” was diagnosed at 42.  The men were certainly different, and it’s perhaps a reach to equate the two, but it’s also safe to say that their social conscience and willingness to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human and strive to better yourself and your fellow man would have entwined them.  Both could reasonably be alive with powerful voices today, but no.

And yes, the enduring photo of Ali is him standing over Sonny Liston.  But did it have to be?  Were we really meant to have the final image of Ali be of him at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

I feel cheated.

Stephen Granade on the Hyperloop

My good friend Stephen has more to say about the whole Hyperloop project set, which seems to be marching forward.  He was skeptical before, but he sounds more hopeful these days, weighing in as needed on a great article by Alissa Walker at Gizmodo.  I agree, although my biggest concern is still how they’re going to maintain a credible, useful vacuum over that great of a distance.

Stephen Granade: armchair Hyperloop commentator and the guy who officiated my wedding.

Thoughts on a Consolidated Relay.FM Community Project

On Analog(ue) #76, Casey and Myke struggle with sanctioning some sort of Relay.FM community, likely to take the form of a Slack or a forum.  Having more than a decade of experience in running that sort of thing, I wrote the founders an email (most of which I’ve left intact here, and I’ve edited the email slightly; and I got Myke’s permission to publish this):

Myke and Stephen —
1.  I do not want the job of moderating/leading moderation of a Relay.FM listener community.  I have enough plates spinning.
2.  I have run a fan community since 2002a small CCM/folk band from Texas that had a lot of fans for a while, and when their official fan group lay fallow, some friends and I took it up.  The band hasn’t recorded for years, and one of the artists quite publicly imploded in a public divorce based on infidelity — and yet the community lives on.
We used a forum from 2002 through, well, sometime last year.  The forum is still there, but the traffic was going way, way down over time.  I actually considered closing things, but I decided to start a Slack to see if that would work.  Our traffic, while it will never come close to the peak of 2003-06, is back up.  It’s a tool that serves a purpose.
Here is my basic take on this:
Slack is great for ephemeral conversations (a random channel is great for this, even as it has the capacity to go weird, creepy, or over-the-line) as well as focused ones that get archived.  We use a bot that pushes an announcement out to the Announcements channel whenever a new channel is created.  It mostly works.
Forums are great for longer-form discussion and cross-referencing.  They work if people are good with writing those things.  They can be cantankerous and nasty.  Being a religious-oriented thing, we ended up creating an At Your Own Risk board where the rules were relaxed and people knew that mean things may be said.  That said, it stayed within limits.
In both cases, norms will build on your own, but my strong, strong, strong advice is this:
Whatever form of community-building you choose, you will need to be fairly involved (say 5-15 hours a week) with it for anywhere from two weeks to three months, full stop.  If you are not involved to that degree, you run the risk of losing control of it very quickly.  If you aren’t involved, you cannot effectively pass on the norms and values that you want the place to have.
Our RMFO forum would’ve never existed in the forum that it did at its peak if I and other leaders weren’t able to spend large amounts of time on it.  I estimate that I was on the forums a good six hours a day for the period 2002-06, more if work were slow or it were a weekend.  Note that I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, and while I did have a job — a great job! — I could keep an eye on things if I weren’t terribly consumed with work.  Running the forum wasn’t a job, but I put that level of effort into it.
A Relay community would require a lot of work, and I mean a lot of work.  I think that it would be very successful very quickly because of the breadth and depth of their shows.  If you summed the number of Twitter followers that each host and show have, de-duplicate the group, and argue that maybe 3% of them would even want to join a community like that, you’ve probably got 1,000-ish people there to start.
To manage that group, Stephen and Myke would probably want to hire a few people — 3-5, likely, with someone nominally in charge — to run the thing, plus schedule appearances to be in the community.  That’s an investment in building a community, one that won’t pay off financially in the short term and may not in the long term.  Doing a Relay.FM community correctly requires a time and money commitment that I’m fairly sure that the founders are unwilling to make at this time.
You are free, of course, to start your own Relay.FM fan community.  That’s what Bryan and Megan did back in the day, and what I and others did in picking up the mantle.  Start a good one, prove the concept, and maybe you get the job.  May I suggest #RelayOurCommunity to get started?

The First Time I Ever Saw Her Face

So back last July, I started my new job and returned to aerospace.  It was a great time, and I was truly excited to be a part of it.  I was so excited that I started keeping a work journal.  Every day, I would jot down a few sentences on what I’d done / thought that day.  I generally did this at the end of the day as a way to set myself up for the next day, as it was a great chance to leave myself a note or similar.  OmniFocus does really make me happy, but a few thoughts in Day One were good, too.  [Yes, I had a recurring OmniFocus task to remind me to write the notes.]

Anyhow, here’s the note for Thursday, July 17th — my fourth day at work:


That first line documented the first time I’d ever seen her face.  She came into the meeting late, which I found a little surprising.  Junior people aren’t supposed to be that busy, and she couldn’t be much more than 30.  I didn’t really pay any attention to her, because the meeting was indeed talking about things that interested me — mainly the integration of improved avionics air assembly fans that could be used at a lower voltage while still providing the throughput that we needed.

But then the meeting turned to other things, and then I grew disinterested.  It was then that I looked in front of me and really took her in.

“Wow, she’s really pretty.”

“Wow, she has a lot of freckles.”

Wow, she doesn’t wear any makeup at all — not even eye makeup or mascara.  Yes, those eyelashes are red.”

Then, because she was busy, she left the meeting with a wave that trailed from her arm near her waist, a meek offering of exit that I’ve come to know well in the year since.

I saw that face this past Wednesday when we were driving around looking for wedding venues.  Because it was mid-day, she was driving and I was the passenger; she was focused on the road, and I looked over and saw her as I had 363 days earlier.  It was the same face, the same studied look, the same no-frills appearance.  She was even more beautiful to me, mainly because of all that we’ve shared over the last year and how well we’ve come to know each other — better than I’d have ever expected to in just a year.

I could tell you a bunch of things about her, but I’ll go with these:

  • She doesn’t wear makeup because of one day in her last job down at NASA Johnson Space Center.  You can’t wear makeup inside of a space suit, because you’d have all of that mess gumming things up.  She decided that she felt like she looked great without it, so she stopped wearing it.  Thank you, spacesuit regulations, from letting her go from “adorable strawberry blonde” to “adorable natural strawberry blonde” before I came to know her.  (As she says, she switched from foundation to sunscreen.)
  • We look upon our failings as things to work with and not things to constantly trip over.
  • She loves her family so very well and enjoys spending time with mine.
  • She’s fun.  (You’ll have to meet her to prove me out on that one.)

I didn’t know her name when she left.  It was a couple of weeks before I’d know thanks to a couple of group emails that I could cross-reference with LinkedIn.  I befriended her, although that was probably a bit under false pretenses, as she thought that I was new to town.  (Ahem.  I moved here in 1997, went to college here, and worked in aerospace for eight years before leaving for a few years.)

One Friday in mid-August, she asked me to come and play board games with her friends.  Although I don’t really play them other than to be sociable, that’s exactly what I wanted to be doing.  It proved to be a long, fun weekend that preceded her leaving town for a long, agonizing phone-call-filled week.  She came back, and then we threw it all on the line.  Then it went from there.

For nearly 11 months, she’s been my near-constant companion.  As much as the work trip I’ll take next week — new job, more about that later — will be very good for my training, it’ll take me away from her for nearly five days, and that already feels like an eternity.  We just fit together, and while I do lament the time that I previously had to read books with impunity, the wonder of this new and amazing love eclipses any frustrations I may have over losing my old life.

In two months, we will be wed.  She will be Danielle Morris, and I will be forever hers.  In so many ways, I already am; I welcome this new stage of life.

2015-04-18 15.16.54 2015-04-18 17.56.04

OmniFocus 2 Makes Me Happy

The new job gave me a MacBook Pro!  Given the option, I wanted the Mac, and I figured that I’d get an Air, which would’ve been more than fine.  Instead, I have the 15″ Retina beast. ((Your tax dollars at work, America!))  They allow me to install my own software on it, which they won’t support, which is also more than fine.  Hell, they even gave me free access to the Mac App Store, which meant that I just clicked a few Install buttons and had all the apps that I really wanted on it.

The big thing that I wanted was OmniFocus.  I’ve used it for years, having migrated away from Alex King’s Tasks Pro ((for obvious reasons, but in part because it’s not had any updates in seven years)) to a system that was more GTD-focused.  I always sorta fought with OF1, ((but in different ways than I fought with Tasks)) but OF2 is pretty damn amazing.

live out of OmniFocus.  If I think of something that I need to do, it’s Ctrl-Option-Space, a little typing, a couple tabs, and Enter and my task is saved.  Today, I was talking with my colleague when I thought of something that I needed to capture.  I said, “Give me a second,” and eight seconds later, i was back to the conversation.  What was that task item?  I couldn’t tell you now, four hours later.  But I don’t have to know, because OmniFocus will tell me come Monday morning.

What did OF delight me by doing?  Well, I have a Folder title Geocent, the name of my company. I have projects in it: Onboarding for all of the things that I have to do to get spun up as a new employee, ((insurance filing, 401(k) election, badging at NASA MSFC, etc.)) Recurring for tasks I have to do every so often, ((work journaling and time recording daily, internal and project office reporting weekly, safety and quality reporting monthly)) single-action lists for the various projects that I’m working on, and then I’ll create projects for things that have a sequence to them. ((These may be less valuable to me given that OF is still unfortunately a solo and not a groupware program, but we’ll see.  If I have solo work, like developing a complex engineering deliverable, I’ll probably use it.))

The joy — no really, the joy — of this was Focusing on that folder and then going to Forecast.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 7.29.49 PM

Normally Forecast would show everything that’s Due soon, from these work tasks to me needing to take pills tonight, reading Ezekiel, and finding my PayPal debit cards.  Nope!  Focus has me focused on exactly work things.  Can I see those things in my work OmniFocus install?  Yep!  Do I want to see them?  Nope!  I want that focus, and OF gives me a freaking laser.

In OmniFocus 1, I would’ve had to create a Perspective and filter it around, tweaking and tweaking.  I expected to have to do that.  When it worked exactly as I wanted, I was so happy — happy enough to unlock my phone and make two tweets.  ((I won’t put Tweetbot on this machine, and I’m never logging into Facebook on it, either.))

This made my day, and my day was already pretty great because, you know, I have this great job.

Back in the Saddle

My story with manned spaceflight starts with my parents and older brother.  Both of my parents were in college in the 1960s, the heyday of the US manned space program.  In the span of time between the last few bits of Dad’s sophomore year in high school to his last year in graduate school, we went from Al to Neil and Buzz.  The manned missions on the moon span another set of milestones: Neil and Buzz landed about six weeks after my parents got married, and Apollo 17 was on the way to the moon when my brother was born.

I'm pretty sure that this is Gene Cernan.
I’m pretty sure that this is Gene Cernan.

Then it comes to me.  I was born between almost equidistant between the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and STS-1.  I remember launches as a kid, but only one really sticks out from the rest.  January 28, 1986 was a tough day for NASA and the nation, really.  We lost seven astronauts that day, the first time that we had lost a crew off of the ground.  I was seven and in Mrs. Leach’s first grade class.  I lived in an Air Force town, and though the Shuttle program was well on its way — this was flight #25 in not quite five years — the presence of Christa McAuliffe guaranteed that the teachers in our school ((and theoretically us students)) would be interested.

But we missed watching the launch live.  Again, this was 1986, so there was no Twitter to alert us to the tragedy, no cell phones with urgent texts, or anything else of that sort.  There was just a TV broadcast that was eerily silent.  Warning bells were going off in my head, even at age 7: someone is always talking over the launch, so why are we not hearing the NASA guys here?  About the time that I was close to forming these as cogent thoughts:


We were watching the first replay.  Mrs. Leach screamed, because she had met McAuliffe during the selections for the Teacher in Space Project.  ((Or so someone once told me.))  One of the other teachers had to calm her down.  I don’t remember if my classmates were upset, but I sure was. Somewhere after the fog of the rest of that day, two thoughts emerged: the fact that people were willing to risk their lives to explore space makes that important and I want to be a part of that, especially if that means that I can make sure that never happens again.

SaturnSometime in second grade or so, my parents got me this amazing picture book of photos taken by various NASA probes, most of them being from the two Voyager probes.  ((I have tried off and on to find this book at my house, because it’s one of those things that I would keep.  I sure wish that I could link to it on Amazon, because the discovery found in it made me really thirst for space exploration.))  The sense of wonder that this book (and others) brought to me was enticing: all of these worlds were out there for man to explore.

When it came time to return to space, I was two days shy of 10.  We were back! was the song in my heart.  I remember that my childhood best friend and I clipped every last thing that we could find from the newspapers — Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, and national — about the flight.  We geeked the fuck out about it.  That mission went off just fine, with minor hurdles with a flash evaporator and a radio antenna.


I don’t think that it was ever really clear to me in primary school that, if I wanted to work in manned spaceflight, I needed to have stellar grades, especially in math and science.  I was that self-driven kid who cried over Bs on single assignments.  I was interested in everything, ((well, not poetry and literary criticism)) and my grades reflected that.  School was a game for me, and the rewards were A grades.  I wanted them, and I got them.  School came easily to me, and I won’t apologize for that.

My father retired from the Air Force in 1990, and in 1991, our family moved to Mississippi, with my brother off to college and me into 7th grade.  Years later, I would reflect that I was essentially ready for the academic rigors of high school in Mississippi when I arrived, but I assuredly wouldn’t have been socially ready for them.  I tried to throw myself into the subjects that I hadn’t already tackled in Ohio — at one point, I did know all of the county seats of Mississippi and could place all 82 counties on a map.  ((Those skills have atrophied.))  Nothing available to me was going to push me toward the goal of manned spaceflight, and the early 90s were not Internet-friendly in Mississippi due to its relative poverty and population sparsity.

I whiled away my time reading Tom Clancy novels and looking toward the future.  I wanted to attend The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which my father had heard about before we even left Ohio through his professional society.  It was the carrot at the end of the stick, and I would get there.  I took as many academic classes as I could in my first high school.  I was through the math curriculum in two years, knowing that MSMS had a calculus curriculum waiting for me if I could do all the prep work to get to its starting point.


If I hadn’t been accepted to MSMS, I would’ve just jammed my last two years of high school into one and finished a year early.  If I had, I would not have been ready for college, not in the way I was after two years in Columbus.  MSMS is a public, taxpayer-supported, statewide, residential math and science magnet high school for juniors and seniors.  For most of us who went there, it was essentially starting college two years early, but with far more boundaries on what we could and couldn’t do. ((Alabama has its own school, and many of its alumni attended UAH.  Early in my freshman year, we all remarked that we had to make room check.  We laughed, and then we went to Waffle House.))  Whether you were from a great school district in one of the bigger cities in Mississippi for from a dirt poor, rural district, MSMS was the route to top colleges and universities.  Deborah Fallows did the school’s mission justice with a piece for The Atlantic.

At that point, MSMS was about getting into a good engineering school for aerospace engineering.  I still wasn’t totally firm on what aerospace engineers did, but I wanted to be one ((minus the pocket protector, although I have learned first-hand why engineers use them)) anyway.  The plan was pretty simple: go to a school where I could co-op and work in manned spaceflight so I could have a leg up come graduation.

That plan totally worked.  It worked better than I could have imagined.

The University of Alabama in HuntsvilleIn August 1997, I enrolled at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, the unloved half-sister of the UofA system.  I studied aerospace engineering, finishing my degree program in seven full-time semesters (and one half-time summer semester) thanks to all of the advanced placement courses and articulation agreements that MSMS afforded me.  Those 7-1/2 semesters were spread over five years because I dove deeply into the co-op world. ((I took 35 hours my first year at UAH; I took 36 hours over my last two years.))

In August 1999, I stepped on campus at Teledyne Brown Engineering and started an engineering path.  I worked for a friendly aerospace engineer from Indiana named Scott.  Scott taught me a lot about being a good engineer, and I like to think that I was one because of his influence: sweating the details, working it out, questioning things, asking for second opinions when you’ve been staring at the problem for too long.

Courtesy: PopSci
Courtesy: PopSci

I worked on a lot of fun things early on in my career.  The big one was Space-DRUMS®, a reactor that provided a metal-forming environment on the ISS.  If you visit that link and scroll down to the fourth page, you’ll see the behemoth in all its glory.  I mostly worked with the argon gas system and the chamber’s interaction with the US Lab‘s vacuum system. ((Space gives you all the free vacuums you want, and it’s way better than the one at your local car wash!))  Scott threw me in the deep end of the pool on it, but that was just fine with me.  You can pull up PopSci’s gallery of what DRUMS looks like if you’re interested.

Along the way, Scott left the company, and in that period of time, I got to work directly for my boss, Ed.  I picked up a little of Scott’s work, ((which was weird, because I was not yet done with school!)) but at that time Ed was working on building unpressurized flight support equipment (FSE) to fly pre-positioned on-orbit replacement units (ORU).  Now let me de-mystify that with some images from a 92-page NASA briefing ((Go on, Michael Terry, you want to read this.)) and eight years of FSE work.

This is an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier laden with FSE.
This is an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier laden with FSE.
  • Unpressurized: sitting outside the confines of the ISS, exposed to the environment of space.
  • Flight Support Equipment: hardware that helps other hardware do its work.  All of those blockish things are various ORUs (more on that in a sec).  They have to be brought up to orbit by a rocketship, which means a sound structural connection must be provided.  When stored “outside” in space, they have to be protected from the sun’s rays, hence all the white you see in NASA TV footage of spacecraft.  They also have to be protected with active heating lest the hardware freeze on the shadowed side of the earth.  Lastly, the payloads that use the FRAM system have access to command and data handling via Ethernet.
Columbus Experiment Pallet Adapter
Columbus Experiment Pallet Adapter
Look at all the places that we can stow ORUs!
Look at all the places that we can stow ORUs!
  • On-orbit replacement units (ORUs).  Stuff breaks, but when you’re a couple hundred miles above your home, it’s a little hard to pull over and fix things.  ORUs can be lots of things: batteries that are charged from the solar arrays and discharge their energy when the ISS is on the dark side of the Earth; the battery charge/discharge unit, which does that electrical switching; the control moment gyroscopes, which help provide attitude control to the station in the same way that you tilting your bike turns it; the ammonia pump circulators that keep the station cool; and many more.

Every time one of these components breaks — and they’re all pretty big, usually in the 3’x4’x3.5′ range — it has to be fixed by bringing in a spare.  The below video from NASA has an overview of ELC 1’s ORUs after a time-lapse video of its installation on station (04:12).


Space Shuttle Atlantis, on the pad for STS-122 (Mission 1E).  It didn't launch while I was there.
Space Shuttle Atlantis, on the pad for STS-122 (Mission 1E). It didn’t launch while I was there.

This work was a lot of fun.  All of the FSE in that video save for the grappler was built by a manufacturing team at TBE led by Ed.  My role at the time of this work would’ve been best described as a project controls engineer.  I would later go on to be an assistant project manager and later a project manager.  About a month ago, I found my old employee evaluations.  I guess that I was pretty good.  I even won an award from NASA during my time as PM.

Unfortunately, with the end of the Shuttle program, those of us in the unpressurized FSE world — and it was mostly the group I worked in at TBE, but there were other suppliers — saw our work go away.  NASA flew our hardware in Space Shuttles, and without a launch vehicle, we were at a standstill.  There wasn’t a lot of work out there to be had, and since I had been easing my way out of engineering and into project management, I decided to make the leap and try something new.  I had some personal things going on as well, and making a change seemed like a good idea.

It wasn’t.  I jumped, and you’re supposed to jump if you have a good place to land, but where I landed wasn’t good, and it certainly wasn’t good for me.  It ended very badly, and the next thing I knew, I was unemployed a week and a half before I turned 32.

It’s been a long slog from there.  As soon as the Republicans swept to power in the 2010 mid-term elections, I knew that government contracting would be a hairy, sweaty mess.  It was: hiring freezes, a barely-averted government shutdown, a debt ceiling crisissequestration, another debt ceiling crisis, and a government shutdown.  Add to that NASA’s indecision about what it wants to be post-Shuttle and post-ISS-Complete, and it was awful.

So I went back to school: a year as an undergraduate, and two years of graduate school since.  If I’d gone straight to graduate school — I didn’t think that I’d get in after bailing on a previous attempt — I’d be done by now.  So I was underemployed, which mostly meant that I was out of work entirely.  Let me tell you: that is one of the most demoralizing things you can be; I can’t really put it more strongly than that.  My MITRE internship was a lot of fun last summer, but it mainly served to remind me that I Could Still Do This.  I needed that badly.

In the last week of May, I found a job that looked interesting: Geocent SSE.  I knew someone at Geocent — the VP I worked for at TBE was a VP there.  I sent him a message asking for help.  I mean, at this point, the goalie is pulled.  I get contacted by a recruiter.  We talk.  She says that she’ll throw me in the pot later.

Two hours later, she says that Scott wants to talk with me on the next Tuesday.  That’s where he had landed one job later.  We met, found that we still have chemistry, and he filled me in on the job, which sounded amazing.  The next day, the recruiter called me to make me a verbal offer, which I happily accepted.  It took a month for it to become a written offer, but I accepted that one last Tuesday and have been running ever since.  I started today.

Ignore that this badge says visitor and has a different corporate name.
Ignore that this badge says visitor and has a different corporate name.

When Apollo-Soyuz was in orbit, President Ford had a bunch of questions for the astronauts and cosmonauts.  He asked Deke Slayton if he had any advice for would-be astronauts, seeing as he was the oldest astronaut yet.  “Decide what you want to do,” Deke replied, “then never give up until you’ve done it.”

I decided to be an aerospace engineer.  I did it.  1,508 days after I left, I’m back.  They’re going to have to drag me away kicking and screaming.