Thanks, Discovery

I’ve gotten out of the habit of posting here about the beginnings or endings of freelance gigs–I didn’t mark the start of my writing for the Disruptive Competition Project a year ago (in part because I wasn’t sure that site’s funding would get renewed for 2013), and I barely mentioned the conclusion of my work at CEA.

Discovery STS-135 badge

But since my sole outlet for the first few post-Post months was Discovery News, it seems worth observing that yesterday’s post about Google+ image-recognition marked the end of my contract with D News.

I have no hard or even bruised feelings about that. Discovery tried branching into personal-tech coverage by bringing me onboard, but we never developed an audience to justify the generous rate Discovery had offered me. (It could not have helped that for a while, I kept trying to shoehorn in wonky policy stories.) Instead of asking me to linger on, still out of place, at a lower rate, management granted me my unconditional release.

Since my output at D News was cut back from five or six posts a month over 2012 to only two a month this year–while I’ve since added other clients–the financial hit is manageable.

Now I’m just appreciating my better moments there: for instance, playing with a goofy robotic ball, breaking news about car2go’s deal with D.C., legitimately using “free beer” in a headline, and being one of a minority of reviewers to call out the infuriating keyboard on Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

The roughly 500-word limit on Discovery’s posts helped me write more concisely after years of assuming I’d have 800 or more words to play with, while its practice of running large pictures atop each post pushed me to take better gadget photos.  And the site’s content-sharing deals led to my work being reproduced on Fox News and Mashable.

Finally, Discovery was a good name to throw in when requesting press passes–say, when I covered the Tweetup NASA organized for the last space-shuttle launch. My STS-135 media badge remains my favorite press credential ever.

T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

As a student of the English language, I appreciate the challenge of trying to describe something that readers haven’t experienced. It’s an honor to have your words serve as your audience’s senses, and you don’t want to let them down.

Over the last week, I’ve been observing many writers tackle a particularly difficult task of description: conveying what it’s like to hear the space shuttle lift off.

Having been privileged to witness that twice, I can assure you that no recording does it justice. (I saw Endeavour lift off in May as an attendee of the Tweetup NASA organized for that STS-134 mission, then returned this month with a press pass to write about the STS-135 Tweetup experience at Atlantis’s final launch for Discovery News and, in an article I need to finish writing, for ReadWriteWeb.)

The microphones on a lot of consumer-level gadgets are woefully inadequate to capture the finer points of nearly 7 million pounds of thrust erupting from only three miles away. But even the best audio gear available can’t recreate the feel of the shock waves blasted through the air by that energy, rushing up at spectators and thumping them in the chest. You’d have to set off explosives; pending the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater acquiring an ordnance budget and a long series of regulatory waivers, words will have to do.

Which words, though? Although the immediate reaction of many Tweetup attendees was that none would suffice, they found their own in the days after the launch.

Sarah Boots:

It feels like soundwaves hitting you, more than it feels like hearing something. It was completely mad.

Travis Senor:

THE SOUND! It came at us like a wave, which you could almost see coming, and hit with enough force to act on us as though we were trees bowing in the wind.

Jason Snell (you may also know him as Macworld’s editorial director):

a loud crackling sound as the air was shattered by the forces of the shuttle’s three main engines and its two solid rocket boosters.

A friend on Facebook tried this:

an intense crackling, like someone shaking a metal sheet.

Jason Major:

a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear.

Among the assembled press, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin may have had the most creative description:

The first analogy I could think of was a washing machine full of rocks mixed over the sound of tearing giant sheets of canvas.

And me? Here’s how I described it in May:

a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts

But when I wrote an e-mail to my wife the day after the liftoff of Atlantis, I reached for a metaphor:

like fireworks erupting closer and closer and faster and faster until they’re pounding you in the chest.

I’m sad that nobody else will be able to experience this. But how we reached that point is a subject for another post.

Until then: If you’ve had the tremendous fortune to witness a launch from up close, how would you describe that sound?

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NASA Tweetup holdup

CAPE CANAVERAL–I’m back to where I was a month or so ago: I have an invitation to see a space shuttle launch but don’t know when that will happen and, therefore, if it won’t intersect in some infuriating manner with anything else on my calendar.

As you may have read by now, Endeavour will not launch on Monday after all. The Auxiliary Power Unit heater issue that forced a scrub of Friday’s launch less than four hours before liftoff was not the fault of a single malfunctioning thermostat, as we’d all hoped, but lies somewhere in a complicated junction box that has to be removed and replaced.

(It’s remarkable how Endeavour is starting to resemble our 90-year-old house in its maintenance issues. I can only hope the shuttle’s gutters don’t need to be cleaned as often as ours.)

That work, plus a wait to allow the Air Force to launch a satellite next weekend, would push the next launch date to no earlier than May 8. But NASA isn’t ready to project a new date until a meeting set for Monday. You can find more specific reports, in some cases from NASA employees, on Twitter and on various discussion sites (in this sort of obsessive readership, space enthusiasts act very much like tech enthusiasts), but ultimately I can only wait for the official word.

And I can only hope the new timing works out. Unfortunately, my schedule isn’t infinitely flexible; I’ve got a separate trip upcoming at the end of next week.

Best-case scenario, I get even more acquainted with National Airport as I fly in and out of it multiple times in the week (or the launch gets delayed until after my own travel). Worst-case scenario, I will be as mad as I was when a vicious case of the flu kept me sick at home on the day then-President-elect Obama toured the Post newsroom. (I would have told him something like, “The next time your daughters are asking for a new iPod, please check out my column, sir,” but that might have come out closer to “Hi, I’m an iPod, please ask your daughters for my column.”)

I’m not going to lie to you; this delay is upsetting and disappointing. But I’m not out of this thing yet. Please, wish me a little more luck.

In the meantime, I’ve got a day and a half to be a regular tourist at KSC and maybe check out some of the no-tech sights here. And then it’s back to D.C., back to my occupational networking, back to my kitchen and garden and–most important–back to my family.