Thursday, October 4, 2007

Going to NASA

Where have I gone? Where is my consumer analysis? I'm afraid that there hasn't been much time. As a reporter these days, I spend my time with sweaty armpits and a pencil behind my arm. I'm a newsman and the news doesn't wait. Sad to say it, but we're probably looking at 2-3 posts a week from here on out.

Specifically, I've been down at the NASA Ames Research Center, (un)covering a pretty big story. I can't say much about it now because it's not up yet at Wired, but it's big and it's new.

But NASA itself, or at least Ames itself, was amazing. I thought I'd become jaded about astronauts and space by diapers and cost overruns, but standing near the hangar in which a shuttle once sat, in which rockets were built, you can't help but go a little weak in the knees. The scale of the dreams that once lived in those buildings. The fading optimism written in the peeling paint at the base of the hangar. These dreams are not new, and they did not yield enough to continue having them.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t find the right building. I called out to an elderly woman. "Excuse me, ma'am, is that building three?" As she walked up to my car window, I could see she had hearing aids in.

"I have a hearing problem," she said. I repeated my question. "That," she said, pointing to the building, "That used to be the old officer's club. They've turned it into some conference center."

She swiveled around and pointed at a building that said commissary in all-caps. "They're closing the commissary down too. Which is sad. It's sad for the retirees from here and there are a lot of us!"

I was late and tried not to look impatient. I'm not sure that it worked.

"You know, I'm getting my hearing back soon." She pointed to her left ear. "Well, in the left ear. They are giving me a cochlear implant. I'll be hearing like new," she said.

"That's great," I said, and rolled up my window as she ambled back to her car.

NASA's changing. It's got adapt to its new position. But it must be sad to watch the buildings you thought would ease you into death were disappearing one-by-one, being replaced by venture capital backed companies and university professors younger than your grandchildren.

In any case, I got to spend time with Noble laureate Barry Blumberg and the most famous astronaut from Oregon, Don Pettit. These men have done incredible things, i.e., invented the hepatitis B vaccine and spent 6 months in space. What they've done is so far beyond what human beings accomplish in an ordinary life, that you feel honored to stand in their presence. It's not hard to see how reporters covering the White House or military leaders can give in to the glow that surrounds these powerful figures.

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