The Things that Matter and the Things that Don’t

July 18, 2010

My wife left me two weeks ago, on Independence Day. Actually that’s not factually correct, she made me leave her, the kids, and the home. She intends to file for divorce. I suppose I could have made her move out instead, or at least put up a fight, but it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. The bulk of the life I care about that doesn’t involve them can easily fit inside the trunk of my car, and the closet of the extended stay motel room in which I’m currently staying.

I suspect there’s at least one moment in most people’s relationships where each person is forced to make a choice about how vulnerable each wants to allow themselves to be. We have all done things we’re not proud of, we’ve all been aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of, we’ve all got secrets we keep because we’re afraid of what others would think of us if they knew. I wonder how many of us have truly been honest with our spouses, told them the things we knew they might not be able to accept, the things which might make them leave.

My wife and I had been doing a lot of counseling. I’d been going individually twice a week to try to get control of my emotions and anxieties and life, and we’d been going as a couple once a week in an effort to reconnect and undo the damage the wear and tear long relationships produce, as well as address some of the unique issues our circumstances have created.

At some point in the process I began to seriously weigh telling my wife the whole story about my leaving JPL, and the mind shift and fears which followed. The flirtation with the idea became an obsession with the idea. Telling the internet your secrets provides some relief, but the internet can’t give you a hug, it doesn’t know you, it hasn’t known you. The internet can never tell you everything’s going to be alright in a voice louder than a whisper. I wanted to tell her, I needed her to tell me.

A few years ago during a bout of insomnia I fell into watching true crime TV shows. Often enough they’d feature a story where an unsuspected killer spontaneously confesses to his prison cell mate or his pastor or his friend. And it’s not long before his perfect crime is undone by his own hand. As a viewer I couldn’t help but think, “How stupid are they?” While I accepted that guilt and conscience are very real psychological phenomenons, how could these people not have wrestled those urges into submission, just as easily as they had the morality which should have prevented their crimes? I suppose I better understand the mind of the confessor now. I knew what might be lost if I was honest. I knew it might cost me my marriage. I did it anyway. And now I’m paying the price.

While I may wish I’d never told her any of it, I now realize it was inevitable. Maybe I would have told her in a month, a week, or a year, but I would have told her, and she would have left me. The compulsion to share was too great, the need for acceptance too great.

I can’t blame her, I suppose, but I do. My anger at her is putting a functional life out of reach for the present. I’ve been delaying client after client, rescheduling meetings into next month, and using each project as an excuse to push back the deadlines of every other one. My days have looked like nights. Sleeping too much, drinking too much, embracing the idiocy of the idiot box, and reading lunatic ravings like my own on the web. Anything to avoid or justify the present.

My wife was always the practical one. She loved me for being a dreamer, able to take her to worlds she could only dimly imagine. And I loved her for grounding me, just enough to see my ideas and dreams get traction in the real world. I owe what I have to her, which is curiously said in both thanks and damnation. We were a highly functional match, and for many early years a passionate and loving one. But age changes us, life changes us, takes from us our capacity to tolerate differences. And soon we’re just left separated by a giant chasm of dissimilitude. Still, you cling to the perpetual hope that you can get it back, that the gap will close, or that perhaps some invisible bridge remains to let you meet in the middle when you most need to. Ultimately I felt constrained by her pragmatism, grew resentful of the me I may have been in some parallel universe unfettered by a wife who countered so many of the ideas I’d gleefully share with an argument beginning with the phrase, “Now be realistic…” And she would have been better off with a husband who didn’t aspire to more than he was, who was satisfied with being a loving husband and a good employee, who didn’t think his destiny was much bigger, a destiny borne on the back of some idea or invention he hope to nurture from dream to reality. We both meant well. I didn’t mean to be the bad husband, she didn’t mean to be the bad wife. But often enough the things which attract us to our spouse turn into the very things we come to hate about them.

Her religion doesn’t permit of much that is unusual, at least unusual for them. One could well argue that the story of Christ is highly unusual, and were it not for its embedding in two thousand years of social history, few would accept it as anything but a peculiarly implausible fairy story, as unbelievable as any UFO, bigfoot, ghost story. But her beliefs are backed by all that cultural embedding, and her religion responds as if threatened by claims of the unapproved paranormal. She doesn’t go so far as to say the paranormal is the providence of the Devil, but I suspect she believes it. Her dogma was the source of my fear of sharing, most of the reason for my silence, and why I knew this might not end well.

The end came unexpectedly, as they always do. I spent so much of my life anticipating fears, worrying about the unlikely worst-case scenarios of the obvious situations that surround me. I worry about the infinitesimal chance that my plane will crash on its way to Pittsburgh, but I head off on a camping trip with my boys without giving a moment’s thought to the pain of a pulled muscle which turns out to be a near fatal case of acute appendicitis. The worst of life comes without warnings. And even when we do accurately anticipate unavoidable horrors (the deaths of those we love, the course of our own diseases) we are spared nothing through the endless anticipating worry. We’d be better off living like moderate fools surprised at every reasonably unavoidable horror.

My wife caught me, saw “troubling” web pages open on my computer. I felt like a Caucasian husband with a Caucasian wife caught looking at a site devoted exclusively to Asian fetish porn; her reaction operated on multiple levels. She was troubled at the general subject matter, troubled at the very specific subject matter, and let her mind read deeply into just what this specific corruption of my interests and intellect said about me, about us. I limit almost all my research and absolutely all my personalized browsing and posting to one cheap, disposable, anonymous netbook. I ordinarily keep the computer in the bottom of my desk drawer when not in use, underneath two outdated and unusuable laptops. I ordinarily keep the computer locked down so rebooting, suspending, hibernating, or screen saver activation will lock the console and require a password. As with all such failures of security, it only takes one mistake and one wrong moment for that mistake to occur. I was installing a number of updates and some new software and had thought I’d be in the house alone until evening. After the third or fourth password prompt triggered by the screen saver activation my laziness got the better of me and I disabled its password prompt. I took a shower. My wife returned home early after errands, her sister no longer needed help setting up for the family barbecue. My wife went in to my office to tell me she was back, and finding me gone thought she’d take the opportunity to print out some directions she was going to need the next morning. I cycle through so many computers she didn’t think anything of getting on this unfamiliar netbook. She has no interest in gadgets, and she’s just as happy I don’t bother her as I once did introducing her to each new one I buy; besides she views their expense as profligate. Because the installations were going slowly I was reading quite a few fringe sites in Firefox as the disk slowly churned its new bits, periodically prompting me for approval.

I came around the corner to my office unsuspecting. I immediately had the dread of being caught, and the guilty look of being caught. My face doomed any chance I had to play off my browsing activities as the fruits of boredom. “What the hell is this?” set the tone for everything else she had to say.

Most of us flawed humans have irrational responses waiting for activation on particular subjects. Hers had been biding their time. I hadn’t brought up any of these fringe topics in years, they had introduced unpleasant discord a decade or so before, back when my only interest had been academic.

Without being aware of it, I had apparently been hinting at or cowardly suggesting that my troubles had their origins in the paranormal. I suppose it was my confessional toe dipping itself in the water while I was sleep walking through recent weeks. This was all the confirmation she needed, the whiff of perfume clinging to the collar of a suspected cheater. I had a choice, I could have probably gotten away with whitewashing it all, making up some elaborately confused but compelling lie. But her anger invited mine, gave me a voice. And so I told her. I’ll never forget her expression. I imagine it’s a face paranoid schizophrenics get used to seeing, frozen on the faces of those witnessing lost, loudly quasi-interactive rants. My voice was calm, though, but perhaps too calm, resigned. I don’t know how much she heard, I’m sure it became too much and she checked out early on. Regardless, she heard enough.

Instead of the comforting hug I had long hoped for, craved, I got what I had always known I would, something along the lines of, “John, you need serious, serious help. I can’t help you, the kids can’t help you, and the fact that you’ve kept all these… delusions to yourself for so long tells me you refuse to help yourself. What’s all this counseling been for? Why have you wasted my time? Their time? Your time? You’ve not been honest with the psychologists, and more importantly you’ve not been honest with me… I can’t do this any more, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t deserve this, the kids don’t deserve this.”

The remainder of the conversation continued on that theme, with me too devastated to offer much protest. The evening ended with me getting no barbecue, seeing no family, and getting to see only a handful of safe and sane fireworks set off in the parking lot of the motel where I spent that first night. My accommodations would improve slightly in the days that followed, but not my life; a pool and jacuzzi in the building hardly makes up for the unending hours of devastating solitude, and the anticipation of an uncertain future.

I fear all this time alone isn’t helping my mental state. I spend my hours alternately numbing my faculties and consuming vast quantities of variable conspiracy/paranormal information. Conspiracy/paranormal writings make for deeply unhealthy reading. I have come to believe that if you read too much of someone’s insanity their mental contagion may spread to you, at least for a time. In the realm of the conspiracy/paranormal it’s almost impossible to tell who is insightfully sane and who is merely ravingly clever.

John

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Probing the Mystery of Spirit’s Censors

May 4, 2010

An article in last week’s Sun newspaper was entitled “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars”. The piece opens very confidently:

NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA unveiled the results of the recent Opportunity and Spirit probes sent millions of miles through the solar system to discover signs of extraterrestrial life.

Sadly, NASA reacted quickly and explained that the newspaper must have simply misunderstood the results their scientists had presented.

It got me wondering, though… In my Curiosity of Spirit document I was forced to admit that Rich and I were never able to figure out just what was being censored in the images from Spirit. We couldn’t see anything worth suppressing in the thumbnails they were using to make the determination. We wondered if perhaps they were using some special filters to process the images to bring out subtle artificial or organic patterns in the image. Rich and I made a few attempts with various guessed filter settings, but we gave up as we saw nothing obviously unfamiliar pop out of the thumbnails.

I now begin to wonder if perhaps The Sun accidentally misunderstood it correctly. What if Spirit really had photographed something akin to “pond scum”. What if those mysterious persons who were looking at the Spirit thumbnails transmitted over the faster than light connection to Earth were using filters to process the images which would make organic material coating certain portions of rocks more visible. Rich and I unaided would have likely missed the discolorations, and thus their significance. I am increasingly convinced this may be the right answer to the mystery; it fits the facts so neatly.

It would be a far easier case to prove with the images (and regions) they suppressed, but if we assume they accidentally let a few images slip through, then there is still a chance; the thumbnails would surely have been hard to work with, there’s no way they could have noticed everything.

If anyone reading is available to assist in the analysis of the Spirit imagery, testing various filter settings to see if we can draw out possible organic features, please contact me.

John


The Unavoidable Ignorance of Dr. Etumbe & I

April 27, 2010

I began to see a therapist last November. I’ll call her Dr. Rilka. She has a PhD in psychology from a US university as well as having begun her career as a medical doctor in one of the breakaway former Soviet republics. On my second visit to see her I broke the nervous tension I was feeling by making the rather stupid joke, “You should be called Doctor Doctor Rilka, or perhaps Dr. Rilka squared.” She must have heard that joke more than a few times before, it did not appear to strike her as particularly witty.

My life felt like it was falling apart. My career was destabilized and uncertain, my marriage was unraveling, one child was already out the door, and a much beloved dog had died. If I had a guitar and a pick up truck I’d have had all the ingredients I needed for a great country music song.

Leaving the relative security of NASA for life as a consultant was a mixed blessing. I could make more money and work fewer hours, but each of these new hours seemed to contain three of the old ones. Government work is generally comfortable work. You are expected to go only as fast as you have gone in the past, when not under the pressure of near term deadlines. Now I am hired onto projects because they are months overdue and millions over budget, and I am made to pay the price in my blood for the sins of other peoples’ prior poor decisions. It can feel like a contract job with the devil. I had not imagined myself ever able to command the hourly rate I do now, but neither had I imagined I could lose my love of my profession, software engineering. The passion I once felt for it gave me this profound sense that every day I went in to work making a free choice to be a software engineer, that if I suddenly found myself with millions in the bank, the projects I might choose to work on might change but the work I chose to do would remain the same. My vocation was my avocation was my hobby was my life. Just a year later here I am at 5:45 am in a neighborhood diner, with two hours to kill before a conference call with a team on the East coast, writing about my life to escape living my life.

How and why I left NASA didn’t help. I left because the lie involved in staying at NASA had become untenable. If they had technology such as the faster than light quantum teleportation radio I knew they did, if their reins had been held in formative years by Nazi hands, if they were secretly modifying their simulation software to hide undisclosed physical laws, if they were intentionally adding noise to signals received from beyond our galaxy, if they were… the list is simply too long… How could I remain at NASA now fully comprehending this?

A friend once told me a story about his Peace Corps days. Philippe was stationed in Botswana, helping them build some rural medical facilities. One of the first people he met there was a medical doctor named Dr. Etumbe, who acted as a liaison between the government health ministry and the Peace Corps. Within the first year my friend and his team had set up several clinics and Dr. Etumbe was tasked with putting together the staff for them. My friend who had briefly worked as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contacted a former boss there and was able to arrange for Dr. Etumbe and some of his team to go to NIH for an upcoming workshop on the treatment of Sub-Saharan African diseases. Dr. Etumbe was described by my friend as being one of the most wonderfully earnest of men, so passionate in helping his people, so willing to do whatever it took, routinely making six hour round trips on horrifically primitive roads to tend to gravely ill patients who showed up prematurely at my friend’s Peace Corps clinic sites while they were still under construction. Dr. Etumbe and his team were eager to learn what the staff and lecturers at NIH had to teach them. My friend happened to be in the capital, Gaborone, getting supplies on the day the team was setting off for the US and Philippe drove them all to the airport in his truck. At the gate they all embraced and Dr. Etumbe said, “Thank you, Mr. Ladd, for arranging this. You have helped more people than you know.” Three weeks later my friend received word that Dr. Etumbe had just returned to Gaborone and promptly killed himself. The very next day my friend received a letter from the late Dr. Etumbe, written shortly after he arrived in Washington, DC and began the NIH workshop. The letter was short, a fairly formal letter repeating the appreciation he and the other doctors and nurses who made the journey felt for what my friend had arranged. The last lines were less formal and said, “We are seeing drugs and equipment that could save hundreds of thousands in Botswana. I feel heavy with the burden of my past ignorance, a debt to those who have been dying. I do not know how to be the doctor I was, and I hope I will not have to be.” My friend was sent for more supplies to the capital a few days later and though he missed the funeral he was able to talk with Dr. Etumbe’s brother. The brother related that Dr. Etumbe had returned somewhat changed. His resolute optimism was clouded by a new found and undeserved guilt. He was persevering, though, with the hopes that he could do better now that he knew better. He had met with several ministers to secure the new drugs and equipment he now realized they needed. He talked with and provided reports to the ministers involved, making it clear that they could easily save 25,000 more people a year at an expense of only $1 million USD per year ($40 USD/life saved). The ministers thanked him, and he left greatly encouraged that he would soon be able to apply all that he had learned. But the morning after his last meeting he received their answer, “Thank you for your information. Our medical advisers have reviewed your report and testimony thoroughly and they believe our existing medical solutions are sufficient.” Late that same night Dr. Etumbe was called by a friend in a neighboring town whose daughter was very sick with a hemorrhagic fever he had seen all too often, one of the very ones his recent workshop had taught him how to better treat, had he been provided the medicines and equipment he needed. He stayed with the girl and her father, his friend, all through the night. She passed in the morning. Dr. Etumbe shot himself shortly after returning home.

Though the cost of my ignorance was not measured in human lives, I remember that story now with a new understanding, a sharper and more personal and selfish sadness. How do I continue to try in my own way to improve the world and advance my science when I now discover that there is a secret science with secret laws and secret tools that have already well exceeded anything my colleagues and I could ever achieve? The impotence is profound, overwhelming, and I can hardly blame Dr. Etumbe his choice.

I did not want to act on the logic I saw in his choice. I needed help, another perspective, a new and achievable and purposeful goal. I reached out, first to my wife, and ultimately to Dr. Rilka.

Life is not getting easier, but it is getting better, and that’s enough.

John


The Feynman Constant

April 11, 2010

The family’s been away this weekend and it’s just been me, the cat, some frozen dinners, a laptop, and the Internet. It’s a little grim, to be honest, it can be unhealthy being too much in your own head. But on the plus side, I had some time to spend getting down the first part of another story, about someone else’s experience. I was Googling “Von Braun” on Friday night when I came upon a post by Dick Hoagland on his site related to Von Braun and the Explorer I mission having an unusually high orbit. I was shocked because it was partial confirmation of a story my first boss at NASA told me. Hoagland’s account attributes the high orbit to “hyperdimensional” or “torsion field” physics. My boss never spoke in those terms nor did he give any explanation in physics, he merely described the peculiar adjustment of equations to compensate for the observed effect. I certainly don’t know enough to affirm or contradict Hoagland’s account. To be honest, the more I have read of what Hoagland has been up to since I met him 20 years ago the more skeptical I become of his claims. I am trying to be open minded, but the glimpses I have gotten of some of the conspiracies he is alleging exceeds what I could accept at this point, no matter what degree of proof he would offer; as a scientists I am not proud to make this statement, but I am trying to be honest about my bias and limitations.

I haven’t finished this story, only the first half is done. If you want don’t want to be frustrated, just wait for me to finish and update it.

To the skeptics I will readily admit that I have no direct knowledge to back up this story. It may be complete and utter crap, this is what I was told by someone I had reason to trust.

I’ll call him “Fred”, for the sake of his anonymity. He was my boss when I first joined NASA, and he was an important influence on the direction my career would take. He was brilliant, as so many I worked in those days were, but unlike the vast majority of them, Fred’s intellect didn’t make him aloof, distracted, or boring. He was utterly charming when he wanted to be, which seemed like most of the time, and in relaxed moments he was a raconteur par excellence. He had more stories than anyone I’ve ever known. The most amazing moments for me were when I would hear him relate to someone else some incident that I had experienced with him. His narrative found the marvel that exists in even the most common moments. Some incident that might have happened weeks before, that I’d found only mildly interesting, he would retell, and in his telling it could easily become an epic and amazing comedic adventure that I was deeply sorry I had somehow missed first time around. And yet at no time did he lie, or even significantly exaggerate. I didn’t understand how he might be able to do this until some years after the last time I saw him. I was watching a late night talk show and one of the guests, a comedian, came out and delivered a little stand up. Midway through he told a joke that was exactly the same as a joke I’d heard a month earlier before, delivered by another comedian. But this time I laughed, and laughed so hard tears came to my eyes. The same words earlier had elicited nothing from me. The words were the same, the punch line the same, the only difference was the man, his timing and energy. Maybe that’s how Fred’s stories worked.

Looking back I wish I could have carried around a tape recorder and recorded his every story; they were too big for the small audience he had, too good to die with him. Ah well… I doubt he would have appreciated me perpetually taping him, especially given the nature of some of his stories. But perhaps my retelling a few of his stories is a way to keep his legacy alive; just know that you would be twice as entertained if he was the one telling them.

I never knew Fred to lie; I only saw him be scrupulously honest, even in the minutest of affairs. But I must confess he shared with me some stories that well exceeded the bounds of my credulity. For the first story Fred shared with me, touching on his hidden knowledge of people within NASA, see the first story of him I got down a few months ago, Werner Von Braun and the Meatball Pin. The more I got to know Fred the more I couldn’t help but believe his stories. To trust a man is to trust his stories, even if you can’t make sense of them, or reconcile them with your own experience. Before my time with him ended I did myself experience a few things which supported at least parts of a few of his stories, but I always wanted incontrovertible proof, and that seems forever elusive. I am hopeful that perhaps someone reading of my experiences, and indirectly of his, may be able to provide pieces of this larger puzzle.

One of the most interesting stories he told me in those first years started with, “Did I ever tell you about the ‘The Feynman Constant’?” Richard Feynman was a brilliantly interesting physicist, and ultimately a Nobel Prize winning quantum theorist. Fred knew Feynman from their shared time at JPL and Caltech during our earliest missions into space, the Explorer missions.

Fred’s role in Explorer II was unofficial. Those early missions were part of the race to catch up to and exceed Sputnik. The on-board science was limited by the lifting capacity of the rocket and the vast unknowns that still needed to be conquered; the science teams were similarly limited. But there was plenty of opportunity for good tangential, unofficial science, and Fred was encouraged and given the limited access he needed. The theory Fred would initially test required only the passive reception of signals Explorer would broadcast anyway.

Fred had developed a theory in graduate school that a space craft’s telemetry (radio signal) could be used to learn about the atmosphere through which that signal passed. If he knew the precise position of the vehicle, the precise output signal strength, and the signal’s precise carrier frequency, any perturbation from expectation would be primarily the result of atmospheric disturbances. He believed he could develop a good model for this relationship by analyzing the telemetry signal variations captured while the craft was passing over areas where there was good weather station data. If Fred was right and his model worked, deorbit burns could be planned much more accurately.

The interface between a space craft and the earth’s atmosphere is critical. Explorer’s course would be governed by relatively few variable factors of significance: thrust, inputs to control surfaces, and air resistance. Man understood and could control for all of these factors except one: air resistance. Air resistance in this sense was governed not just by the density of the air, but also the motion of that air, which could be extreme in the upper atmosphere. The better they could estimate this air resistance the better they could predict where a craft would come down. This was key to the successful recovery of men in the later Mercury and Apollo missions. Recovery would depend on slow moving naval fleets, and their limited-range helicopters; the margin for error was tiny.

Fred started at JPL fresh out of graduate work at Caltech, at the very end of 1957. He was picked in the first of the hiring booms that followed the launch of Sputnik I just two months before. The research projects he worked on at Caltech made him a natural hire, he had already worked with and was respected by several figures within JPL, having been second author on papers submitted to prominent journals.

This respect for Fred did not translate into unanimous belief that his current line of inquiry would bear fruit. Few seemed to believe that the radio signal fluctuations would be detectable enough or significant enough to yield reliable insight into atmospheric conditions. Even Fred had strong doubts. But the nature of science is to come up with hypotheses and test them, and that is what he endeavored to do, and why they supported him doing it.

All Fred could do for the first Explorer flights was observe and begin to build the dataset he needed. He would calculate the perturbations of the telemetry signals, note the positions of Explorer when those perturbations occurred, and relate these to the weather data JPL had access to from government and civilian weather stations and weather balloons. He would work to come up with a mathematical relationship that might be able to predict remote air density/activity based on vehicle position and radio signal perturbation. He knew it might take several flights before he had enough data with which to meaningfully work.

The most difficult part of building this dataset would prove to be determining Explorer’s position to the degree of accuracy he needed. He could not merely use the data the tracking stations were able to provide. Their margin of error was greater than the effect he wanted to measure. He needed to use statistical methods to improve upon the tracking station’s accuracy and use interpolation to fill gaps in their data.

It was during his post-flight attempts to accurately compute Explorer I’s track that Fred got his first surprise. And it would be in his post-flight attempts to accurately compute Explorer II’s track that Fred would find what he called “The Feynman Constant”.

(to be continued)


A Curiosity of Spirit (FULL DOCUMENT)

April 7, 2010

If you already read Parts I through III and want to skip the preface, you can jump to the beginning of Part IV.

Preface

I am publishing this story somewhat hastily in response to the hue and cry on the Above Top Secret forums. Apologies in advance for those areas that I would have improved or omitted entirely had I spent more time thinking about what others wanted to hear and less time thinking about what I wanted to say. I attempted, where it occurred to me, to explain the terms and workings of the things I mention, but I may have forgotten to explain some items which could cause confusion and/or Google searches. I will attempt to update this document in the coming weeks as I have time, to improve the clarity and eliminate elements which may unnecessary or uninteresting to others.

This began and remains a personal journey, an attempt to reconcile and understand my own history and work. If you find it interesting, great. If you don’t, oh well.

The experience I’m about to relate marked the beginning of the end of my NASA work, the end of the beginning of my awakening. The transparent and noble institution I believed I knew was hiding something.

For those who want a synopsis, I’ll try to post one in a few days. Most of you already know parts of it, and I felt it most important that I first get down as many of the specific details as I could to ensure that people wouldn’t accuse me of the greater crime of making extraordinary claims without providing context and specifics.

It is fitting that I publish this today, the 9th anniversary of the launch of Mars Odyssey, the orbiter that made possible so much of the Mars rovers’ good science (in spite of all who have sought to limit it).

“John”
https://astroengineer.wordpress.com/

P.S. – I hastily inserted chapter headings to try to break up the text logically and make it more readable. These don’t correspond to the original posting in parts.

Chapter 1: Spirit’s Missing Time

Last January I was at JPL on a project when a colleague of mine in the unrelated MER program was working a Spirit glitch. Spirit is one of the two rovers still operating on Mars. Spirit’s expected mission was for a little over 90 days long, but six years later the rover is still operating. Spirit has performed well beyond expectations, but even the best robot is going to have its off days. One of these off days was in late January 2009. My friend and colleague, who I’ll call Rich, was a senior software engineer on the team tasked with maintaining the mobility flight software, the code that controlled the rover’s movements and experiments.

Spirit had refused an instruction. It had been sent instructions to move, it acknowledged receipt of those instructions, but it did not move. In and of itself that was not highly unusual, the rover is given license to ignore move requests it does not believe it can fulfill successfully or safely. But not only did Spirit not move, its non-volatile flash memory was missing data about its motionless hours. Through a separate subsystem they were able to estimate that it had been awake for at least an hour during the gap, but what it had been doing or why it had decided not to move was unknown. Imaging before and after the event showed no change, cameras, IDD, suspension values, terrain; all were the same. This was the mystery my colleague and his team were engaged in solving. Why did the rover ignore its command to move? Why did the rover record nothing? Presumably the one question would answer the other.

They ran a battery of system checks and all appeared nominal. A refusal to comply can have its origins in the rover having lost track of its orientation, so they attempted to recover this with an on-board program that uses the panoramic camera and accelerometers to locate the sun and determine its own orientation from that. After an initial unrelated failure in this procedure (the accelerometer package was off) they were able to reacquire orientation. After a bit more testing and investigation, with more nominal results, the rover driver (RP) once again prepared move orders that were vetted and ultimately uplinked. This time the rover moved as expected, and recorded its activities to flash.

The most probable explanation for the initial faults (the failure to move, memory loss, loss of orientation) was cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are energetic particles, usually protons, capable of disrupting electronic systems they come in contact with. With all systems once again performing as they should, it would be hard to explain any other way. And this can happen, cosmic rays have been suspected in the transitory failure of other satellites, orbiters, and landers. The potential for problems has been amply demonstrated in labs on earth, and as a result Spirit’s electronics are somewhat hardened, to the degree reasonable for its expected exposure.

As part of working the problem, before Spirit had reacquired orientation, Rich had done a few things to dig deep into the mystery. He had dumped portions of Spirit’s memory to see what he might find through a forensic examination back on Earth.

Read the rest of this entry »


Today is the Day

April 7, 2010

Last night I was up until 2 AM finalizing my story of what I experienced January through March 2009.  I will post the rest in its entirety today at roughly 7 PM Pacific.  I have meetings until early to mid afternoon, and it will then take me a little while to format the document for WordPress (for some reason the conversion causes my paragraphs to merge together and a few other characters to be lost or converted).

I am posting this notice because my previous post of Monday disappeared and I subsequently had trouble accessing this blog.    I reinstated the previous post, but its timing may confuse people who are checking this blog today.  Hopefully this new post clears that up.

I had to move the time back 2 hours, I apologize.  My wife had designs upon some of my time.


Ongoing Delays

April 5, 2010

I am still not yet done committing my experience of early last year to paper. I am trying to abide by my promise to simply post it all when it’s done. I remain a few days away from that goal. My new target is Wednesday. I am only scheduled to work a partial day, which should afford me the remaining time I need.

I spent quite a few sequestered hours this weekend writing, too many according to my wife. I was also able to fit in several hours today after work. I did sneak away for a walk at one point to clear my head and I couldn’t help but realize I felt deeply annoyed as I remembered that so many people seemed to expect me to share all this so differently. Quite a few comments on the Above Top Secret forums when I originally posted seemed to feel I was using a lot of words to say nothing of importance. And from all the questions I got from people about aliens I suppose by comparison nothing I say could measure up to the claims running rampant there and elsewhere. Perspective is such a funny thing, for me these details are so important, these conclusions so profound. Every detail in this story represents a huge moment for me, ultimately culminating in a grand paradigm shift. Small steps towards a giant leap in my understanding of the world, and the NASA I’d served officially and unofficially for years. To others maybe it will truly amount to nothing. My new alternate reality can’t hold a candle to their alternate reality. Still, my new reality is important to me, and that will have to be enough.

NOTE: This was originally posted April 5, 2010 10:37 PM. The post disappeared the next day. I did not remove it. On or about the same time my WordPress account stopped allowing me to post or edit items, every attempt resulted in a backend script error on WordPress. I contacted WordPress about both issues and they resolved the posting/editing problem this morning.  They did did not recover or explain the lost post.  I had the proof it had been successfully published, as I still had a tab open from several days ago of me viewing the published post.  I will from now on externally save copies of my posts and be on the look out for this issue  recurring.