A Late-Breaking Review


I was hanging out at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park craft center a couple of weeks back, scrolling through emails as my daughters glued colorful glass shards to pale pine cigarette boxes, when an email came in. Subject line: A review of Jars to Stars.

We were outside at a picnic table, under a sort of tarp-awning, at the time. Tall clouds traded off with sunshine. I looked up at the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park over Alpen Inn, the lodge where the girls and I were spending a couple of days during the last week of summer vacation, and then to the psychedelically painted, life-sized elk statue beyond the fence. My first instinct was that there must be some mistake.

You see, I published “From Jars to the Stars” in late 2010. It was now mid-2015. How could this be?

As my nine-year-old fretted about her mosaic design (the speed with which my 12-year-old daughter completed hers amplifying her anxiety), I opened the .pdf, which Quest: A History of Spaceflight publisher Scott Sacknoff had kindly attached. I scrolled to the bottom first to see who’d written it up, and was surprised to see the name David DeVorkin, an eminent Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum historian.

It happens that DeVorkin’s work was essential to the early chapters of the book, which chronicle the early days of what became Ball Aerospace. He had had the foresight in the early 1990s to do oral histories with some of the key players. A couple of them had died by the time I came along in the late 2000s; others’ memories had faded further. And anyway, he, being an actual space/astronomy historian, had much a better grip on what questions to ask than I would have had.

The review, while not without valid criticisms, was enthusiastic. So I’m now doubly indebted to its author.


Pluto Man

Items from the New Horizons launch press packet, which have been hanging out in a Southwest Research Institute folder for nine-and-a-half years.

Items from the New Horizons launch press packet, which have been hanging out in a Southwest Research Institute folder for nine-and-a-half years.

You may have heard: NASA has a mission flying past Pluto tomorrow. New Horizons. The thing’s been in space for nine-and-a-half years. I was there at the launch, covering it for the Boulder Daily Camera. Wrote probably 15 stories about the mission, several of them from Cape Canaveral. It was my first and only live space shot. I can still feel the Atlas V in my gut if I sufficiently still myself.

It is my second-most-favorite-ever space mission, after Deep Impact, around which I based a book. I wanted to write a book about New Horizons, too. The focus would have been about its principal investigator, who is a big boss with a PhD. Alan Stern, based at the Southwest Research Institute offices he had founded in Boulder, a remarkable dude. We sat down for lunch maybe three years ago and talked it out. He was game. I pitched it as “Pluto Man,” though that’s a pretty narrow view of the actual man, in retrospect. Alan was very nearly an astronaut, served as NASA’s head of space science (this after the New Horizons launch) and has become a major player in NewSpace. That’s jargon for Blue Origins, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and their ilk. So there’s much more going on with this man than just Pluto.


Good that New Horizons didn’t launch on a bicycle.

The pitch didn’t achieve orbit, you could say. I talked to Alan again and proposed a Kindle Single, maybe 30,000 words. That seemed to be going somewhere until it didn’t seem like it anymore. I wondered if, having found it difficult to find a market for a book about a lot of interesting people in the space business, it might be a similar challenge with Alan Stern and New Horizons. And then I sort of let it go, knowing that Alan and his team would be getting no shortage of attention as their craft approached Pluto. I do kind of regret it now.


New Horizons schwag included lots of pretty stickers.

But then, Michael Lemonick’s story in the June 2015 edition of Smithsonian, “One Man’s Lifelong Pursuit of Pluto is About to Get Real,” is along the lines of what I’d have put together, and tens of thousands of words shorter.

New Horizons is an amazingly cool thing, truly as exciting as any robotic space mission we’ve ever done. I mean, it’s traveled 3 billion miles over nearly a decade just to get to the point. We know so little about the place — when Ira Flatow asked Alan on the most recent Science Friday how much we don’t know about Pluto, he responded in the converse, saying we could fit what we do know on a couple of 3×5 cards. Given that Alan co-wrote a book about Pluto, this was more media savvy than statement of fact. But compared to any other of our solar system’s non-Oort bodies, the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt remain the least understood. And the photos already coming back — well, to put in perspective how much better they are than what we’ve had heretofore, check out this, which was, until New Horizons’ approach, the best we had ever mustered:

Hubble's view of Pluto, taken in 1996. Note that Alan Stern and Mark Buie, both on the New Horizons team, were credited. So Stern will have been responsible, more or less, for every decent image we have of Pluto.

Hubble’s view of Pluto, taken in 1996. Note that Alan Stern and Mark Buie, both on the New Horizons team, were credited. So Stern will have been responsible, more or less, for every decent image we have of Pluto. Also note that the crisper, bigger renderings aren’t what Hubble saw; Hubble saw the blobs in the corners up top.

I’m going to stop now, before I start repeating a bunch of stuff Emily Lakdawalla has already said far more professionally.

I kept my media kit back in 2006, from which I’ve scattered photos about this post. To add length to accommodate them all, I’ll add my favorite of my New Horizons stories, mainly because of the lede. I loved that this brilliant, successful space scientist on the eve of his second-greatest career moment (his greatest happening tomorrow, upon New Horizons’ flyby) was wearing a ring his dad had bent and welded into shape from a NASA lapel pin.



Space exploration project was a long shot

Daily Camera, The (Boulder, CO) – Friday, January 20, 2006

Author/Byline: Todd Neff Camera Staff Writer
Section: News
Page: A01

Part of the New Horizons education and public outreach offerings included a growth chart. My kids didn't hit the bottom of the chart at the time, being  3 months old and two-and-a-half years old at the time. They're 9 and 12 now.

Part of the New Horizons education and public outreach offerings included a growth chart. My kids didn’t hit the bottom of the chart at the time, being 3 months old and two-and-a-half years old at the time. They’re nearly 10 and 12 now.

In the days leading to Thursday’s successful launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Southwest Research Institute scientist Alan Stern wore a bulky ring crafted from a NASA lapel pin, a 10-cent piece and a steel bolt stretched and shaped to hug his finger.

His father, Leonard, 74, made it for him.

“It’s kind of hokey, but I wore it for good luck,” said Stern, the Southwest Research Institute scientist from Boulder leading the largest scientist-led mission in NASA’s history.

It took more than luck to bring New Horizons to the launch pad.

“I never thought it would get here,” said Ed Weiler, the NASA official who approved New Horizons on Nov. 29, 2001. “New Horizons was a mission with a history of meeting impossible requirements repeatedly.”

Weiler is now head of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which did environmental testing on the spacecraft.

For more than a decade, at least three Pluto missions – Pluto 350, Pluto Fast Flyby and Pluto Express – had gone nowhere. Weiler pulled the plug on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-led Pluto Express in September 2000. Its projected costs had ballooned from about $500 million to roughly $1 billion.

Three months later, Colleen Hartman, then NASA’s Solar System Exploration Division director, concluded that a Pluto mission had to happen by early 2006. As of Feb. 3, Jupiter’s orbit would no longer provide a gravity assist, delaying Pluto arrival by as much as five years.

In addition, Pluto reached its closest point to the sun in 1989 and already was receding on its 248-year orbit. Each passing year increased the risk of Pluto’s atmosphere freezing and collapsing into a nitrogen frost that snows onto the planet’s surface. That would pare back substantially a Pluto mission’s scientific bounty, and the planet wouldn’t warm again for more than 200 years.

Weiler agreed, and Hartman’s group released a detailed call for Pluto mission proposals within a month; that step typically takes six months. The spacecraft would require a suite of miniaturized, energy-efficient instruments with few, if any, moving parts. It would need to be prepared for the chilly rigors of the solar system`s outer reaches. It also would need a nuclear power source and a major-league rocket.

The craft’s nuclear power source – needed for missions venturing too far from the sun for solar panels to work – presented another challenge.

As many as 40 federal, state and local agencies had to sign off in record time. Hartman, now a top official in NASA’s science mission directorate, credits long hours at NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House and elsewhere.

“When we approved (New Horizons), we knew that a lot of people would pull for a mission to this blessed little planet, and that they wanted to make it happen,” she said.

Stern would agree. At the post-launch news conference Thursday, he thanked the thousands of people who contributed to the effort in various ways.

But Stern’s leadership was vital. Glen Fountain, the New Horizons program manager at Johns Hopkins University`s Applied Physics Laboratory, which built New Horizons, said Stern had a vision of where the project needed to go and what had to get done.

Fountain alluded to Stern’s habit of giving team members pencils sharpened down to a stub.


My Alan Stern “persistence” pencil. A prized possession from which we can all learn.

“This little pencil is about persistence – that`s the key. You do not stop. You keep going,” Fountain said. “Alan had that vision for years. He brought that vision to the team.”

As for what his vision was, Stern closed with it in his 1998 book, “Pluto and Charon.”

“To see the solar system’s ninth sister as she really is, we must go to her. And amazingly, our species has developed the will, and the way, to do just that,” Stern wrote. “So guard your secrets while you can, Pluto! We are coming.”


AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

Denver Storm of June 24, 2015: Tornado in Lowry



Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

I was going to get up and work on something entirely different, but my dusty Daily Camera reportorial instincts got the better of me and, at about 6:30 a.m., I took to the streets of our east Denver’s Lowry neighborhood to survey the destruction.

There was a reputed tornado, though the National Weather Service remained dubious as of this (6/25) morning. Former reporters with 45 minutes to spare and an easy post-disaster commute (I rode around the 1990 Specialized Hard Rock) can’t resist these sorts of opportunities. So I fed the bullying puggle and  set forth on NewsBike 7773.

I will now post another disaster picture to keep you interested. There are many more, but you’ll have to either read on or, for those in hurry, scroll down.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

Now, some background on this storm. First, this was no hurricane, no murderous Oklahoma tornado atomizing a mile-wide swath of civilization. Denver is too close to the mountains for true, wicked-crazy tornados to develop – the storm cells that produce them haven’t quite had the time to get their shit together (a meteorological term. Look it up.).

But we to get some wild T-storms, and as a result I have become something of a NEXRAD addict. If I’m on my PC, Weather Undergound is the go-to; on the phone, it’s RadarNow! (their exclamation point).

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house's roof.

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house’s roof.

I was not on my PC during this one, but rather in the Costco Warehouse on Havana Street, there to buy a new cordless phone set to replace the one toasted in a lightning strike last Friday (garage door opener, sprinkler-timer box, and Obi200 were also killed). I had noted some clouds off to the west and had packed an umbrella.

I had chosen a nice Panasonic number and bought the requisite raspberries, unsalted nuts, Kind bars and a few other items I had not planned on buying (85 percent of Costco revenues stem from unplanned purchases. Look it up.) when my phone rang. It was my wife, in something of a panic.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

“Have you seen this storm?” she said. She sounded out-of-breath.

No, I said. It’s always sunny, if in a fluorescent way, here in Costco.

She explained that she was out of breath because she’d just run outside to move the 2001 Jetta into the garage, an effort complicated by our garage door opener having been electrocuted last week. The solution involved enlisting our 12-year-old daughter to help Carol open the door. She described rain and hail like in a Weather Channel promo, quarter-sized ice balls hammering the house and shredding leaves and collecting on the patio like malignant snow.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

I pushed my cart to a point I could see outside. Nearly dark, hammering rain – but no hail here, three miles south. I noted a Costco employee moving a garbage can below drips from the metal roof, the sound of rain now audible.

“I think I’ll wait it out here,” I said.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

As I settled onto a leather couch near the open-air seafood freezers, it dawned on me that a gigantic erector-set metal box crammed with millions of untethered items (flat-screen TVs would take off like sailplanes) might not be the optimal shelter during a tornado event. I could be impaled by spears of C batteries. Or smothered by swarms of clothing one is never quite sure is fashionably acceptable or not. Or maybe greased-burned by the salty skins of rotisserie chickens. I would have to ensconce myself amid bags of cheese-caramel Chicago Mix popcorn, which could provide a sort of air-bag buffer as well as vital sustenance.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

I opened RadarNow! to the biggest, baddest storm I’d ever seen over Denver – a bit of green (rain), a lot of yellow (wind and heavy rain) , a whole lot of red (crazy T-storm) and, in the center, a blob of fuchsia, which meant god knows what. The entire city was draped in anger. The fuchsia pixels looked to be right about where we live.

Those are brick columns.

Those are brick columns.

I called Carol back – she was surfing news on her iPad; the girls had headed to the basement.  The crowd of Costco seemed light but stable, and engaged in filling their carts. Some were in raincoats, meaning the consumption imperative had trumped the survival imperative. Evolutionary biology probably has something to say about this.

Fences, adieu.

Fences, adieu.

I waited until it was merely raining and drove home. The girls described the storm scene excitedly. Carol showed me a welt on her thigh – from a single hailstone. I took stock of the shredded vegetation and picked up inch-plus diameter hailstones, which were, for the record, agglomerations of standard hailstones frozen together. The open Royal Crest Dairy cooler on the front porch held two-plus inches of hail-water that had fallen in 35 minutes. The nuggets did a number on our window stripping and screens, and, probably roof. The tomatoes had been reduced to green sticks. But a quarter-mile south… well, the pictures tell that story. And just now a bit ago, from the National Weather Service:

June 24th East Denver/West Aurora EF-1 Tornado

On Wednesday, June 24th between 4:48pm and 5:10 pm, a tornado touched down in east Denver and west Aurora. The tornado first touched down near Quebec and 6th Ave. It then moved east-northeast across the Lowery Campus into the west part of Aurora. The tornado then lifted near Mount Nebo Memorial Park. Based on tree damage there was low end EF1 with wind speeds estimated in the 86-90 mph range. Most of the damage caused by the tornado was in the EF0 range. Some homes had minor roof damage with one former apartment building on the Lowry Campus having some higher end roof damage with estimated wind speeds in the 86-90 mph range. The tornado path length based on damage points was 2.8 miles and the width was less than 50 yards.

Tornado0624 tornado2015-06-24-NWS

And a few more from the house:

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Print vs. Video: a Double-Lung-Plus-Liver Transplant Smackdown

As a writer with limited Photoshop skills and very limited video-editing skills, I’m tend to be in awe of good video. Since I left the Daily Camera in 2007, though, I haven’t  had a chance to compare a story of mine with the video equivalent. Back then, it was always TV news people who happened to be covering something up in Boulder — predictable, quick-hit stuff. This one’s different.

Michael Mazzanti, the multimedia guru for the University of Colorado Health system, put together the above about Shaun McCabe, on whom surgeons performed Colorado’s first double-lung-liver transplant in March. He sent a link out to a few of us a couple of days ago. I freelance write for the same system, and covered the story when they opened the doors to the press on March 16. My story ran in an internal biweekly called UCH Insider shortly afterward.

Shaun McCabe with TV camera in the foreground

A shot I took of Shaun McCabe on March 16 at University of Colorado Hospital.

I watched Mike’s video and was impressed to the point that I sent him a note back asking how long it had taken him and what he used. Premiere, he said, with the captions in After Effects. Took him a few days to edit.

My initial impression was that video kicks print’s ass. My story has more depth, but the video’s impact is on a different plane.

Then I thought about it. The TV folks did breaking news stories, too. CBS4’s version pales in comparison to Mike’s product. But then, Kathy Walsh, an excellent television journalist, only had a couple of hours to put her piece together. Time is really the essential difference.

I spent probably 3-4 hours writing the piece, including the review of my notes and rooting around on the Web for additional background. If I’d have had a few days for it, the product would have been different. But in what ways?

Whereas Mike used the time to select striking cuts, distill the messages he wanted to convey, and create and place the dynamic captions, a writer would have used the luxury of time to make the story longer. I’d add  sources, do follow-up interviews, gather background on the history of transplants, provide a more 360-degree view of the key players — the surgeons, the mom, the siblings, McCabe himself. The relationship of reporting to article length would not grow linearly — more input lets the writer pick from a stronger roster of quotes and imagery. The story becomes less of an assemblage of whomever happened to show up and more of an all-star team of inputs. The added reporting, assuming some of it is on-scene, also boosts the odds that the reporter sees, hears, touches or smells something firsthand that adds immediacy and poignancy to a piece. But would it have been a better product than Mike distilled into two minutes? That I can’t say.