Tuesday, April 30, 2013


NASA rendering of Pluto, the sun in the distance, and one of Pluto's moons -- perhaps Charon, Hydra or Nix -- in the sky.

Of all the planets, for sheer mystery I'd love most to explore Pluto. Many will think 'hugh, just a chunk of rock with ice, who on Earth would want to go to such a wasteland?' Well, the same was said of the Arctic (and still is today) by people whose experience in the world, and imaginations, are small. Open your eyes and the finest structure of ice differs in shade as composed to where it is exposed to light, or the reflective qualities of certain rock differ by time of day, latitude and a hundred other factors. That's it then - off to Pluto! I would go tomorrow, if I could.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Crazy Men!

Great photo of Arthur C. Clarke (L) and Ray Bradbury (R) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California, at the time of the first Mars lander landing in 1976. Their facial expressions reflect their characters, as evident in the feel of their writings; ACC is tight and focused, RB is rather loose-lipped and more visibly emotional.

From ACC we received the film and book "2001: A Space Odyssey" and from Ray Bradbury, dozens of penetrating stories about the human condition: not long before dying RB wrote that "I do not try to predict the future, I try to prevent it." Most of what these 'crazy science fiction writers' proposed decades ago have materialized, in your daily email, cellphones and other gadgets.

Of course, those gadgets are of little to no importance. What these 'crazy' writers did was expand the mind of the reader in time and space, reminding us of what astronomers, centuries before, had already known, but could not communicate; an iPhone is not needed for that and is just a distraction from the real and interesting frontiers of the universe. AAC and RB only were able to spread their words widely because of the technology of paperback books and the machinery of wide distribution. Good going AAC and RB!

Now, however, the ability to spread ideas and information widely will go largely to digital formats, e.g. Facebook, Twitter and so on. Like it or not, that is the future :)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tycho Capsule Prepared!

Photo: Kristian von Bengtson / Copenhagen Suborbitals.

Over in Copenhagen, Kristian has built a test model of the capsule; fantastic picture! In less than 100 days John and I will be there starting to integrate the pressure suit to the capsule and its seat. There's plenty to do to get it ready, but almost none of it costs anything: I have all the parts here, and am just slowly and steadily putting them together in a functional way.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Slave of Adventure, Part II

For the opening, see previous post. This concludes the tale.

For several reasons, then, my movements are those of a burglar, quiet and controlled, and to add to this feeling of stealth I have not registered with rangers for this climb and do not carry any kind of communication device. It is up to me to sneak past the giant, pluck the golden egg, and get myself home safe. I feel fortunate that I began climbing before cellphones and beacons were taken to the mountains.

When I have cleared some steep terrain I set my ice axes in a patch of firm snow and clip into their slings to rest. I puff into my gloves, where ice is forming at the fingertips. It is cold here in the shadows but soon I will climb into the sunlight. I smile, thinking of the steep and difficult climbing in darkness hours before. Climbing by headlamp I had had only a small pool of light to illuminate my immediate surroundings, allowing me a laser focus on every delicate move up through the steep ice battlements. I had clambered like a crab, carefully picking my way up the strange, ropy ice formations that presented a world as alien as the sea floor. I know that that experience will be a treasure for the rest of my life.

The summit; a thousand feet above and left of me. I am climbing out of the graveyard and into blinding sunlit snowslopes but I must pick two locks before I can snatch the golden egg of the summit. First there is a 100-foot wall of steep snow; I must get up it before crossing a 100-foot long knife edge ridge of snow that I will have to traverse with one foot placed carefully before the other, as on a tightrope. At the base of the snow wall I find a desk--sized perch where I can stop and clip again to my axes. The steep face is a sheet of glaring white and I put on my snow googles, coloring the snow a mellow amber. I reach out to touch the steep wall. My glove pushes into light, powdery snow. A clump falls away and disintegrates in the sunlight, glitter scattering in space. Loose, dry snow pours out of the hole in the snow as from a fountain. I push farther but even up to my elbow there is nothing firmer beneath. I take a deep breath and windmill my arms to drive blood back into my fingertips but also to give myself some time. I look left and right for a different way to reach the knife edge ridge, but there are only crumbling ice towers that will become even more infirm in the sunlight and the steep slope, which could be filed under ‘Avalanche Slope’ in a mountaineering text. Half an hour later I am near the top, swimming up through the loose snow with rather impossible motions. My universe is suffused with fear and my eyes are wide as I gasp the thin air, one moment wondering what I am doing and the next driving all my focus, my entire life, into carefully burying my arms and legs in the snow to hoist myself up another foot with maneuvers that keep my body weight distributed as widely as I can arrange. If I do not topple backwards, and if the slope does not avalanche, I will be on the knife edge ridge in just twenty more feet. At the top of the wall I haul myself up gingerly and then fling one leg over each side of the ridge and sit trembling with cold, exhaustion and fear. Sunlight melts snow that has stuck to my beard, then evaporates it, drying and warming my cheeks. I open mental drains to let the fear pour away from me. Like the bout of predawn climbing the climb of the loose snow wall is now banked in memory, a gem that can never be taken from me. I cross the knife edge with my arms held out to my sides and my axes extending outward as balances. The ridge is a foot wide and drops 600 feet to the left and 3,000 feet on the right. At the far side I drop to my hands and knees and close my eyes, taking deep, controlled breaths. I compose myself, reeling in my thoughts which seem to have scattered, making it hard to concentrate on any thought for more than a few moments before my mind leaps to the most unconnected and distant thought. For the moment I wash away gruesome visions of my body tumbling down the mountainside, but weeks later I know this has not been entirely successful as I begin to see that small body tumbling through space in my dreams.

I spend no time on the summit and head immediately downward on the South side of the mountain, back into shadow where I pass a large fumarole chugging out sulfurous clouds of vapor from the volcanic mountain’s heart, a magma chamber miles below my boots. The vapors rise with a dark, metallic color here in the shade but when they pass into sunlight above they flash white before dissolving. Trudging down the safe descent slopes I do the arithmetic. In return for six hours of quiet thievery, or climbing, perhaps, I had earned four treasures; clambering through crackling ice that glinted in my headlamp beam, swimming up a steep wall of sugary snow, traversing a snow vane the shape of a jetliner wing set on end and seeing the fumarole that might as well have been on the surface of Venus. These are treasures locked away in memory, each a vision I can draw up at will. But I wonder; did I earn them, or did I steal them? Was a debt accrued, and in what coin would I pay, and when? I dismiss the idea. Risk is an issue of probability per episode and cannot accrue. However, on each climb there is a new roll of the dice, and if one continues to gamble statistics demand that eventually one will lose.

Whatever the cost I want more. I cannot be called moderate in my desire for more such experiences and if we define addiction to be persistence in some act to the detriment of the rest of life it is here that I feel myself step firmly into the world of the addict, where desire eclipses all else and only the correct drug will do. For me it will be snow and ice, the glitter of blown snow in moonlight, the crunch of ice below my boots. These will enslave me to adventure. I know this will happened and I am terrified of the loss of control but also enchanted by what I might find.

By the time I reach the car, stamping my boots in the parking lot after eight hours on the go, I am thinking about a map I have recently seen, a map of Iceland and its vast ice caps, half a world away and just grazed by the Arctic Circle. I start the car and suck down a liter of orange juice as it warms up. Turning down the winding mountain roads for home I am wondering what gems are guarded by Iceland’s snows and winds, and how I can get my hands on them. For the addict, thievery is nothing; for the passionate lover, what price is too high to ensure being with the one they love? I am told that love is admirable, but passion for climbing, because it involves risk, is foolish. Does the lover not expose themself to excruciating hearbreak, disruption of multiple lives, even suicide, when engaging in love? By comparison most mountaineering deaths are painless; a swift strike on the head by falling objects, or a tumbing down rocky terrain. The pains of romantic love are clearly more penetrating and comprehesive and potentially lifelong. Who is the crazy man?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Slave of Adventure

A short piece that I am integrating into a larger piece; this regards a solo alpine climb.

Slave of Adventure

Sunrise floods the snowy forests east of Mt. Hood and the summit of the mountain flares brilliant gold and white. High on the face I pick my way between leaning towers of rime ice the size of apartment buildings. They glow a sweet pink where sunlight strikes their tops, and between them is the cold blue of winter snow interrupted here and there with knobs of black rock. When I kick my boots into the snow there is a satisfying crunch or thud, but when I use ice axes on the rime pillars ice shatters and tinkles away downslope. I do not look down often; the snow drops away so steeply that if I fell it would be a hundred feet before I hit the surface, where I would tumble two thousand feet down to the glacier. As I climb toward the light my iron crampon points screech when I use them for purchase on rock. I remember being on this face during a storm a year earlier. Snow and chunks of ice had flown horizontally, driving me and my partner to retreat. This morning the mountain is still and silent except for the occasional and sobering clatter of falling rocks, a lifeless sound that freezes me in motion and halts my breath until it fades below.

Climbing alone demands focus but here I am dangerously distracted. Lyle has recently died somewhere nearby. He was also climbing alone and it is easy to imagine his gasp as he comes free of the face and falls. Falling mountaineers scream in the movies but on the few occasions that I have fallen in the mountains I have been silent and felt not fear but rather a thorough embarrassment. I have never met Lyle but have recently by telephone learned of his disappearance on the face. The body has not yet been recovered and must be with a mile of me, probably somewhere in a crevasse below. It's winter, with high avalanche hazard, so rangers are waiting to find Lyle's body during the spring melt, months from now. I hope not to find Lyle snagged in rocks here high on the face, but that is possible. In the last decade over twenty people have fallen from the buttresses and faces on this region of the mountain so that here I am moving carefully through a sort of graveyard. Mountaineering is normally this callous; the clear and cold conditions were perfect for this kind of ascent and normally came only once per winter, so naturally I climbed, regardless of Lyle's disappearance, and with little more thought for the many dead in this region than a general contempt for their incompetence, an ugly sentiment that is usually swiftly mugged by remembering that a single mis-step or simply being struck by falling rock or ice could easily place me among the ranks of the dead. So this gruesome distance that I carry for Lyle and the other dead of this immediate area is not without its function as it prevents me in some measure from making the mistakes that have killed them, some surely more skilled than myself.

Challenging Test!

Funny how experience differs of the same event; on Sunday's test a lot went wrong, and I've just reviewed the video. From outside the suit, the camera's perspective, things are pretty much OK, while inside -- with my temperature up to 104F [quick weight loss!], a critical gauge not working properly, the visor fogged so much that I could barely see my gauges, and the crummy radio acting up, making ...communication nearly impossible -- my mind was going 100mph trying to juggle all of these without stopping the test. It wasn't panic or anything close to it, but it was an all-encompassing sense of frustration with the fact that, basically, nothing was working. But in the colder light of analysis now I know what went wrong, and can address each of the subsystems to prevent them failing again. That's progress! Photo (L to R) of Ben Wilson, Dorin Petean, me and Nicholas Walleri on Sunday. Haga naga, that was gnarly! Will be much streamlined by Sunday with a better procedure checklist.

This project has been a long battle, a grappling match, with frustration. I've learned to slow down and take problems apart, go at them analytically and in excruciating detail, rather than with wild, emotionally-driven actions that paint with too broad a brush. There's a place for those once in a while and in a limited range of situations, but not here, and that's also worth knowing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Launch Escape and the Pressure Suit

If the Copenhagen Suborbitals' main rocket has a big problem during launch, this Launch Escape System (a rocket connected to the capsule containing the pilot) will blast the capsule away from the rocket (hopefully before a big explosion!). Photo; full-scale test last year. The pilot inside will be wearing a slimmed-down, highly-specialized version of my pressure suit in the event of cabin decompression due to the crazy shocks of such a maneuver :)

We start in August, when I'll visit Copenhagen to start integrating my suit design to their capsule. Great thing about a DIY space program = no flags unless you want to (maybe a UN flag representing humanity???), no having to carry anyone's military payloads (because they're the only ones who have any $!), no BS about having to answer to the short attention span of politicians who control federal discretionary spending, no limits to the risks you can take to keep taxpayers and contractors happy with the 'risk level', something you set yourself. Ahhh, freedom, disconnecting space exploration from Feds everywhere :)

I'll test-pilot their capsule suit in my project's balloon flights to 50k feet, just as was done to test Mercury / Soyuz suits in the late 50's :)

This weekend, a significant test of the pressure suit with many modifications that I think will start to stabilize the system for the summer's altitude chamber tests.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Immersion Test Stills

Stills just in from the FRANK film team; video will be ready in a few weeks. The test was successful -- seven minutes at 3m down on the pool floor, strapped into the flying seat mockups. No leaks, good communications, no problems! Thanks to divers Ross Smith and Jeff Groth and the eight other people up poolside!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Space Capsule

In the photo, Kristian von Bengtson, ex-NASA engineer, explaining the Copenhagen Suborbitals capsule. The rocket is built by Peter Madsen, the capsule by Kristian von Bengtson, the pressure suit inside the capsule by me :) About 100 days from now I will climb into that capsule and we will pressurize the suit to work on suit-capsule integration.
I guess I have never been more excited!

100 Days

After three years of building I'm now about 100 days from testing the pressure suit in an altitude chamber in Denmark, in collaboration with the private space program Copenhagen Suborbitals; so I am 'head-banging' the project to make the schedule, working night by night! I've lost track of the number of times I've woken at 3am, over the past few years, unable to sleep with twenty pressure-related issues circling in my mind...
In the photo, new seaming of the pressure restraint garment, and just about in the final configuration. Sewing handmade sails, a skill I learned a long time ago, is one of the most useful skills I've ever developed. I learned that skill to make a replica of a pre-Columbian sailing vessel -- now it's used to build a functional space suit for balloon exploration of the stratosphere!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Peculiar Captain Dudley

A great character sketch from Ernest K Gann's aviation memoir, 'Fate is the Hunter' (1961);

'Captain Dudley's face was peckled with time and peculiar indentations which..gave his features a crumpled, indefinite look, as if he could change their context and relation by simply molding the skin with his fingers. Sometime during the war he had crashed in a training plane and as a result bore a long scar which extended from the lobe of one ear to the center of his chin...Dudley was abnormally vain and never seemed to miss an opportunity to view himself in any mirror. I first began to wonder about Dudley when he stood overlong before a mirror in the hangar washroom one afternoon, pushing at his face and thoughtfully caressing his scar.
"How do I look?" he asked.
"What do you mean, how do you look?"
It was simply a question uncommon between men and I could not think of a proper answer.
Then his voice became almost demanding.
"I asked you how do I look?"
"You look just fine. Just like you did a while ago."
I remembered that this was the second time he had found a mirror that day.'

Friday, April 5, 2013


By Jack London:

"Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity--the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery--but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becom...es timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance."

Jack London, 'The White Silence'

This sounds awfully familiar, in particular regarding my experiences on Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap, Alaska's Baird Glacier, Canada's Columbia Icefield and the expansive tundra of Alaska's North Slope, all of which I have visited on foot, alone, in winter, some more than once. Jack London puts words, as crude as they are, to my own experiences.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Carl Sagan -- Questions

"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”

-- Carl Sagan

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

ONM...Battle Over?

For years I have wrestled with mounting an oral-nasal mask (ONM) in the helmet, for several technical reasons, rather than just breathing from the suit atmosphere. This has several safety advantages, but has been tough to do. The other day I finally had the courage to pull all of the old valves and fittings from the helmet and install my own, and for perhaps the 30th time did a build incorporating breathing gas in and out hoses through my new fittings (plastic now, but will be metal of course, for flight). I think I've got it this time. Details show zipties used to fix the breathing gas delivery and exhaust hoses to the mask and the placement of the hoses up the sides of my face and back into the helmet before reaching the ports. A fully pressurized test this weekend should prove the system!