Friday, November 7, 2014

M visits the USA, 2014

Photos, video: https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/MInUSA2014 

After years of anticipation and preparation, my brother M finally visited me here in the USA. Tacking on 4 days after a sold-out lecture tour in San Francisco concerning gooey medical stuff, I tried to ensure a full, awesome schedule. Below is my account of our adventures.

Thursday morning, 7am. Time to collect the car. I decided to make it an American SUV in honour of the occasion, and regretted it immediately and continuously ever since. For the record, the Chevrolet Captiva failed utterly to captivate. It did, however, hold a steady 80mph on the road to LAX, at least until the traffic blocked up. Eventually I found M hiding from the memorable post-asbestos architecture of United's original trim Terminal 7, and we proceeded to zoom back to Pasadena at a stately, bumper to bumper pace.

Exhausted after days of conferencing and the puddle-jumping flight from SFO, I permitted M 13.5 minutes of scheduled rest before we kitted up and zoomed off to JPL. JPL, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the largest (of about 10) NASA centers. About 6000 mostly engineers design and build crazy awesome space robots, and I want to work there when/if I leave grad school. Basically all the Mars orbiters, landers and rovers have come from JPL. They also do a bunch of other really cool stuff, and I wanted to show M around. Fortunately I have a few friends who work there and were able to organize a tour (Thanks B.S.!). 

We started at the highbays, huge buildings where spacecraft are assembled before being trucked or flown to Cape Canaveral to be blasted into space. Most days. Sometimes they are blasted into tiny pieces instead. Then we checked out a vehicle testing building, the Mars yard (more testing), and the control room, where commands and data are exchanged with giant radio dishes and distant spacecraft. One of the coolest things is data coming in from Voyager, which takes 19 hours to cross the incredible distance (~140AU or sun-Earth distances) between it and the Earth. Finally, we checked out the von Karman auditorium and museum which is filled with life-size and scale models of various spacecraft that have explored the solar system. I've always wanted humans to explore, but the space robots are damn clever and do a pretty good job in the meantime.

We had to leave JPL and rapidly zoom to our next appointment, a car test drive at the new Tesla store in Pasadena. Our test-drive conductor, M, took pains to show off the features of the car. Unlike most car sales people, though, there's no pressure. It's all about 'electricity, yo!'. After a false start we found the expressway onramp and M put his foot down. In the back seat my retinas ricocheted around my skull as our entry-level model none-the-less rocketed us down the expressway at a speed that would make a Cessna 152 blush. We returned behind the Rose Bowl on a nice curvy road, pulling lateral accelerations of up to 0.9gs. Well, not quite. M ordinarily drives a rather nice, rather sporty car in Australia, so I was keen to get him behind the wheel of the future. Touch screens everywhere!

We bid goodbye to the Tesla store and headed for a nearby vegan restaurant. While the very opposite of vegan, I usually eat here in old town Pasadena, because I can eat cake and lasagna normally beyond my dietary restrictions. We wiped out 10^4 calories in record time. Next, a quick detour to Whole Foods to lighten our wallets, spot hipsters, ridicule woo literature, and buy some eating supplies. Groceries - that's what they're called!

Then back home, for a scheduled 2000 second break before jumping back into the car to drive back to the airport. Well, not quite. In a former cavernous 737 assembly hangar, the future has coalesced in the form of SpaceX. SpaceX, otherwise known as the private rocket manufacturer and NASA contractor that doesn't blow up rockets anymore, is the other venture by the owner of Tesla motors. Similar design principles come into play here - make it go FAST. We were met by another friend and Caltech alum (R.N., thankyou so much!) who showed us up and down the central visitor's corridor while answering a multitude of pointy questions with plenty of detail. We saw bits of hardware that flew in space, rocket engines being built, fairings, composites, Dragon spacecraft, tanks, friction stir welding machines, the whole bit. It's hard to describe, and photos are not permitted inside. Suffice to say the design is incredible. The rocket's metal is nominally 7mm thick (only!). However, in places that is too thick - more strength than is needed - so they have shaved the wall even thinner. Every pound counts. Even more exciting, SpaceX is actively striving to make the rocket reusable. If cars and planes could be used only once, flying or driving would be prohibitively expensive. So goes for rockets, and at $60m/launch, SpaceX's rocket is still damn cheap. I could go on...

The day had been long, so we drove back to Pasadena and stopped in at Yoshida's for some really good sushi, then drove back to Caltech for a music rehearsal. My acappella group Fluid Dynamics (https://soundcloud.com/fdacappella/) rehearses on Thursday evenings. Then we drove home. M seemed pretty tired, so I retired to the couch and spent 2 quality hours hacking a mathematica script to 3D print a set of pilot wings for M that symbolized medicine rather than physics. The key structural insight had occurred at SpaceX, but I have no idea if they will break apart or not. One hopes not!

The next morning we had a slow start, making it to Caltech around lunch time (rather fortuitously), and following that up with some quality drone flying and flight planning. We hammered out a brutal trip through the mountains, but as the day wore on the weather deteriorated and, with predictions of wind gusting to 50kts, it became clear that we would not be flying down the Owens Valley any time soon. We folded the charts and walked to the health center, where M met the various nurses who take care of us students and investigated our old surgery theatre. We returned home, suited up, called our dear mother who, one day ahead, was already celebrating her birthday, and drove into LA downtown. 

Arriving nearly 2 hours early, we parked strategically close to the carpark exit and walked down to Spring Street and made our way to the Last Bookstore, a pretty cool book store. And the last one, apparently. On the second floor of the converted bank are a series of artist's studios and a labyrinth made of the less salable stock. The vault houses crime fiction. We grabbed some dinner at the pirate-themed Redwood Bar and Grill (where the waitress toasted Halloween with us), then walked back up the hill to the Disney Hall. 

Finding our seats, getting extra attention from latecomers, we settled in to enjoy the spectacle. The legendary 1922 silent German film Nosferatu, accompanied by the Disney hall pipe organ, was a surprisingly organic and immersive experience. Taking about 100 minutes, we remarked on the organist's distinct lack of bloody stumps at the conclusion of the concert, and expertly wove our way to the parking garage, then once again tempted fate on the twisty 110 expressway back home. 

Two days down, two to go. Could we maintain the pace? We awoke on a cloudy, windy Saturday morning, and investigated the METARs and TAFs. We decided there was a good window to the west and, after a perfunctory breakfast, headed for the airport. There we fueled up the old faithful, taxied out, and took off. Growing up we imagined many things, but flying together through the American south west was not one of them! We flew west past downtown LA, out over Santa Monica, and descended along the coast past Malibu, Pt Mugu, Oxnard, and towards Santa Barbara. With the weather rapidly blowing in from the west, we weren't keen to land and get overtaken by a line of storms, so we turned around and retraced our steps back to El Monte. I encouraged M to try landing on a long glide as I often do, and, after misjudging the first attempt, we came around for another go, putting it down nicely on the upwind wheel. 

We taxied to the parking area and turned the plane off. We were trying to figure out how to radio (instead of call) the fuel guy when a bunch of search and rescue people showed up trying to track a beacon they had detected in the mountains. They confidently asserted it was ours! On occasion, the ELT beacon is triggered by a hard landing, but we had not hit that hard! We took off the rear bulkhead and had a look, but it was not transmitting. Next, they homed in on another club plane which seemed to be the culprit. After crawling into the tail, I was able to verify that it was indeed triggered, though by what is anyone's guess. That plane has had electrical problems, but the ELT is a completely separate electrical system!

Eventually we packed everything and drove to the Roma Deli, where we obtained sandwiches and pasta. Next, the CVS for some essential equipment M insisted that I own, including soap, shampoo, and other bourgeois frivolities. We proceeded to eat most of the pasta and all of the sandwiches, went back to school to engage in some competitive drone flying, then took our evening repast at a fine local establishment called Abricott. 

The last day. Sunday. The weather had cleared, but the planes were all booked for a flying fair! On closer inspection, the planes were booked from 10am. There was hope. Much to M's amusement and consternation, it's perfectly legal for me to fly at night, despite nothing like Australia's training requirements. (Fascists). 

We peeled ourselves from our respective berths at 4:30am and hied rapidly to the airport, where once again we strapped ourselves into a lightly engineered speeding death contraption with cutting edge 1950s propulsion technology and took off. I have come to the conclusion that GPSes take the fun out of navigation. Where fun can also mean terror and uncertainty. Behind 140 horses thundering across the sky we climbed to 9500 MSL and zoomed toward the south east, bouncing across the mountains at Palomar and descending in a broad, triumphant spiral into Anza Borrego desert. 

The sun now shone brightly at low angles on the dry, rocky, tectonically twisted terrain and we circled between points of interest, eventually flying across the Salton Sea to land at Calipatria. An accidental lake, the Salton Sea's surface is at -228 feet, so at times we could fly well below sea level, though M insisted that 10AGL was probably too close for comfort. We took a good look at the unfortunate resort town of Bombay Beach, then climbed to 10500 feet and zoomed north past Palm Springs, the twin peaks Jacinto and Gorgonio, and descended in steps across the LA basin to El Monte, where I executed (if that is the right word) a solid but unspectacular landing on Runway 1. We taxied directly to the flying fair, packed up our things, and left.

We were now confronted with a worrying problem. We'd accomplished too much and it wasn't even noon. My friend R joined us to play a rousing game of table tennis in my office's loading dock, followed by lunch, packing, and a lightning trip up Rubio canyon. The air, still clear after the rain, afforded an excellent view over the city all the way to Catalina Island, which awaits M's return to explore by air.

Back home we took a precautionary nap, then drove back to LAX for the last time. I dropped M in that most elegant, most refined of locations, we said our goodbyes, then I returned to Caltech. The traffic was so smooth I had time to buy a loaf of bread for dinner before going to rehearsal once more. That evening I poked and prodded various albums into shape, and passed out.

Next morning, I returned the car. M was gone. So were the clouds. Back to perfect weather, and just in the nick of time. 4 days of work lost, time to get on with it, and await the next visitor to once again pull out the stops and have a great time!

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