Category Archives: MDRS

Graduation Drawing Near

It’s already February. Not such a scary thought, except when you consider that in two-and-a-half months’ time I’ll know what I’ll be doing for at least the next four years, and in three months’ time I’ll have graduated. Right now, I’m just trying to make it through the semester that’s ahead of me, but with the prospect of the rest of my life looming ahead, it’s a little hard to focus. Here’s a few things that are distracting me:

Quidditch
Yep, the sport from Harry Potter. I joined one of the intramural teams this past fall, which has been great, and spent three hours in the sixteen-some inches of snow for tryouts for the travel team. The game is exceedingly fun to play, and it always garners a barrage of questions whenever it comes up that I play (wherever I may be at the time). It’s also pretty funny to look at the strange looks employees give me when I walk into, say, McDonald’s holding a broom in one hand and cleats in the other. With practices only once a week (or more, depending if my tryouts today went favorably), and games pretty infrequent, it doesn’t take up as much time as that other MSU sport I played, not like these semester grades mean that much anyway…

Here’s a State News article about the team following the World Cup (held in November in New York), and a video of the team playing Syracuse. Since I joined late, I wasn’t there, but hopefully I can go this upcoming fall, depending on what happens in my life.

Programming
I’m teaching myself C++! Why, might you ask? Well, I figured that, since I’ll eventually have to learn it anyway, I might as well. That of course was my initial reasoning, but now it’s also because I can get a job programming in C++, which will definitely help me out in the long run. Right now, I have two books on the subject, with one of them arriving earlier today (Programming Embedded Systems in C and C++ by Michael Barr). I haven’t started reading that one yet, since I’m still in the middle of my other book, but most likely I’ll flip back and forth between the two, especially since large sections of my first book were covered in one of my math courses last semester.

To go along with that, I’m still slowly working on my senior thesis. It’s just frustrating when scientific papers don’t include all of the details of their simulation runs, like what initial or final values they’re using for such uncommon variables as time or temperature, so I’ve been busy sifting through about a half-dozen articles trying to piece together some idea of how to move forward. Yes, I’m a little behind, but once I find those magic numbers, I just need to set it up and go and move on. In other words, mostly because of my newfound enjoyment of C/C++, I don’t like Fortran that much any more…

Grad School Applications
While all of my applications have been in for at least a month, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still at the back of my mind all of the time. This is half of where my life might lead me, so it’s a big deal! I did, however, breathe a sigh of relief earlier this week when I found out that I was accepted into the Notre Dame Physics PhD program, meaning that at the very least I won’t be moving back home upon graduation! It actually kind of surprised me that I got wind of it so soon, but I think that it was just part of their first-round “draft picks,” as at least one of my other friends was also accepted.

Job Opportunities
Well, the last three things all hinted at this, but I may not be going to grad school come summer/fall. Obviously, that won’t be because I didn’t get in anywhere, but more a change in who I am as a person over the past two months (yes, the change was that quick!). You see, I’m not sure if grad school is something that I want to do right away, and what could I get out of it? A lot, in fact, but I’m not sure if I will still want what I get out of it when I get out of it. To that end, I’ve applied to a job that fits with all of my likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, etc. that I may take (if accepted) over grad school. I’m not going to mention that job here, but if you’ve talked to me recently you know what it is. I just think that, right now, being a commercial programmer for a growing company involved in one of my biggest interests may be a better prospect than continuing on in school.

Don’t get me wrong, though! I’ll still go to grad school eventually, just further down the road after working, and probably in a different field. I do think that continuing my education is important (hence teaching myself an additional programming language in my spare time), and I don’t plan to ever stop learning.

I’ll just be learning in a different way.

In other news, today is now the one-year anniversary of the end of my Mars Desert Research Station mission. It’s strange to think that a year ago I was leaving the Hab with five other people who had become family for good, after spending two weeks working and laughing and enjoying Carla’s amazing cooking. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world.

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STS-132 and the Final Flight of the Atlantis

For Carla, who unfortunately was “dash k”-ing in Russia during the launch and without I wouldn’t have had this experience. Thanks XO!

Skip ahead to launch day.

PRE-LAUNCH
On Wednesday afternoon at 2000 EDT, I left my home in Michigan and headed south for Florida. I’ve been planning and anticipating this trip for a while, but I still was shaking from all of the adrenaline flowing through my veins. I still had basically two days before the launch, and I was already feeling like this! I didn’t really sleep the night before, and only had a quick nap Wednesday afternoon (after hanging out with my high school Physics teacher for an hour), so I was severely banking on that adrenaline to get me through the drive down. My older sister took the first driving shift while I pretended to sleep in the front seat. I just couldn’t bring myself to falling asleep, and I just pictured previous launches over and over again in my head.

I took over control just after 0000 Thursday, just in time to cross over the borders to Kentucky and Tennessee. For those who haven’t driven down this part of I-75, it is miles and miles of hills and valleys and switch-backs, plus for whatever reason it was extremely foggy, so I had visibility out to maybe 300 meters. Thankfully, since it was so late, there weren’t really any other vehicles on the road, so I only needed to watch the road and not other drivers. The fog stuck around for around an hour and the hills a few more. Over time, I lost track of where exactly I was; all I knew was that I was to keep heading south on I-75 for as long as I could. I turned over control reluctantly to my mom for the last couple of hours, taking us into Atlanta.

Since my sister couldn’t move into her apartment until Friday, she and my mom stayed in a nearby hotel on Thursday. I helped them move in their bags and grabbed some breakfast (followed by another short “nap”) before grabbing the keys and my mom’s camera and leaving the complex. I was finally on my way to the launch on my own! When I first learned that I’d be seeing the launch, this was my initial plan for the entire drive which would’ve given me much more flexibility in drive times and locations (i.e. wouldn’t have gone through Atlanta during rush hour times on the return journey), but having some breaks from driving were also nice. I hopped back on I-75 and headed south, roughly six hours from my hotel in Daytona Beach.

The drive didn’t start out so smoothly, however, due to what else was also heading south on I-75 at that time. Right after leaving the city, and noticing the drastic thinning off of traffic, I thought that I’d be home free until the exit for Daytona Beach. I, of course, was wrong, as a wide-load truck taking up two lanes and every other driving not knowing how to handle it set me back close to forty-five minutes heading down. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I looked like a giant anchor for a barge (it was covered, obviously, or else I’d know for sure). Every time a gap opened up on the right side, ten cars tried to zip through, but driving slowly, only to have a semi send them all back behind the truck and four-car escort. When I finally had my turn, I surged past and immediately switched into the left lanes to get far ahead of that disastrous mid-route event.

Once that was over, my only hiccups were stopping for gas and food (plus burning two CDs to save myself from non-stop country music or silence), and I arrived at my hotel around 1600. I checked in, took a quick shower, and got dressed in some shorts (I was still in my jeans back from when I left Michigan) and an undershirt and threw my backpack and a nice shirt into the back on the car. I left the hotel around 1630 and headed south to Cocoa for the cocktail party/dinner for Garrett Reisman, for which I was graciously invited by extension and at which I’d be the only person I knew. But no matter, I still figured the food and possibly talking to some interesting people were reason enough to head down and add two hours (one out and one back) to my total time behind the wheel.

As expected, I knew no one there (and only got mildly lost on the way there), so I quickly made my way to the open bar to grab something to drink before getting in line for food. Looks like those were my priorities back then… After slowly drinking while the servers loaded my plate with pasta, chicken, and salad, I turned around and asked the couple at the first table I saw if it was ok if I sat with them. Thankfully, they either recognized that I was obviously there alone or figured that they wouldn’t need to talk to me even if I sat down, so they let me sit with them. I took a seat across the table, had a few bites of my salad, and asked, “so how do you know Garrett?” knowing full well that they’d ask the same in return so that I could prove to them that I hadn’t just wandered in off the street. Mark and his wife (as I soon found out) were a very nice couple, and thankfully after me stumbling over my words for the first few responses, we actually had a nice conversation going (making me feel worse that I can’t remember his wife’s name…). After about an hour of eating, talking, and cake consumption, the couple got up to leave. I stuck around for about five minutes more, signed Garrett’s book on my way out, then left the community center and headed back to my car.

It was at this point when I had a sudden realization that I could miss the launch the next day. The plan for launch day was for our group to meet up in Orlando (where everyone but I was staying), then drive to KSC early in the morning. This meant that I would be waking up around 0630, or possibly earlier, to fully wake up and get over to Orlando before our group left, which also meant that I had about eight hours to sleep that night (when drive time back to Daytona Beach was taken into consideration). I knew that, with my college-acclimated sleep schedule combined with my lack of sleep over the past two days, it was not a good plan for me. Images of me waking up at 1420 kept flashing in my head on the short walk to my car, so I knew what I had to do.

A few days earlier, Darrel had offered for me to spend the first night in his and Amy’s (his wife) hotel room, since they had an extra bed. I initially declined, thinking, I’ve done 14/16-hour drives before no sweat, so I should be fine. How wrong I was, especially considering that I may or may not have been hallucinating on I-10, when I still had around four hours total of driving left to do that day. I quickly called up Darrel, talked with Amy, and thankfully coaxed my way into spending the night with them. I made a quick stop to buy a water bottle and a bag of Chex Mix for launch day, then arrived at the hotel. I immediately apologized for my incoherent phone ramblings, described what I’d gone through, and thanked the two of them endlessly for letting me stay. After a quick e-mail check, I pulled back the blanket and lied down on the spare bed, still in my clothes, and fell asleep. It was about 2100, and I don’t think I snored, but I never did ask (and I’m not entirely sure if I do snore, but depending on how exhausted I am that would probably change). And that’s day one…

LAUNCH
I woke up the next morning just after 0700 (when my alarm went off), and felt great! Ten hours straight of sleep will really do something to you, and I’ve possibly never felt more refreshed in my whole life. Definitely more refreshed than I’ve felt at any point this last year by a long shot. I brushed my teeth, got dressed in my MDRS-89 t-shirt, and went down with Darrel and Amy to breakfast. Soon after starting my waffles cooking, CMDR Brian and Amnon (of Spacepirations.com) showed up as well. Finally, the portion of our crew that would be at the launch was together! We ate and wrapped up a little food for later, then headed to the big red van that Darrel had rented in order to pick up the remaining three members of our party (Amnon had left slightly earlier, as he was part of the NASA Tweetup for the launch).

These three remaining people were “Earth” Mike (Carla’s boyfriend, and since I was “Mars” Mike, then additional identifier makes sense… I guess), Shaun, and his wife Melanie. I had never met any of them before, but throughout the day I realized more and more that I was extremely grateful that I had met and gotten to know them during the launch.

We picked up the final three around 0900 and headed east for Cape Canaveral. We stopped before hitting the thick traffic to fill up the gas tank and buy a few snacks (I purchased an Arnold Palmer, having already gotten my snacks), plus to stretch out before what we anticipated as being a few hours straight in the car. Just what I had trained for with my long drives! Fortunately, we were early enough that the traffic was still moving, and we got to our viewing spot sometime between 1000 and 1030, since I was too excited at this point to check the clock. Our only snag was being waved through one of the security checkpoints only to have the guard say, “wait, do you have a badge?” Darrel slamming the brakes, and Mike showing his NASA badge from the back seat before we were officially waved through (followed by jokes about bullet holes in the back and a discussion of including a do not drive into ocean clause in rental vehicle contracts).

We had around four hours to kill, so instead of putting on sunscreen, I walked around with Brian soon after arriving, ate Chex Mix, tried to take pictures of the Atlantis on Pad 39-A, talked with our group, and had a discussion with a college professor behind me about my experience at MDRS (he read my shirt). He told me that one of his students had gone a few years ago, and that a few of his former students had gone to MSU for grad school (I think…?). That led to him asking my about my fluid dynamics professor, to which I responded, “sorry, but I’m just an undergraduate.” This didn’t deter him, as he kindly informed me that sometimes grad professors teach undergrad courses. Really? I didn’t know that, especially when half of my professors need to be reminded that we’re the undergrad class midway through lecture. I kindly responded that we didn’t have an undergrad fluid dynamics course, and our conversation faltered soon after.

About two hours before launch, Brian went to snag some souvenirs that we had scouted out earlier, only to return a few minutes before the final countdown began. Everyone stood up, the crowd counted along with the loudspeakers, we watched in awe as the clouds from the exhaust completely shrouded the launch site…

And there it was! The Atlantis counteracted Earth’s gravitational pull, gradually moving further and further away from this little planet we call home. The crowd cheered, egging the proud orbiter upward! It rose in the bright blue sky, turned over, and arced across our view toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station. And then we heard the roar of the engines, which started as a low rumble that gradually rose to an ear-filling thunder. Cheers once more erupted, accompanying the engine’s blast and the smile across my face. More cheers when Atlantis made it through throttle-up intact. Cheers following solid rocket booster separation. Cheers for space exploration.

We stood there for a long time, watching the cloud plume slowly drift in the winds and catching out last glimpses of the orbiter as she started her orbit of our planet. We then picked up our things, made sure all of our cameras and phones and chip bags were with us, and walked back to the car. I still had a huge smile on my face and had to consciously make an effort not to say, “that was fuckin’ amazing!” and “so fuckin’ cool!” every few minutes, as much as I wanted to. I could barely contain my emotions, evident in the speed that I was walking around and the fact that I may have started skipping at one point…

Thankfully, Mike was able to patch us through to Carla in Russia following the launch, saving her from what would inevitably be an early death due to boredom, and we all got a chance to tell her how thankfully we were for getting us the pass and how unfortunate it was that she couldn’t be there. I have no idea what my exact words were, since I was still in my post-launch high, but I’m pretty sure I threw in a joke or two amid my ramblings. Or, at least I’d like to think I did. Following our phone conference, we decided that, instead of sitting in traffic for three hours, we would be going to the KSC Visitor’s Center for three hours (about) before heading to Fishlip’s for a post-launch celebration.

I agreed. The last time I was at KSC was twelve or more years ago, and since I only remembered two things (the rocket garden and explorable shuttle exhibit), I was eager to go back. Since this was my first, and potentially only, shuttle launch, I wanted to get the full experience from it. After entering, we broke up into groups, with me tagging along with Melanie, Mike, and Shaun. We stopped by the rocket garden, the environmental exhibit, the shuttle exhibit, mission status tent, and finally the IMAX theatre to watch Hubble 3D. It wasn’t bad, but we all agreed that showing more sweet images (especially if they did the cool fly-through that they did with the Orion Nebula) and used a different narrator than Leonardo DiCaprio would have made the film much better. Once we got out of the theatre, it was almost group rendezvous time, so we ducked into the gift shop (I bought an STS-132 mug) before joining up at the entrance.

From there, we traveled to Fishlip’s, where I had three beers (two courtesy of Shaun) and some (much ridiculed, also courtesy of Shaun) chicken tenders. It was also sometime while there that the sunburn that I had accumulated on my arms, neck, and face started hurting, but thankfully most of that pain was drowned out by the euphoric sensation still pumping through my veins. It was great to just sit and relax while joking about the fish show on the television or discussing why people actually use Twitter, plus the food wasn’t half-bad either. We left sometime around 2100 for Orlando after sitting around for two hours. I said good-bye to Brian, since he was staying behind with Amnon and I wouldn’t see him before I left, then hopped in the car. We dropped off and wished our farewells to Melanie, Mike, and Shaun first at their hotel, then Darrel, Amy and I went back to their so that I could get my car and head back to Daytona Beach.

POST LAUNCH
I returned to my hotel around 2330 or so. I grabbed my things from my car and brought them in, dropped everything off on my extra bed, locked all three door locks, then took a shower. I really just wanted to let the cold water run over my sunburns, which felt nice, but I also figured that I should shower before sitting in a car for twenty more hours (and I didn’t want to wake up early the next day to shower). With the launch and seeing my old crewmates and meeting new people finally over, I could start to relax and calm down. I dressed in my pajamas, turned on the TV, and watched a few shows before falling asleep. I set my alarm, packed up a few things, and fell asleep.

I woke up the next day at 1000, ready to start my trek back to Michigan. I dressed lightly (really just shorts and an undershirt), checked out of the hotel, and left Daytona Beach. On my way out, I made a stop at a Target to get some aloe lotion for my burns and at Friendly’s to get a much-anticipated coffee Fribble, which I had been waiting for since I saw the Friendly’s on Thursday afternoon. I hadn’t had one in around a year, so I was already salivating when I went inside to order it. My only regret is that I only bought one, but at the same time one was delicious! With that shake securely in my car, I finally set out from Florida.

My first stop was about 2.5 hours later. I ran into a McDonald’s after getting on I-75 from I-10 to have a few cheeseburgers, then filled up the gas tank. I figured that both would take me through to Atlanta, since I also had some snacks I could munch on should my stomach need some more filling. The drive was much calmer than down, partially due to the fact that I wasn’t against a clock to get anywhere. Good thing too, as once I entered Atlanta on I-75, I was bogged down in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I quickly learned that two of the seven lanes were closed for construction, causing the highway to come to an almost absolute standstill. Thankfully, I hadn’t finished my Chex Mix earlier, so I happily ate that while listening to the CDs I had burned. I don’t even think I minded the traffic that much, especially since I was already ahead of schedule for when I would be arriving at my sister’s new apartment.

When I finally pulled in after a few wrong turns, I was stunned at how nice it was! The apartment complex was spread out over three distinct areas in a secluded and wooden neighborhood, each with their own pool, exercise room, laundry facilities, etc. The apartment were also further subdivided into residence-style blocks, further adding to the feeling that this was like a resort. And my sister will be living there for three months! My mom and I hung around there for about an hour before gassing up and starting the last leg of the trip back to Michigan.

I was rightly exhausted, so I quickly fell asleep in the front seat while my mom drove on the first leg. This sleep, however, was punctuated by bumps and shakes in the road, the general uncomfortableness of sleeping in a car, and a lone nightmare that ended with me punching the roof of the car. On the whole, though, it was a successful extended nap, more than adequately prepping me for the rest of the drive. I took over the wheel in Kentucky around 0130 on Sunday, and from their I just drove straight back to Michigan (only stopping for some gas).

And, at 0600, I was back home, the trip ended. While the entire experience would’ve been much more memorable had the entire MDRS-89 crew been there, I still had a great time, met some great people, and thoroughly enjoyed watching the final launch of the Atlantis.

My First Days as a College Senior

Of course, I can’t really talk about those first days until I talk about my last days as a college junior, so I’ll be back-tracking a few weeks. Get ready for a bumpy ride!

This past week were my three final exams (and my one mandatory class discussion session…) which I feel I did really well on. Due to some poor grades following my MDRS absence, I needed pretty high scores on my finals to get the grades that I wanted, or close to the grades that I wanted. Right now, three of my grades are officially recorded, one more is pretty much determined, and the last one is completely up in the air. For the three official ones (MTH 320, PHY 440, and PHY 472), the finals for the first and third went really well. I needed high-80s/low-90s to bump up to the next grade-point level, which I achieved! PHY 440 didn’t have a final since half the class was labs, and I still got a reasonable grade in that one. Due to some poor semester planning and missing two weeks, this semester was far from stellar grade-wise, so I’m really glad that it’s now behind me. One thing I am proud of, though, is only losing two points out of three-hundred on my various papers and homework assignments for LB 334 (the practically determined 4.0 that’s not quite official yet…).

But the end of the semester went a little tough… Homework assignments and fitting in study time and working all took a mental and physical toll on me, which I’ll be slowly recovering from over the next few days. I enjoyed most of my classes most of the time, which was a nice change from the LB 145 and PSY 280 days of yore. Another academically-related ending is my Calculus Learning Assistant job. I graded final exams this morning, finally ending my involvement with that past employment. I won’t even need to worry about the transition to the Physics LA job until mid/late-summer when our sections are decided, which is pretty nice. One minor detail that I am looking forward to due to that change is the possibility of having former students in my class again.

I also gave two talks about my MDRS experience: the UURAF and the Briggs Symposium. I’ve attended both of these events in the past, although my presentations have always been as part of a class, so it was nice to be there presenting on my own accord. At the UURAF, which I was at between 0930 and 1130, I was off in a side room of the Union with the other natural science posters, which were only about another ten or so. Small group, but it was nice being out of the mob scene that was the main hall. For the most part, I talked with some of the other presenters, visited a few of my current (or, at the time current) students’ posters, and just hung out. When the judge finally came around, we talked for twenty minutes or so about how I was selected, what I actually did there, my thoughts on the future direction of American manned spaceflight, my plans for the future, and random things I learned while there. Since most of the judges are volunteers, I think the judge that came around to me was glad that my poster was muddied with technical jargon and unintelligible results, hence my 13/15 combined on Delivery, Comprehensibility, and Visual Aids (each being out of five). I also talked with a few former professors, some old classmates, and random people walking by about similar topics. My only regret is that I didn’t bring a copy of The State News that I appeared on, but hindsight is always 20-20, right?

About a week later, I attended the Briggs Symposium, which is similar in structure but used more for semester projects with only a smattering of independent research projects. I basically just hung out with some classmates and talked with former professors about what I did. My old Chemistry (LB 171/172) professors were really interested in the future direction of NASA, especially coming from someone with an “insider’s perspective,” while my Biology (LB 145) professor was more interested in understanding the finer points of general relativity and the issues with interplanetary travel and communication, especially with regards to the internet. This Symposium is much more relaxed since we’re not really judged (unless you count getting graded for a class as being judged…), plus everyone in Briggs either knows each other or can understand the stresses that they’re going through, so it’s really easy to just talk with each other without really needing an ice breaker (You wanted to burn the CFTR map in front of the prof after two weeks? Me too!).

The best part about both is that I now have two coupons to the MSU Dairy Store. I’m saving one for MST@MSU-2010, while the other will probably be used at some point next week while I’m out job hunting.

Blue Group from MST@MSU 2009

Speaking of job hunting, I’m still partially unemployed for the summer. I’ll be working at the MST@MSU summer camp for two weeks again with the same group of counselors, plus one new addition, which I am really looking forward to. But, for the other twelve or so weeks, I’ll have no job. The kind of bad part is that I’ll either need to run around downtown East Lansing all day tomorrow, or wait over a week before I can search again due to attending the STS-132 launch in one week. I’m sure that I’ll be able to find some job somewhere; it’s just the act of going out and doing it that’s a little delayed due to finals recovery and an extended absence from East Lansing.

But now this post is really jumping around, so let’s return to what has actually happened. Finals week started on Monday with my PHY 472 exam. I studied all day Sunday for it, plus a few times within the week prior, logging somewhere around twenty-four hours for Quantum Mechanics. I sat down in my seat, took out my pencils, and got to work on the exam. I blazed through the entire thing, then went up to ask the professor two small questions just to make sure I made the right assumptions. Once he verified that I had, I turned it in. “Woah, you’re already done? That was quick.” Yes, I was in fact done, and in seventy minutes. I didn’t need any more time, and based on my final grade (and the score I had calculated earlier that I needed on the final to get that final grade), I got a high-90 on the exam, potentially even a straight 100%. I just like finishing exams early, and when I’m confident about my answers, looking at them thinking, “I’m so good at this,” doesn’t get me a better grade, so why waste an extra ten or fifteen minutes?

Tuesday morning went similarly for MTH 320. I had stayed up until 0400 studying, starting right after getting back from the Quantum final, then I took a quick nap before the 0745 final. This final, however, was optional; the last day of class, the prof handed out our current grade, so we could either take it as is or take the final and try to improve it. Since my grade was much lower than I anticipated, due primarily to a string of poor homework grades that fell (you guessed it) during and after my MDRS mission, I decided that I would be taking the final.

. . .
. . .

I was the only one there.
. . .
. . .

The prof and I stayed in the classroom for about twenty minutes, me furiously writing proofs on printer paper, he working on a crossword puzzle, before moving to his office so that he could get some work done while I took the exam. We talked during the walk about how I was angry at myself for having the low grade at that point and why, he said that it was strange especially since I understood all of the information well when I was there, then I continued taking the exam. I was about ten minutes into the eleventh and last problem when he mentioned that I had forty-five minutes left. I worked on that last problem for the next twenty-five minutes before finally giving up. “I know what I needed to do,” I told him as I stapled the sheets together, “but I just couldn’t get the last one to work out.” But you did the first ten, he asked as I handed the stack over, which I answered in the affirmative. “I’m only grading ten, though, so which ones did you want me to grade?” I said, “Well shit, I’m an idiot. I was done forty minutes ago,” before telling him to lop the last problem off the record. Before that exchange, I was feeling a little badly about that grade, since I needed a 90 to bump the grade up, and dropping that problem would put me right on the cusp (and it’s good that it wasn’t counted, because I also did another problem completely wrong by proving the wrong theorem which put me right on the cusp). That walk home felt much better, and checking my grade yesterday and seeing that I had, in fact, bumped my grade up, was icing on the cake.

My final final was Wednesday afternoon and in Thermal Physics, the giant thorn in my semester among the less-sharp thorns. Unfortunately, I had no idea what grade I had going into the final, or at least didn’t know the exact value. I knew it was drastically low because the class just straight up sucked. Terrible professor, boring subject, unintelligible lectures and textbook, and ridiculously hard problems on the exams that were never covered in lectures, homework, the textbook, or furious Google searches after-the-fact. I don’t even know if there’s a sizable curve to help me out, but I would need a pretty big curve to save my grade. So, I studied for close to three total days on it, reading through the three-hundred textbook pages, all of my notes, previous exams and homeworks, close to four or five times each. I think it worked out, because I actually had an idea of what to do on all of the problems, but again, a miracle might be needed to save that grade.

And that was my finals week. I went back to my apartment, ate some Doritos and drank and Arnold Palmer, played some Legend of Zelda on my computer, and smiled. I was done with my junior year at Michigan State, and it couldn’t have felt better! I’m transitioning from three straight semesters of ridiculous courses and “my hardest semester yet” to my twenty-four total-credit senior year. How can you even worry about what happened over the past five months when the next fifteen will feel so good?

And now, I get to do this stuff for the summer. In there is a computer game I’m designing, some video games, a bunch of book I want to read, and a complete lack of due dates, exams, office hours, class discussions. I’m pretty excited…

…but it will have to wait a little bit longer. As I mentioned, I’m basically losing a week of the summer due to heading south for the Atlantis launch (which I don’t mind at all!), and once I return I’ll be (hopefully) working and studying for the GRE. Yes, I have two weeks to finish my preparation, which is primarily vocabulary anyway, then summer will really kick in. I’m just very glad that I don’t need to worry about an entire section (Math) of the test, which greatly reduces my stress level about it. It’s just all of that vocab memorization that’s the worst part. I can memorize equations and reactions and commands, but just simple words? My brain just has trouble thinking like that, plus I take Orwell’s words to heart, whether intentional or not. [Sidenote: when I finished that sentence about Orwell, this post’s word count according to WordPress was 1984 words…]

And that basically my life from the past few weeks and looking forward to the future. I know I grazed over a lot of topics, skipped some, meandered around, but I think I got everything out there… Just ask if something doesn’t seem right, or you want me to more deeply discuss my feelings about being the only student taking my math course final this semester or anything else.

The Importance of the Self

I had an amazing weekend these past few days, and it has probably been the best (or, at very worst, second-best) since returning to Earth following my MDRS mission. A lot happened this weekend too, not even considering two amazing wins by the MSU Men’s Basketball team: first date, “Compton” reunion pub crawl, cleaned my room, and started GRE prep, among other events. I also had a chance to reflect on who I was as a person, and who I wanted to be in the future. Quite the mental exercise for someone still in the middle of an exam season and only a month away from finals.

What did I determine? Well, I’ll need to break this up into a few smaller categories, since they only have mild connections. Plus, it’s easier to read (and write!) if compartmentalized like this, even if the categories are somewhat broad.

Academics
I recently ordered and received my first GRE Prep book: Cracking the GRE: 2010 Edition. Since I don’t really have the time to go to a bookstore to pick things up, I usually just order from Amazon, and this book (along with a vocab book that will be arriving tomorrow) was no different. I also really like picking up packages from my apartment complex’s office, which was just icing on the cake.

Right now, I’m trudging through the English-related sections of the book, and I’m slowly realizing how inadequate the current extent of my vocabulary is. Yes, I do know quite a variety of words, but there are many more that I have no idea even existed (or ones I thought I knew, but really didn’t). I haven’t looked at the Math-related sections yet, but I’m sure I’ll be fine with that and the essay, but that English section is just freaking me out a little bit. Hence the inclusion of a vocab-specific book to aide in my studying. I have two months to prepare, but at the same time I’ll be focused/distracted by actual schoolwork that actual study time will invariably be much less. I did give myself a window of two weeks following finals before the actual exam, so that should help make up for any deficiencies stemming from completing my junior year.

Speaking of that completion, I’m doing reasonably well in my classes. I just had two exams last week (Quantum II and Analysis I), and I have one more this upcoming Friday. Tomorrow night I’ll be completing homework for the classes that require it so I can more fully dedicate the tail of the week to preparing for that exam, especially considering that it is currently my worst class grade-wise. Using some gained knowledge from after the first exam, I should be in a much better position than I was (and I won’t be coming off missing seven straight classes), so I am not as worried about it. Of course, we’ll see on Friday exactly how much that pays off.

Non-Academic but close to it
I started work on the UURAF poster this past week (Research on Mars: Limitations in a Martian Analog Environment), although I am still far from completion. I’m still trying to pin down exactly what I want to discuss on the poster and during the judging phase, so my work has been more of a detailed outline than anything else. Thankfully, Jason Black at Plot to Punctuation offered to proofread my poster before the presentation, so I’m planning to get that to him by the end of the week. That will most likely mean sending him an e-mail by next Sunday following a weekend of just working on the poster due to my other time restraints.

I’ve done almost no programming following the Collatz Conjecture exercise, not including some basic class construction exercises. I did find in some of my freshman notes a description of a problem that I was contemplating solving as part of my Calculus I H-Option but discarded in favor of my coin flipping simulation. I’ll probably go back on work on that, since it will combine a few different techniques that I’ve learned so far in my studies. Of course, this has lower priorities than everything else, so it may be a while before I can even start actively thinking about it.

Personal Gain
Right now, I am training for a 10-kilometer race, which I am currently two weeks away from. This will be the longest race I’ve ran since the Capitol City River Run I completed my sophomore year, as well as the first race I’ve actively trained for since the end to my high school running career. So far, I’ve racked up a couple dozen miles, and my per mile times are down to around 7:20, which isn’t too bad considering starting from basically scratch. I figured, with Opportunity surpassing 20k and the missed opportunity to run a 5k completely in sim, a 10k was the least I could do. Plus, my dad and I will be carbo-loading the day before with Pizza House, which is definitely a plus.

I’m also working on eating healthier, starting with the complete elimination of soda from my diet. This mostly stemmed from MDRS not having any on hand, and I’ll tell you that it’s really tough to turn down a 24-pack of Dr Pepper soon after starting. Yes, I could’ve just lapsed for a few days until my roommates and I finished those off, but then what would stop me from relapsing over and over again? I figured that it would just be easier to not drink it then, making it a better chance that I wouldn’t drink it in the future. I figure that, if I keep this up, then all the better for my overall health. On the food side, I’m working on making sure I get enough calories (but more just guesstimating…) to fuel my athletic and academic pursuits, plus eating a wider variety of foods than just pizza, cereal, and peanut butter sandwiches.

My room is also clean, and I’m going to keep that trend going for as long as I can. On a similar note, I’m not going to buy any new clothes for a while, after noticing exactly how many t-shirts I own and how many I don’t wear. I had contemplated buying a new one (or two) a week or two ago, but decided against it because of some other purchases I had made earlier in the week, but now I figure that I don’t need any more for a while. Yes, I’ll be buying at least one shirt should I get a summer internship (still waiting to hear back from all of them, but NASA should be getting back to me this week), because I will need something that echoes back to my host institution.

And that’s basically it. There’s a few other things in there that I didn’t put down, plus my still-active New Year’s Resolutions, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure those out. Plus, there might be a life-chaning event coming up soon for me, so mentally preparing for that goes hand-in-hand (or is directly a part of) all of these other things…

Returning to Life

With one week passing from the end of the crew changeover to MDRS 90, and six days passing from landing back in Michigan, I felt it fitting to take an inventory of my life at this point to quell my Mars withdrawals. It’s been a tough first week back on Earth, especially school-wise, but I think that I’m finally starting to come back around to normalcy.

Life at State
Waking up in the morning for classes instead of EVAs still feels a little off, but thankfully my sleep regiment imposed by MDRS has helped out, with the exception of my late sleep-in today. While yes, it didn’t help out waking up at 0730 on Tuesdays to teach, every other day of the week is fine. I’m also a little quicker to get up in the morning too, making it more likely to stay awake once I am up. I’m also back to eating real food every day (not just every other), although we do need to go grocery shopping soon to replenish our stores. I’ve yet to clean my room from before I left for Mars, but I may have time today or tomorrow to take a stab at finishing that up. I haven’t slept in the sleeping bag since I returned, since I don’t want to take it out of the sack.

The actual classwork has been fine. I had two exams this week and a paper due, with my final exam for this season falling on next Friday. I didn’t do too well on the two exams, but I did get a 4-point on the paper, which is great! I attended two labs last week, and will have two this week as well, to make up for missing the first two labs for my electronics class, but after that things will be back to normal for even that. The fact that I’m back to doing homework every day instead of riding ATVs is a little depressing, but I’m used to the fact that I’ll be doing homework for quite a few more years anyway…

Since I am now twenty-one after having one of the best birthdays possible, a lot of different opportunities are present for me on the weekends. Last night, I hung out at the bar with my roommate and a few of our good friends, and it was great! The place wasn’t packed, there was no line to get in, and I genuinely enjoyed myself. I also woke up this morning to an e-mail from Carla to check my mail, and I was greeted with a sweet NASA sweatshirt, some freeze-dried ice cream, a lanyard, and a postcard, which, combined with everything I got from her while on Mars, makes for a huge birthday stash of gifts and delicious treats. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting a single thing, so she could have given me a piece of paper with NASA scribbled on it and I’d still be ecstatic. I also got a good “birthday gift” from The State News by appearing on the front page of the paper, plus a multi-media spot on the website. All very cool.

In the News

Front Page of the February 11 State News

Since I’ve already mentioned The State News article (you can read it here), I might as well discuss the media coverage that has surrounded my return to Earth. Our crew blog has a list of all of the news coverage we’ve received, as of February 12, which you can browse here and includes all the articles that I’m going to talk about now anyway. My hometown paper, the Birmingham Eccentric gave me the front page as well, on their Sunday paper for February 7, which coincided with me returning to Michigan post mission. Both of those articles had secondary information: the multi-media spot for my college paper, and a quote on my thoughts on the existence of life on other planets for my home paper. I will also have a similar article in the February Lyman Biggs newsletter, but since that hasn’t come out yet I can’t really link to it… While I am slightly surprised about the amount of coverage that we as a crew and me personally have received, that might just be because I had seen no coverage of any of the previous crews. I only recently found out that some footage for an episode of The History Channel’s The Universe (which I own the first three seasons) was filmed at MDRS, since I hadn’t watched that particular episode before. At the same time, it makes sense, since I’m almost positive that I’m the first State student (and greater Birmingham area resident) to take part in the program. Also, as a result of having the photo shoot at the Abrams Planetarium, I may be giving a talk there about my experiences sometime this semester. I also have an entire Google page devoted to me (just search “mike moran mars”)!

Work
I am back to being a Calculus II LA for the semester. I love the job, but it will be strange once more standing in front of a class once a week and grading their exams and quizzes. I’ve also recently (i.e. yesterday) interviewed for a math tutoring position for the RCAH, just to get some more money during the semester and some more job experience. I should hear back early next week about whether or not I got the job, but not to jinx myself, but I think that I’ll get the job based on the final questions he was asking. Should be pretty sweet. I’ve also, strangely, been accepted for a position as a Physics LA for next year, which is strange considering the fact that I have already accepted (I think…?) a position as a Calculus LA for next year. The past two years, I was denied being a Physics LA since I was also a Calculus LA, so either they changed their minds, saw the paper and said, “oh shit, we need this guy to teach for us,” or didn’t realize that I’m still a Calc LA. Or I could have not accepted the Calc position yet… I’ll find out when I get the official statement of employment, which the professors said should be coming shortly, and stopping in the office to check things out.

I’ve also applied for some summer internships: REUs at the University of California, Davis campus, and Notre Dame, and the NASA USRP. Depending on which one I’m accepted to (if any), and where NASA places me, I’ll be spending my summer in California, Texas, Indiana, or Maryland. Any of those would be nice places to be for two months, and I should be hearing back about those within the next few months. I’ve also looked at the Caltech/JPL SURF program, but with a deadline of this Friday and all of the other work I need to get done, I may not have the time to complete the thorough application and round up a third reference, since the internships I’ve already applied to only required two (or one).

So, I have a lot going on still. I spent today in the shower, at a Chinese food restaurant, in my bed, watching TV and reading TIME, eating freeze-dried ice cream, and putting off studying and working on homework for as long as I can. Once this goes out, though, I’m actually going to clean my room to facilitate the homework aspect of my plans.

Earth Return Vehicle

Yesterday, MDRS 89 relinquished their occupation of the Hab over to the all-Belgian MDRS 90 crew. It was a bitter-sweet moment to say the least.

The morning felt almost somber, with all of my movements more sluggish than usual. I ate slowly, walked around the Hab checking on everything, and made sure that I had everything packed. I cleaned off the jumpsuits, removed our nametags, and helped Kiri laminate our newly-printed and updated Quick Guides. I carried bags outside and dropped them off on our “staging area,” which was nothing more than some plywood resting on 2x4s on the far end of the pressurized rover garage. As a crew, we were all set to leave once MDRS 90 showed up, but as individuals we weren’t ready to leave the Hab, possibly for good.

Due to some major car problems, Crew 90 arrived three hours late, along with their two separate news crews. It was a huge shock going from six people in the Hab, our Hab, to over twenty in a matter of minutes. The entire two-hour handover was a huge sensory overload, and the language barrier was a little tough at times, but eventually we got all of our things into our car (including Darrel’s jacket) and drove down Lowell Highway, saying one last good-bye to the Hab.

And with that, my MDRS mission ended. Once we rounded that corner, that was it. We talked about our first real meal, our first shower, Darrel wanting to get me drunk, all the normal conversational topics. We decided to drive straight to Grand Junction, after dropping off the geophone equipment with DG at Hollow Mountain, so that we could shower and eat and still have time to sleep before waking up for our flights in the morning. Especially for me, since my flight was leaving at 0625, but that also meant that I could drive the rental car to the airport and drop it off, which was really nice.

We got back to Grand Junction, showered, and got dressed (Carla quickest of all, surprisingly), and piled back into our ERV to head to Rockslide Brewery, which we had picked out earlier in the mission as our first meal stop. We pulled up, got a table, and started thumbing through the menus. I went straight for the Bacon Cheeseburger, with curly fries, a side salad, and a sampler of their microbrews. Our table got three of them, but since Kiri wasn’t drinking, Carla was helping everyone out with theirs, and we were partially celebrating my birthday, I got a full one to myself. Once those were gone, soon after ordering calamari for our appetizers, I ordered a pint of the one I liked the best.

All of the food was delicious, and we talked and joked the entire time (HabCom to EVA crew…), and ordered a few more rounds of beers. It was great to relax and eat some real food (I finished all of mine, then ordered dessert), plus to just unwind after staying in a Hab for two weeks. Near the end of the night, Luís ordered two pints, one for me and one for him, and I couldn’t really refuse, could I? The ride back was hilarious as well, with Kiri driving, Carla in shotgun, and the four guys in the back two rows joking and laughing. We got back to the hotel and hung out in Brian and I’s room for a while, then eventually fell asleep.

I didn’t sleep that well, but that might have been because I didn’t want to sleep through my alarm and miss my flight. I got up, got dressed, and double-checked the directions with Brian before heading out to the airport. I parked, dropped the keys off at the desk, printed both of my boarding passes, and checked my bags. I fell asleep on the flight out to Dallas and slept the entire way there, knowing that I would most definitely wake up during my three-hour layover and wouldn’t easily fall back asleep. The layover wasn’t even that bad, and I did spend quite a bit of time walking around and taking pictures, plus grabbing some nourishment while there.

I landed in Detroit after a mildly uncomfortable and packed flight, grabbed my bag, and met with my parents to take me back to State. We stopped at Wendy’s on the way, I told them all about the trip, they showed me a news story that had been published earlier in the day, and we got back to State (and got some Menna’s).

And with that, MDRS was officially over. I miss the Hab, I miss the crew, I miss the rovers, I miss the suits. I don’t miss the short showers, the Alpineaire meals, or the muddy snowy mess outside of the Hab (unless I was riding a rover…). I may see some of the crew later this year, depending on how my plans actually pan out, so that will be nice, but for now I am back on Earth with my friends and roommates.

Sol 13 – Last Full Day

And a full day it was! The morning started off with a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast dish which I happily ate, followed by Brian and I driving out to Hanksville in our pressurized rover to pick up Amnon Govrin and his twin sons. He has recently become very interested in space exploration, as his blog shows, and he and Brian have had an internet correspondence for a little while. He asked to come visit the Hab to see what it was like, so we agreed that he should come on our last day before the crew change-over, which is happening tomorrow. So, we drove back out to the Bull Mountain Market to pick them up, since his Prius would not have handled Lowell Highway well. We drove back to the Hab, while he asked questions and we gave him a brief overview of what we’ve done, and parked in the pressurized rover bay.

As I was to head out on the day’s first EVA with Kiri and Darrel, mirroring our EVA 2 team, but this time headed toward Valles Marineris, since we had already hit the other major martian landmark, Olympus Mons, quite a few times before. We got dressed, showing the process to Amnon and his kids (which was easier for me, since I already had my flight suit on from when we picked them up), and stepped into the airlock. During the five-minutes depressurization, we suggested that they go out to the pressurized tunnel to watch us head out. We divvied out the keys, with Viking I firmly in my possession, and exited out onto the martian surface for the last time in sim.

Because of the hectic nature of the morning, the ATVs had not been warmed up prior to our departure. Viking I took a while to warm up, and start, but once it was working and howling we were off. Kiri, as EVA commander, led us back toward the turnoff to Cactus Road, which we had been unable to find during EVA 16. Based on observations from Crew 88, which we received yesterday, we found out that we had been at the turnoff to Cactus Road, but had not recognized it for what it was, since it simply looked like a stream bed. Kiri led the way down the path, with Darrel bringing up the rear, as we made our way toward Valles Marineris.

While driving down the newly discovered road, we actually found ourselves right next to Valles Marineris without even realizing it. Instead of trying to figure out exactly how to get there, we drove on down the road to see what else we could visit, since we had only been out for not even half an hour at this point and were only a short drive from the Hab. So, we drove further down the road, toward Candor Chasm, trying to find a cool place to stop. Eventually, we turned around and started heading back, at which point we decided to climb up a large outcrop (later identified as Mount Sagewood) due to the presence of some interesting geological formations. We climbed up, but then decided that going to a particular part of the face wasn’t good enough, so we went all the way to the top.

It reminded me of our trek up Olympus Mons (back on Sol 8 for a number of reasons: I was with Darrel and Kiri, we climbed a large outcrop, we took a ton of pictures, we could see the Hab from where we were, and it was fun! The view might have been even better than from Olympus due to the presence of some large canyons that we could easily see from our perch. Plus, the sun was cooperating with us much more, so the colors really popped out, even through the scratched and dirty visors. Once our jaws returned to their normal positions, we started to climb back down, but instead went down a different path that looked to be much easier than the one we came up.

Once all six of our feet were back on level ground (with only a few slips along the way), we remounted our rovers, and I led us back to the Hab. Similar to the two other times I’ve done this, I felt great! Viking I just flew over the broken ground, and at one point actually flew when I hit a jump, and it felt even better than earlier in the mission. I periodically checked to make sure that Kiri and Darrel (who was filming the return) were still behind me, but otherwise just looked at the road ahead and drove the ATV back to the Hab. When we returned, Amnon and his kids were still there, so they watched our muddy rovers (and bodies) return to the Hab following our successful EVA 19, the second-to-last of the mission.

We left the rover keys in and re-entered the airlock, celebrating and congratulating each other on a great mission. Once the airlock was pressurized, we walked into the EVA Prep Room to start removing our dirt-covered suits and helmets. It was a great end of my ten EVA career (tied for second in the crew), plus really enjoyed myself. After we desuited, Darrel and I drove Amnon and his kids back to their car at the Bull Mountain Market (where we had picked up the food), and I drove back to the Hab. It was nice driving an actual car/pressurized rover for once, although the ATVs were possibly the best part of the mission dynamics.

After checking and refilling the oil, we returned to the Hab to find Brian, Carla, and Luís already suiting up for their last EVA of the mission. I helped them into their backpacks and helmets, inclusive of bungee cords, and saw them on their way. Once they were clear of the Hab, the three of us remaining went to work cleaning up the living quarters (and Darrel worked in the Green Hab) to prepare for the crew changeover tomorrow. MDRS 90 is the first all-Belgian crew, and I am very excited to meet them tomorrow around noon. We’ll be eating lunch with them before leaving, so that will be nice to pass off the information from one crew to the next.

The EVA team returned, we helped them get out of their suits, and we sat down to write reports before eating dinner. We had chili with cheese, but unfortunately it ran out before I could get seconds. Deciding to eat through some of our leftovers, I heated up a bowl of some sort of Alpineaire meal, but it did not taste good at all, so I decided not to eat any of it. I did, however, eat two pieces of birthday-reprise cake after blowing out the remaining three candles. After filing out my food questionnaire, and realizing that I’ve lost ten pounds in two weeks, I decided to eat two more pieces of chocolate cake while waiting for the rest of the crew to get ready for a last game of MDRS Clue, and our last night in the Hab.

Since today was hectic, plus I haven’t downloaded all of the pictures yet, not many pictures for this post. Since this will be my last post from the surface of Mars, I will see everyone back on Earth within the next few days!