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Space Hat

Selfie of Nick wearing a red Millennium Falcon shirt from Target and a green construction paper party hat with rocket stickers on it.
Ain’t no party like a space party.

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The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t deny part of my motivation for reading this book is the impending release of the movie based on it. I have a strong preference for having read the book before seeing a film adaptation, and The Martian was both a book I’d been meaning to read and a movie I want to see. I think I managed to avoid picturing Matt Damon as the main character, despite having already seen the teaser trailers. The book also contains precisely the sort of descriptive action that maps well into visual storytelling on-screen. Part of me thinks it would also make a good adventure game (either text-based or point-and-click), in the way that its structure is largely a series of problem-solving exercises.

Stylistically the first person voice took some getting used to. There was almost too much internal dialogue for our beleagured astronaut Mark, and a lot of it made him come across as a bit… macho? He’s certainly nerdy and resourceful, and has an engineer’s mind, things I identify with, but also seems like someone I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy hanging out with, personality-wise. The book is naturally primarily his story, but I found a number of the supporting characters potentially more interesting; they just don’t get much page time. I wonder how much of that was a limitation of the book’s original serial format? It definitely feels like there could have been a much larger story here, but on the other hand these short action vignettes are probably a more enjoyable read, and make for more nailbiting as Mark prepares to attempt various dangerous improvised survival techniques.

From a technical perspective the book was excellent, at least as far as my own space aficionado knowledge goes. Pretty much any time I had a quibble with the science or engineering, or thought I had spotted a potential solution or technology-based plot hole, it was resolved within a few pages. Some aspects of their fictional mission profile reminded me of the Mars Direct program proposed in Zubrin‘s The Case for Mars, particularly sending cargo and return vehicles to Mars before any crew arrived; however it definitely differs in that the large interplanetary cruise module seems to be the more popular choice in fiction than in reality, where mass and cost matter a bit more. I also liked the callbacks to various past Mars missions.

I don’t think you need a technical background to enjoy the book, but it probably would help to be familiar with the history and technology of crewed spaceflight to enjoy some parts of it. Overall it’s a fun quick read, and I’d recommend it.

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It may be hard to make out, but just above that tree and about 1.446 billion kilometers away the Cassini spacecraft is taking a picture of me taking a picture of it, as part of a project to produce a new Pale Blue Dot image.

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Coffee EVA


This glove and cup combination makes me feel like an astronaut.

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2001: A Fiat Odyssey


Putting some mileage on Quasar, we celebrate the odometer numbers that really matter.

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Ex Astris, Scientia

“From the stars, knowledge.”

This happens to be the Latin motto of Starfleet Academy, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head as reflection of where I think our future as a species lies. Few people embodied that spirit better than Dr. Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer. She was a huge influence on my early childhood dreams of becoming a scientist and astronaut; outside of my parents, she was absolutely one of my heroes.

Grief at a Distance

I first found out about the death of Dr. Ride on Twitter, by someone retweeting Boing Boing. This news came as quite a shock, as she was relatively young, and had kept her cancer diagnosis private. I even experienced the denial stage a bit, seeking to verify that she had in fact died; I suppose it’s not fair to Boing Boing that I didn’t trust a retweet of theirs, but Twitter is not exactly the place to get reliable information about celebrity deaths.

This affected me emotionally far more than the death of Steve Jobs did, a comparison I can’t help but make since I wrote about his death as well. I was finishing up work, and didn’t get much done for half an hour or so as I found myself suppressing tears, and reading a few of the early obituaries. I didn’t jump into the discussion of her life on Twitter, but I did write a brief tribute on Facebook, and hammered out some quick thoughts on Google+ while I was in the moment (all of which are replicated here in longer form).

There were a couple of factors that made this harder for me – the first I think was the surprise element (whereas Steve’s illness had been fairly public, if spun in favor of recovery). The second was that, as influential as Dr. Ride had been on me as a kid, I had been pretty disconnected from her post-astronaut career in science education. I was brought back to how I felt about her when I was little, while The Steve was indirectly present in my recent day-to-day experiences. The last aspect is that Sally Ride inspired my childhood dreams on a path that I did not end up following.

Hero in the Blue Jumpsuit

I was a huge fan of Dr. Ride when I was little. I knew enough of her biography that I had decided, by age 5, that I would go to Stanford, get an engineering degree (aerospace if possible), become an astronaut, and then settle down to design airplanes for Boeing. When I got my own bedroom around that time, my decor of choice was a floor-to-ceiling photo wallpaper of one of the space shuttles gliding in for a landing. My recollection is that in 2nd grade, I did a presentation on Dr. Ride, complete with blue jumpsuit, velcro, and NASA patch that my mom had sewn for me. I thought I also wore it for Halloween that year, but my mom checked the photo albums and I must be misremembering.

Suffice it to say, I was, and still am, a huge fan of space exploration, and Sally Ride was for me a role model who had gotten that opportunity. Obviously I haven’t become an astronaut, but I still plan to go into space one day, even if it’s just as a tourist. I never went to Space Camp, and I didn’t major in aerospace engineering, but I think that fundamental spirit of scientific exploration is still with me, and Dr. Ride’s example was part of my inspiration in that area.

I’ve noticed a lot of the coverage mentioning that she was an inspiration for women in the sciences. While that’s true, I feel like that makes it sound like she wasn’t trying to be an inspiration to the little Nicks of the world. I don’t want to make this tribute political, but I think that young children can learn a love for science long before they develop a gender identity, and that Dr. Ride shouldn’t be remembered merely as a role model for girls or as the first American woman in space. She was a scientist, an astronaut, an educator… a hero.

Tonight, I will look up to the stars, and remember.


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The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought this with an old gift card at the Harvard Coop last week. I’ve long enjoyed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s hosting of NOVA scienceNOW (a show I DVR), as well as his various guest appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I had followed the news coverage of Pluto’s demotion by the IAU in 2006.

This book is a nice overview of Pluto’s discovery and eventual reclassification (as the subtitle indicates), written in Neil’s whimsical style. There are some funny photographs of various astrophysicists, and good coverage of the cultural impact of Pluto’s demotion, such as various editorial cartoons and handwritten letters from elementary schoolchildren. I’m glad the appendices included song lyrics (including one by JoCo!) and the full text of various documents regarding Pluto.

My only complaint about the book is that I would have liked a little more detail, both in the history and the science, but of course it’s intended to be accessible to a general audience, a task at which it succeeds.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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