Category Archives: Space

Grad School Visits

This past week for Spring Break, I spent time with my family and visited the two grad schools I have currently been accepted to: the University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut, Storrs. While I’m still waiting to hear back from one school and a job opportunity, both of them were relative long shots, so it looks like my summer and fall (and the next five or so years…) has boiled down to a binary choice: ND or UConn?


This was the first school I visited, and man did things go well! Ms. Shari Herman, the “Second Mom” to everyone pursuing a physics Ph.D. at ND, took out all of the stops in setting up a stellar visit for me. I drove down Monday afternoon, right after picking my little brother up from school and visiting with my high school physics teacher, and it went fine. No traffic, I had money for the tolls, and I found my way to the hotel (the Morris Inn, right on ND’s campus) relatively fine. Once I checked in, I hung out in my hotel room, watching TV and lamenting the fact that I could not yet play Pokémon Black.

I woke up the next morning, showered, ate breakfast, and read through the packet of material that Ms. Herman had given me, then checked out and waited for the actual visit to start. I met one of the roughly 90 grad students, and we took a quick tour around campus before my meeting with the first professor on my schedule. Since this was my first time ever visiting ND, it was great to walk around and see the campus, especially with the student body still there since they weren’t on spring break. We eventually made our way over to Nieuwland Science Hall, home of the department and where I would be spending the next nine hours or so.

For the rest of the day, I went from visiting one professor to the next, sitting down and talking for half an hour about the research they were doing, different things going on around campus, how they got involved with ND and physics, and a bunch of other things. I also got a tour of the nuclear physics accelerator lab, got to sit in on a cosmology seminar (with a free lunch!), and got a glimpse of what I’d be doing my first year of school in the form of the grad TA first year lounge (alongside the end of my career with a few fourth- and fifth-years). All in all, a very full day that got added to twice while I was still there!

To end it, I went out to dinner with two other grad students to Legends, a local bar/restaurant establishment just off campus, all on the physics department’s tab. The food was great, and I didn’t really have to stop on the way back for any more food (huge surprise, but I did have a detour right at the beginning of my return journey…), and I had a good time just hanging out away from the more structured environment I had been in for much of the day. All in all, I had a great time, met some amazing people, and really enjoyed myself while I was there. I got back home around midnight, played some Pokémon Black, then went to sleep.


The next and final trip (so far…) was out to Connecticut to visit the department at UConn. I flew out from Detroit early Friday morning after delays on the runway from some of the freshly fallen snow from the night before. Once we took off, though, the flight was fine, the landing smooth, and the pick-up of the rental car (a relatively new Jeep Compass!) went perfectly. But I was still a little late due to that delay, so I showed up to the offices slightly out of breath from sprinting up the flights of stairs to the top of the building. Thankfully, Prof. Dunne (the person who had set up this visitation) didn’t seem to mind, and we talked before meeting a few grad students and heading out to lunch. Since UConn was on spring break, we didn’t really run into any students at all, but the campus was flooded with middle- and high-school students for some convention, so we still had to contend with a mass of hormone-infused saplings as we ate our meal.

Once the last of my meatball sub was firmly in my stomach, we took a quick tour around campus, which was beautiful! It reminded me a lot of State, since it was a little more open, a little disjointed, roads crossed through and around the buildings, and a couple places were under construction, so I felt right at home! While the campus was much quieter during this tour than ND had been, that was good since I could just focus on the buildings and the scenery and not look at the the students walking past.

We returned to the physics building, and I sat with a half-dozen professors to talk about their research to see how it would fit with my interests, just like at ND. Once that was over, I met again with Prof. Dunne to finalize a few things, then I was off to return the rental car to the airport and spend time with my relatives. I won’t go into that since this is about my grad school visits, but just know that I had a blast, and that it more than made up for missing last summer’s reunion.

From today, I have thirty days to wait for the last few pieces of information and make a decision, although I’m sure that I will be making a decision earlier than that. Unfortunately, ND lost to Louisville during the Big East tourney, so I couldn’t use the outcome of the ND-UConn championship game to make the decision for me!

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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.

Book Review: Packing for Mars (Roach)

I got Mary Roach’s most recent book for Christmas from my parents, alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I just started reading today). This was the first time I’ve read one of her books, although a friend of mine did read Bonk and really enjoyed it, plus I’ve only heard praise for her writing. It just came as a bonus that she released one centered on space flight, and I started reading the book midday on Christmas. Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed it!

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Like in the Void by Mary Roach (2010)
Purchase it on Amazon.com

Initial Thoughts: Like I already mentioned, this was my first time reading one of Roach’s books, but based on what I knew of her and her work, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book or that she would do a poor job covering the era of human (and monkey and dog and mice…) activity in space. I took the book up to my room, lied down on my bed, and cracked open the cover, eager to start reading.

Like most things, I avoid reviews of books or movies, favoring instead what my friends and family think about it. That’s part of the reason why I write these anyway, to give a different perspective on the work as opposed to the newspaper reviewers who almost definitely do not share my tastes. I mean, Tron: Legacy was rated pretty low, but it’s one of my favorite movies (expect a review for that at some point as well)! Anyway, back to the book…

The Premise: This book covers space flight in a way that usually isn’t encountered. Instead of focusing on launches and missions and extraordinary events, Roach instead looks at the behind-the-scenes aspects, the things that you either wouldn’t immediately think about when someone mentions “space travel,” or things that you’d never think of, like paying people to stay in bed for months to simulate the deterioration of bone mass during an extended stay aboard the ISS or a future long-duration mission to Mars or a nearby asteroid.

In saying that, there are still the aspects usually associated with more standard books on the topic: quotes from Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, visits to Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussions about Mir while in Russia, etc. There’s also a unique insight into things that we know happen, like the astronaut selection process (JAXA, the Japanese equivalent to NASA, documents the dinner containers of their astronaut hopefuls–locked within an isolation chamber–after the meal, but they don’t tell the candidates this beforehand). As someone who knows a fair bit about space, it was great seeing another side to my childhood (and present-day) heroes as well as getting the additional information that comes from her research.

Of course, like her other books, this isn’t a dry science tome meant to bore you. Mary Roach is hilarious! It first hit me on the first page of the book, in the forward/introduction section aptly titled “Countdown” when she discusses the problem with astronauts when compared to machinery:

A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander.

Even the sentence right before it is golden, juxtaposing irradiated beef tacos with fuel consumption of launching rockets. That sense of humor is present on every page, even in a subdued manner in the more serious or somber sections of the book, like when she meets the widowed husband of one of the astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The book’s short 300-some pages are packed with information, with something new on every page, and Roach’s humor causes you to blow through the pages like nothing. The first break I took was around page 80, with my stomach telling me it needed food, and loudly. I very easily could have read the book in a single sitting, and I’d enjoy it!

Final Thoughts: With the end of the book came the last solidification that Roach is a great author. While only one of her other three books really interests me (yep, the one about sex), I will probably end up reading all of them, just to learn something new and read more of her hilarious writing. Plus, I’d be learning something new, which is always high on my priority list, and truly enjoying it. Likewise, even if you don’t have an interest in space travel (and if you don’t, you’ve been following the wrong blog!), I suggest you pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed in the slightest!

Level 50 Geek

If anything about my life is at critical mass for describing who I am as a person, my overall geekiness is the closest. Ask me a question about almost anything science or science-fiction related, and I may talk for an hour or more straight, stopping only to wake you from the information-induced (or boredom-induced…) coma so that I can either keep talking or apologize for talking too much, which evidently also requires more talking. In any case, I figured with the start of the semester only a handful of hours away, I figured an inventory of my geekiness would be in order.

Fortran and Python
I’ve always loved programming since my first forays into it back in high school with my TI-84+ Silver calculator. It’s just so cool to write something that causes a machine to do things for you! While yes, those early programs were almost all games, the fact is that I could manipulate text to display whatever I wanted on the screen. I haven’t lost that feeling, and in some cases that feeling has grown. Right now, the language I’m most comfortable with is Python, just because I’ve been using it for almost four years now pretty consistently. Second place would be Fortran, since I’ve been quickly learning it for my senior thesis work, but that’s a great language too. Plus, knowing both won’t hurt when I move on to grad school.

Science Fiction
I’ve had a strange relationship with science fiction. As a kid, I loved Star Wars and Jurassic Park and Space Cases, drew spaceships and aliens and planets all of the time, played games like Outpost 2 and Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri and Starcraft, read space-themed Choose Your Own Adventures and other space-related books, and wanted to be an astronaut. I just never thought of all that as science fiction, or related it with that genre that I had sort of heard about but never thought about what it meant. That was my life (loving sci-fi without calling it such) until my junior year of high school when my then-girlfriend sort of slapped some sense into me. I started reading more sci-fi, “discovered” Ben Bova and Orson Scott Card, watched Stargate SG-1 followed closely by Battlestar Galactica, and immersed myself more into the genre. Even then, and now to some extent, I was behind the game. A month ago I hadn’t seen a single episode of Firefly, but I own both the series and Serenity and it holds the Number-Two spot (tied with Warehouse 13) on favorite sci-fi series. In any case, I could go and list every bit of sci-fi that I love, although that would be a post on its own!

I also wrote a short novella set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Check it out!

School and Education
At this point in my life, the only holiday that rivals birthdays and Christmas is “Back to School Shopping.” Buying textbooks, pens, pencils, notebooks, and everything else I need is just so much fun! This year, when one of my roommates told me that he was buying his books tomorrow, I immediately asked if I could go with him, then I couldn’t sleep that night since I was so busy thinking about the cool books I’d be buying for the upcoming semester. I’ve even already started flipping through one of them (my Numerical Analysis text, although this is more due to my senior thesis work). This semester, I have four classes, my senior thesis, and working as a Physics LA in Lyman Briggs, and I couldn’t be happier.

Board and Video Games
I’ve been playing RISK almost my whole life, and recently have played Axis & Allies primarily with my little brother. Both of those games are really enjoyable, although my favorite plastic-and-dice game has to be Warhammer 40K. I’ve been playing that for a decade, am a prominent member of the online community revolving around my chosen race, and I love painting the actual models (…and enter 40 Year Old Virgin jokes…). Past those tabletop games and the game that I’ve been working on (which has stalled due to other constraints), I love video games, but I must also express a small caveat with that. I love older games for the most part, with only a handful of more recent titles that I’ve really enjoyed. Part of that is not actually owning a gaming system of my own (the Wii I got for my birthday a handful of years ago turned into a family possession), but the other half is that I really enjoy the older games. I have versions of Pokémon and Zelda and Mario and Kirby and the original Final Fantasy, among others, on my computer, and I still have my old GameBoy Color with a few old games. There’s just something about those older games that I just love so much…

Music
…such as their chiptune soundtracks. One of my roommates introduced me to Pulse Blast, a very talented chiptune composer who is unfortunately no longer active, but from the first time I heard one of his songs (We Share the Same Sky), I knew that this was music I’d enjoy. More recently, I found Anamanaguchi, who also did some songs for Scott Pilgrim plus the soundtrack for the game, but past that I haven’t listened to many chiptune artists. I also enjoy the insanely geeky songs, like Kill Dash Nine, Mandelbrot Set, and the Large Hadron Rap, by an MSU alum, just because they appeal to my inner geekiness.

What also should be mentioned in this section is that my current ringtone and message tone are from the original Pokémon (intro theme and pick up item, respectively), which I had just switched from music from the Zelda series (Hyrule theme and “Link finds a secret!” respectively).

Conclusion
While I could theoretically go on and on about this, what I have down so far is a pretty good introduction to who I am as a person, especially with regards to what nerdy stuff I like. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to watch some BSG before WH13 comes on.

Preparing for Life

In twelve months’ time, my next four-to-six years will be set and laid out for me to simply follow. While for some this long-range plan may be a little disconcerting, I’m looking at it as my first official steps away from my childhood and into the life of an adult, no matter where I eventually find myself in twelve months, or where I wander between now and then.

Senior Thesis
I’ve just started reading articles in preparation with meeting with my potential advisor to discuss my senior thesis, a requirement for every Astronomy/Astrophysics major at MSU. After trying to decide what I wanted to study for the first couple months of the summer and the end of last semester, I finally settled on an area that I both enjoy and would continue studying in grad school if given the option: r-process nucleosynthesis in supernovae. This attracted me for a number of reasons, the top ones being that it’s not fully understood and that, as theoretical work, it relies highly on computer simulations and coding. Both interesting things to be a part of! Since I haven’t met with the professor yet, I can only hope that he’ll decide to be my advisor, otherwise I’m a little short on luck.

Bike and Build
After finding out about the Bike and Build charity a few years back, I’ve been really excited about applying (this coming October) and hopefully taking part in the program. Riding a bike across the U.S. and building homes for those less fortunate? Sign me up! If I am not accepted into the program, it won’t be like my summer will be meaningless, since I’ll be able to pack/prepare for the next stage of my life and also work at the MST@MSU summer camp again, which would be sweet anyway.

Graduate School
I’ve taken the GRE General Test (M:800, V:550, E:5), and the only standardized test I have left as an undergraduate is the GRE Physics Subject Test. I’ve signed up for the October test date (the first of the year), downloaded the provided pack, and will be picking up a book or two to help me prepare for the test. That score will end up meaning more for admissions to grad school than the general test, since I am going into a Physics-related field, after all. At this point, I have two months until the exam, which should be enough time to prepare so long as I start studying sometime within the next week. I’ve also tried to narrow down my list of school, mostly by collating my various lists into one, so that I can start to figure out where I may be living for the next part of my life.

Programming
Should the subject test (and the retake) go sour, or admissions staff think I’m not up to stuff at any school I apply to, I’ve already started looking at potential jobs that I could post-graduation with my degree. While getting ready for that, I’ve decided to fully flesh out my programming skill set in two areas. First, bring my UNIX/bash abilities close to where my Python skill is, and second, learn C/C++. I haven’t decided between those two languages yet, but I am leaning toward C++ since I feel like it would be slightly more useful. Of course, I have very little idea about which is actually used more in the field, although I’m guessing that it will vary greatly from one place to the next. Mostly this was spurred by a job offering that I will most likely either not be qualified for in any case, or the position will already be filled once I can apply, but in any case the added skills won’t hurt.

Relationships
I’ve decided that, since this last year is very important for the rest of my life, I’m not going to date or try to date anyone for the next year. I’d rather just simply have to worry about me and my own problems for the time being than mine and someone else’s, plus if I’m moving across the country in twelve months I’d want to be single anyway. In some cases, it may be tough, but I think it will turn out for the better for everyone by bringing the inevitable up to the present.

The Game formerly known as ‘Red Mars’

With the continuation of my game development this summer break, drastic changes have come about based on what I want the game to encompass and the story I want to tell. Previously, the game would have panned out as a search-and-rescue/detective mission to Mars to determine the fate of the first manned mission following loss of contact, which is a good idea and one I may revisit, but during development I kept changing my mind. The first change came with the ‘Level 0 – Tutorial’ section where the keys and commands are laid out more interactively than just reading it beforehand or in an FAQ. I had the location for it in a training facility on Earth, then a training facility aboard a ship, and that’s when the game changed.

Why such an expansive ship, and why was a training (re-acclimation for the in-game character) tutorial needed within the story, past telling the player how to do what? Well, it’s a long journey, I thought initially, but you would need years of travel time and some form of suspended animation to make it necessary. So, I added those to the plot, which basically negated the entire plan for the game as I had partially laid it out. I threw out the old maps, started drawing new ones (nothing past the first ship so far…), and decided what I wanted the game to be. Right now, I’m still working on getting all of the in-game mechanics down, as well as the system of menus, as you can see below:

This video is also slightly dated, since I’ve changed the Level 3 Stairwell map in order to center the Bridge on the actual spacecraft, as well as included a root menu feature that I’ll be expanding this weekend. Once that is done, I’ll be moving onto NPC and item interaction (past just picking things up, but actually using items), both of which are related closely to picking up items mechanics-wise. That means that they should be relatively basic to program, especially just simply talking to NPCs. Once I have that set, along with a complete menu and save feature, I’ll include some actual enemies that you’ll need to face in the Cargo Hold, plus a few basic cutscenes that tell part of this opening chapter’s story. Past that, I’ll be back to spending a lot of time drawing sprites and maps for the rest of the game (and possibly changing up some of these sprites, but for now they look fine).

Working title: Red Planet

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.