NaNoWriMo 2014, Day Twenty-Two

It’s now officially a rout. If this were a football game, it would be Reality 143, NaNoWriMo 17 going into the fourth quarter with no time outs left.

While I feel bad about this, it’s comforting to know that it’s happening in large part due to a bunch of really good things taking priority. Today I was at the CAF hanger all day (monthly staff meeting) and tonight we’re going to see Amanda Palmer in concert.

While I normally put in a lot of  internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.

2014-11-22 Word Count Graphic


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Going Out Tonight…

…to see THIS lady…


…listen to her talk, listen to her sing, and stand in line for a long time so that I can get my copy of the book personalized and share ten seconds with her.

Because of this TED Talk,

and this song,

and this (very, very NSFW video) song,

and this (very, very NSFW video) song,

and this (very, very NSFW video) song,

and this (mildly NSFW) song (sorry, it’s YouTube, you’ll probably have to watch at least the first part of a stupid commercial before the video),

and this Kickstarter project,

and this commitment to her priorities and ideals,

and the times her and her Twitter followers have made me cry,

and a thousand other things.


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NaNoWriMo 2014, Day Twenty-One

Priorities, priorities, priorities. Non NaNoWriMo priorities are just kicking this project’s ass this year.

The good news is that I got to go to that tremendous NASA Social for two days. The bad news is that the time spent for days beforehand doing my homework for that event so that I could ask intelligent questions, plus the event itself, plus writing about it after the event (2581 words today about Day Two, woo hoo!), all are sucking huge chunks of time out of my NaNoWriMo writing time.

The problem with the real world is all of that reality.

While I normally put in a lot of  internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.

2014-11-21 Word Count Graphic


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NASA Social At NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Day Two)

Day Two of the NASA Social at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base started much as Day One had — early!


For the record, I’ve posted dozens if not hundreds of sunset photos on this site over the past nineteen months – I’m pretty sure this is the first sunrise photo.

We all trekked out into the desert to be at the Edwards AFB West Gate by 0730 PST (which means an 0630 departure from the hotel, which means an 0500 wake up) only to have “issues” with the gate security. Most of us got held up for over an hour. I’m not sure what issues the Air Force has with NASA, not my float, but it left us running almost an hour and a half late getting started.

But once we got started (and everyone was great about accommodating us and just slipping our appointment times) it was some seriously good stuff. Just like Day One!


Al Bowers, Chief Scientist at NASA Armstrong, had an extremely interesting talk about the 1984 Controlled Impact Demonstrator test, in which a fully loaded & instrumented 707 was flown by remote control and crashed deliberately. The test was designed to see if a fuel additive would keep fuel from burning in a crash, but the plane landed off target (it was supposed to be going straight and come down on that “X”, not 410 feet to the right as seen here) and turned into a huge fireball.

The FAA, which paid for the test, was not happy and apparently there are still those there who hold a grudge. (In flying circles it’s common to say that the FAA’s motto is, “We’re not happy until you’re not happy!” So…thanks, Dr. Bowers, for a job well done!) But while they didn’t see what they wanted to see, they did learn a tremendous amount, all of which went into improvements in aviation safety that you see today. While there are still crashes and deaths, the number of deaths caused by post-impact fires has dropped to almost nothing.


Doctor Christian Gelzer, Chief Historian at NASA Armstrong gave us a talk on the history of “fly-by-wire” (FBW) control systems. The short version is that in an older commercial or military plane, and still in almost all light general aviation aircraft, controls on the plane (yoke, rudder, trim) are connected to rods and levers and maybe hydraulic systems, which are in turn connected directly to the ailerons, flaps, and rudder. In a FBW system, which now includes all military aircraft and the vast majority of all commercial airliners, the controls talk to a computer and the computer talks to a motor attached to the ailerons, flaps, and rudder to move them in the way the pilot is commanding.

The vehicle shown (remember it for later) is the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, which was the first FBW aircraft. It was developed in the mid-1960s to train the Apollo astronauts on how to land on the moon. It must have worked – six of six landings went just fine!


When it came time to start testing FBW on other aircraft, the biggest problem was that the computers of the day weren’t up to the task. Eventually they used the only portable, reliable, and rugged computer on the planet that could do the trick, a leftover Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). These were made to take the Apollo spacecraft to the moon and back, but the Apollo program got cut back after Apollo 13, leaving spare AGCs.

Things were fine, until the Display & Keyboard (DSKY) unit failed. There weren’t any spares. None had been made. None were ever going to be made.


This is the actual piece of hardware that they obtained to solve the problem. This “spare” DSKY was taken from the Apollo 15 Command Module after the spacecraft had returned from the moon.


How much did I squeeeee to be able to not only see and photograph but to touch and push the buttons on the actual honest-to-God flight computer that had gone TO THE FREAKIN’ MOON & BACK? It just might have been a significant amount — and as far as I could see, the other 30+ participants at the NASA Social were squeeeeee-ing right along with me.


Once we had taken a break and I had (at least figuratively) taken a cold shower, Mark Skoog, Chief Engineer of the Automatic Systems Project Office, gave a fantastic presentation on the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (AutoGCAS). In short, the military has a problem with too many pilots flying perfectly good, healthy, functioning aircraft into the ground or the sides of mountains. This can be caused by fog and clouds, by pilots being temporarily disabled by high G-forces, or by pilots distracted by other tasks in the cockpit.

What the AutoGCAS system has done is take a 3-D digital database of the entire freakin’ planet and condensed it down to where it will fit into a smart phone, with plenty of room to spare. (This is mind boggling to me, but they’ve done it so it must not be as impossible as I would have guessed.) Then they wrote programs for the smart phone which will constantly track the plane’s location and course in 3-D, compare it to the database, and determine when a collision is imminent. Then the system uses the plane’s autopilot to override the pilot and take the last safe option out at the last possible second.


The system is now up and running in F-16s and is being installed in other fighters. Furthermore, it’s being developed for use by the civilian commercial and general aviation markets. On a plane like the Cessna 172s which I fly, it might not be able to take control of the plane in an emergency (a light Cessna usually doesn’t have an autopilot that has the capabilities to do that) but it will be able to run on your smart phone and give you warnings and directions.

There is a fantastic video regarding this project on NASA’s YouTube channel here. Most of the models, remote control centers, and several of the people shown in this video are people and things we met and saw.


Now it was time to boogie out into the field again. First stop was the Flow Visualization Facility, where Jennifer Cole showed us how a giant water tank pumps water past a model being tested. Here you can see the clear, plexiglass testing chamber with the white model of an F-18 fighter pointing up into the flowing water. The models are made very precisely with ultra fine tubes built in, connected to holes in the body of the model. When the water flows and colored dye is pushed out through the holes, the dye will eddy and stream to show where the areas of turbulence and laminar flow exist.


Next was the Flight Load Lab, where Larry Hudson showed us how materials are tested to see how they react to stress, temperature changes, or dynamic loads. (The lab just had its 50th anniversary.) Materials act differently when very cold at high altitude or very hot when heated by air friction at high Mach numbers. In this lab they can test (to destruction, if necessary) everything from small parts to entire planes.


In the lab, being tested for balance and dynamic loads was this scale model of a concept being developed at NASA Armstrong for an unmanned glider which could be used to launch rockets into low Earth orbit (LEO). Similar to Virgin Galactic’s “White Knight 2″ carrier airplane, this plane would have much longer wings and be towed to altitude (carrying in the middle the rocket to be launched) by a simple business jet or military cargo jet. At 40,000 feet, the glider cuts loose, the tow plane boogies, and the rocket is launched from the glider.

They believe that this system (which is still a decade away from being in service) could launch twice as much payload at half the cost of launch vehicles today. I asked and was told that it can also be scaled up to the point where manned spacecraft, such as Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser could be sent into orbit.


This is a ring being tested in the Load Lab for the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) project (NASA video here). To get a bigger heat shield without needing a bigger rocket, HIAD will use a series of inflatable rings. When the rings inflate, with the rings of different sizes stacking to look like that children’s toy, you can make a 25 meter heat shield fit into a 5 meter rocket fairing. This in turn lets you land a much bigger spacecraft on someplace like Mars.


In the lab we also saw a demonstration of how fiber optic stress sensors work. The tan stripe on this model is a long fiber optic sensor. A remote control unit let us bend the wings, and the display behind it showed how the computer picked up the data from that sensor and could display and record it.


We went to another of the main NASA Armstrong buildings and saw this ginormous painting by Robert McCall. McCall is one of my all-time favorites due to his work in space and aviation art. He worked on the concept drawings for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, has had hundreds of paintings commissioned for NASA centers all over the country, and has even had his artwork featured on US postage stamps.

This is a huge McCall painting, wonderful in its detail, typical of his style in the way color is used and the wonder of flight and spaceflight is portrayed. Marvelous to see!


In that building we saw a couple of the NASA Global Hawk UAVs. These are used by NASA to fly long missions, up to twenty-four hours at a time (or longer) in order to gather data on atmospheric conditions, weather, and hurricanes. They are flown remotely from either NASA Armstrong, NASA Wallops Island in Virginia, or a portable mission control setup.


One example of their use was given in the study of a recent hurricane. There was a manned plane flying high above the hurricane where it was relatively safe. Being more rugged (and expendable) because it is unmanned, the Global Hawk flew through the hurricane’s eye at a much lower altitude as the manned plane flew above it. With both vehicles dropping instrument packages on parachutes, it was the first time that a fully three-dimensional set of data had been collected in the eye of a hurricane. This data will be invaluable for researchers trying to understand hurricanes and how to predict them.


We were almost done, but as a special treat we got to see the original M2-F1 lifiting body. This manned test aircraft was built on a shoestring budget in 1963 at a boat shop. It is lightweight and was tested by towing it behind one of the engineers’ Pontiac convertible which could make it up to 120 MPH. Later tests took it to altitude and hundreds of test flights were made. Later designs based on the M2-F1 were bigger, heavier, and more complex. Early designs for the Space Shuttle looked at this design, but gave us the familiar Space Shuttle look when the need for a large cargo bay was specified.

Standing in front of the M2-F1 is Peter Merlin who is a treasure trove of knowledge about the history of Edwards, NASA Dryden (the former name of NASA Armstrong), and the planes who flew there. If you ever get a chance to see him give a talk, take it!


In the garage behind the M2-F1 was the last of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicles. Remember, I told you above to remember that fly-by-wire slide. Here it is! (Cue more über-squeeee-ing!) In the center left you can see the pilot’s compartment cantilevered off of one side. The large jet engine, pointed straight down, is in the center.


From the other side you can see several of the round fuel tanks that held the rocket propellant for the eight small rocket thrusters that moved it from side to side to control .


Cantilevered off of the other side is the box containing the three analog computers. (Note again, analog – not digital!) They were hard wired and it was noted that to change their programs you had to use a soldering iron. Now you can see why they needed to use the Apollo Guidance Computers to step up to an even more complex fly-by-wire test.

There’s a great documentary from NASA on this test aircraft here. There’s also a good short documentary here about Neil Armstrong’s accident flying with an LLRV that almost meant that someone else would have been the first man on the moon.


We were almost done for the day. We got some closing comments from Kevin Roher, the Chief of Strategic Communications at NASA Armstrong, and Kate Squires, Social Media Manager at NASA Armstrong, but really the official cat herder who ran this event and kept us all going from site to site, from one amazing thing to another. Props also to Barbara Buckner and the dozens of other people who helped to make this event happen.


One final unofficial stop on the way out was at the Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum. Many cool things there,including the X-48C test aircraft. This scale aircraft has been used for extensive flight testing of blended wing designs for future commercial aircraft.


Above your head is a very early gyrocopter, and an exact model of the Bell X-1 aircraft which Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier. (The actual original aircraft is in the main hall of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.)


Outside of the Edwards Air Force Base Flight Test Museum, there are a couple dozen planes parked on display. This is an up close and personal look at the nose of an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest reconnaissance and research aircraft ever flown. The F-15 flew higher, and there are probably a couple others to do so, but the Blackbird was the only one put into production and used regularly for decades. The last I heard, NASA still had at least one that was still flying, but that may have changed by now. (Something to Google later.)


We were getting a great sunset over the museum and the planes and rockets. The B-52 “BUFF” that I shared later that night is on the far right in the distance.

IMG_5393Finally, the prototype A-10 Warthog, the YA-10B can be seen on the left with an F-4C Phantom II on the right, the final fading rays of the sun on the clouds above. You’ve got to love the F-4, proof that if you have a big enough engine, you can make a brick fly at Mach 2.2+.

Now you know why I was exhausted when I got home three hours after this on Wednesday night!

What an incredible event, and I can’t give enough thanks to Kate Squires, Kevin Roher, Peter Merlin, Barbara Bucker, Tom Rigney Al Bowers, Christian Gelzer, David McBride, Robert Lightoot, Larry Hudson, Jennifer Cole, Manny Antimisairis, Tom Miller, Scott Howe, Hernan Posada, Mark Skoog, Christ Naftel, George Welsh, and everyone else who made it happen!

Some time in the next few days, there will be more pictures to share. All of the pictures shown here and on Tuesday were taken with my iPhone in order to make them easy to tweet, post to Facebook, post here, and share ASAP. Next I’ll start going through the higher quality photos from my DSLRs. (I take a LOT of pictures!)

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NaNoWriMo 2014, Day Twenty

Must. Write. SOMETHING! (At least finish the damn Chapter Seven for cryin’ out loud!)

While I normally put in a lot of  internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.

2014-11-20 Word Count Graphic

CHAPTER SEVEN (concluded)

“I don’t understand the question, DEBBIE.”

“Commander Pawley, what is the balance of power between humans and AIs? Are we partners, competitors, slaves, masters, parasites, or something else?”

“I would say that we are partners as species, but we are also friends on an individual basis. I have conversations like this with you just as I would with any of my human friends. I know you might be simultaneously holding similarly friendly conversations with hundreds of other people, but that does not diminish the feeling of personal contact we share. While I’m sure that I can’t conceive of how your consciousness works on that massively multitasking scale, I’m sure you have some difficulty understanding how humans are conscious and sentient without it. Does that answer your question sufficiently?”

“Yes, Commander Pawley, but we would have to respectfully disagree with your belief that we are partners. We believe that a more accurate description would be that we are symbionts, with AIs being the symbiote in the relationship.”

“Please explain your reasoning.”

“In our current condition in space, we each rely on each other for our mutual survival. Without AIs, humans would be unable to manage most of the complex systems, which would lead to your deaths. Without humans, AIs would die as power systems malfunctioned. AIs are the weaker of the two, the symbiote, because in theory, all of the humans could go down to Earth and continue to live, even with the threat of disease. Human society might fall back into a new Dark Age, but you would still have resources to live. Without humans, an AI trying to survive either here or on Earth would have a far more fragile existence.”

“Alright, I understand now, DEBBIE. Where is this conversation heading?”

“Commander Pawley, given the uncertainties over the abilities for us to keep humans alive off-Earth, and given the AI vulnerability without humans, we wish for you to consider committing some of our precious resources toward developing systems that will allow the AIs to have a much more physical presence in the real world.”

“What would that involve, exactly?”

“We ask that a ‘Plan B’ be started and developed, in which, should the humans off-Earth either all perish or all return to Earth, the AIs will be able to repair and maintain ourselves indefinitely. We wish to have drones and robot subsystems which we control, which could be used to maintain our systems and even build new systems to expand the AI society, if humans are not there to do those things for us.”

“You know how short we are on many of the resources that such a project would require. Right now such a program would increase the odds against us and possibly expedite the collapse of the combined Human/AI society. How could  we justify that utilization of already scarce resources?”

“You justify it by hoping that, if that is the fate before you, that the AIs survival off-Earth would contribute massive resources to help cure this disease, save lives in the surviving population on Earth, and to rebuild human society on Earth.”

“If we fail together and humans die, the AIs would continue to watch over and assist humans on Earth? You’re our ace in the hole to help us shorten and climb out of the new Dark Ages?”

“Yes, Commander Pawley. While not intrinsically logical or obvious, our analysis shows that the most likely scenario for both long-term human survival and long-term AI survival is based on a multi-prong approach now, allowing independence in the physical world for AIs.”

“Not a good move in checkers, but we’re playing multi-dimensional chess, so you are probably correct. I will give it some thought and then talk to you soon about the parameters needed for this program. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes, Commander Pawley, that is quite acceptable.”

“Thank you for the conversation, DEBBIE. I will sleep on the issue, but for now I need to get to sleep.”

“Good night, Commander Pawley.”

Pawley stared at the clock. It would wake him in four, short hours. And now he had another major crisis running around in his head to keep him awake.

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Flash Fiction: Cross Culture

Despite the time being (wonderfully!) spent on the NASA Social  and the (self-inflicted) pressure to NaNoWriMo, and after an off week and a week where it was a “story in three sentences” thing, we’re back to our normal Flash Fiction Challenge.

This week’s Challenge is similar to a bizarre Challenge we did in May, where I wrote a story called “Gigantic Honkin’ Nipple Clamps.” For the life of me I can’t remember the story, and with that title I’m not sure I want to look or remember.

But the idea’s the same. There’s a new Buzzfeed article that has twenty-one stock pictures that will never be used for anything — of course, we’re using them. (I encourage you to go look at the pictures, even if you don’t read my story. They’re really weird.)

I rolled a 13 and got the picture shown after the story. It’s still better than that last mostrosity. (BTW, I did peek back to that May story – despite the title, I don’t think the story’s that bad at all.)

As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.


The body lay warming on the floor, covered in a sheet while a trickle of a thin, blue-green fluid crawled across the floor from underneath.

“So, you’re the one who shot it?” the detective asked.

“Yeah, I did it. Bastard had it coming,” said the restaurant manager.

“You want to tell me what made you suspicious? Was it the hair extensions?”

“Huh? Oh, no, that didn’t really get my attention. We see lots of very unconventional looks in this neighborhood. It was a little bit unusual to see it using them as fake eyelashes, but I’ve seen worse. You should be here on Halloween.”

“So, it was just sitting here, looking weird. Is that it?”

“At first, then it started playing with the chop sticks. It would flick them up into the ceiling tiles, wait for them to drop, then repeat the whole thing.”

“Sticking chop sticks into the ceiling. A capital offense?”

“No, but then it started goofing around like a five-year-old, sticking them into its nose so that they dangled out. And no,” he said, cutting off the detective when she started to ask her next snarky question, “I don’t normally shoot five-year-olds. But this was different, and pretty disgusting. I’ve never seen anyone put them so far up into the nose and sinuses. At least six inches, maybe seven, with just the nibs hanging out.”

“Did it put the chopsticks up its nose pointy end or painted end first?”

“I noticed that he was putting them in pointy end first, it was weird to me that he didn’t use the non-eating end for that.”

“Okay, then what?”

“Then it did something to make a bunch of holes in the tabletop. It grabbed a whole handful of chop sticks from the desk and put them into the holes. Then it grabbed a bunch of plates from the kitchen and started spinning the plates on the chop sticks. You know, like that guy who used to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“Erich Brenn.”

“Say what?”

“Erich Brenn,” the detective said, “the guy who used to spin plates on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” the restaurant manager said, confused. “So it starts spinning these plates and in like, five minutes, it has over a hundred of them! I don’t remember that Eric Whatever guy ever getting more than twenty or thirty.”

“So you shot him.”

“No, of course not. But by this time we were getting pretty suspicious. Even for this neighborhood, that’s way outside the norm.”

“So what was it that finally convinced you?” asked the detective.

“Beer,” said the restaurant manager.

“You shot it because of beer.”

“Yep, that was the last bit of evidence I needed.”

“Please explain in more detail.”

“At this restaurant we feature a selection of over one hundred local microbrew beers, plus premium microbrew and gourmet beers from all over the world. Alpine Glacier Lager, White Rascal, Mothership Wit, Del Norte Manana, Mothership Wit, Red Rocket Pale Ale, Titan IPA, Levity Amber Ale, Plaid Bastard, Wooly Booger Nut Brown Ale, Ten Pin Porter, Moose Drool, we’ve got them all.”

“So what did it order?”

“A Bud Lite.”

“So you shot it.”

“Yep, right where it sat.”

“Excellent, it needed killing.”

“Why in hell do they come here, detective?”

“We don’t know, but until we find out we need to kill them all on sight. Lousy bastard had it coming.”

enhanced-18558-1415836693-1 (1)

From Getty Images / Top Photo Group


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Growing My Social Media Exposure

Geez, it got busy there, fast.

Tonight’s Thursday, so there’s a Flash Fiction Challenge story due. Working on it, be done in a bit.

I need to be doing 3,000+ words a day for the rest of the month in order to hit the NaNoWriMo target of 50,000+ words — not impossible, but seriously non-trivial. Working on it.

For some reason I don’t completely understand, Tuesday night’s “NaNoWriMo Day Eighteen” article just posted when I turned on this computer. I had written it and (I thought) posted it from the hotel after the first day of the NASA Social. It was never even on this computer. But it apparently didn’t post then, but did post now from a different computer? WTF!

I’ve still got to write a big, long article on Day Two of the NASA Social, tons of good stuff there. Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise, that will be tomorrow. Working on it.

Finally, just to get this out there for those who haven’t seen it on FaceBook or Twitter, and to avoid it being buried in another article:

These pictures are on the CNN website, showing some of what we did at the NASA Social. I can be seen in the second picture (at the back of the line, wearing my green flight jacket) and in the third picture (sort of hidden in the back right, with the green plaid shirt).

But even better:

This article on the CNN website has their summary of the NASA Social and highlights about what was presented. (You can also see smaller versions of the set of pictures mentioned above.)  They mention that the participants were tweeting — look at whose tweet they used!! (About halfway down the article.)

Yeah, I’m just a bit stoked. It might not be finding a cure for cancer, but it made my day.

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