Monday, August 06, 2012

Swimming Madness, In Absentia

For the first time in three years, our summer did not move to the beat of the swim team season.  Michael decided he did not want to be on the swim team anymore, and we supported his decision (reluctantly, on my part).  We still made a point of going to the pool to see portions of the meets and visit with friends, but the freedom from the practices and meets was just as welcome to us as it was to Michael.  We discovered that weekends actually have many hours in them that can be put to all sorts of uses, some of which are productive.

All the same, we missed some of the camaraderie of the swim team experience, especially for the season-ending league meet.  This year, seizing on the angle that many aquatic Olympians hail from our league's two small towns, a local news station (the one that happens to be broadcasting the Olympics) dropped by for a short report.  The interview (here) features two of Michael's friends.  The first swimmer interviewed also happens to be the son of our kids' orthodontist.  The last interviewee (sporting the blue braces), is Rex, a terrific swimmer and the star of our baseball team this year.  He is one of the most self-confident ten-year-olds you will ever meet, equally comfortable supporting friends and teammates and interacting with adults.  That he was smooth on camera is not a surprise.  This kid is destined to be a student body president someday. 

While we felt small pangs of regret about being apart from the esprit de corps, I think we enjoyed the wide open weekends more.  Those days are soon to end, as soccer and fall baseball start up again before the end of the month, along with school for both kids.  Let the frenetic schedule recommence!

Citius, Altius, Fortius: Interplanetary Edition

In the middle of the ongoing Olympiad, the most impressive performance under pressure this week was not an archer fighting crosswinds or an gymnast trying to land a twisting tumble on a four inch wide beam. The gold medal goes to the team of engineers and scientists who conceived, programmed and built the landing system for the Curiosity Mars lander that touched down successfully last night.

The mind-blowingly complex entry and landing sequence was, as one commentator put it, the Cirque du Soleil of spacecraft landings.  The "7 Minutes of Terror" is well-documented, but no less incredible for it.  In addition to the usual firey transit into planetary atmosphere that every spacecraft must endure, the Curiosity would also employ a massive supersonic parachute and rocket thrusters to slow the craft.  The seemingly redundant systems were necessary because the Curiosity rover is the size and weight of a small car, too large to be carried to the surface by parachute or airbags (as were its rover predecessors).  The problem with retro-rockets, though, is the dust they kick up, which could damage the rover.  The obvious solution for delivering the payload to the ground without unduly disturbing the surface with rocket blast, of course, is to lower the rover from the remainder of the spacecraft on tethers.  Once the rover is on the ground, the tethers are automatically clipped and the spacecraft rockets away to crash land somewhere else.  Through it all, two other Mars satellites would be reconfigured to track the rover and assist with communications since Curiosity would touch down on the far side of Mars, away from a direct line of sight to Earth.

This Rube Golbergian system had all of JPL understandably nervous as the final countdown approached Sunday night. Many Mars missions with far simpler landing systems had failed in the past, and there was nothing the flight controllers on the ground could do to correct any problems that might arise since the entire operation was under computer control.

Their programming was bug free.  Against seemingly heavy odds, the Curiosity was "wheels down on Mars" at the appointed time and place.  Many nerdy hugs and high fives were exchanged in the JPL command center.

I spent my evening riveted to the NASA TV feed of the last hour of the flight, even while the rest of the family watched the Olympics.  The ability of mere humans, many of whom are now younger than I am, to design and build a spacecraft to successfully perform so many complex maneuvers never fails to inspire me.  The JPL control room, which erupted in applause every time each milestone was reached and became an unabashed party zone after the landing, may not exhibit the stoic professionalism of a Houston mission control under the direction of Gene Krantz, but the ability of the engineers and programmers is undeniable and equal to the best feats of the manned space era.  Here's to years of new images and discoveries from the Curiosity rover.