Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memory Lane; How Science is Planning to Make a Few More

I love learning about the brain.

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I’m continually unearthing new research revealing fresh discoveries that must make the neuroscientists who discovered them leap up and down like seven-year-olds when you tell them you’re taking them to the local ice cream parlor for a double scoop.

Some of the studies are astonishing.

Most of the studies are encouraging.

All of the studies are in a version that is appropriate for a twelve-year-old to interpret. That’s pretty much the only way I will be able to absorb all of the astonishing and encouraging data. A neuroscientist I am not. But I do have a brain. And that’s about as much as we share in common—apart from the fact that I will leap up and down for a double scoop when offered as well.

The latest brain study I stumbled upon was all about memory creation. I can’t remember who authored the paper, or which university the research took place at—but that likely points toward exactly why I was out hunting for memory studies in the first place.

The study discussed two particular regions of the brain that need to speak with one another in order to create successful learning:

the hippocampus,

and the prefrontal cortex.

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Apparently, if we are working on a task of learning to connect two objects to one anotherlike shoe and foot, or chair and tableour brain’s neurons are busily firing off. And, as a result, generate brain waves.

And also apparently, these two chunks of gray matter—the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex—use two different frequencies to communicate whether or not we guessed correctly, in which case we’ll get a blue ribbon to sport, or whether we guessed wrongly, and are then seated in the corner of the room with a pointy shaped hat on our heads.

It all comes down to the oscillation of the waves.

Answering correctly—a thumbs up—makes the waves oscillate at a high rate referred to as the beta frequency (9-16 hertz), and a thumbs down results in a lower oscillation called theta frequency (2-6 hertz).

I’m pretty sure we should add a two thumbs down result in here for the general faction of teenage boys which typically operate at the lowest frequency setting of thunka (-3-0 hertz) just to be on the safe side of science.

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If I can remember where I placed the study, I will petition the authors to include my data into their research.

The scientists documented brainwave frequencies while studying test subject animals. These critters were tasked to learn which two images should be connected to one another and which two images should not be coupled. This was done through trial and error. A reward was given to indicate a correct choice. It’s like when you try to teach your cat how to drive. The only way they will receive the reward of finally making it to their favorite acupuncturist on time is if they learn that they must insert a key into the car’s ignition and not a spatula.

Simple, right?

Choosing the “right” answers showed that the pathways between neurons were strengthening. And choosing the “wrong” answers weakened pathways. It was as if the brain was trying to communicate through the oscillation of waves which neural pathway should have a giant WELCOME sign at its entrance, and which should be choking with weeds, overrun with poison ivy and displaying a placard with a skull and crossbones.

And the hope is that now scientists will be able to utilize low voltage electrical stimulation to the brain to “speed up” the process of learning. And who wouldn’t go for that, right?

Soon we’ll all be able to put on a special hat, attach ourselves to the nearest electrical outlet, and begin the once arduous process of learning a language, conquering physics, or watching something like Seth MacFarlane’s film, A Million Ways to Die in the West. With a few tweaks of current control, you’ll be conversing in Chinese, building the next Mars rover, and hacking into production facilities with the intent to destroy wretched films in the nick of time just before they’re widely released for public consumption.

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If nothing more, I’m incredibly encouraged by the research taking place and wholly support any studies that will not only retain the vital neurological pathways I’ve worked so hard to establish already, but potentially make it possible for me to go on learning new information that can only enrich and deepen my intellectual experience.

As a reward to myself for having made it through reading this particularly challenging study on cognitive function and its future, I’m heading out to the nearest, local ice cream parlor for a double scoop.

Now if I could only find where I put my spatula …

~Shelley

 

*BONUS ROBIN GOTT CARTOON!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

 

 

 

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 4)

My patient Peakers, I promise the end is in sight. Episode Four is bringing us nearly to the end of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. For those of you who are joining us for the first time, I beg you—nay I beseech you–to unite with your fellow readers in space exploration anxiety and find out what the hell I’m talking about, as only by reading Episode One, Episode Two, and Episode Three will you bask in the full-fledged experience of this tale.

Or … I can summarize:

Daughter has massive senior project (Project SkyHAB – sky high altitude balloon).

Daughter chooses to launch a balloon the size of Rhode Island into space to see if she can make science happen in something called a Cloud Chamber. Cloud Chamber actually looks like a piece of stolen Tupperware from my pantry.

Costly cameras and GPS units are accompanying THE PAYLOAD. No one at Mission Control is clear on what THE PAYLOAD contains, but it must be retrieved or the world will end as we know it.

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A well-crafted, highly skilled team is assembled on launch day for lift off on site in central Virginia and a half-assed team (including two very sane, last minute volunteers) is cobbled together at HQ.

Launch team is in charge of … launch.

Half-assed team is in charge of GPS tracking the balloon and THE PAYLOAD via the computer, the occasional bit of laundry, and creating a giant ice sculpture on the front lawn that spells out WELCOME NASA.

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Launch is a success. Balloon becomes itty bitty dot in the firmament. Tracking team is befuddled with screens across Virginia that report nothing to track.

All teams feel failure as they have never felt before. Lead scientist is catatonic with grief.

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Four hours later the balloon comes crashing down to Earth and rises from the dead on radar.

The lead scientist and HQ are unhinged with happiness.

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The lead scientist and HQ then realize that the balloon has landed in a body of water made by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries specifically to obliterate the advancement of space knowledge directed by hopeful teenage researchers.

 

And now … the rest of the story.

Recovery of any launch is probably just as harrowing as the launch itself, as we came to realize. And constructing a recovery team after having exhausted the list of folks we knew who could help in the building phase, the launch phase, and the expensive therapy phase, we were left with three and one half units of aid:

The chief scientist (daughter)

Mission Control team specialist (me)

Technical support (Google Earth)

And some scary redneck dude who might be a serial killer.

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Not as impressive as we’d hoped, but it was better than a sharp stick in the eye—although a sharp stick in the eye may be a pleasurable alternative to that serial killer fella. We did not tarry.

On the road in her tiny VW bug, my daughter drove and I navigated—again from my chair at HQ while consulting with technical support. SkyHAB had purportedly gone down somewhere in the middle of 740 acres of the Sandy River Reservoir. We were going to get her as close to it as possible, but it looked like that might require a team of lumberjacks and a VW that could transmogrify itself into a pontoon.

Once I had remotely piloted her vehicle to the end of all paved roadage, the rest of the journey was to be traversed on foot. We were connected via smart phones, but the transmissions were not unlike those of the United States’ first mission to the moon. We lost contact repeatedly and found binoculars to be insufficient paraphernalia for reading hand gestures from that distance.

“Alrighty, Google Earth says you need to move southwest with a heading of 238°. Don’t forget to lock your car. And take a bottle of water. And find a stick.” This was as high tech as we could get.

“Hold on, Mom. Some guy is coming toward me.” (Insert muffled voice and …) “Nope, I’m not lost … uh … (muffled voice) okay, sure.”  (Sound of tiny rover engine coming to life.) “Apparently, I can’t park here.”

“What?” I say, looking at the earth map. “It’s a dead end dirt road. What are you blocking?”

“Whatever.” (Rover rumbles to new spot. Car door slams. Sounds of footfalls through underbrush and forest.)

“Chloe?”

“He’s still watching me.”

“He’s what?”

“Oh brother—hold on.” (Sounds of cracking sticks, muffled forestry, and running footfalls. Silence.)

A minute ticks by. Two. (HQ’s clock ticks grow louder and morbid.) Is he speaking to her? Has he captured her and thrown her in the back of his pickup truck? Will I never see the chief scientist again? “Hey, kiddo? Chloe? CHLOE!!”

(Strangled, obscure sounds.) “Chill, Mom. I had to pee. How much farther do I have to go to get to the edge of the reservoir?”

(HQ breathes sigh of relief.) “About a mile and a half, and tech support reports it’s all uphill. Is the guy still around? Maybe you ought to come back with a team of friends. And all my kitchen knives.”

“Yeah, there is no way I can get through this underbrush. We may have to find someone with a boat.” The chief scientist muscles through the forest back to her car. “Crap! There he is.”

“What? Chloe, get in your car!”

“F**K! He’s running over here!”

“Hurry up! Get in your car! And watch your damn language!”

“I’m in it—I’m in it!”

(Sound of little rover rumbling to life and gravel spray.)

“Chloe??”

(click)

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Oh my godfathers. I panic and look on Google Earth to see if I can spot my daughter and this potential child abductor. And remember that Google Earth images are not in real time. Great. In about three hours I will know what tragedy befell my child.

And in about one week, so will you.

~Shelley

July Gotta Have a Gott winner

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Jump on over to see the cartoon winner for July!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 3)

I know this has been a tiny bit of torture for many of my regular Peakers out there—this being the third installment of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space, a series about my eighteen-year old daughter’s balloon launch (Project SkyHAB) where she was determined to make it rain in space. (She denies this, but it’s what I deduced after looking at the hieroglyphics wallpaper—she calls them “equations”—tacked to every square inch of vertical surface space in her bedroom. Or she is attempting to reach ancient Egyptian astronauts.) I implore any newcomers to catch up with Episode One and Episode Two. If you don’t, it’ll be a little like watching the Star Wars series and starting right in the middle with Episode IV.

Wait …

Okay, maybe not so much like that because I’m no George Lucas—no matter how many times folks tell me we have almost identical facial hair styles.

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So, as we last left off, I was staring dumbfounded at a computer screen, watching GPS coordinates flash at me, insisting that my daughter’s balloon–the expensive contraption that underwent two week’s worth of heavy soldering, gluing, duct taping and volatile gas testing–was still contentedly sitting at her feet somewhere in the middle of the bucolic state of Virginia. In reality, my daughter was curled up in the fetal position and her space balloon was quite possibly rapidly making its way to Bermuda.

I wanted to be there with it.

The phone line that connected us went dead after I announced that we’d lost contact with the mothership, and so did our dreams of being cataloged in The Journal of Great Space Exploration From Some Folks Who Know What They’re Doing But Are Underfunded & One Person Who is Better Off Suited Up as the Team Mascot. (It’s not a widely read journal.)

I quickly emailed the rest of my team, desperate to see if either one of them had logged movement. Both reported the same screen. The balloon was stationary.

For the next hour I tried every computer in the house—all hand held devices as well as those whose monitors rivaled a Drive-In movie screen. Nada. I was in despair. I held a small council session with my headquarter’s fur-faced team, bouncing ideas off them as quickly as they came to me. Does anyone have a reliable contact at Langley? Should we call Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his private cell and ask for advice—even though we’d been ordered by a court of law to cease and desist? Should we alert the Coast Guard and demand to see our tax dollars in action?

All I got was blank faces and blinking vacant eyes. Plus a glance toward the treat jar on the kitchen counter. My command center team sucked.

It had been an hour and a half since we’d lost contact. I phoned my daughter to see if she’d scraped herself off the ground yet and what the plan was from the head scientist’s perspective. Her dulled voice murmured over the phone, “I’m on my way back. There’s nothing we can do.”

Click.

The mission was over.

I started preparing my motherly speech about how It’s not the destination, but the journey–any maybe not even the journey per se as the preparation for the journey. I was going to have to bring out the big guns. Cadbury, Toblerone, and Ben & Jerry’s.

The next three hours were a hazy collection of work assignments. And emotional eating. The Center of Operations was fully immersed in testing food sources to see what might bring the lead scientist out of her funk and then have it ready for when she made it back to base camp. We exhausted ourselves with effort.

And then …

There was a ping.

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The kind of sound that happens when a patient who’s been declared “unalive” proves to all the “time of death” doctors that he is now one of the “undead.” It’s usually accompanied by several people mumbling, “But this is impossible.”

“But this is impossible!” I shouted to my slumbering, sacked out team. I stared at the screen—the very screen that hours ago made me believe that someone at NASA had accidentally tripped over and unplugged our satellite from the wall socket–and gawked at just how fickle the winds can be at 100,000 feet off the Earth’s surface. There was a series of crazy, streaking lines through the center of Virginia that now confirmed that my daughter’s high altitude balloon, with all of its precious cargo, had landed safely in the welcoming bosom of the Central Baptist church parking lot.

HALLELUJAH!

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I quickly called my daughter. I did some screaming into the phone. She did some screaming back into the phone. Half of the team at home bounced and barked and the other half looked at me while quietly cleaning her paw. The phone went dead. More heart palpitations—did she drive off the road? Would she ever make it home to claim her research project? Had I killed the mission a second time?

Five minutes later a car blaring its horn whizzed up the driveway. Into the house bounded one very happy engineer.

We hugged, we sprung about one another like tightly bound human coils with tears of joy and laughter. This was a great day indeed.

“Where is it? Where is it? Show me!” my daughter said.

I brought the screen to life.

Oops.

The Central Baptist church was not SkyHAB’s final destination. It had taken another jiggy turn southeast for one last great push and landed …

In the Sandy River Reservoir.

SkyHAB was in the drink.

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So I reached for one too.

What happened next? It involves a sizable amount of hard liquor and a therapist on speed dial. No, wait. That’s just how I plan to deal with all the hate mail in the comment section this week. Come back and find out about the fate of SkyHAB on Episode Four of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space.

~Shelley

July Gotta Have a Gott 

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. See the cartoons in competition and to cast your vote.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 2)

I couldn’t sleep last night. In my head, all I could think about was that tomorrow was Launch Day—the culminating event of a two week, end of high school senior project my eighteen-year old daughter was tackling. The title of the adventure was Project SkyHAB (for Sky High Altitude Balloon). But I referred to it fondly as One Teenager’s Dream to Make it Rain in Space.

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In order to fully understand the impossibility of success for this operation, you must catch up. Read this. It’s part one. The rest of us will wait while you’re gone. Hurry up.

Alrighty then, now that we’re all on the same page, it will not come as a surprise to find out I was assigned to be Head of Mission Control. That meant I would need to be glued to the monitor attached to my computer with no distractions like food or water, and maybe only the occasional gulp of air for the entire four-hour flight. I would need loose fitting clothing and a slickly greased swivel chair. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. There is a bucketload of stress attached to the job, and I’m guessing at some point, someone may consider making a film about it.

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I heard my daughter leave for the launch site just before 5 am, and like most folks in charge of the less physical aspects of a job—particularly those in management—I went back to sleep for a couple of hours. She’d call if there was a snag. I was sure of it.

After a while, those of us who considered ourselves top brass rolled out of bed. The hound, the hellcat, and I all found some grub. One of us was supposed to purchase freeze dried astronaut food as a way of setting the mood and creating a scene, but didn’t. I glared at them both. This was going in the report.

We waited anxiously for the phone call that was to signal the start of the countdown, and bounced around from room to room keeping limber. We did laundry, washed some dishes, pulled a few weeds, and penned yet another lengthy epistle to Carl Sagan, who for some rude reason started ignoring my missives around 1996. I was hoping to Skype with him while the balloon was making its way spacebound.

Apparently, my personal Houston was not going to answer, so I’d have to go it solo. I wasn’t deterred. More donuts for me at the afterglow party once we’d achieved success.

Although I was told to hang tight for the T-minus 60 notification, my anxiety about the many hour delays compelled me to phone the launch site every 30 minutes for an update.

I heard explanations about faulty equipment, excuses that laid blame at the feet of a roll of duct tape, and a lot of foul language. It was a little like attending one of my daughter’s violin gigs.

Wanting to make sure I was totally up to date, I continually refreshed the website that broadcasted the GPS coordinates. It pinged the same longitude and latitude for hours on end. I decided I should be prepared with backups in case of an unforeseen local blackout and a complete loss of power, a massive equipment failure with my desktop, or a solar flare incident that wiped out the one satellite dedicated to me and Project SkyHAB for today.

I called my dad and a friend.

I told them science depended upon their willing participation and announced they would get credit in the report write up sent to NASA.

My dad bargained for a nap mid-afternoon.

I told him this would affect his performance evaluation in the report.

He told me that either he got the nap, or I could go fly a kite.

I reminded him that this was A BALLOON.

There was some terse language about a union, and a reminder that he knew people who worked at the local Pennysaver, so I finally gave in and agreed to the nap. Bad press is not gonna happen on my watch.

At precisely 12:43 pm—or something close to it—I received the much anticipated phone call. My head was in the fridge. I was cleaning chocolate milk off the shelves.

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“WE’VE LAUNCHED!”

“Wait—what?? Where’s the countdown? There was supposed to be a countdown. And I needed to have my people on standby. How could you have already launched when I—”

“MOTHER! ARE YOU TRACKING THE COORDINATES? WHERE IS MY BALLOON?!!”

“Hold on a sec.” I raced to my super slickly greased wheelie chair and tried to get my computer to wake up from sleep mode. It was obviously over-tired from the taxing morning work of refreshing the GPS site and refused to be roused.

“MOTHER?!!”

“Yep, yep … yep, hold on a sec, I’m checking.”

“MOTHER! WHERE IS MY BALLOON!”

The computer screen flared to life. The coordinates flashed in front of me. My heart seized up and stopped beating. “Huh … how bout that.”

“WHAT?”

“It appears your balloon is still at the launch site.”

“NO IT ISN’T!!”

“Says so right here.”

I heard the phone drop and the distant voice of my daughter shouting, “Come back! Wait … come back, baby!”

You want to know what happened next? I’ll bet you do. Let me just say this: it involves a gun, a team of humiliated London policemen and Benedict Cumberbatch. No wait … that’s the contents of the next Sherlock episode I’m about to watch. Sorry.

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Come back next week for the next installment of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 1)

The last two weeks have been a flurry of foam, duct tape, soldering irons, steel wool, motherboards, electrical wire, miniature GPS devices, itsy bitsy video cameras, and big tubs of Ben & Jerry’s strewn about the kitchen counter.

The place is a tip.

It looks like a small Chinese manufacturing plant exploded inside my house.

In reality, my eighteen-year old daughter is nearing completion of her last high school project. For days, she has been walking around with welding glasses perched atop her head, a phone to ‘tech support’ glued to her ear, and a t-shirt that says Stand back. I’m about to try science, hanging from her small frame.

Empty packages from Amazon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and CheapLiquor.com litter the floor—wait … no, that last one is for my project. A massive, torpedo-shaped, blue helium tank that could pass as a NASA test rocket reject stands proudly upright on my front porch and has scared multiple package delivery men sufficiently to phone me from inside their trucks to make sure it was okay to ring the doorbell.

I tell them it’s always a gamble, tank or not.

Currently, this is Launch Day.

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The item to be launched requires descriptive word prowess that does not fall within my wheelhouse. But I’ll give it a whirl. Imagine the balloon that the Wizard of Oz floats beneath when he ditches the whole gang at the send off party. Now picture the “people holding” basket beneath it. But our basket is not so much a basket as it is a lunchbox. But instead of lunch, it carries a tracking device, two Lilliputian-sized video cameras, battery packs that would put an electronics store to shame, allegedly a computer–but it looks to me like a small bomb, and enough compressed foam to make three king-sized mattresses.

I tried slipping in a package of honey-roasted peanuts for in flight snacking, but my hand was slapped away. Like there was room for it anyway.

On top of the basket is a “cloud chamber.” Apparently, this is not where clouds gather to dress, sleep, or make a ruling on legal issues.

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But it is, roughly speaking, where they may relieve themselves. This involves sponges, alcohol and a Plexiglas box. To me this sounds like a frat party. To others, it is considered science. Go figure.

The basket is wrapped in blinding pink and zebra-striped duct tape. There is also a flashing red light that may lead folks to believe there is a small reindeer stuffed into the basket with just enough space for a nose hole.

130714rudolf (515x800)

All of this is what’s referred to as THE PAYLOAD.

It’s so official sounding. And since I have no idea what the payload actually does, I simply say it with enough emphasis and confidence when telling folks about it that they basically respond the same way I do: with wonderment and awe. Then I rush on to some other topic to save myself from any questions.

It’s been working fairly well, unless I find I’m speaking to a self-proclaimed science geek, in which case I usually then just shout, “Look! An eagle!” and run like hell in the opposite direction. It’s harder to pull that one off in line at the grocery store, but I just don’t have time to finesse my routine.

From what I’ve been told, THE PAYLOAD will be connected to a large balloon, and by large I mean the size of a small house. This floating piece of real estate will be in charge of lift. Especially if the blue tank is truly full of helium and not antediluvian rocket fuel. All together, the project has a snappy scientific name: SkyHAB (sky high altitude balloon).

My daughter, and an extensively interviewed group of volunteers (in total: one other guy who has nothing to do today), have set up the balloon launch site about 80 miles southwest of our house.

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They intend to release the balloon, track the balloon, and finally retrieve the balloon. Well, not so much the balloon as THE PAYLOAD. The balloon will eventually, somewhere around 100,000 feet, reach it’s “combustible threshold.” Boy, am I familiar with that unit of measurement. Then a parachute will—read should—deploy, and down will come cradle, Rudolph and all.

The GPS unit is supposed to allow the launch team the ability to track its whereabouts in order to eventually locate THE PAYLOAD and retrieve the valuable data about how frequently clouds need to use the loo. Or something equally as shocking.

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As we are on the precipice of launching, I must set aside my essays, find myself an inked-stained pocket protector, and create some sort of headgear so that I will look official in my position of Chief Head Scratcher at Mission Control.

Stay tuned, Peakers. I shall return with part two of Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. In the meantime, as I sit tracking THE PAYLOAD via GPS, watch this space … no this space … no this space …

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

NASA finally asks for my help.

“Hey, mom?” (daughter, Chloe, in kitchen)

“Uh huh?” (wordsmith, me, at desk)

“Would you like to do an experiment with me?”

One of my eyes strayed from my computer screen and glanced toward her school workspace. The eye noted no test tubes or beakers. The eye reported back to the brain a thumbs up sign.

“You bet.”

“Great,” she said. “You and I are going to go without chocolate for one week.”

“Sure thing … ” (type, tappity tap) “Wait—what?” Both eyes scanned kitchen. Found kitchen empty. “Chloe? … Damn.”

This has happened to me before. I have answered yes to buying a pony, sleepovers that require train travel across two states, the shaving off of one eyebrow and a small down payment on a developing goat herd in Uganda.

They know how to get me. As long as I’m writing, I’m cognizant of nothing apart from the cursor on the screen and how bitter my tea is becoming.

How in the hell was I going to survive without chocolate for seven days? I looked around my desk. There was chocolate everywhere. Having it near me brings a balm of comfort and serenity to my writing space.

Chocolate

Chocolate (Photo credit: EuroMagic)

I’d have to get rid of it.

Out of sight, out of mouth, right?

I could do this. It was probably for the good of science on the whole. I bet I’d be part of some study for NASA. Good for me. I’d show my support for Chloe, and science, and … space?

It didn’t matter. I loved challenge.

Day One: I made it through breakfast. In fact, I just ignored breakfast and got busy. Better not to think about food in general. I left the house for lunch. If I wasn’t at my desk, things would be a heck of a lot easier. After dinner Chloe checked in with me.

“How’d today go?”

“Not too bad. This might be pretty easy. I’m going to bed.”

“Mom? It’s 7 o’clock. The sun hasn’t even set.”

“Yep. But if I’m sleeping, then I won’t want to eat chocolate, okay? Goodnight.”

Day Two: Rising at 4 a.m. is fine if I have to catch a flight to a tropical island getaway, but getting out of bed simply to avoid dreaming about chocolate seemed somehow wrong. I ate a lot of brown food.

Day Three: “Mom?”

“Stop shouting at me!”

English: A small pad of Post-It notes.

English: A small pad of Post-It notes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day Four: Post It Note: Dear Mom, It’s okay if you want to quit. You’ve made it through three whole days and I know that’s a lot for you. You’ve done great. Love, Chloe

Dear Chloe, Really? You’d just love that now, wouldn’t you? I’d be the laughing stock of everybody else who’s a part of this study. Chocoholic Mom can’t hack three days of deprivation. No way! I’m not going to be the butt of some joke down in Houston.

Dear Mom, I don’t know what you’re talking about. There is no study. It’s just you and me. Have a brownie.

Chloe, I don’t want a brownie. I want you to clean out the damn cat litter!

Day Five: Dear Chloe, I am writing this note to you on your bathroom mirror with your all-time favorite pink lipstick left in the pocket of your blue jeans, which I found just before washing them. I have repeatedly told you what to do before throwing things down the laundry chute, but it appears yo— … sorry, I ran out of lipstick and I’m now using the perfumed soap you got from G-ma at Christmas. CHECK YOUR POCKETS!

Day Six: Text from Chloe: Mom, there is no study. U r off the hook.

Text from me: Not on your life, kiddo! I refuse to abandon my duty to civilization. I know you’re supposed to be reporting back about my behavior and mood swings, and you’re probably going to tell all the people at the lab that your experiment had to be aborted because of some instability issues. That is not going to happen on my watch—NO WAY!

Text from Chloe: Can Dad pick me up after school?

Text from me: NASA just called and wanted to let me know I’m doing great as a test subject. They were ENCOURAGING. Unlike the scientist conducting the study.

Text from Chloe: Mom, u r delusional. There is no study.

Text from me: CONSPIRACY!!!

Text from Chloe: U need rest.

Text from me: I’ll tell you what I need. I need a family that’s going to pitch in when I ask them to! I need a cat that’s not going to vomit hairballs the size of Long Island! I need a dry cleaner that isn’t going to send me back a dress with two more stains on it than before I sent it in! I need an endless supply of orange juice pumped out of one of the kitchen faucets and hooked up to a pipe in Florida because I can’t keep up with the amount your brother is drinking! I need you kids to start picking up the books you toss onto every surface and leave for me to pick—

Message from AT&T: You have exceeded your monthly text allowance.

Semi-sweet chocolate chips

Day Seven: I did not get out of bed on day seven. Not even to pee.

Day Eight: My bowl of cereal was half a bag of Ghirardelli’s 60% cacao chocolate chips with chocolate milk poured over them.

I feel a lot better. Especially since I helped NASA figure out something space related. I’m sure it will eventually be revealed in a Reader’s Digest article, or I’ll see my results reported on the Discovery channel. I’ll probably be part of a documentary.

It was worth it if it meant I’ve aided mankind.

And you’re welcome.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!