Saturday, October 13, 2012

That's a wrap

This post is to tie up any lose ends, and maybe provide some information to anyone who's come here looking for information about life on Kwajalein.

To get to the point, I'm no longer on Kwaj.  I ended my contract early, very abruptly in fact, probably burning a bridge or two on the way out.  I had to leave, for the sake of my sanity, and it's not likely that I'll ever go back.

Perhaps it was evident from the tone of my blog or the lack of posts, but Kwaj and I . . . never fit well together.  I can't rip on the island that much, because it DOES have it's upsides, and a lot of people end up liking it very much and spending years there.  But it wasn't for me, it wasn't . . . strange enough.  It was far too normal, too much like the real world.  And that's not what I want.

My biggest mistake was having too many expectations for what Kwaj was going to be; I hoped that it was going to be like Antarctica, but warmer.  A strange, remote little oasis with a unique, bizarre and whimsical culture, full of misfits and weirdos.  But it isn't, it so isn't.  Kwajalein has FAR more in common with any of the tiny little towns of ~1500 people that you find scattered all over the midwest, only with beaches and palm trees instead of cornfields.  And that's not to speak negatively about those small towns, but . . . if I wanted to live in one of those, than I would.

To someone new to the world of contract work, Kwaj could be a good first step; it's 'Contracting-Lite'.  It's a nice baby-step into the world of people who spend their lives bouncing around the planet working in strange locals, but it's still VERY much like the mainland USA.  So it's less jarring to those unprepared for the lifestyle, or who aren't sure about it and just want to try it out for a bit.

But for anyone reading this who's worked the sandbox, or the ice, or any other contracting locals, I would very seriously consider your options before accepting a two-year commitment on Kwaj.  Maybe you'll like it there, plenty of people do.  But my experiences, especially with ice people, don't bear that out. 

With only a single exception, EVERYONE I personally know who has gone to Kwaj from the ice has hated it, many have broken their contracts and left early.  Some don't even make it a year.  The few others who are still on Kwaj are only there for lack of other options, and would leave at the drop of a hat if they were given an out.  The only two people I know on Kwaj who came from the ice and seem to like Kwaj okay are a married couple who just had a couple of kids, and I think that's why they're able to put up with the island.  They have each other, and their kids to focus on. 

Kwajalein has a lot of problems; some are cultural, some technical, some managerial.  It has it's good sides, and for some people the good things are enough to outweigh the bad, or at least lower the bad to a tolerable level.  But it wasn't enough for me.

I had to get back to the place where I've felt more at home than anywhere else.  I've traded the warm ocean, tropical breezes, palm trees and sandy beaches of Kwaj, for this:

I'm back in Antarctica, and I couldn't be happier.

You can follow my life down on the harsh continent at

So long, everyone on Kwaj.  Pet a sea turtle for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NuSTAR - Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array

I haven't written much about any of the work that goes on here, because quite frankly I can't.  Most of it isn't exactly classified, but it's not stuff that they'd really like to be spreading around the internet.

So when we DO get something going on that we can talk about, it's a lot of fun.  A few days ago, the launch aircraft and rocket carrying NASA's NuSTAR satellite landed here, to prep for a launch in . . . oh, about four hours from when I'm writing this post.

Unlike the military launches we do, NASA took the approach of "Sure, come look at all the cool stuff we're doing!  Bring your camera!"

Man, maybe I should have gone to college.

Orbital is a private launch company that NASA has contracted with to boost their stuff up into low earth orbit.  Rather than using a large, expensive and heavy booster rocket to get the payload and upper stages off the ground, Orbital straps a rocket with a tiny wing onto the bottom of a Lockheed L-1011, flies it up to about 40,000 feet, then drops the rocket.  A few seconds after the drop, the motor ignites, and off it goes!  Sadly, the launch is taking place at night a hundred-something miles south of us, so we won't be able to see the details, but they've got a breakdown of their processon their website:

They had a number of their engineers and scientists around to guide the groups, answer questions and give info on how the whole thing worked.  I did ask, and they do indeed get to put "Rocket Scientist" on their business cards.  Which has got to be the most sure-fire way of picking up nerd girls ever.

This man has to fight off cute doctoral students with a stick

The business end of it all!

I enjoy how they cut a slit in the bottom of the aircraft to fit the tail fin
I am a grown-up who has a grown-up job and does grown-up things


Once we wandered around the outside and looked at all the things that we're not allowed to touch, we went up inside the aircraft.  Save for what remained of the first-class section (now filled with computery stuff), there wasn't much in there.

I really want them to put a slip-n-slide in here.

I asked one of the pilots how close to the max take-off weight they were with the rocket attached, and he said it wasn't even close.  The launch weight of the rocket was only about 50,000lbs, and they burned 110,000 of fuel just flying the airplane to Kwaj.  So not a big deal, although when the aircraft rotates for take-off there is only 14 inches of clearance between the rocket's tail fins and the runway.  And upon release, the aircraft lurches upwards about 1400 feet in altitude and switches abruptly from being very tail-heavy, to nose-heavy.

He's the one that gets to push the launch button, which makes him the kid who always had cooler toys than you.

It's always amused me to see the little bit of humanness behind these big expensive projects.  I find something very entertaining in seeing a multi-million dollar satellite attached to a rocket about to be shot into space, while the people running it all are fueled by a cheap-ass coffee maker, sitting on folding tables and lawn furniture.  I would think rocket scientists are at least worthy of . . . I don't know, one of those fancy K-cup coffee makers or something.  Maybe even their own on-board barrista.

Only the finest will do.

Up front where first-class used to be, most of the seats have been ripped out and replaced with expensive computers that do many, many things.

According to the rules of electronics that I've just made up, the importance of a doohicky is directly proportional to the number of blinky lights and toggle switches.  This machine must be very important.

I somehow resisted the urge to mutter in a robotic voice "WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?"  (If you don't get the joke, watch more 1970s nerd movies) 

Simulated third stage burn.  Note the expected velocity; 11,000mph.
I DON'T KNOW WHAT ANY OF THESE THINGS MEAN.  But when I have my souper-seekrit evil villain lair, it's going to be full of screens like this one.
 I figured that NASA being NASA, or at least rocket scientists being rocket scientists, they would have some kind of obscenely complex and fail-proof safety system to prevent anyone from accidentally pushing a button that would make the big roman candle underneath us do bad things.  I was correct: they are utilizing the time-tested system of a bit of red tape and a post-it.

Moving up to the cockpit, they . . . well, yeah.

The things that are awesome when you're 8 years old are still awesome when you're 28 years old.
The launch button was a bit anti-climactic considering the scale of everything else.  I wanted some giant yellow and red striped button with two keys that you had to turn at the exact same time and a big motorized titanium cover that required voice authentication from the pilot, a rocket scientist, and the president of Nigeria. 

I have no idea what the orange thing does.  I should have asked.
By the time you're reading this, the satellite will be spinning around the planet at an altitude of about 600 miles, hunting down black holes (seriously) and doing all sorts of other sciencey things.  In space.  It's in outer space right now.  Something I looked at in person is now in outer space. *nerdgasm*

Unless the rocket blew up on launch or something, in which case I swear I didn't push any of the "DO NOT PUSH THIS" buttons.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mister skinny fish!

Mister long and skinny fish, how did you get to be so long and skinny?

(He was actually trying to pick a fight with my camera, he was repeatedly ramming his nose into the lens port for almost a minute while I took these pictures)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Contrary to the rest of the world, come Easter time we don't have a rabbit that runs around the island hiding colored eggs for people on land to find. No, instead of an Easter Bunny, on Kwaj we have an Easter Sea Turtle (Which makes a heck of a lot more sense, when you think about it) who swims around in the lagoon the night before and hides eggs for snorkelers and scuba divers to find.

Me being me, I had my camera with me and as such was more distracted by taking photos of stuff, rather than trying to look for eggs.

Woo, found one! (little purple thing, under the right part of the anchor)

And another! The Easter Sea Turtle was sneaky with this one, the color of the egg blended in with the coral quite well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sea Turtle release

On March 7th, 2012, our two long-time residents of the Dr Ott Turtle Pond on Kwajalein Atoll, Big Guy and Speedo, were released back into the wild after having spent their lifetime so far in captivity. After having a full medical exam, being tagged with GPS trackers and having a "B" and "S" painted onto their backs, they were lowered into the water and let go.

We all wish them the best of luck, but this was a fairly contentious issue on the island. Of primary concern was that these turtles have spent their entire lives in captivity and as such have apparently no fear of humans; Big Guy especially seemed to like people, and when you'd walk along the edge of the turtle pond he would often follow you, probably hoping for some tasty snacks.

Best of luck, Speedo and Big Guy. We'll all miss you.

Friday, March 2, 2012