March 16th, 2005



I can see NASA Ames Research Center from the back parking lot at work. It's about two miles as the red-tailed hawk flies. It's the next freeway exit from work. But thanks to there being no through road, rush hour traffic and the most dangerous intersection on Hwy. 101, I had to drive about 10 miles to get there for last night's lecture.

John F. Ross has a new book out, Living Dangerously: Navigating the Risks of Everyday Life and he parleyed that into a fascinating talk about the risks of extreme exploration.

Or that's what the press release said.

What Ross really talked about was his experiences in terrestrial exploration, mostly as a freeze-dried tourista in the Arctic, and while he made an effort to tie this in with the risks of the space program, it was a major stretch.

Ross is a journalist. His beat is exploration. He has been to Greenland and mushed with the Inuit, he has been to Lapland and rubbed elbows with the reindeer herders. He's covered extreme cave diving, scorpion hunting, arctic kayaking and other fun things. And as a contributing editor to Smithsonian Magazine, he has some spectacular photos to prove it.

He's a boring speaker and an inept lecturer. He had not come prepared - he lost his place a couple of times, and had no idea what slides were coming up next, and (I was behind the laptop which was hosting the slide show) he stopped asking for the next slide about six slides before the end of the presentation. They were amazingly good photos, and illustrated points he was talking about, so it wasn't a matter of time. He just forgot.

Things perked up a bit when he started talking about what's in his new book. He made waking up in the morning sound like a trip through a mine field. He made staying in bed sound even more dangerous.

He did take some time to criticize the current administration for promoting an atmosphere of fear and risk-aversion. He doesn't like the concept that at NASA, "safety is job 1". He said exploration is Job 1, and people are going to die. Shit happens.

I was expecting a speaker more closely associated with space exploration. While it wasn't a waste of time, it did not live up to the usual level of NASA lectures such as the ones at Foothill College sponsored by the Silicon Valley Astronomy Society

They are planning another lecture in May. I hope this time they choose a speaker closer to the space industry and not an author on just another stop in his book-signing tour.