Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Spitzer: More than a space telescope. It is part of my family and a piece of who I am.

Originally posted 6/26/2019 to the Spitzer Science Center Spitzer team blogs - http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/explore/blog

For Mike Jura, an original SIRTF Science Working Group member, my advisor, mentor, and friend. It is my wish that all the truths he spent his life searching for have now been revealed to him.

We often think about Spitzer as being a 16-year-old. That is the time it has been operating after its launch on a Delta II Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. But, it is much older than that. Never a mission to not challenge its supporters, Spitzer was a long time in coming from concept to launch, with many pot holes in the road to keep things interesting. The initial Spitzer concept was first pitched to NASA Headquarters in 1971. It did not launch until 2003. 

But, I am not here to talk about all of that history. Because, compared to those who saw Spitzer from concept to launch and beyond, I am but a newbie.

I first started work on the Spitzer project in July 1997. Twenty-two years ago. At the time, the observatory was called SIRTF, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. The Spitzer Science Center, then called the SIRTF Operations Center (SOC) was just starting. I was one of the two first scientists hired to the SOC staff. There were a handful of us trying to figure out how we were going to operate this NASA Great Observatory on a significantly reduced budget. Prior to going to the SOC, I was a full-time research scientist. 

Initially, my role with SIRTF was ill defined, because everything needed to be done, and we were just starting to staff up. I handled “User Tools,” and helped to define the instrument operating modes. Those had to be determined well before the instruments were built and the observatory and ground software developed, because the operations could, and did impact the entire observatory development in multiple ways. Later, I would become the lead for the Multiband Imaging Photometer for SIRTF Instrument Support Team. The challenges were many, and the pressure and stress of “getting it right” was intense. But, it was worth every minute, and I started to see my impact on nearly every aspect of the operations system. As SIRTF and the instruments grew into the Observatory it was supposed to be, we did not think of it as a thing we were just building as a job. No. It became part of us, as important as my left arm. We worked on it by day, thought about it in the evening, and dreamed about it at night. Mostly that was good. Sometimes it was too much. We all needed to have distractions. For me, that was running. I ran long, long distances in the desert, in the summer. I both escaped and solved many work-related problems while “out there.”

SIRTF brought me more than job satisfaction. I met my wife there, too. Deborah had been the US Resident Astronomer for the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) and was stationed for three years near Madrid, Spain. When she returned, she became the lead for the Science Operations Team at the (then) SIRTF Science Center (SSC). By then the staff had grown and roles well defined. Our day to day work did not overlap very much, but we collaborated on a number of problems that needed solving. One such problem was a proper definition and diagram of the SIRTF focal plane – how the instruments would see the sky relative the each other and how those openings in the focal plane were placed relative the observatory’s rotational axes. This is not as easy as it sounds, because the optics played a role in inverting and rotating how the focal plane was projected. The only time we would know if we really got that right was the first time SIRTF would take data in orbit. 

After seven intense and all too short years, I finally stood with Deborah on a beach in Cape Canaveral as we watched SIRTF lift off into space in a spectacular night launch. We had tears in our eyes. We had done it. We had helped to put a Great Observatory in space. 

But, would it work? Launch is difficult on a satellite. It is shaken hard, pushed by intense g-forces, and let go to float away and begin its life alone. We had to wait. It would be hours before we would know much of anything.

Well, things did not start off exactly as planned. When we learned the status of the Observatory, it was initially found to have entered Safe Mode. That happens autonomously if the flight computer determines there is an anomaly that needs to be corrected before continuing. With that, my role was to wait nervously as the Anomaly Team went into action for the first time, and a bit sooner than expected. Deborah was a member of the Anomaly Response Team, so she had a job to do right away. As it turned out, this was not a crisis. The Observatory did the right thing when it detected a communications error, which was a ground fault, not one with any of the flight system. A recovery plan was made. All was well. We went back to “normal” life and waited for the next major event – the opening of the telescope cover. 

There is no need to go into detail about how those significant events went. The Spitzer Space Telescope completed all events and went through its in-orbit check-out period on schedule. Deborah and I wanted to find out if we got the focal plane right. We had waited years for that one moment when we stood silently over the instrument scientist as the first image was displayed. Yes, we had gotten it right. If not, there would have been a much different image. 

That was the most intense and fun time of the entire development cycle. We saw real data. We saw real astronomical objects at wavelengths never before examined. We learned about the instruments, the telescope, and the spacecraft – how well they worked, what did not work so well (very little), and we started to do science with some of that early data. A firehose of information was pointed directly at us. We had planned for this. But, until it actually happened, we could not appreciate how that would really feel. It was hard. It was tiring. It was exhilarating. We were on our way to discover new truths about the Universe. 

It was time for science. 

The Helix Nebula as seen by Spitzer

The initial “cold mission” (when Spitzer was cooled by a tank of super-fluid helium) was a total success. It happened as we had hoped and planned. The three instruments preformed nearly flawlessly, and the telescope was perfect. 

The astronomical community came out en mass to propose for Spitzer observations. New discoveries were made. Our understanding of the Universe and how it works was moved forward in profound ways. We confirmed old ideas that could not be tested without Spitzer. We learned fundamentally new things.

The Flame Nebula as seen by Spitzer

After a couple of years, Spitzer operations became something like routine. I found I was better at the high stress, never the same thing each day, type of work that is development. An opportunity opened up and I moved on, reluctantly. I went on the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope and then the NASA/DLR Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). 

However, it seems for me, nothing remains the same for long. An opportunity at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC was offered and I accepted. I am now a NASA Program Scientist in the Astrophysics Division. 

To my absolute delight, I was quickly assigned to be the new NASA HQ Spitzer Program Scientist. From this position, I oversee the Spitzer Space Telescope operations and ongoing mission. Mostly, my role at this point is to not break anything. Through its long mission, the Spitzer operations teams have become well-oiled and extremely effective. 

It was like coming home after a long trip away. It is also a bittersweet return. 

The limits of technology, orbital mechanics, and simply not being designed for such a long life at a very large distance from Earth make it time for the Spitzer mission to end. That day will be January 30, 2020. The day before, Spitzer observations will stop. Its time as a producer of unique and precious data will end. The Observatory will wait quietly for a day. 
Then, with a single stroke of a computer key, the command sequence to turn off the observatory will be sent. It will take some 15 minutes for that command sequence to travel through space to be received by the Spitzer computers. Spitzer will then sleep after a long, productive life. Forever to float in deep space.

As we had traveled to Florida for the first day of Spitzer’s life in space, my wife and I will travel to California and JPL for its last day. We will be there with our friends who became family. We will hold hands as the command sequence is sent. There will be tears. Tears of sadness and of joy. Sadness because something truly grand has come to an end. Joy for the success we have achieved. Joy because we will be there with the family of which we have become a part. Joy to be together again as we all say a fare thee well to the other family member we sent off on its own to learn the truth in the vastness of space, to seek the imponderable. And so, it did.

Spitzer is more than a piece of hardware to many. To me, it is the culmination of a dream. A dream that I might one day have an impact on the world of science, to help change textbooks, to learn the truth about how the Universe works. While my own research has had a minor impact, it has been through my support of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the astronomical community that I have had that impact I dreamt about. By helping to make Spitzer work, and providing the community and the world with an amazing tool, I made science happen. I could not have asked for more. 

While the observatory itself will come to an end, Spitzer’s legacy will continue. The data taken will be studied again and again, and discoveries will continue to be made at least into the next generation of scientists. Its impact to science will never diminish.

Spitzer will live on forever.


"Badwater" Bill Latter
Arnold, MD

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For....

As Forest Gump once said, I have worn many shoes. I have driven delivery trucks and motorcycles, been a deck hand on a sportfishing boat, a roofer, a printer, worked on the pit crew for a Top Fuel dragster, an auto mechanic and worked auto parts counters, a student, a research astrophysicist, a writer, a director/manager, an executive, an equestrian, a cyclist, and a runner. 

Through all that, the one constant has been that I am a runner. I have been a fast runner, a slow runner, a walker, a short distance runner, an injured runner, a long-distance runner, and an ultra-distance runner. I have succeeded. I have failed more often than not. I have cried. I have bled. I have been close to death in the desert. I have leapt over hurdles, high jumps, and long jumps. I have raced with greats and not so greats. I have made dreams come true. I have witnessed true greatness and dreamed more. Through heroic efforts I remain a runner in spite of a debilitating back injury nearly 20 years ago.

I have been told that this experience I have accumulated has made me wise. 

If “wise” means that I know the truth, then I am certainly not wise. I have searched for meaning since I was 16 years old. I have searched for who I am. I have searched for what I will be. Mostly, I have searched for what it is all about (it is not the Hokey Pokey, this much I do know). I have always searched for whatever it is I am searching for. 

As I am now old enough to be looking head on into the long darkness, it pains me to find that I still do not know anything. Not really. I have used logic, philosophy, research, science, meta-physics, music, literature, meditation, psychotropic medications, anything my extensive experience and knowledge have brought me.

It scares me that I will still be searching at the moment of my last breath.

After all these years, I still have not found what I’m looking for.

This is why I am still a runner. It is harder. I am slower. But I have to keep doing it. The answer is out there, somewhere. I must find it.


"Badwater" Bill
Arnold, MD

Thursday, October 4, 2018

I am Badwater Bill

It has been a very long time since I last posted. So much has happened. So much has changed. The “step down” I discussed in my last post (An Open Letter....) turned out to be my downfall with SOFIA. It is not something I want to go into in detail. I will just say that management decided that I was no longer useful to them, so I was put on the job market. In my line of work, that can be a career ender. There are not many positions in astrophysics for someone with my skills and background. Lots of people wanted to help me, and a lot said they would hire me in a minute if they had a position. That was all well and good, but....

This was an extremely stressful and depressing time. My wife, who had been working successfully as an Adjunct Professor at several community colleges, went on a national search for a permanent position. The beautiful house and property we had just bought one year earlier was readied to be put on the market. I was crushed. My dream home had to go away and there was no way we would get anything like it again.

My wife was extremely successful in getting interviews all over California, Arizona, and Maryland. But, hers is a highly competitive business and the offers did not come. I applied for what I could and put out lots of feelers. I made plans for a career change. To what, I did not know. I made what contacts I could. I got more depressed. It was clear, our lives were going to change profoundly. The future looked dark and unpredictable.

Finally, after many months, there was movement. I was able to hang on at my job while all this was happening. I won’t say I liked it, or did a good job during this time. I was too depressed, stressed and pissed off to do that. Not a good look for me, but it was what it was. The work did help get me through the days and weeks and the money was a good thing. The first sign of anything happening came when my wife was asked to fly out to Maryland for an interview. It went extremely well. I figured that I might eventually find work in that area if we went there for her job. It is a hotbed of astrophysics. Then, I was asked to interview at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. This was a long shot for complicated reasons totally independent of my ability to do the job, or whether they wanted me or not. Again, it is not worth going into here. Too much intrigue.

Very quickly after my wife’s interview in Maryland, she got the offer of a lifetime for her line of work. It was clear she would accept and we would move across country into a world of unknowns. I was not happy about this. I would leave a place I loved, for a new and very different place. I could see no upside to this. I was blinded by my ongoing rage and depression. I could not see this as a new adventure. I only saw hopelessness for me. My wife was justifiably excited. She had done great. I was happy for her, but too self-involved to see anything good in all this.

Then, my interview at NASA proved successful, and I was made an offer. I said yes, but…. I was accepting a job I did not know if I could take. I went to work on that. I felt like Sisyphus. It was painful.

This was the first time I had to look back at what I had done in Death Valley for real strength. I believed then that getting through what I had to finish that effort would make it possible for me to get through anything. I used that, and I knew intellectually that it was true. I would survive, and maybe even thrive. But, emotionally, I was a basket case.

I was not having any success making the NASA position work, and I told them that. It appeared they wanted me enough to try other things. I would work there one way or another. There was some relief in that. While all this was going on, we sold the house (in a day!) and started the move across country. We found a nice house in Arnold, Maryland about 1.5 miles from the college where my wife would be teaching. This was a big change for the good, since she had been commuting up to 120 miles per day previously. If I was to work in DC, my commute would be the long one.

To make matters that much worse, our dear cat, "Goo," died the very day we had to go to Maryland to look for a place to live. I was inconsolable. Then, soon after the move, we lost "Stinky." So much loss. It seemed it would never end.

Fair thee well, Goo and Stinky. You were, and are, well loved.

So, leaving out a lot of detail, it has come to pass that we are both doing well. My wife has completed her first year at her new college. I am working at NASA Headquarters in the position for which I was originally considered (miracles do happen sometimes). We are settled in and learning a new world. My job is excellent. It is hard, and I still have a lot to learn. But, I will succeed and do well. Maybe, just maybe, I will start to thrive again.

For a long time during all of this, I felt like I was struggling just to survive. I relied on my success in Death Valley to help pull me through this. Once, when I was really struggling with my bad back, and the pain was overwhelming, a friend told me that this was why I became an ultrarunner. I remembered that and used it again. My life has been one challenge after another. If I did not have the strength I have found through ultra long distance running, I do not know how I would have made it through some of that. 

To add to the hopefulness, we have welcomed a new kitty into our lives -- "Sirius Black." He is a fantastic animal, and a good friend to our other cat, "The Dude."

Welcome Sirius. You are a good boy.

I think it needless to say, my training has suffered badly through all this. Now is the time to get back to it. Yes, winter is coming. I have run through worse. I will be able to do it. I just need to focus and want it again. I do want it. I need it. It is who I am. I am Badwater Bill. Thank God for that.


“Badwater” Bill
Arnold, MD

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

An Open Letter to the Mission Operations Team

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following on Facebook -

"Have you ever woken up one day and realized your life had become out of control with work stress? Was it impacting everything - sleep, work, eating, the things you love most like training and people? Yeah? About two weeks ago, I woke up and realized just how bad it had gotten. It had to end. And so it is. My work life is now in transition out of the impossible job I was doing to something much, much different. I already feel better. Why does it sometimes take the proverbial sledge hammer to the forehead before one sees the obvious damage being done?"

Today the transition took place. My life is now on a new, different, and exciting path. In an open meeting, I spilled my guts for a moment and proceeded to forget the most important thing. So, I followed up with a note. Here it is….

For the Mission Operations Team -

For those of you who could not make the Mission Ops All Hands meeting this morning - as of now, I am transitioning out of my role as Associate Director of Mission Operations. Nancy will be assuming that role, at least for the time being. Karina will be her B703 resident deputy. I will be in the Science Operations side as Manager for Science Support. You are in excellent hands. That was important to me.

This is a voluntary move I am making. The reasons are complex and some are rather personal. It is also a good time to make such a change for the re-compete proposal, which motivated the timing, in part.

There was a lot I could have said at the meeting, and did not. One item that needs to be said - Thank you for all that you do. It has been a most awesome pleasure and experience working with you. In my time here, I have watched a small struggling Mission Operations team try to do more than anyone could, yet it still got done. As we moved through the troubled early flights and became more and more of an operating Observatory, you grew in numbers and you came up to speed very fast. These were troubled times for SOFIA. Systems did not work. The aircraft was giving too much trouble. We were even canceled outright. But, you kept going.

You are all talented and dedicated individuals. As a team, you are better than the sum of the parts by a significant amount. When we should have been grounded, you never gave in and seemed to do magic to get flights off. Maybe it was not graceful or pretty, but the key thing that we are all here to make happen was we got some science done when it seemed like it could not happen. It was amazing to see. This is not how we wanted to keep going -  indeed, we could not have done so. But, fighting for flights and data has become part of what flying SOFIA is about. You make it happen when it is easy, and when it is hard. It is just that simple.

If you break it down into what it is that MandE and MOPS do, it is all a dance leading up to that point in time when the TO turns the telescope over the the science instrument. All the planning, all the handoffs, meetings, and interfaces are all for that one moment. That is when SOFIA is doing what she was built for and does so well. No one does it better. I am fairly certain that if this team were suddenly asked to bring home the crew of Apollo 13 (or maybe a stranded crew on the ISS….) safely, you would get together and make that happen, too. I do not believe that is hyperbole.

Now I am going back to being a bit of a scientist. It is from that viewpoint that I write the next part. SOFIA is a grand experiment in the long tradition of such in astronomy. Infrared astronomy remains in its infancy. It has been within the time of my career that we have gone from having just tantalizing glimpses of what might be out there to an understanding that within the infrared part of the spectrum one can find many of the real secrets of the Universe. While visible light astronomy has been going on since Man first looked up, infrared astronomy is brand shiny new. We are still learning how to do it, and it is like learning your first steps. It is hard. The technology is hard and uncertain. The physics is hard to understand. The Earth and what is nearby make it hard to do and get a clear view. SOFIA is hard. It might be an old aircraft, but what it does and how it does it are all difficult regardless of its physical age.

As a scientist, I see SOFIA as one of those great moments in the history of science that is opening a door. What is behind that door? - well, we are just now starting to find out. Scientists so often do not stop to think about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it gets done. In these days of mega-dollar NASA and NSF facilities with international components, scientists can have a feeling that these things are just put there for their use and it is only money. But, these things do not happen without dedicated and skilled people to make them happen. In some ways, we have made it too easy. The astronomer is too separated from the data and the process of getting it. Using Caltech as an example, it was just a few years ago that the Observer on the Palomar 200inch (for a long time the largest telescope in the world) would formally dress for dinner and sit at the head of the table. Going observing was a real event and was treated like a formal night of discovery. These days, we get to the site (if we can get there at all), grab a quick dinner and rush to the telescope, where we give a list of targets to the night assistant. We might even look outside once in a while, but not too often.

For twenty years now, I have worked to be sure that astronomers have gotten the best data possible. It was with SOFIA that I have truly seen the best of what can be done in the worst of circumstances. The astronomers are sometimes onboard with you, but mostly they are presented with the data that you worked so hard to get for them. They do not know how it is done. They do not thank anyone. For them, there is really no one to thank. I know I don't thank my internet router often enough….

Well - I am an astronomer who does know. So, for all of them, and those that will come - I thank you for the work you do everyday to make SOFIA the magnificent machine that it is. Your contributions are changing textbooks and building a path to the future of infrared astronomy. That path is shrouded in the fog of the future. We cannot tell where it will lead. But, I, for one, am happy to take those uncertain steps with you.


And, so it is Onward!

"Badwater" Bill
Acton, CA

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

I'm Back! I'm Back in the Saddle, Again!

About three years ago I conceived my next Death Valley adventure - a self supported solo crossing. I wrote about it here - 
I even bought the baby jogger and other things to get it going. To say I was derailed might be an understatement. Recently, I took a major step to making it happen this summer. I got out the jogger and took it for its first trial run. It felt good. I laughed and I cried. I laughed at the absurdity of my starting to cry when Highway to Hell came on my iPod. But, cry I did. The fact that I am able to even think about this thing after the kind of back surgery I had is astonishing. 
Honestly, I don't know if I can make it. It is a lot to ask. When I look in the mirror, I see an aging fat man with a huge scar on his abdomen, and another on his back. But, I am doing it. I am giving it the best shot I can. I am truly on a Highway to Hell!

Loading it up. Lots of water.
An aging fat man with his baby jogger.

"no stop signs
speed limit
nobody's gonna slow me down
like a wheel
gonna spin it
nobody's gonna mess me around
hey satan
payin' my dues
playin' in a rockin' band
hey mumma
look at me
I’m on the way to the promised land
I’m on the highway to hell
highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell
highway to hell
don't stop me"
-- AC\DC

Starting down the Highway to Hell


"Badwater" Bill
Acton, CA

Monday, June 16, 2014

New Life, Slow Return to Running, and Bumps in the Road

It has now been one year, five months, and one week since my first back surgery. Two days later was the second one. In my last post, I discussed the surgery itself and the few months afterwards. My recovery continues well. For many months, I felt changes and shifts in my lower back as the bone grew and the fusion took. I went to see my surgeon every few months. Usually, he took X-Rays to check the status. That ends up being a lot of X-Rays. With my family history, extra radiation is not a good thing. So, once it was clear the repair was going well, he stopped the X-Rays and went by how I felt, which was somewhere between very good and mind-blowingly excellent. I had suffered with severe pain for so long, that the total lack of it seemed to give a sensation of just the opposite – a good feeling, kind of like a nice morning stretch. I had a hard time believing the surgery was that successful. My surgeon seemed a bit surprised, too, but in a way that showed it was the result he intended, and therefore he was not too very surprised. At least that is what he wanted me to believe. Before the surgery, I would not have expected this, and he prepared me for a different result. I can perfectly understand that. In any case, I remain pain free to this day. I had a bout of moderate pain, brought on by not paying attention getting in and out of small cars. I bent where I do not bend anymore. A course of steroids ended that. I just have to remember I am not exactly the person I was before.

At surgery plus 13 months, I visited my surgeon for the last time. He told me the fusion took and he was done with everything he could do. He sent me off to what would be for most people a “normal” life. I knew I would test his work beyond what would be considered “normal,” especially for someone my age. He knew that, too. I was so ready to get into shape and get back to my ultrarunning adventures. Of course, I had not waited until that point to start. But, I had to be careful and not push too hard, for fear of ruining all that good work. Now would be the time I could commit and go for it. I was registered for the Napa Valley Marathon and the Nanny Goat 24 hour Run. I was excited.

I do not know what really happened. I did not make it to Napa, and then I had to defer my entry to the Nanny Goat. I had not yet reached even 30 miles per week, and my long run had been 6 miles. I am still struggling and not finding my way back.

Well, actually I do know that a lot of things happened. But, I am not clear on why I am not getting going. I was lethargic on my runs. I did not feel the happiness of being on the road as I had. I don’t like cold weather, and it was plenty cold. I felt weak. Hills were real trouble. My neighborhood is full of hills, steep hills. None of this would have slowed me before. I would have taken it as more of a challenge to get myself in order and get with the program. I felt lazy. I napped a lot.

Then came the gut punch at work. The project I am working on is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It is a NASA program that is a Boeing 747SP jetliner with a 2.5 meter telescope fitted into the fuselage. It flies at altitudes above most commercial aircraft (up to 45,000 feet), which carries the telescope and science instrument above 99% of the atmospheric water vapor. At infrared wavelengths, this is required to be able to see celestial regions whose light would otherwise be blocked by the water vapor. This is a unique observatory. Nothing else like it exists. The lifetime of the program was to be 20 years from the time we reached full operational capability.

SOFIA in New Zealand July 2013

Full operational capability (FOC) is the rough equivalent of a spacecraft launch followed by an in orbit checkout phase – a major milestone for any project. Ours was a long time coming. We hit that milestone in March 2014. Two weeks later, the President’s 2015 budget was released. SOFIA was to be effectively canceled.

It was like getting sucker punched and then kicked in the stomach. We had given a huge amount to make FOC happen, and we did it in style – ahead of schedule and under budget. Now we were told it did not matter. We would be shut down before we could even prove what we could do. It made no sense. This was a political move to show spending would be reduced, basically without regard to what or why the cuts would be made.

It made me sick.

I had planned for twenty more years. Now it looked like my team and myself would be on the street in a few months. Our German partners in the program were pissed off, to say the least. NASA, it appeared, was pulling out of a long-term agreement with no warning and after considerable investment by the German taxpayer.

Observing aboard SOFIA. The science instrument and cabin side of the telescope visible full aft. Left side are the telescope operators, right are the instrument operators, mission director, and science flight planner.

There was some hope. It became clear to us in the management team that NASA was not responsible for this cut. It seemed they were as surprised as we were. At least that is what our Headquarters insiders seemed to indicate. But, they work for the President, so they had to treat this budget as an action to them. To save the program, it would require both the Senate and the House of Representatives to agree that SOFIA should not be canceled, and to make their own budgets with it restored. Our government currently is not the model of compromise, action, and agreement that we would like it to be, so this seemed like a long shot. The company I work for is contracted to NASA for science operations of SOFIA. They put on a full frontal lobbying effort. I traveled to Washington D.C. as did others in my management team, to make sure certain NASA advisory committees and others were able and willing to support us. With a huge amount of uncertainty for everyone involved, this would take several long months to know anything.

A problem for me is I have been through events like this before. Four times prior, I had been working on NASA projects that were canceled. Twice this came just as I had started with the new job. As I was depositing my boxes in my new office, I was told to not bother unpacking. This was after a long and difficult relocation. Amazingly, and with a lot of effort, each time we were reinstated after months of stress and uncertainty.

But, this time was different. This cancelation simply made no sense. It is hard to argue against something that is not logical or reasonable to start with. There had been no peer reviews, not hint of a problem. It just happened. I was not sure how to feel. Should I start looking for another job just 1.5 years after starting this one, or should I hang in and join the fight? I decided to join the fight.

No matter what, I have a skilled and dedicated team to worry about. I care about them. We had a new staff member start the day we got the news. I think I felt worse than he did. At least he did not have to relocate himself and a family across the country like many of the team had. My job now was to be the optimist, to give the team hope, to keep us going through a difficult spring of observing flights. There was every good reason for everyone to just give up and bail out. Not only did the project need to do the best we could, we needed that team to stay with us. But, it was not all about the project. I really did feel like we could make it through this, somehow. I wanted the team to feel some hope, and certainly, as little stress as possible. I kept a hopeful face on, and took the team’s stress onto myself.

It was a difficult time - A really very difficult time.

My fitness suffered. I was even more tired all of the time. The weight I had lost went back on. I found it impossible to get a regular running program going. This was compounded with the difficulties I had found just getting going otherwise. I ran when I could and when I felt well enough to do so. I felt like I was going backwards. I was. I started power walking – the way I got across Death Valley with my bad back. It was something. It was not what I wanted.

I was miserable. I felt emotionally and physically shot. I napped excessively. I ate too much and not well. I was off track in so many ways. I was stuck. I wondered if I wanted to be a runner at all, much less an ultra runner. My very identity was in crisis.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that no matter what side of this issue you might fall politically, it still involves people, many very dedicated people, some of whom have given their career to see SOFIA fly and make astronomical history. There are engineers, designers, telescope operators, flight planners, pilots, safety techs, instrument operators, managers, mission directors, ground support, and many more. Getting any highly advanced NASA project like this into operation takes years of hard, dedicated effort. As the project goes from development to operational phase, the intensity of work is at its highest. Nothing seems to work right, systems fail, routine seems like a pipe dream, and management insists all is well and we keep pushing. That is where we were, and there was light at the end of the tunnel when we got word of the President’s budget. What! Why?

What has been happening on Capital Hill has been nothing short of remarkable. There was complete bipartisan agreement that SOFIA should continue. The House of Representatives voted to restore SOFIA, at a reduced amount, but it was a strong statement. The Senate has been proceeding with a budget that would fully restore SOFIA and provide NASA astrophysics with an enhancement over that of the President’s budget. So, things are looking good, though Congress and the President must finish the budget process before it is a done deal. My team and the rest of the staff are settling into a less excited and uncertain state. But, what of next year, or the next? Because of the way our country does budgeting, we cannot know for certain. Every year we will wait with pained anticipation of what the President’s and Congress’ proposed budgets will bring.

Dawn breaking as seen from the stratosphere.

What all of this meant for my running was nothing but bad. I was having a hard enough time. This just seemed to be a nail in the coffin. Walking into work was like stepping into a blast furnace of stress. I could not show that it was getting to me. I had to do everything I could to look relaxed and confident. I had to set the tone. That was the most important thing I could do. I have to believe it paid off.

Everything came together in a way I could not have expected, or planned. When we needed it the most, SOFIA came together. Flights went off as planned, systems operated properly, the science instruments gave few problems, and the team – many of whom work for me – preformed flawlessly. We flew many VIPs during this time, including congressional staffers and others. We flew our Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, high school teachers from all around the country in a special program, who saw a great preforming observatory and team. It was exciting to be a part of it, and to see it happening.

Where I am now is hopeful for my running. The weather has warmed. SOFIA will be leaving for Germany for maintenance throughout the summer. I will have time and most of my work stress will have passed. I just need to do it, right?

What could go wrong? Frankly, I am still worried that there are issues beyond my control that might get in the way. Have I suffered some nerve damage that is impacting my running? It is possible, maybe even likely. I can’t tell for sure. I am overweight. I must take care of that. I must eat better, and less. I cannot stress eat anymore. It has to stop. Although an imaging test about ten years ago showed I had no arterial build-up, zero, zip, nada, my life has been one challenge after another for much of the time since. Could I have some new heart disease developing? I doubt it, but it would explain why I might not have the energy I think I should have, and the ability to get back to running like I think I should. I will consult my doctor on that one. I think I might be looking for excuses, because that just seems so unlikely.

I can accept nerve damage. I can even accept heart disease, though I would be pissed off about it. I cannot accept that I am too old, too lazy, too out of sorts to run.

I am a runner. I have been for 40 years. Running has taken me places I would otherwise never have gone. It is who I am and how I define myself. Oh, I am an astrophysicist and that took some doing, too. Maybe I will write some other time about how that happened to a near high school drop out and motor head. But, it is being a runner that makes me a better person, a more interesting person, a far happier and contented person. Running is my safe place, my motivational place, my church, my home. I cannot see a future life without running.

Yet, as noted earlier, I have asked myself if I still want to do it. To get back to where I want to be, it will be hard – harder than ever before. I am out of shape, overweight by not a little bit, and I am older. I am at an age where it does matter. Many people stop running long before they get to my age. Most think starting at this point is too hard, too much effort, maybe not even possible. I am sure that is true for many, perhaps most. Yet, there are plenty who continue into their senior years just fine. There are also many who only find running in their senior years. Age is not an excuse. It is another challenge to master, for sure, but not a full stop barrier. Not if I do not let it be.

So, here I am – old, fat, and maybe a little bit broken. Cool. What more motivation to get out on the road do I need? I have things to fix, physically and emotionally. I have a life to live, adventures to have, and miles to go before I lay down for that long sleep. I will get back out there. I will run if I can, walk if I must. It is just that simple.

Damn. It is so cool to be a runner!


"Badwater" Bill
Acton, CA

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


My plan of posting updates immediately following my surgery did not happen very well. Before the surgery, I got wrapped up in helping Deborah through her recovery, then there was work, and my new life. But, I want to let you know what has been happening and how things are going.

First, I want to say that Deborah’s recovery from her traumatic encounter with a car has been good. She had to be non-weight bearing on her left knee for three months. That is thankfully past, and she is in physical therapy to regain lost strength and get full use of the knee again. That is also going well and Deborah is nearly back to full health. That is a real relief.

As for my surgery, there were some last minute issues that caused the date to be changed one last time. Again, the insurance balked at authorizing the full double fusion surgery. The MRI was not conclusive that I needed the L5-S1 work, in addition to the full front and back approaches. My surgeon, knowing better, made the agreement that he would do the front approach and assess the situation. This meant that I would have to endure two three hour procedures on different days, instead of one six hour version. At this point, I was so tired of the struggle, so unable to do anything about it, and so in pain that all I could say was, “Whatever.”

So, now February 9th would be the day for the first surgery. Deborah drove me to the hospital for a 5:30 am check in and a 7:30 am start time. I was more than ready. After getting checked in and prepped, the nurse attempted to start my IV. I said attempted. She went for the vein in my left wrist just below my thumb. She stuck the needle in and taped it up, after which she went about other business. I started to feel rather poorly, and Deborah asked if I was OK. I said, “That hurts. In fact, please get her over here and get this thing out of me!” I have never done well with IVs in my hand. I thought I would bite the bullet because I would have lots of needles in me before this was over. But, this just was not right. The nurse ran back after Deborah called her. Indeed, she found that the needle had completely missed the vein. Unfortunately, my blood pressure dropped and I went into a form of shock. This is one of those weird mentally triggered physical responses that is very real. I sure got their attention. What I really wanted was a drink of water, but of course, I could not have that. They wrapped me in cool towels and lowered my head. In about 15 minutes, I was back to normal. The nurse was mortified. A different nurse started a new IV, and all was well.

I met the surgeon who would deal with my abdomen and would move things to expose my spine to my primary surgeon. I met the doctor who would make sure I was properly asleep. I also met a medical technician who would monitor my nerve function during the procedure, making sure whatever the surgeon did, they would know in real time if any nerves might be impacted. She put electrodes all over me. This was something that helped make Deborah more comfortable.

Finally, I said good-bye to Deborah, and I was wheeled into the operating room. I waved to the medical tech at her station in the corner, met the rest of the nurses and other support. Laid out on a table was an extraordinary selection of bright and shiny hardware. In addition to the usual surgical tools, I identified what were clearly some power tools. I like power tools. The table they would move me onto was a rather complex contraption. I asked how they were going to get me on that. It looked difficult. They said, “Don’t worry – you will be asleep.” Ah, OK then. We will come back to this later.

The anesthesiologist put the gas hose on my nose. “Just oxygen,” he said. A second later, I said, “That is definitely not just oxygen.” He smiled down at me, and said, “You’re right.”

Three and a half hours later I woke in the recovery room feeling very uncomfortable, but not in pain. Deborah tells me that she was not there. I am certain she was. Soon after they rolled me into my room and showed me the button for extra morphine. Morphine – now, in case there is any doubt – works brilliantly. My stomach had an eight inch incision. My guts had been moved around like so much baggage, I had six screws and two plates installed on the front of my spine, and two new artificial disks placed where my old ones used to be years ago. I was catheterized, groggy, uncomfortable – but I was not feeling any pain. I was OK with that.

“Have any numbness?” Yes, my thumb is numb. It was, in fact, very numb. To me, even in my reduced mental state, it was because the poorly installed IV needle had hit a nerve. But, this caused no end of concern for the nurses. They called my surgeon. My internist was informed, and I received a call from him. Geez, it is my thumb. My surgery was in my lower back. The two are not connected. I just laughed and laughed when my MD called. He told me I was clearly doing fine. The thumb did bother me, though, and I talked about it.

I turned the TV on and watched the interesting colors flash on and off. There might have been some images and sounds, but I could not tell for sure. I think Deborah was there. Nurses might have come in and checked things. I pushed the morphine button and watched day turn to night and back to day again. I think my brother and his wife came to visit. I tried to eat a little of the full liquid diet food. It did not like it in my stomach. The nurses helped to clean me up. They gave me pills, changed my urine bag, and I pushed the morphine button. The “question” started – “Have you had a bowel movement?” No. If I had, I would have told you because I ain’t moving from this spot.

It might have been the next day, or the same day, or the day after that, when my surgeon came to visit. He checked my bloated stomach and asked how I felt. I told him I did not feel much of anything. He told me that my L5 – S1 junction was much worse than he expected, and he repaired it as needed. He told me he would do the second surgery a day later. I cannot remember what I said, but whatever it was it caused him to say that we could wait, if that is what I wanted.

NO! I want it as soon as possible!!”

My outburst likely could have been heard well down the hall. My surgeon smiled and made the plans.

Day moved into night again. The TV stayed on, for whatever reason. I tried to read. Nope. The page just made no sense. “Have you had a bowel movement?” No. OK. Just no.

It must have been the morning of the second surgery, Sunday February 11th, because Deborah was in my room at dawn. I guessed it was dawn, because it had been dark for a long while.

The preparation went smoothly this time. I would have a different medical technician monitoring my nerve response, and I would not have a second surgeon this time, Going into my back would be generally simpler. The hardware would be heavier, however. This time, because they would have to put all my weight on my stomach, I wanted to be asleep when they rolled me over and put me on the operating table. Yeek.

This time I do not remember waking in the recovery room. I just remember being back in my room, and being very uncomfortable. I was laying on the work my surgeon just did – another eight inch incision, with a drain coming out of it, six big screws, and two more plates. I was really liking the morphine.

Day turned into night. I could hear Deborah coming down the hall on her crutches. I liked that sound, because it would mean she would be there for a while. I heard that sound all night long, and thought I was dreaming. It turned out to be a printer mimicking the sound of crutches.

“Have you had a bowel movement?” No. Believe me, I will let you know.

My surgeon came by and checked his work. He removed the drain. At some point someone removed the catheter as well. Out came the urinal, because I was not moving from that spot. I used the morphine button.

I was started on oral narcotic painkillers in addition to the morphine. The first one, I think it was Percocet, resulted in really intense hallucinations. I did not care much, but Deborah was worried.  So, I was switched to Norco. That worked fine.

I think my internist sent a friend from the ER to check on me. He might have been a nice guy, though I cannot be sure if he was even a guy. For all I could tell, he was a large rabbit. A friend came to visit. Similar deal. Hey, Dave! You sure do have big ears.

At some point a physical therapist came by and showed me how to get out of bed. I did it, but I did not want to do it. I used a walker and moved around the room a bit.

“Have you had a bowel movement?” No. “Well, you cannot leave until you have had a bowel movement.” Oh, good. Threatening me will surely scare the crap out of me, right? Not.

Another day passed and another visit from the physical therapist came. This time I got myself upright and walked down the hall with the aide of a walker. My surgeon came by again. He asked if I wanted to go home tomorrow. “Yes, please!” He said he wanted me to walk a lap of the floor, and then he would release me. Ah, a challenge. Good. He never said anything about my bowel movements. Unfortunately, that was, in fact, an issue. I had not had any solid food since the day before the surgery. I had no ability to make it happen. The nurses called my internist. We tried Milk of Magnesia – nothing. Late in the night, I was given something stronger, a lot stronger.

“Have you had a bowel movement?” Yes, right now! Help me get to the bathroom, or we are in for a fun clean up.

OK. That was messy, but it was out of the way – Now on to walking the floor. Being an ultrarunner has advantages in cases like this. The therapist came by and I told him what I needed to do. He was definitely skeptical. With my walker, I showed him how walking two days after major back surgery was done. He was not skeptical any longer when I raced a man with a new knee, and dusted a woman with a new hip.

I was going home! Less than six days total in the hospital, and that counts the day between surgeries.

It has to be said – I was sad when the morphine drip was removed. The pain started soon after. The ride home was intense. At least I had the Norco, and I downed several during the hour long ride.

The next two weeks are basically missing from my memory. Deborah was trying to get me food and help me in other ways, but she was still on crutches. She had a real challenge on her hands. A home nurse came by, measured my incisions, and took my temperature and blood pressure. She never came back. I did not need her. A home physical therapist came by twice. He showed me some exercises that were easy for me. I walked him to the door using my walker the first day. He was surprised I could do that. The second time was several days later. He brought some tennis balls for my walker. While I appreciated that, I had ditched the walker the first day I had seen him. He did not come back, either. The pain and discomfort were considerable, but bearable with the help of the painkillers.
Nice work! It does not even set of the metal
detectors at the airport. I checked.
My back incision. No stitches - medical "super glue."
The front was too ugly to show here.

I regained feeling in my thumb after about a week, maybe a little longer. When I was looking at my incisions in the mirror, I noticed I had significant bruises on my legs and back. I am not certain now if they gently placed me on the operating table, or threw me there. I was very asleep, so they could have done just about anything. I kind of like the idea that they played a game of throw the patient while they waited for the surgeon to get ready. I enjoy amusing people.

By the third week, I was walking a mile down the street. Slow, deliberate steps, but I was moving. My bowels where moving just fine too, thank you, though getting on the toilet was a new adventure in pain. I was able to start eating somewhere other than bed. I was starting to sleep through the night. I started to go to work, which surprised everyone. This required dropping the narcotics, because I need to think clearly and make quick decisions.

Every day I felt the changes. Some numbness in my left leg decreased and is now gone. Years ago, I lost feeling in the front of my thighs. You could have put a cigar out on them, and I would not have known. I fully expected that those guys were gone forever, and my surgeon expected so as well. But, right away I found that sensation had fully returned.

I was up to about 3 miles of fairly hard walking, but still careful, by about 2 months post surgery. I have to admit to getting a little frustrated at that time, because I could not run. I had to let the bone set to ensure a proper fusion. Even a little pounding or a too aggressive twist could ruin that. Running at that point just was not safe. So, to ensure I did not attempt it, I stopped the long walks. Not the best thing, but the safer thing. I know myself. It was the best thing at the time.

It has now been four months since the surgeries. My doctors promised me 80% pain relief, and that I likely would not regain the lost function in my legs. There might have even been other damage caused by the surgery itself. That is the way these things go. But, with big, giant smiles on their faces, my surgeon and my internist both have said that I have scored the rare 100% success. Not only has my surgeon taken my pain away, I have regained all lost function and sensation. All nerves have returned to normal. I am told that just does not happen. I knew I had a world class surgeon, but this is beyond dreams.

With the OK of my surgeon, I have started light running. At three and a half months post-surgery, I wrote this note –

“Three and a half months ago, my medical team performed two major surgeries on my back in an attempt to give me my life back. They said we are doing this so that you will not have pain anymore. We are doing this so that you can run again.

Today that promise was kept.

Today I ran.

It was a mile. I panted and coughed just like I am beginning again - I am. It was a long mile. I took it slow and savored it like a long ago forgotten favorite song. It was a short mile. I wanted more, but I have to learn to run again. It was the best mile. When it was done, I cried a little, for I had no pain.

Today I ran.

And even better, tomorrow I will run again.”
My first run of my new life.

Just this week, I wrote this –

“Tied my running shoes with my feet on the floor today. First time in years. Ah, the little things....”

I have a long way to go. My body will continue to heal and adjust to the new hardware for about 8 more months. I need to remain careful to not do anything that will damage my surgeon’s good work. Once healed, I will be able to return to a fully normal life, a life without pain. I am like a novice runner again. One mile, two miles, a little more are the goals now. Each time I go out, it gets better. Easy, though. I still must take it easy and not push too hard. But, I know I am going to get back where I want to be. I will get there through hard work and making sure I let my back finish healing. I owe this to my surgeon, who did what he needed to do to make me run again, at no small risk of not getting paid for one of the surgeries. I owe it to my internist, for helping me in the first place. He listened when so many doctors did not. I owe it to Deborah, for living with me through this, for fighting when the fight left me, and for supporting me through this and through the ordeal that can be my dreams. I owe it to me, for simply enduring and continuing to live my dreams. 

When my surgeon first saw me after the first surgery, he told me it is a wonder to him how I could have done the running and walking that I had been doing with what I had going on in there. I smiled and said it was just pain..... He looked a little stunned and said, "That could not have been just pain." I did not disagree.

To celebrate my return to running and my fantastic return to life without pain, I have registered for the 2014 Napa Valley Marathon, my favorite marathon. It is my deep hope that I can continue in this vein toward Death Valley in August 2014 for my long planned self supported solo crossing. Friends at my current job, and from my old one are clamoring to help out. It will hurt to say that my goal is to do it without help. But, they sure will be welcome to come out and urge me on. That would be more help than anything else could ever be.

I feel so good. It is really hard to believe. The expression of being reborn is overused, but, in fact, that is how I feel.


“Badwater” Bill
Acton, CA