Women in Space

You’ve probably heard that Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. I must have memorized it in middle school during my NASA phase. From Wikipedia, I can see that Sally Ride flew on STS-7, the seventh shuttle mission, in 1983. This was always treated as a piece of trivia, something without deep implications. So here’s my revised analysis:

There were no women in Apollo.

NASA launched 41 men during the Apollo missions, 24 of whom orbited the moon, and 12 of whom landed on it. Zero women. None of the alternates were women either. There were a handful of women engineers on the ground, but none in the air.

It’s not like they didn’t have time to find qualified women if they’d wanted to, as the launches were spread out over ten years. That’s enough time for a high school senior to finish college and get a Ph.D., so even if there weren’t any qualified women initially, there certainly could’ve been by the end. Apollo, in effect, had an official policy: for the position of Astronaut, women need not apply. I’m certainly not the first to notice this, but this is the first time that I’ve noticed it.

I know that our perspective on gender roles has shifted dramatically over the last two generations, but to think that 34 years ago the appropriate number of female astronauts was zero is incredible to me.

What’s even more interesting, in a way, is that Sally Ride flew on STS-7. NASA launched 16 men on Shuttle missions before launching a single woman. Even in 1983, then, gender balance must have been a total nonpriority at NASA.

Looking through the last few shuttle launches, there’s been one or two women on almost every one. Two launches have had 3 women (of 7 crew total) on board, with another (STS-131) scheduled for March 10. We’re still pretty far from balanced, but it’s getting better.

I suspect the inaugural mission for Ares/Orion will not be permitted to be single-sex.

EDIT: I guess I was sort of right. Obama just killed Ares/Orion, so there won’t be an inaugural flight at all. I wonder if the COTS rocketry is seen as sufficiently symbolic to warrant gender balancing.

Accepted

I just got my letter of acceptance to ISMRM 2010, so hopefully I’ll be going to Stockholm in May. I was accepted for a “Multimedia Electronic Poster”, which is a bit mysterious to me. It seems to involve a half-hour formal presentation at a scheduled time, so maybe this is more like giving a talk than making a poster.

However it works, it has to be easier than carrying an enormous poster tube across the Atlantic without crunching its fragile contents.

Also, my car was fixed today, and my code for non-uniformly sampled fourier transform is working, and the weather has been unseasonably warm. I think this was a good day.

Crisis Camp

Yesterday I attended Crisis Camp Boston, a loosely organized mixture of aid workers, dreamers, and software engineers. The centerpiece of the effort seemed to be haiti.ushahidi.com, which is a sort of centralized emergency response dispatch. I think of it as the Internet+text-message equivalent of 911, for a country without any real government. It’s pretty snazzy. Hopefully aid agencies are actually looking at the emergency reports coming in.

I spent most of the day in a much less immediately productive way, debating the best use for XOs in Haiti. We’ll see shortly if anything comes of it.

Mystery Hunt

This weekend was the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. I hunted for Codex, like last year. We didn’t win, but you don’t need to win to enjoy mystery hunt.

My favorite puzzle, and the one to which I contributed most, was probably
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, which started as a cryptic crossword with the additional conceit that “sub” was treated as a single letter, then became 4 simultaneous overlapping battleship puzzles, and ended with a reference to Barney Miller, a Captain (of the police force) who worked with Fish (a guy named Fish).

Back to reality, now.

Back in town

We had a party on the last night of the conference, and afterward I picked another cardinal direction in which to wander. I walked south along Main St., and finally found the interesting part of the city. I walked through a block or two jammed with coffee shops and luncheonettes, then a residential area, out into the automotive district.

It seems like every major city has an automotive district or two. Boston certainly does. Salt Lake’s was especially comprehensive, though, with repair shops, rental outfits, and dealers for everything from assorted used trucks to Ferrari, Maserati, Lotus, Porsche, and Ducati, all side by side.

On the way back North along State Street I passed out of the automotive and into a seedy zone, complete with two taco stands, still open in the freezing cold at 10 PM, exceedingly disreputable-looking clubs, one guarded by a giant and a midget, three tattoo parlors, and a porno shop advertising used magazine trade-ins (yes, really) in two-foot-high letter across the side of the building.

Then, gradually, seedy became trendy, with boutique/artisanal/vintage clothing shops, tiny recording studios, and intriguing international restaurants. Trendy was shortly followed by mainstream, and then I was back at the hotel.

Now I’m back in Boston. Overall, I think the conference was productive enough. I didn’t do anything there that I couldn’t have done here, but as another attendee put it “at home there’s no time pressure, so you put things off for tomorrow until somehow they never happen”.

View

I walked straight North, last night, from hotel to the State Capitol Building, located at the highest point in the city. Like the temple, the capitol is built from immaculate white stone and lit brightly every night. I briefly wondered if this resulted from some sort of church-state rivalry.

I don’t think I saw a single other pedestrian on the way, and when I reached the steps I was entirely alone. I had the entire site to myself, and a view of city lights to the Utah-flat horizon. Even in the perpetual fog, it is an inspiring view.

Strangely enough, the capitol building was open, and so I wandered in. The interior is one vast hollow space, faced in stone except for murals. A tour group was there, maybe a high school field trip, but it was impossible to find them from the sound.

I wandered down the other side of the capitol’s hill, through a neighborhood of humble houses, then back across the city. From this direction I had more luck finding inhabited streets, passing maybe eight restaurants and a few pedestrians.

I ate dinner at a bar where the tender confirmed that this time of year is unusually slow, and that no one really lives in Salt Lake proper anyway. I hadn’t thought to look it up. Wikipedia confirms that about 180,000 people live in Salt Lake City, and about 1.2 million in the metro area, between Worcester, MA and Newport News, VA in the list of US cities by size. It’s also less than a third as many people as in Boston, spread over twice the area.

It’s different.

Wander

I made some time last night to wander around Salt Lake. It’s hard to get lost in this city, at least in the central part, because the streets are a widely spaced cartesian grid with its origin at the Mormon Temple. Naturally, I went there first.

The Temple is a very impressive facility. The main building is architecturally a classic white stone castle, complete with the crenellations and arrow-slits that you would expect from a late medieval fortress. Its exterior positively gleams, and one of its six spires has a golden statue that appears to glow brightly against the night sky. The thin fog enveloping the city demystified this somewhat, allowing onlookers to trace the light beam back to three sodium-vapor spotlamps on a neighboring rooftop.

The Temple is surrounded by a high outer wall, so high that it’s not visible from the near sidewalk of North Temple Street. Inside the wall are two gated courtyards, one of which is open to the public. The architecture is not quite what it seems though: a nearby tourist map indicates that the temple’s rooms extend out beneath the the courtyards, with entrances scattered throughout. I found only one entrance in my brief tour, guarded by two priestly gentleman in white robes and caps.

Walking around the city was an interesting experience. There was a significant amount of traffic, although it seemed sparse against the absurdly wide streets. The streets are all perfectly straight, and every crosswalk affords a sightline to the vanishing point. I saw a handful of other pedestrians, but they were more the exception than the rule.

The streets were a crazy mixture of high-rise office buildings, one-story storefronts, parking lots, condo complexes, and mansions converted to offices. I saw a freestanding tire store directly across the street from the posh, sprawling Brigham Apartments. Several suit and dress shops were in evidence, advertising their services for weddings and missions.

I walked out in the direction of the university, reasoning that things might be more lively there. I don’t know if I walked far enough. I did eventually pass a greasy pizza place, a disenfranchised Burger King, and a three bars. I ended up ordering a tasty, if perhaps not quite canonical, shwarma at a Lebanese restaurant with one waitress, one customer, and two old guys trying out different synth keyboards.

The city was seeming a lot less generic. To top it off, I went to the east-facing gym a bit before 8 AM. As dawn broke, I got my first view of the snow-capped mountains that tower over the city.

Conference Report

The conference is at the City Center Marriott in Salt Lake City. We were essentially required to rent rooms here, due to the terms of the conference contract. No one complained, of course, because the grant pays for the whole thing anyway.

The hotel is very plush. The catering (breakfast, lunch, coffee, and an afternoon snack) is kind of astounding. The food is great, the variety is impressive, and the overabundance is almost disheartening. I hope they have something useful to do with the ridiculous amount of left-over food.

The hotel weight room is very nearly as well equipped as the ones at Harvard, and the conference-room internet access is fast enough not to choke entirely when the gymnasium-size room fills with programmers on laptops. The rooms, too, are beautiful, although they don’t seem to have net access, and the HD flat panel only has an analog feed.

So far, the city seems anonymous and dead. The smog, the 5-lane streets, the concrete plazas and dull architecture make me think of Stamford, or any other bland city. What really gets me, though, is the emptiness. Last night we walked to and from dinner, maybe half a mile, and saw the barest handful of pedestrians and cars. There were plenty of people in the restaurant (a nice enough fancy-pizza place), but somehow the city makes them disappear on the streets.

Of course, I was only out for one night. I could have a totally different view by Thursday.

Deranged

Against the stern warnings of some saner portion of my psyche, I packed everything up last night and headed for Central Square around 11:30 PM. I bought some cookies and gum at CVS, then caught the Red Line inbound around 11:40. I took it to South Station where I caught the Silver Line to the airport just before midnight.

Despite the late hour, the Silver Line bus was stuck in loud honking traffic at the airport, and it was about 12:15 by the time I got off at Terminal A. I wandered upstairs and proceeded to check-in.

The Delta check-in area was dark. The self-serve terminals were live, but when touched informed the user to come back after 3:40 AM. I sat down on a standard airport bench and opened The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

I was not alone. Spread among the benches there were about 15 other people, apparently executing a similar plan to mine. Some were sleeping; others read or typed on laptops.

At 3:45 I picked up my boarding pass and got on line for security check. The line grew until it stretched across the terminal, but the staff had not yet arrived. When they did, screening was fast, and the extra-long elevators were all but deserted.

Overall, I’m inclined to rate my plan a success. I avoided the unpleasantness of being rousted out of bed before dawn, paying for a cab to the airport alone, and worrying about whether I would get to the gate in time. Instead, I spent the night reading a great book and eating cookies, without a hint of stress.

I’ve brought the extra-large silk eyeshade to which I’ve become nearly addicted over the past few months, $8 well invested. If I’m lucky, I’ll be sufficiently exhausted by 6:30 to sleep on the flight, effectively nightshifting my morning flight into a redeye. It’s a ridiculous sleep schedule, admittedly, but improved somewhat by the two hours of time zone shift.

This post courtesy of Google-sponsored free internet access at Logan until January 18.

Invert

Last night I finished Larry Niven’s Ringworld, which I had started on New Year’s Day at 3:03 AM. It’s an incredible work of hard SF, astonishing both in its attention to detail and immense scale. The book is, and deserves to be, one of the great classics of science fiction.

The book kept me up past 5 AM, and today I woke up a bit after noon, so I think I’m going to attempt my slightly deranged plan to arrive at the airport a bit after midnight tonight for a plane that will probably board around 5:45 AM.