On the Death of Cassini

What follows are some thoughts I had in the wake of Cassini’s finale. It’s a shorter and rougher version of what I originally envisioned, but it’ll do for now. All errors of accuracy and grammar are my responsibility alone, though I would blame the fact it was written in the course of an hour-long airport layover.

As soon as I felt the airplane’s wheels scraping back against the Earth, I turned my phone on, but it was already gone. I scrolled through my feed, trying to find the moment I knew I had missed.

At 7:55 eastern daylight time, to the extent earthly concepts of time mean anything when discussing interplanetary travel, and while I sailed above cell towers without a signal for the first time in weeks, if not months, Cassini lost its tether to the Earth one final time. Spacetime is a funny, nearly incomprehensible thing for someone like me, so I don’t know at what point to mourn Cassini’s end: the exact moment we lost its signal, backdated to account for the hundreds of millions of miles it traveled? The moment we received its message? Some unknowable point after it stopped transmitting and Saturn’s atmosphere, an unfriendly mix of hydrogen and helium, began tugging at the vessel just a bit harder, its molecules resolutely standing in the way of Cassini while it flew at tens of thousands of miles per hour, battering it with an ever-growing heat that turned the gas into a sunset-colored plasma? And what, I wondered, will replace it should our earthly problems seep past the upper reaches of our planet?

After all, on the TV that hung above the boarding lanes of my gate, the talk was nuclear war. Shortly before, while I was still at my seat waiting to be called I refreshed my phone again. “Happening now: the spacecraft is reconfiguring to transmit its final observations to space in real time.” By that point it had already crossed the path of Enceladus and the outermost rings of the planet. Its moon, its rings. Without it, they were distant concepts: seeable to some but enigmatic to all. It was speeding along at a pace unimaginable to human vision or minds, save for its numerical measure (69,368 mph, to be exact). And all the while—its eyes and ears and mouth and nose, with names I can barely string together—were wringing that experience for all that it was worth: the composition of the planet it would soon become, its temperature, its magnetic field. It still took us over an hour to hear its observations of these moments, but when we did, it was in Cassini’s own words coming in directly as it witnessed them.

The Day the Earth Smiled

In 2013, those eyes looked back towards its first home, a place it only spent its first waking moments. We appeared as no more than a distant speck, to be sure, but if you looked up at that moment, your eyes would meet. The most that can be gleaned from the resulting photo is confirmation that we do, in fact, exist and that our world which feels so very large to us is unimaginably small even within the bounds of our own solar system. In the photo, the three agencies encompassing 24 countries all blurred into one. To its eyes, that’s what they always were.

This has always been an incredible fact about space, if not in actuality than at least in perception: that it is a last bastion for cooperation not in the name of profit, security, or technology, but for the most profound and most human quality: curiosity. I am, of course, glancing over the impetus that caused humans to quickly reach up towards the stars and some of the applications for which we use the room above us, but the mere fact these do not preclude this curiosity from driving ambitious ventures remains one of the more heartening qualities of life on Earth.

I can’t profess to know with any certainty how far we’re slipping from this ideal. Whether, in casting aside pure science in the name of placing humans farther outside Earth’s gravity will cause our multitude of problems to tag alongside them, or whether, through some unknown mechanism, we’ll rinse them from those pioneers. I can only hope.

Perhaps that’s why, despite its lack of a beating heart or a self-sufficient brain or eyes that can interpret what they’ve seen, Cassini still draws us like iron filings to a magnet or gravity’s force upon an object. Without these organic bits and pieces, none of humanity’s problems assert their will on it. There is only curiosity distilled to its purest form and with such a strength as to be capable of transmitting it across a vast distance I cannot hope to understand.

For that, Cassini, I miss you already.

Photos all courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

On the (mis)use of history – The Pen and the Sword

This weekend, I sat down to chat with Nate Finney and Angry Staff Officer about the use and misuse of history in the military and national security professions. There were some really great points, both practical and big-picture, brought up. I also particularly relished the discussion of the latest episode of Hardcore History – a section I knew I wanted to bring up as soon as I heard it on the metro.

The podcast series, in general, is also hitting a bit of a stride (if I may say so myself). Learning the mechanics behind both producing and hosting is not something I would’ve encountered otherwise. Some of the software has a steep learning curve, but I think we’re quickly coming up with a product that is well and above some of the competitors out there.

From here, I’m going to work on creating a more consistent schedule for episodes. It’s been a bit of a worry since the inception of the podcast that I would eventually run out of ideas, or at least have a barely filled hopper. That worry hasn’t exactly gone away, but I’ve become slightly more confident in my ability to get it done.

In any case, here’s the episode. Hope you enjoy!
 

A Belated Year in Review

There was much to be thankful for this past year. Perhaps that’s not a particularly insightful phrase. After all, if a year goes by without those moments of brightness, it’d be an awfully disappointing prospect. Nonetheless, it’s still worth mentioning – if not for the mere fact of its existence than for the diversity of opportunities afforded to me both personally and professionally.

I’ve grappled with how to best organize and prioritize this post. This rumination alone should signal to you the reader that I haven’t been entirely successful in that regard. For my policymaking friends with broad agendas and limited time, I apologize and I hope to continue improving upon it in this new year.

Much of what I did this past year either directly or indirectly involved writing. In addition to continuing my (semi-) regular posts on strategy, books, and technology, I was also given the opportunity to join the Military Writers Guild in the early months of its founding. Thanks to the efforts of individuals like Ty Mayfield and Nate Finney (the full list of people who I should thank will turn up on my #FollowFridays with regular frequency), our organization has grown to over 100 members in the past year. What’s more, we’ve become a diverse set of individuals with an equal appreciation for some of the more innovative and insightful schools of thought surrounding the military and national security around the globe. For someone who enjoys listening as much as talking, it’s a privilege to interact with them everyday. Going into 2016, I’m both confident and eager that whatever comes out of the Guild will continue to build upon those qualities that we’ve begun to ingrain.

Looking forward into this next year, I hope to better take advantage of my free time to continue writing. Too many incomplete drafts of works no longer relevant sit in my Google Drive. Even if they’re to remain unpublished, I hope to at least finish those drafts in an effort to better organize thoughts and work on the loquaciousness. I didn’t meet all of the goals I set forth with writing the past year, and for better or worse that only harms me. I also hope to continue giving back in the ways that I can to those who have gotten me to this point and to those around me at a similar point. It’s something I’m reminded of on a regular basis when working with people as great as those mentioned above.

My unabridged draft of this roundup included my more professional efforts and goals, but I’ve left them out for this version. Consider it my resolution to be a better DC resident and only bring up work within the first fifteen minutes of a conversation rather than within fifteen seconds.

The Podcast Quiver: August 2015

The podcast occupies an almost sacred place in my heart. They are the medium of choice on my walks to and from the gym, as well as during the vast majority of my commute.

Podcasts are a great way for individuals, particularly those with limited free time, to get in-depth information about relevant subjects. Additionally, their surge has paved the way for some brilliant production value.

However, most of the time the podcast series on my iPhone are fleeting. Sometimes, they die out naturally as the oftentimes overworked and underthanked hosts move on to other ventures, other times, the material on the shows becomes stale as the founding vision must either be reworked or suffer from repetitive topics. It’s an impressive venture to keep a great and fresh podcast going. For those of them that accomplish it, I salute them. Others not included in this list are Ask Me Another, Science Vs, Word for Word,  and BackStory

The Standbys

Slate Political Gabfest

Hardcore History

Radiolab

99% Invisible

Working

Up and Comers (at least in my app)

The Orbital Mechanics

Whistlestop

The Ethicists

The Freshmen

War College

Actuality

Here Be Monsters

Lore