Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Space and Sea

Here I am with my hero, Captain Wendy Lawrence.  She is only seven days older than I am and has already been to space four times.  I haven't made it there once yet.  Captain Lawrence flew on the first space shuttle mission following the shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003.  During her talk that we attended at Kennedy Space Center, she described the obsessiveness of their checks and rechecks as they responded to recommendations that came from the explosion analysis, particularly as they related to the heat shield tiles on the bottom of the orbiter.  Once the mission was finally launched and in spite of their diligence, she and the rest of the crew discovered a scenario they hadn't planned for in checking and repairing damaged tiles.  They had to improvise in space.  Improvisation was a prevailing theme throughout all of the tours we took through rocket and missile exhibits, accounts of all of the missions, and remains of launch pads.  During the final few seconds of descent to the moon, Neil Armstrong didn't like what he saw for a landing surface.  He took manual control of the module as it was speeding along at hundreds of miles per hour and with 15 seconds of fuel left, touched down 3 miles away from the planned site.  I wonder what would have happened if the terrain hadn't smoothed out.  After decades of planning and construction by thousands of people, his landing came down to a great deal of skill and a good amount of luck.   As we toured the Center for a mere 2 days (we needed a week) I could see parallels between space travel and sailing.  Both require skill, luck, and improvisation.  My sailing hero, Dan Cross, adds patience to the list.  We watched some footage of astronauts trying to repair the Hubble telescope in space.  After 8 hours out there in the dark in -200 degree temperatures and tethered to the shuttle, they were almost defeated by a stuck bolt.  It finally came loose but then they couldn't get a handle off that was in the way.  They decided to just break it off.  Billions of dollars, the top scientists in the world working in outer space, and the only solution was to break it off.  Good sailors are also incredible improvisers and I have the privilege of sailing with a master.  We have also been stymied by stuck bolts and Craig has lost a fingernail because of one.  We joke about gum and twist ties but we really don't laugh.  I wonder what the oddest space improvisation has been.

Hubble has sent back images from as far as 10 billion light years away (Hubble website).  Its information stretches and warps our ideas about distance, temperatures, size, and time.  As Craig observed, the images of galaxies reminded him of the structures of molecules.  We are part of a web that is part of another web to infinity.  This is what attracts me to both outer space and the ocean.  I am also challenged to pay attention, to question what I take for granted, and to be a creative problem solver.   I imagine these were the attractions for Captain Lawrence as she contemplated a career as an astronaut.  She's been to space but I don't think she's sailed from Buenos Aires to Florida.  
Mercury capsule
Saturn V Rocket
I thought my kayaking days were over without full use of my left wrist.  In spite of surgery, it remains inflamed and inflexible.  I was therefore delighted when we discovered the Hobie Mirage, a foot peddle model that allows me to paddle and/or peddle.  I am thrilled to be back on the water again and it is also inflatable for easy storage.  With mine and Craig's new Advanced Element inflatable kayak, we plan to spend the next few weeks exploring the mangroved islands and creeks off of the Intra Coastal Waterway as we make our way to North Carolina.

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