Monday, July 03, 2006

Old Navy Helo Pilot Strikes Back

Kent Lidke used to fly helicopters for the Navy in Antarctica, and he writes about it very well. This is one of the best things I've ever read. Even though he's writing about something very different from what I do, it's still a dream job, and it reminds me of how lucky I am to get to be a paleontologist.

This was originally an e-mail post in an online discussion about the future of space exploration. The previous poster had written something about real space travel being much less exciting than Star Wars and Star Trek. This was Kent's reply. Many thanks to him for giving me permission to post it.

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In all seriousness, this is true. Because of the flight times involved, flying between planets is not going to be exciting in our lifetimes. However, once you get there, the stuff you do CAN be exciting.

Like J-Rod and no doubt a lot of others, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, fly around the moon and all that. Even in college, I was studying aeronautical engineering and propulsion systems, and checking out payload integration companies like Orbital Sciences. I graduated 5 months after the Challenger explosion and space was drying up, so I joined the Navy thinking I could go the test pilot route, and maybe things would be hot again by the time I got through that. Then I ended up in helicopters, which turned out to be a good thing, and then I got insanely lucky and got a slot with the Antarctic program.

I can tell you what it's going to be like 25 or 50 or a hundred years down the road when they're exploring the moon and Mars, because that's what Antarctica was like. It was exactly like what everyone wants space exploration to be like. No giant mission control room, no eight years of training and waiting for your ride. You go down to the hangar in the morning, get your list of science missions, preflight your ship, and off you go.

You spend the day landing your ship in places no human being has ever been, you see things too big to capture in a picture, you wear lots of cool gear and a helmet with a visor, you get to camp out on an alien surface every once in a while. The scientists tell you about what they're doing, and what it means, and why they love it. You visit other stations, trade patches, try their food, and drink their wine. You climb mountains in 80 knot winds and get so cold you can't talk so you have to use hand signals, you get scared shitless by warning lights, wind shears and low fuel warnings. You break down and have to lash your busted ship together with duct tape and bailing wire, and nurse it back to the base.

You don't get TV or phone calls, you make do with an occasional HF radio patch, if the solar activity isn't frying the ionosphere, and sometimes you can pick up a relay of the super bowl on the navigation radio. You wait for the next supply run from home with fresh vegetables and mail, and you have big parties for everyone at the station for Halloween, Christmas and New Years. Anyone who can play an instrument gets together for a concert and barbecue in the spring.

You work hard and you play hard, because every day really can be your last. Risk really is your business, and it's cool and exciting and scary and 100% totally kickass. You have never been so alive before and you never will be again, and you know it. When you leave for the last time, it breaks your heart, and you spend the next ten years wishing things could have stayed that way forever.

That's what it's supposed be like, and that's what it IS like, once you get there. It'll be that way on the moon, it'll be that way on Mars. It'll be full environment suits instead of cold weather gear, it'll be lumbering interplanetary transports instead of C-130s, and I don't know what they'll use for Hueys but there'll be something. There will be pilots and mechanics and cargo handlers and radio operators, scientists and lab techs and administrators, and survival specialists and firemen and kitchen workers and construction workers and shuttle bus drivers.

Ordinary people who aren't rocket scientists will live and work there because they got an itch to do something extraordinary. Every once in a while they'll get a chance to take a ride out of town and see something, and they'll show up at the hanger all wound up like little kids, and they'll take their cameras and video recorders and get on the ship and for a few hours they'll get to see and do things most of the human race only dreams about, and they will live lifetimes in those hours, and they will treasure every single minute of it.

I got incredibly lucky. I stumbled into a real life frontier right here on Earth, an exploration program that was all about the science and the learning and the knowing, and it turned out to be everything I was looking for in a place I never would have thought of. National Science Foundation, civilians, Navy, Army, American, Kiwi, Aussie and every other kind... It was real life Star Trek, all people working together for the benefit of all mankind.

So go ahead and say it's not real. For most of the world it never will be. But for those with the dream, and the drive and the luck, it's going to happen. I've seen it, and it fucking rocks.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Darren Naish said...

Read this text the first time you sent it to me in an email not that long ago, but I found myself reading it fully again without delay. Truly inspirational.

5:36 AM  
Blogger J-Rod said...

The man can *write*!

Lidke '08!!

P.S. The "confirmation" graphic that Blogger uses to ensure that spambots don't clog up comments was this:

"mulkfk".

I'm not sure what "mulkfk" is, but I suspect that it's Welsh, and that it involves equal parts food and sex.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

Hell of a post. You should hear his stories about penguins.

11:49 PM  

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