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

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The Real Mission of the X-37B

April 25, 2010

The USAF launched the X-37B this week amid wild and varied speculation as to its purpose, a mystery fueled by the paucity of official explanations.

Few seem to realize what I am convinced is the X-37B’s true purpose. The X-37B is the first of a sortie of Prompt Global Strike (PGS) vehicles to be placed in orbit. PGS brings all the benefits of a nuclear option without the horrific nuclear consequences. PGS can rain devastating conventional destruction anywhere within only minutes, wholly unannounced and unassailable. Other PGS vehicles are being developed and they will carry warheads larger than the 500 lb guided bomb the X-37B can deliver, but those ground launched systems would take considerably longer to deliver their ordinance.  I believe the USAF already has quite a few X-37Bs built and they merely needed to publicly announce and deploy one so that they could plausibly deny the existence of the others.

In the post 9/11 defense ramp up I did some contract work on flight software for a satellite that I was told off the record was to be used to coordinate a PGS-like system. I don’t know what became of that particular project, I was told it lost funding, but I always suspected it was really just moved farther into the shadows. Unfortunately for my curiosity, my input and access was limited to porting some existing code to run on a new RTOS, I had no cause or ability to learn what the weapons system was capable of.

I was once told by a friend who worked at CIA that they would often get good intel on where Bin Laden was and it was only their inability to strike quickly enough that prevented them getting him, he supposedly moved around so frequently that in the time it would take to get troops on the ground, a bomber in the air, a UAV overhead, or a cruise missile launched he’d have moved. I always suspected he went to CIA because of his massive ego and the power he believed the secrets he couldn’t share with others gave him. I never knew which things he said I could believe, but this seemed like one of the more believable things. He was a complete asshole most of the time, but get him a little drunk and he became quite vulnerably hilarious.

John


The Triple F Project?

April 19, 2010

I received this email yesterday. I accept that the author has or had the connections he claims; he supplied information which I recognized as most likely evidence of his stated employment. Whether the rest of the story he tells is true or not I cannot say.

John

I’m enjoying your posts. I used to work at KSC right after grad school, until [Edited, he left within the last year or so]. I never personally saw anything odd there but I always sort of suspected there was something going on. In college and grad school I used to browse forums discussing the objects seen in shuttle footage. If you really want to open your mind up, check those out if you havben’t.

[Edited to remove corroborating education and employment information.]

I read your post about the midwest fireball, I don’t know how serious you were in suggesting it was man made. Did you know about the “Triple F” project? I heard about it last year from someone on the team that made it. The “Fireworks For Fifty Project” was this quiet and unofficial project a handful of engineers were working on to mark NASA’s fifty years, ’58 – ’08. They were building a nitrogen gas powered launcher that could fire six small baseball sized projectiles from the space shuttle’s cargo bay into the Earth’s atmospheres. They calculated that six shots spread just right would cover most of the continental US. Everybody would get a brilliant light show and it’d make great PR. They got the launcher fabricated and cast some projectiles out of iron. They quietly presented it to some managers to see if they could get it tested and approved for one of the 2008 flights. It initially got some support, and a little science was added to legitimize it. It would now be billed as part of an atmospheric survey, using ground-based radar to monitor the disintegration of the projectile. Some time in 2007 they picked STS-124 to be the mission to carry the Triple F. I remember it because that was the first mission that flew after I got to KSC. The Triple F wouldn’t hit the official NASA birthdate but would hit some date for the drafting of the National Aeronautics and Space Act. But he told me it all fell apart when someone at NASA tried to get it cleared with the USAF. Within a few days the project was scuttled and the launcher and projectiles were said to be destroyed. Supposedly the USAF or NORAD freaked because reading relevant treaties broadly it could be seen as contravened orbital bombardment, even if it was against our own country. They just didn’t want to deal with the international politics involved. I don’t know how true that explanation was, sounded like bullshit to me. Maybe they were just covering their asses and didn’t want to be responsible if it turned into a war of the worlds paranoia-fest. Anyway, this recent display made me think of that project, what if they didn’t really destroy the Triple F? Or maybe they built a new one? I don’t buy most conspiracies, but a big display like this the night before Obama’s speech at KSC seems just too coincidental when you figure they had a device that could do this and the shuttle was up there at the time.

[edited, name removed]

Make of it what you will. Maybe I’m being overly skeptical, but I’m not sure I buy it. I don’t doubt it’s possible, I guess I just want a better “why”.


Reflections on the Space Summit

April 16, 2010

I am still working on the Guide to Anonymous and Evidenceless Internet and The Feynman Constant. One of my wife’s parents is in from out of town and as you can imagine what little free time I had is being largely consumed with the necessities of maintaining the image of the perfect son-in-law. Fortunately the early risers are now napping, and I have a few minutes.

President Obama’s speech yesterday disappointed me, as it likely disappointed many of you. It was remarkably unremarkable. He said what you would expect someone in his position to say, and no more. And while I agree with what he said, in the need for the sea change that will make space a destination driven by commercial forces rather than governmental ones, I think we all hoped President Obama would challenge us as President Kennedy once had, to “choose… in this decade… [to go to Mars and do the other] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our [global] energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” President Obama had that opportunity, and it looked like he was going to take it; but, he didn’t. While it does not constitute sufficient evidence as yet, the heightened interest being shown in my services in the week leading up to the President’s speech has fallen off markedly. I’ve not received a single contact today or yesterday, compared with the daily calls I had been getting. I cannot but pause and wonder if something changed. Perhaps Obama had another Kennedy-esque speech he planned to deliver, along the lines I originally suggested, but he found it necessary to abort it at the last minute. And if so, what could have altered that course, what could have muted those loftier ambitions?

A more conspiracy minded person than I might believe the answer is found in the Great Midwest Light Show of the night before his speech. They might compare that event to the very different but similarly impressive lights above Norway before Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. They might suggest the fireball seen by hundreds of thousands was a message meant for the President, a repeated reminder to him that others wield great and unopposable power, that others did not agree with his more ambitious plan for space, and for the disclosures which may come from such a program.

It’s a pity I’m not more conspiratorially minded.

John


Finding Meaning in the Midwest Light Show

April 15, 2010

I believe that meaning is often misread into coincidence.  That said, if my mind worked a slightly different sort of way, I would have easily read quite a lot of significance into the light show I woke up to on the morning news.

On the eve of a space summit where President Obama will try to restore the excitement in America and its aerospace industry about the wonders of space through a shift to a private, commercial space program, and through a shift from a trip from our moon to nearby asteroids, Mars, and Martian moons, the entire midwest gets treated to one of the largest and most exciting light shows seen in modern days.

And it is interesting to note that this occurred at a time when the space shuttle is in orbit and could have easy deployed something that would fall into the atmosphere and create such a light show, all for the cost of a little well timed jetsam.

But, my brain doesn’t work like that.  And that’s a pity.  It’s a very appealing curiosity.

Watch the Amazing Video

John


My Space Summit Bet

April 13, 2010

As many of you know, President Obama heads to Kennedy tomorrow to reveal his vision for the US space program. NASA lost that vision back in late January when Obama released his budget to congress and the Constellation program which was to take us back to the moon by 2020 went unfunded. Left in serious jeopardy, too, were the Ares launch vehicles meant to replace the shuttle and take us to the International Space Station and then on to the moon. (I blame ATK more for putting Ares in jeopardy than Obama, but that’s a whole different topic.)

Ever since the late January budget everyone has been wondering what NASA would do, what its new mission really would be. The White House and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tried to put a happy face on things and express excitement that we would be returning the focus to near-Earth science while we encourage the move towards more commercial development of space vehicles and technology. But few were satisfied with that direction and many, including former astronauts and moon walkers, were openly rebelling. With that as a backdrop it was announced that Obama would hold this soon to be historic space summit. Everyone whose life revolves around NASA wants to know what Obama will say. Has he radically changed his mind? Or have we just not understood the vision behind his budget?

I have some ideas.

Just before the budget was released in January there was an uptick in the number of calls I was getting about my consulting services. I have resumes in some of the aerospace consulting databases and I usually field 2-3 calls a week from possible clients and at least 1 a week from a recruiter. Most of the calls are full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The jobs aren’t appropriate to my skills and the recruiters don’t have any idea what they’re really looking for. Suddenly a week or so before the January budget the volume of inquiries doubled, and they began to get more focused. Suddenly I started to get calls from people who knew what they were looking for. The volume stayed high for most of February before returning to an elevated and stable 3-5 calls a week, and 1-2 recruiters a week. And so it continued until last week. Once again, about a week before a major space-related announcement, the volume of people contacting me has gone up, only this time, way up! In the last week I must have fielded about 15 calls, of which there were at least 5 recruiters. And the most fascinating thing is, again, many of these contacts were very specific in what they were looking for. So far this week the trend continues.

I had suspected Obama’s budget signaled an intriguing and significant shift, that his aim was to privatize the new space race, to make the space program a commercial success many of us Americans could indirectly benefit from (while some, like myself, directly benefited). The calls I was getting seemed to back up that notion. Clearly quite a few companies were gearing up for something, or at least putting out feelers to ensure that they would be able to secure the resources they’d need when the starting gun was fired in this new race.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about the calls I’ve been getting:

  • My resume lists my involvement in several Mars projects (not MER). Many of the contacts over the last week have expressed significant interest in this involvement, despite my rather significant involvement in other work, work which is arguably far more significant. This has been unusual.
  • My resume has for twenty years listed my foreign languages: French and Spanish. In all of those years I don’t think any prospective employer or HR person looking to get me on a project has ever actually mentioned that one line item on my resume. Twice in the last week I have been asked to clarify my fluency in French and Spanish. This has been unusual.
  • My career has placed me at several NASA centers, but it has never placed me overseas. The space program here has always been fairly insular, despite some token ventures with other nations. Twice in the last week I was asked if I would be able to relocate overseas. This has been unusual.
  • My background includes a good deal of design related to creating autonomous systems, machines that do their work somewhat independent of our direct guidance, often because they will be at such a distance from Earth that direct guidance is impossible or impractical. A handful of the callers seemed to express significant interest in this background. This has been unusual.

Clearly the people who are calling me think they know something. I have no way of knowing if they truly do have insider information about what’s coming or whether they are just making educated guesses. Surely if Obama was planning a major shift his policy people would have needed to reach out to those companies and industries likely to be affected and learn if those companies and industries would be ready to meet his new policy goals. Perhaps this is how and why they think they know something.

If I had to bet (and I wouldn’t bet much, since I don’t have much to go on)…

President Obama will announce significant incentivization of the private space technology sector, enlisting the help of prominent figures and companies to do so, laying out an ambitious long term course to Mars, and the short term democratization of near-Earth travel. His plan will focus on commercializing space, making it profitable and growth-oriented, and making it something we all will be able to visit within our lifetime. He will seize on this as an opportunity to unite all the nations of Earth through a common goal and a forged common history, enlisting the aide of RKA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA , and ISRO, and encouraging their own nation’s private space technology growth.

If anyone wants to bet $5 on it, let me know.

John

UPDATE 4/15/2010:

Transcript of Obama’s Speech

I conceded I lost the bet.  I owe blog poster Carol’s charity $5.

President Obama hit on a few points I’d said he would, the focus on a long term Mars mission and the major incentivization of the private aerospace sector.  However, he didn’t hit on creating a unified international effort as my deductions led me to suspect, nor did he invoke the chicken-in-every-pot-esque vision of all us Americans getting the opportunity to ride into space within our lifetimes.  Ah well, I warned everyone it was a risky bet.  Still, I remain stubbornly a bit surprised.


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)