Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A New Essay

Two weeks from today I do my Icebreaker speech for ToastMasters. This is my first "real" speech for our local chapter of 20 people at work. The current draft follows.

Blue Sky, Red Sky

“You’re not close enough! Give me that!”

It’s not an uncommon thing for a 17-year-old to hear from his father. But I hadn’t handled this particular piece of equipment for a few months and I didn’t trust my skill to go any closer. So I was too far away and I had to hand it back to my dad for the next pass so he could do it the way he wanted.

But this wasn’t a lawn mower or a power tool. I wasn’t parking the family car. I was co-piloting a Cessna 182 and we were flying 900 feet over the south edge of our farm at 150 miles per hour. I was supposed to come in at 500 feet so dad could check out the crops, but there were power lines a little farther south and I didn’t want to risk it. So after banking it on the left wing, turning three quarters of a circle, flipping it onto the right wing, and bringing it back West, dad took the controls and buzzed the house and North edge of the farm at 200 feet. Dad and I were always very close and this was probably the grumpiest he’d been with me all summer.

Dad had been a poor farm kid who grew up just down a gravel road from the farm where he raised us. When dad told us he walked three miles to school uphill both ways to a one room school house with holes in his shoes, he could point to the road along the back of the pasture and prove everything. With a steep valley in the middle, it really was uphill both ways. As soon as World War II ended, he became a test pilot and eventually a corporate pilot. He quit professional flying before I was born and was a banker my whole childhood. He built the hobby farm when I was seven as an A-frame chalet with pole barns in the back.

So I flew enough to be proud, and cleaned barns enough to stay humble.

I hiked in our woods behind our farm, plus another 500 acres of a wooded valley pasture beyond that owned by a neighbor. I grew up around aircraft and could name the pilots of many light aircraft that flew over by day. The stars are very bright downstate and I could name the planets and constellations at night.

When you grow up in aircraft, the sky is not an object but a place. I was fascinated with both flight and space and was drawing fairly complex spacecraft when I was twelve. I was also hiking farther and farther into those 500 acres and drawing maps. My dad once gave me an aerial survey photo that I photocopied at the library many times to use in planning each new adventure.

This was also the time when new missions to Mars and the outer planets flooded the Astronomy magazines with new maps and photos of distant worlds and artists conceptions of what a particular volcano or canyon must look like from the surface. As a child, I was doing my own explorations and even went so far as to take a World War II bomber altimeter dad had on a hike to determine how deep that valley was. It still worked. I loved hiking in winter because the barren plowed red soil looked more like the pictures of Mars that the Viking landers had sent around that time. My snowsuit was my spacesuit and the stars were bright, close, and familiar.
Luke Skywalker, being stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere with a great pilot for a father and an occasional flight down Beggars Canyon, was more familiar to me than Chicago.

About this time I made two discoveries – I hate math and computers are cool. This rapidly changed the course of my life into computer science, and after learning I loved to write I ended up spending my professional career in technical writing. In High School I learned how to fly and soloed at sixteen.

I found my wife shortly after leaving college and becoming a technical writer. She walked in after her job interview where she was hired, in her business suit and makeup, looking gorgeous, and was introduced to our tiny all male Macintosh development house as our new intern. Her first act was to pull out a floppy disk and announce it contained sound clips from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. When she uttered those words, and held aloft those samples of my favorite comedy from when I was thirteen, my first thought was “That’s it; she’s mine.” After a couple of months we started dating, and nine monogamous years later we were finally married. My wife is supportive of my more adventuresome side, as was evidenced when we went hang gliding last Summer.

This past year has brought me full circle with that twelve-year-old. I was planning on buying a CD from a friend of mine at a science fiction convention, and ended up walking right past a book signing table for Robert Zubrin. Zubrin is the author of a study called Mars Direct, which dropped the cost of sending people to Mars from 300 billion to 20 billion, or close to the cost of the Shuttle program. NASA took notice and changed their reference mission accordingly, and the new Moon and Mars program has him as an advisor. He created a group called The Mars Society seven years ago to promote the idea, and he told me their convention was being held in Chicago this year.

I checked out the web site, and got honorable mention in an essay contest I’d entered. Later I entered a spacecraft design contest, and finally became a member last summer. I actually won the spacecraft design contest, beating out two university aerospace programs and two other independent teams, including one from England. I got a glass trophy a few weeks ago at the convention in front of 400 people. It was all the more shocking because I did 95 percent of the work.

My other prize is to go to the Mars Desert Research Station, which is a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert built by The Mars Society and used by themselves, NASA, and other researchers to study how various equipment and research methods work in the field. Sometime in the next ten months I’ll be placed on a two week crew, hike in Mars-like terrain in a space suit documenting research, maintaining equipment, and otherwise making the twelve-year old in me very, very happy.

Hi, As part of a sports related degree, I'm doing some research into some Hiking related search 'keywords' e.g. 'hiking partner'. I've used hiking partner to contact people but I need more input. Any suggestions on where to look?
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