OUTSIDE, INSIDE -- A Report from Japan

The rugged landscape all over Tanegashima Island in Japan camouflages the vigorous, motivated culture all around. 

The rugged landscape all over Tanegashima Island in Japan camouflages the vigorous, motivated culture all around. 

Steering wheel on the right side of the car, my windshield wiper slaps back and forth every time I try to signal a turn at an intersection. The controls are opposite their placement in The States, and deeply wired muscle memory is a tough thing to reprogram. I regard each and every moment at an intersection like brain surgery, with one false move potentially causing irreparable damage.

Driving on Tanegashima Island to the eponymously named Space Center presents a visitor with powerful reminders that Japan is an intentional, motivated nation. With a land area smaller than California, the country boasts a world-class space center, carved into a rugged stretch of Pacific beach. Tectonic activity through the ages aggressively defined the formation of the terrain, with huge cliffs towering over deeply folded valleys. Ancient upheavals of Earth's suboceanic crust sent sandstone spires rising, the sedimentary stone establishing rugged rules for hearty inhabitants while occasional outcroppings of harder, volcanic matter remind visitors that they're squarely in the Ring of Fire. The intensely sculpted geography forced road builders to draw inspiration from bowls of udon noodles; wild twists and turns test drivers concentration every single kilometer. It's over these roads that NASA must gingerly truck the GPM satellite from the Shimama Port, a few kilometers distant as the crow flies, but a substantially longer drive across tangled, winding roads.

Tanegashima Island is broken into three sections. Most of the NASA crowd lives in a warren of small hotels in the southern section called Minamitane. It's an unassuming town, clearly a bedroom community for the nearby space center and its support services. School kids in brown uniforms and smart black backpacks scamper on the narrow sidewalks each morning, running to school. Far from the blazing neon and sodium glare of downtown Tokyo, Minamitane flickers while the great capitol city to the north blazes. But like small towns everywhere around the world, the affairs of distant places matters little compared to day-to-day realities of making a living. Hotel and restaurant workers realize an unusually large crowd of jet-lagged and hungry Americans are in town, and it's clear that beyond a short term business opportunity, there's a genuine local enthusiasm to be part of this extraordinary multinational effort.

Minamitane shows signs of the hardscrabble existence that must attend its remote location. Few lights glow after the sun goes down and restaurants are best found with a good plan before setting out and a map in hand. Many buildings need paint. Outdoor commercial signs--fewer than a visitor might initially expect to see--have clearly weathered many seasons. But despite its apparently weary presentation, Minamitane has clearly tried to show it's best face. Yellow banners welcoming NASA flutter along streets and not a scrap of trash appears anywhere.

It cannot be overstated: this is a profoundly intentional nation. To support the army of American staff who have descended like starlings, a flock of matching silver Toyotas have been shipped from the larger island Kyushu. Each morning that flock flits at forty KPH across circuitous roads until it punctures the Space Center's security perimeter, alighting outside a building humbly called STA-2.

If the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is the soul of Tanegashima Space Center, it's clear that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the brains. Mitsubishi manufacturers the HII-A rocket on which the satellite will fly to space, and Mitsubishi runs the operations on site. But the cosmetic polish of the austere, white building where we work has long since faded. There are no markings, insignia, logos, or even lights on its outside, and signs of long use without any frills suggest the decades of Japan's storied economic power continue to recede into the past. Rust mottles the metal front door, while discolored institutional tiles line the dreary, featureless hallways.

NASA staff occupies emotionally vacant third floor offices, with metal desks of 20th century vintage pushed together to make rows of work tables. On the first floor, teams of engineers have comandeered air conditioned rooms and installed racks of computers and electronics and other vital equipment. A small room for donning "bunny" suits leads through an airlock into the cavernous brightly lit clean room. Through this portal visitors who make the transition realize in a heartbeat that the tumbledown trappings outside have nothing to do with the most fundamental characteristic of the place and the culture. Like the town's support that makes this possible, like the exceedingly polite nation that graciously hosts a horde of loud, blue shirted foreigners, this is a profoundly intentional room, maintained by a focused, intentional company, working for a deeply focused agency. Inside the cleanroom a twenty-first century space program hums vigorously. The gleaming GPM satellite reflects lights from around the room like a great jewel hewn from the surrounding mountains. Inside this aging relic of an industrial giant, there is still majesty and promise of great things to come.






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MECHANICS -- A Report from Japan

Heavy metal. 

Heavy metal. 

The choreography rivals precision aerial acrobats. The teamwork reflects the forward line of a pro football team. This is the vanguard of NASA's mechanical engineering corps, and to experience them at their full operational power is to gain a profound appreciation for how much more goes into spaceflight than big, booming rockets.

Ages range from mid-twenties well into mid-sixties. A handful of women in the ranks reflects a slowly changing demographic, but it's still mostly a male crew. A visitor may have to look carefully, however. The clean room "bunny" suits everyone must wear has a way of turning human morphology into ambulatory, genderless marshmallows. They're always funny the first time someone suits up. Then they're not. Proper clean room garb includes non-static jumpsuits embedded with micro-mesh electro-diffusion wires, designed to insure that even the smallest discharge of static electricity has no chance of damaging delicate circuit boards. Face masks, hair bonnets, rubber gloves, and electrostatically inert booties complete the ensemble. Different missions have levels of "clean", necessitating nuanced differences in clean room attire, but generally speaking, wearers get used to the extra layers in no time.

The mechanical team handles physical aspects of satellite readiness. How do you move a delicate, billion dollar bird around the globe? That's mechanical's job.

Wrenches and muscle power come into play, of course, but the mechanical team needs to be knowledgable about a range of disciplines. Working closely with electrical engineers, environmental specialists, satellite designers and more, seemingly simple decisions go through rigorous analysis and consideration before they're implemented lest unintended down-stream consequences accrue.

That is, of course, the plan. When things come down to old fashioned common sense, this is the team you want to have.

Standing next to Mechanical Team Lead Jay Parker, I watch as the crew prepares to extract the satellite from it's L-frame, the mounting skeleton in which it travelled around the world in its shipping box. "See this?" he says. "There's only three inches of clearance between the satellite and the frame. We can't just lift it up and out. Too tight." The massive overhead crane can handle the weight, but the problem is a risk that part of the fragile solar array scrapes the structural girders of the frame. He tells me the plan is to simply release the satellite from it's mounting base, and slide it out of the frame horizontally. To the question about how his guys plan to keep the satellite inside it's narrow safety envelope, he deadpans, "Very carefully." The technique involves little more than horse sense, patience, superb teamwork, and a sculptor's gaze before striking chisel to stone: they're going to eyeball the situation and simply make sure the satellite doesn't swing where it shouldn't.

Twenty-minutes later the satellite hangs in space, suspended from high-tension cables. Free of its shipping skeleton, the team begins moving it slowly across the vast integration facility where it will be attached to a special articulating table. Centimeter by centimeter, the bunny suited experts make these moves look easy. On the way to space, these stately, precision maneuvers on the ground matter just as much as lighting the main engines.

GETTING THERE -- En Route to Japan

Having travelled halfway around the globe, an advanced satellite makes it's way to a special port, ready for shipment to the Japanese launch facility at Tanegashima.

Having travelled halfway around the globe, an advanced satellite makes it's way to a special port, ready for shipment to the Japanese launch facility at Tanegashima.

Getting up before the sun on a November morning in Alaska may not be an honest way to represent a person's effort. The sun doesn't make much of an appearance at this latitude. The GPM team traveling to Japan takes that as a charge: we're not planning to hang around too long, either. 

Back on the icy tarmac, we leave our steamy bus for the gelid confines of our twilight passenger cabin, up, up, up the precarious metal ladder to the top of the C5. Then we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Turns out that the plane is fine. It's the runway that's too slick with ice.

Engines idling, bellies rumble. Breakfast never happens. The catering we'd expected in the second half of the trip didn't survive the days of our unexpected Alaskan idyll. People crack a few jokes--how could the overnight quartet of engineers assigned to babysit the satellite have eaten everyone's pancakes!-- but nobody complains. As soon as the Air Force clears us for take off, we're heading west at full throttle.

Nine hours above the Pacific, the team settles into zenlike repose. Conversations are minimal due to the ferocious airplane noise and requisite earplugs. Movement slows. Time expands.

Then, after an eternity, we're on approach. Human dynamos spin up. People run through mental checklists and stretch for action.

Minutes after the wheels stop beneath the gray airplane, people move like springs released. The advance team meets us on the ground with no greater ceremony than high fives and back slaps. In minutes the Japanese and NASA ground teams are rolling at full speed. The C5 nose and tail pops open, and it isn't long before our truck trailer gets pulled out the plane. Not far behind, the great white box holding the satellite rolls out smoothly, only to be bolted down to the waiting truck bed.

From a distance the scene looks like the epitome of an ant colony. Dozens of people with well- coordinated roles clamber and labor over objects many times their individual size, yet collectively manage to make short work of huge jobs. The American team coordinates care and feeding of their spacecraft; the Japanese ground team coordinates movement of heavy objects and extensive runway logistics. A handful of US Air Force crew provide essential assistance working in and around the airplane.

In a little less than three hours, the plane is unloaded, sealed up, and gone. With the satellite now loaded onto the truck, a motley foot parade walks alongside, heading a mile distant for a freshly paved section of sea port, retrofitted specially for this enterprise.

The Japanese ground crew performs like Cirque du Soleil; onlookers can only marvel at the display of technical acumen. They make it look easy. The truck pulls up like a demonstration of precision driving. A massive crane, already waiting, hoists a special I-beam into place. Working side by side, NASA mechanics and Japanese ground teams unbolt the satellite, hook lifting chains to the sides, and prepare. As the shades of night stretch shadows long, crews wheel in small, powerful outdoor lamps, turning the scene into an outtake from Close Encounters.

Then: it rises. The great white box containing the largest Earth science research satellite ever floats above the scene. Gracefully it swings over the edge of a great cargo ship, waiting at port. Then slowly it descends into the hold, disappearing beneath the railing. Another quartet of NASA engineers boards the ship, where together with a Japanese crew they'll sail for Tanegashima Island. First by air, now by sea, the satellite inches it's way to space.

ALASKAN LAYOVER -- En Route to Japan

An overheated bus on a frigid Alaskan runway isn't usually regarded as a great way to spend the morning, but adventures have their own logic.

An overheated bus on a frigid Alaskan runway isn't usually regarded as a great way to spend the morning, but adventures have their own logic.

As we descended into Alaskan airspace, we learned we were going to refuel on the tarmac at Elmendorf AFB. We were going to push hard to get back in the air, maybe two hours, maybe three. We touched down, rolled up, shut down, sat up. Then we got instructions: no walking around in the cabin. Why? Static electricity could build up, ignite the fuel. They weren't joking. But that's so yesterday. This morning we awoke when our body clocks kicked us out of bed, no alarm clock necessary. A snow-dusted muster in the Air Force's North Star Inn lobby soon became a bus ride back to the runway. With an ice storm pressing in with several inches of snow forecast to follow, the Air Force determined that we either had to get gone or stay another day in Alaska. Ah, the best laid plans... We stayed. Ice covered wings on a C5 doesn't augur well, and the de-icing plan simply couldn't counteract meteorology. It was a good try, but soon our overheated bus has us heading back to billeting. They say armies travel on their stomachs. Add teams of NASA engineers to the list. With nothing but time on our hands (save for our exasperated logistics experts) thoughts turned to the singular subject of food. Unloading the precious satellite? Transporting it across Japan? International permits, weather issues, electronic safety tolerances, humidity inside the shipping container, landing permits outside of our originally scheduled plans? Nope. Breakfast, please. Someone figured out where to find the base cafeteria, and a droopy trail of cheechako--that is, folks from the lower 48 states--gingerly made their way across the icy sidewalks to find grub. But not everyone. Back at the airplane, the GPM satellite sat like a spoiled pasha in a temperature and humidity controlled box. That meant rotating shifts of our engineering wizards needed to stay at the plane, babysit, troubleshoot, monitor vital statistics. After all, the contents of that box is why we're all here. It's just that being here isn't helping us do anything useful with the contents of that box.


On a recent camera shoot, light and shadows played tricks on us all day. We were working with a terrific young actor, seated in a flower garden for a series of related shots. Tight spatial relationships among our set elements, and natural shadows cast by the sun's relentless glide past tricky, unreliable clouds tested our patience. The obvious question we started to ask ourselves was, Shouldn't we just MOVE?

That would have been easier, I suppose, but not better. Changing location would have wrecked the beautifully composed, rather precise look we wanted. In the finely tuned balance of sunlight and shadow, the actor's face popped off the screen. The saturated primrose blossoms at her folded knees burst like dreamy splashes of paint, and the rich soil underneath grounded the scene like a a stage. To move would make the location simpler to manage perhaps, but far, far less interesting.

Everything has a finite amount of time to take shape. Nothing has indefinite, endless amounts of time, at least nothing worth hanging around to see. There in the aging afternoon, we felt the pressure of an advancing clock like a nearby beast growling in the woods. But like hunters waiting until just the right moment, we held our ground, struggled to keep our breathing under control, and did the hard work of just staying put.

I recall something visceral, too, something I've felt many times before when I'm chasing a compelling goal. I felt hungry. I should be clear here: I do not mean "hungry" in a metaphoric sense. I mean, I felt hungry insofar as I wanted to eat something.

I've been thinking about this, and it occurs to me that the feeling did not come specifically because I was burning energy, although that's most certainly was a the case. Even a 15 pound tripod begins to feel heavy after it's been moved a billion times. Adjust it, test focus, reposition the dolly, refocus: work takes work. That hungry feeling was the direct result of suppressing ordinary comforts until such time as the goal gets done, and gets done properly. Hunger becomes a secondary concern, just like changing the radio station in a skidding car becomes a secondary concern until you manage to get the car slowed down and under control. The sun and clouds and shadows from the bare, early Spring trees were in conspiracy to drive us batty. What's more, the actor, though a great sport, was only 8 after all and we didn't want to drive her batty. The crew was tiny, the weather at risk of shifting, the shooting day unable to be rescheduled. Most of all, we didn't want to blow what was turning out to be a great shot.

Hunger is my trusted companion on a shoot. It's often the physical signal that tells me when I'm fully invested, if I've gotten deep enough into a moment to know that we're getting somewhere. When I'm NOT getting somewhere, it's easy to break for lunch, for some water, for "Ok, 10 minutes everyone!" Don't misunderstand: lunch is a good thing. We're not ascetic monks here, or crazed self-abusive task-masters. But hunger is the body pulling the mind back into balance. It's a physical way to let you know you're onto something, that you've been giving something your full attention. That doesn't mean feeling an uncomfortable emptiness will ever guarantee something good--if it were only that easy! The point I'm pushing is about something less literal.

Would I rather not be made uncomfortable? Would I rather not be tired out by schlepping gear, hungry from long hours, grimy from climbing on hands and knees to make sure the electricals are hidden from the lens? You bet. Like most people, I try my best to minimize discomfort; craft services are always in the budget!

But hunger and the related discomforts that routinely come about when you're focused and perseverant on completing a tough goal, offer end-game rewards for those who can see the process through. Discomfort makes completion relevant, makes victory sweeter, makes morning coffee taste good rather than simply like a caffeine delivery system. The potential trap for some is to court discomfort for its own sake, as if it were a penance, or an armor against facing the hard work of bringing something to life. Discomfort can be a person's excuse. "Do you know how much stuff we had to set up? Do you know how many hours we put in?" The secret is to realize that your own discomfort in the moment it's happening doesn't matter at all to the person next to you, no matter how close a relationship you may have or how long you may have worked together. He or she is feeling it too; they know already. You can share the feeing, but you can't seek sympathy. The secret is to turn those discomforting feelings that evolution has tried so hard to help you avoid into a buzz that keeps you engaged. You're not kidding around, what you're doing right now is more important than pangs of muscular fatigue or a rumbling belly, and you're not about to let it go just yet.

Even if you disagree with this premise--even if you think there are many other ways to be fully invested--it's certain you already agree about one thing: nothing of value ever comes without an application of intentional effort. Nothing at all. Therefore, I believe that fully embracing the discomforts that sometimes arise from intentional, focused effort--not courting hunger, or cold, or exhaustion, per se, but embracing them when they inevitably emerge--is a private tool for letting yourself know you're not wasting your time.

So….baby, it may be cold outside....but if you get that last shot of the snowflakes drifting past the street light, it's gonna feel terrific when you go inside to warm up.


Outside, outside

Birds hide above me somewhere. Their song fills the green spaces like batting, like goose down in a comforter. It's morning, and the sun breaks through tree limbs and leaves, cascading like smooth-edged glass polygons. The world does not really care if I'm here. Tripod leveled on uneven ground, I'm the one who'll have to adjust to fit in.

There are no pachyderms on the horizon. There are no Acacia trees casting patches of shade beneath an equatorial sun. I'm just down the road from my house, standing on the edge of a frontage zone where an uncountable row of steel towers suspends high tension electrical wires like tightropes in the sky. But I'm outside. There are no computer screens; there are clouds.

Does the furtive chipmunk I just saw dashing from one mound to another have any place in the creation of digital media? Not specifically perhaps. Not directly. But to spend a portion of your life outside is to remind yourself about a vital perspective when so many modern careers and school activities and urban obligations force us inside. Standing here surrounded by coarse, ankle high grasses, I find the natural world gently chiding me, reminding that it will simply continue into the future no matter what deadlines our company may be facing, nor what demands our clients, or families, or neighbors maybe asking. The forecast calls for rain tomorrow, but it will rain whether there is a forecast or not. If rain comes at noon or rain comes in the evening evening, it will just come. Or it won't. Things will change, and things will continue. Deadlines have no place here.

Most days, we at 1AU spend inventing the largely artificial world of modern media. The great irony is, I love that space, no matter how unnatural it may be. But the jangling din quiets when I feel a breeze on my face, propelled only by rising convection zones from the nearby hills. It's ironic, but out here everyone clambers for advantage just as aggressively as they do in the city. Out here, however, it's a bird looking for a grub, or that chipmunk, now hidden, grabbing a nut that might have gone to a slightly slower squirrel. Fast-growing vines compete for water sources that choke off slower growing blooming plants. Aged trees send roots deep into the earth, selecting slow, strong strategies to outlast competitors.

Here's the epiphany: it's a riot of creativity. Human perspective changes like a kaleidoscope outside. On a tough day, the natural world is a seething cauldron of violence, each life form angling for vicious advantage, each disinterested in the success of the other. On a good day, the outdoors is a teeming garden of life's great promise, of endless possibility and endless variations and romantic ideals literally taking wing.

I suppose I'm a part of all this. We all are. For many minutes, I forget my camera altogether. It's my camera perhaps and maybe these few words that allow me to bring a spark of the natural world into my more typical electronic, human created spaces. But life is short, and standing here I cannot help but notice that in its most ordinary expressions, life is everywhere. Speaking for myself, I find a utility and deep value in the abandonment of all human all tools for a few minutes at least. It's good to stand still and simply be a part of the natural world, even as those overhead electrical lines remind me how much humanity in general, and therefore myself as an individual, cannot separate human history from natural history.


City, Breathing


Foot on the brake two cars back from the red light, I catch a flash of motion over my left shoulder. A bicycle messenger glides past at high speed like a barracuda, snapping his head left and right to see if the coast is clear. He hardly slows down, dashing through the intersection. A woman in a sleek navy suit, waiting for the light at the crosswalk, checks her smart phone with one hand. It's 6:45 in the city and the morning sun angles orange between the gray cement edifices like the day's first jolt of caffeine.

The city is its own organism. It hums, it seethes, it moves on its own power. City councils and zoning boards, police and fire departments, laws and courts and the unspoken social order that keeps hotdog vendors on their own respective corners barely begin to describe the essential nature of the city. As the saying goes, the sum is greater than the parts. Those people ostensibly in charge can only influence the works when it comes right down to it. They do not decide; they cajole. The nudge. They try, try, try. Cities take lives and characters of their own depending on endless factors, just like the history of anyone you've ever met takes on his or her character from a lifetime of influences and experiences.

The ambient jangle of cities can lull the people inside them into a kind of hypnotic, buzzy trance. It's easy to see why. If a city visitor or resident didn't somehow compartmentalize the input of disparate signals, he or she wouldn't be able to function. There would be no music in the symphony; there would simply be a cacophony of sounds, unrelated.

But today I'm sitting in traffic, absorbing the buzz differently. The barracuda bicyclist has a beauty to him completely different from the Mondrian formality of cold architectural blocks. Each car at this busy intersection is a cell in the bloodstream, containing singular, discrete stories, all heading somewhere, somewhere, always somewhere. There's salsa music coming from the truck just in front of me, there's a police whistle a block or two away, there's the drum of my own heart beat, keeping an eye on the crowded intersection two cars up.

The light goes green, and my thrumming traffic lane slides into motion. Things are happening today. Aware that I've filled my car filled with thousands of dollars of camera gear and rigging, I smile at the duality represented by the simple action of easing my foot off the brake. Today I'm here to capture some essential aspect of the living, ungraspable life of the city, an observer recording what he sees. But I am also aware that in doing so, I am very much a part of the cellular corpus that makes the city breathe in the first place, and therefore one tiny, participant reason why it's the city holds mystery, edgy promise, and endless potential.


P.S. Next week's post: life outside the city.