About Me

Pearl City, HI, United States

Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Hopeful Future in Space

Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey

One of my first reliable memories is sitting near my mother on a beautiful day in May while we both listened to the reporting of Alan Shepard's suborbital flight.  Yes, on the radio.  I think it was pretty much that moment when the endless unknowns and adventures of space travel.  

From then until the last Apollo mission to the moon, I remained riveted.  Even after our manned missions outside of earth orbit ended, there were other missions to follow and marvel at.  Most vividly, the missions of the Voyager spacecraft as they swept through the solar system returning amazing heart-stopping images of distant planets and moons.  Both probes are beyond the immediate boundaries of the solar system, but still have to navigate the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud before actually leaving their home star for good.

Exploration continues, albeit with robotic probes and not with humans.  We now know what Pluto looks like. We have close-up images of two Kuiper Belt objects, one of which I still think should have been entitled "BB-8."  Three dune buggies have been crawling along the surface of Mars, two of which have long outlasted their expected lives.  While these missions have been informative, even scintillating they will never fully replace the human explorer.

So, what lies next?  NASA is committed to establishing a permanent habitat on the moon, and is taking the long view towards eventually putting human boot prints on Mars.  But there could be other things to do as well.  

To truly undertake serious exploration of the outer solar system, there must be first a more economical place from which to launch.  It takes a lot of rocket fuel to lift the hundreds of tons of equipment and supplies needed to sustain long-term exploration.  It's much less difficult to leave from earth orbit, or the moon.  So, the first step would be the establishment of a facility in orbit to construct ships designed for explorations lasting for years.  The next step is to use that facility to send the supplies and equipment to establish a permanent base on the moon.

The United States sent seven manned missions to the moon and nobody has been back since.  Proposals for a permanent base are many and varied, but I think the best method would be to establish habitats inside the many lava tubes below the moon's surface.  There, the residents would be better protected against the cyclical rages of the sun.  But once established, there are a host of activities that could be carried out there, from scientific research to industrial development and invention.  

Eventually, humans would move on to Mars.  The Red Planet has long fascinated people here on earth.  It does has an atmosphere, albeit thin and mostly carbon dioxide, but there are indications now that there may be substantial amounts of water beneath those red sands.  But since Mars has no magnetic field, the surface is wide open to all of the sun's solar radiation.  Earth has a magnetic field, which is how life is able to thrive here.  So, Martian explorers and residents would have to be protected which will require new technologies in space suits and habitats. This was a fairly late realization.  As Apollo was ending in the 1970's, speculation then was that Mars was far more earth-like than it eventually turned out to be.  And let me add that the trip to Mars will be more hazardous, not just because of increase radiation exposure, but the risk of collision with micrometeoroids which could hole the ship, exposing the astronauts to decompression.  But these are hazards that can be overcome, or at least minimized by determined humans.

A base on Mars makes exploration of the outer solar system much easier.  First of all, the transit time is cut dramatically.  Second, the establishment of labs on Mars would mean that physical samples returned from those missions would be processed much faster, and the resulting data messaged to earth. From there, both manned and unmanned missions could be dispatched.  For private industry, which would have to be a full partner in such and undertaking, there are untold riches in the metals and elements in asteroids waiting for discovery by those entrepreneurs willing to take the risk.

But to ensure even better opportunities, another base could be established further out.  

Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter, the largest moon in the solar system.  It is slightly larger than Mercury and some say that if Ganymede wasn't orbiting a planet, it would be counted as a minor planet.  But the most important factor in its favor is that there are enormous quantities of water, in surface ice and a subterranean ocean.  Even though it's likely a saltwater ocean, it's still water which is essential to human life.  From Ganymede, close-up long-term observation of Jupiter could be undertaken.  And a base there would provide access to the wonders of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

This is all decades in the future, and only if humans decide knowledge is more important than politics.  Humans have always been explorers, and there are limitless opportunities for the acquisition of knowledge in planetary investigation, and the innate technological expansion such investigations would initiate.  But the most important facet would be the human engagement in risk, taking chances to accomplish something important.  That may be a character trait we've abandoned.

But I firmly believe humans will do this.  We will reach a point where we will look outward together rather than finding ways to fight each other.  One day, ships from earth will be exploring the planets and moons, and asteroids and comets of the Sun's family, sending back history-altering discoveries.  

I only regret that I won't be alive to see it happen.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sixty-Four: A Birthday Perspective

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Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey

I turned 64 today, and while time makes such events inevitable, I still felt a mild degree of surprise.  It hasn't been that long ago that I considered people of that age impossibly ancient.  I never thought about what it would be like for me to reach this point.  In fact, less than 15 years ago, I truly thought I'd be gone by now.  For me now to admit, accept, and acknowledge that I am that old is a bit of a tough pill to swallow.  And I already swallow too many.

Physically, I doing better than I thought possible.  After eight years of dieting sandwiched between two surgeries, I am about 235 pounds lighter than I was back then.  Even with five stents in my heart, my cardiologist says my heart  is amazingly strong.  All those elements involved in blood tests are under control and within norms.  I still walk, now building my distance back to my pre-surgery daily regimen of six miles.  Arthritis hasn't manifested itself yet, and my hearing and sight are about normal for someone of my...ahem...age.  I worry about my memory and what I can do to retain the capability I have left.  Our marriage is strong, and we've been blessed with great kids and beautiful grandkids. My biggest problem right now is a closet full of pants that won't stay up anymore.

So, I have really very little to complain about.  But I carry a kind of sadness within, the source of which is a bit of a mystery.  I know I've been incredibly fortunate, and I need to be more grateful.

Last week, I began to get the inevitable inquiries concerning what I wanted for my birthday.  What should have  been an easy answer has led to some introspection.

For most of my life, there's always been something out there that I wanted; something meaningful and exciting.  But for the past few years, there really hasn't been that one big thing on the gift horizon.  While I think that may be a reflection of where I'm at in terms of my life's journey, it does lend a bit of disillusion.  Part of this I understand.  As a child, toys were always the default choice.  As I grew older, my interest became books of which I accumulated a small mountain.  Then I started motorcycling, and the gift hints always went in that direction.  In some cases, I was asked whether it was my birthday or my motorcycle's.  About eight years ago, I started hiking, so my desires became associated with those outdoorish accoutrements.  But things changed.  I had to give up the bike because my reflexes had slowed too much.  I still hike, but I mostly walk in the city because I don't have the time to spend an entire day on a trail the way I used to.  And while I'm still on track to make my annual goal of  a thousand miles, I have to admit that it's not as much fun as being on a trail.

One of the other things that has changed is that we really don't have a space to call our own.  We sold our house in Virginia when I retired, and since then we've lived with family and in extended stay hotels.  Our current situation has us living in the home of Cheryl's 92-year-old mother.  While she has been so lovingly gracious about having us underfoot, it is still very much her home.  I never before realized how important it was to be able to look around at a house and see a reflection of us in the furnishings and decorations.  I miss that, and since we don't have a place to put stuff in, we don't buy a lot of stuff.  

The future is unclear.  Cheryl's current contract expires in two years, and we've already made the decision that Hawai'i is too crazy expensive for us to live here after we've both retired.  The problem that presents itself now is that we've lived in so many other places, we don't have any geographic loyalties.  My trip back to Kansas City for the ill-fated AFC Championship game pretty much cured me of wanting to be that cold ever again.  So, our choices are limited to places where winter is much milder.  We wrote off the southeast because of sinkholes and hurricanes, the midwest because of the impossibly humid summers, and Hawai'i for reasons already discussed.  We had always thought about settling in Las Vegas, but violent crime there is still a problem and it's not very cheap to live there anymore.  That leaves us with Phoenix, which will be a viable option as long as we go someplace else between May and October.  Even if we were ready to buy our own place, we don't know where that place will be.  I joke about ending up in a single-wide in Arkansas.  At least I hope its a joke.

I am working right now for Hawai'i Emergency Management Agency in the operations center.  It's a 24/7 deal which means I'm working weekdays and weekends.  But it's interesting work and the people are fantastic.  I'd like to stay long enough to earn another pension, but that takes me into my 70's, and part of me is worried about the state of my brain at that point.  But I enjoy having something important and vital to be involved in, something I've missed since leaving the FBI.

I had dreams and expectations when I was young about how my life would work out.  The only thing that came true was growing old.  Life will never play out the way we expect, even with the most meticulous planning.  I guess that's what makes it such an interesting ride.  It's natural to look back and think about making different choices at different times.  But if I encountered a genie who would allow me to re-live my life again (with everything I know now, of course), I really think I would turn that down.  Honestly, I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes than climb that mountain all over again.  

Paul McCartney, he of Beatles fame, wrote a song for the Sgt. Pepper album that included the words, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm 64."  Well, I'm 64 now, and I still feel needed and fed by my long-suffering better half.  As I am fond of saying, "It's been over 40 years and she still hasn't shot me, so it must be true love." But on this day, that's one of the greatest gifts I've ever received:  the love of a woman who certainly deserved better than she married.  And that also makes me grateful.

Because on this day that I celebrate my birthday, I won't be celebrating alone.  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Love and Mother's Day

Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all."
--Proverbs 31:25-29

Have we ever wondered a mother's silent cries?
Her struggles, her fears, her worries?
Have we ever thought of the sacrifices
she has done to make our lives happier,
and her dreams cut short
to make our dreams come true?
--Ama H. Vanniarachchy

As Mother's Day was approaching, I had time to speak with the moms that came through my check lane at Target.  I was amazed to hear of the number of them who had given birth either on Mother's Day or a few days either side.  I counted 26 of them over the three days prior to the holiday.  As we talked, they told me how special that day had been, the ultimate Mom's Day present.  But they also talked about how those birthdays began to overwhelm the holiday, and I could sense that they felt a little left out.  But they were all quick to add "But, that's okay.  It's a treat to see my kid having fun."

The life of a mother is one of endless sacrifice.  It is a tribute to their selfless natures, but also a reminder to the rest of us to look...really look at what they do day in and day out.  A mother's love is one of those rare and beautiful things that will always be there as sure as the sun shines in the morning and the stars glow at night.

It starts at the very beginning.  Most women will tell you that pregnancies do terrible things to their body.  Some will suffer ailments related to various vitamin and mineral deficiencies because their body's resources are being diverted to the tiny life they carry within.  Bones are rearranged, skin stretches, and they are remade.  Once the baby is born, the real sprint begins.  Most of the rest of us expect moms to be up and around after a few days and back to taking care of the rest of us.  I suspect there is a kind of guilt in the mom herself, knowing that even as she recovers, the house still needs to be cleaned, dinners still need to be made, other kids (and husbands) to care for, and then there's are the other jobs -- the paying ones.

Moms are driven by a singular kind of energy, which if it could be bottled, I suspect would power the United States for weeks on end.  They run the household, and they run our lives, not out of some misplaced megalomania, but because they love; deeply, passionately, and stridently.  This endless energy is a part of them that runs without ceasing for their entire lives.  Even when kids are adults, not an hour goes by when their mom doesn't think about them, and worry about them.  And when a mother becomes a grandmother, that love blossoms all over again.  

They understand little children in ways none of the rest of us ever will, because they not only tend to them, they actually live in their child's world -- how they play, what they like, what brings them sorrow and joy.   They understand at a very basic level that innocence.  They also understand what happens in the teen years when aliens come and possess their children's minds.  Despite all those battles, the love never dies.  They don't just raise children, they are fully invested in them, so much so that when the time comes for her children to take wings, they find it so very hard to let go.

And they're thinking of that moment.  They know that parenting consists of a lot of long days, but some very short years.  I think some of them fear that just a little.  Someday, before they are truly ready to accept it, that cute little toddler staggering across the room with binky in hand today will be walking out the door to college, to marriage, to their own lives.  It's a hard thing because if moms have done their job right, at eighteen years of age, that child is now an adult, fully prepared to stand on their own two feet and take control of their lives.  In other words, they don't need mom anymore, at least not in the way both have come to know.  But that relationship will always be there.  One day, the phone will ring, and a voice will say, "Mom, do you have time to talk?"  And Mom will instantly cancel all other plans, sit down, and listen.

That same warm, loving embrace that soothed the pain of scraped knees and bruised feelings will be there after a tough day at work, or problems in the marriage.  Whenever a grown child needs that place of refuge and protection, those arms will enfold, embrace, and make it all go away.

We will always feel inferior, because we struggle, and remember how they made it look so easy.  Their wisdom shaped us in youth and sustained us as adults.  And on that day when God takes them into His loving arms, they leave a hole in our hearts that will never again be filled.

Mother's Day celebrations usually consist of breakfast in bed, lunch or dinner out, maybe a shopping expedition and a few presents, along with the flowers and card.  But I ran into many who spent the whole weekend at graduations, baseball, soccer, and La Crosse games, some sitting in the cold and rain.  And they all said, "But that's okay."  And it truly was for them.  Their children are their lives, and giving their time to their kids is automatic, and at the same time, joyful.

The fact remains, however, that nothing we could ever do will come close to rewarding them for all that they have done, and will do.  Dozens of red roses, meals they didn't have to plan, cook, and clean up afterwards...there simply isn't enough of those in a lifetime to make up the debt.  They don't make roses that beautiful or chocolate that sweet.  The best thing we can do is to honor them every day, not just this one day in May.  Tell them -- and show them -- that they are loved and appreciated.  Do things for them, not after they've asked a couple of dozen times, but just because they needed done, and you know it would make her happy.  Cancel your own plans, and hang out with her for an afternoon or an entire day.  Praise her, honor her, and love her because that's what she has done for you.

Let's make every day a Mother's Day, because they deserve it.  I think we'll find that giving love is every bit as wonderful as receiving love.