A Travellerspoint blog

Master of Telling Bad Jokes

When you’re at home, everything feels safe and secure. You’re familiar with the streets, the stores, the people. Even if you leave for long periods, you return with the feeling that everything is okay. It’s where you’re meant to be and you belong.

For me, that’s what Atlanta has felt like over the past 5 years as I settled back into living in the city in which I was born. Just like the Circle of Life from the Lion King, it’s a tad ironic that I was born in Atlanta and wound up going back to there for college. At this point in my life, I’ve now lived in Atlanta and Upstate NY for the same amount of time. Being able to do my Master’s for the past year at Georgia Tech has been an incredible gift to remain connected with my close friends and the campus. I’ll try and recount a couple of the awesome moments that I was able to experience over the 2020-2021 year. Despite COVID trying to rain on the parade, I think we still managed to make an unforgettable year that I’m very thankful I was able to experience. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in…

I arrived at Georgia Tech for my final hurrah in mid-August for my first and last year as a graduate student. I was lucky enough to get my grad school paid for by means of research I was doing with a group sponsored by the Air Force. For my Fall semester, I signed up for a relatively light courseload of only 3 graduate-level courses. Compared to undergrad, this meant that I had more open hours in the day than I had in an entire week beforehand. While the courses did have higher expectations and the homework was significantly harder than before, I had grown accustomed to being beat down by GT. The nice part was that the classes were fully online, so I could join them from my office at work and not have to commute all over campus constantly. The other benefit of online classes was that my girlfriend was able to remain in the Atlanta area. We were able to find many things around the Atlanta area to do that we had been unable to do in years’ past due to transportation limitations.

For instance, we took a trip out to the infamous Blood Mountain (kind of sounds like where an evil villain would keep their lair) and hiked to the top for some gorgeous pictures of the North Georgia mountains. On that hike, we befriended some Russians who passed along a package of Russian bacon-chips for us to munch on. On another hike, we went to the “grand canyon of Georgia”, which is called Providence Canyon. Apparently, these canyons formed due to poor farming practices of the area (but now it has made for an awesome view!). We also went hiking with our friends, Noah and Clair, to Ravencliff Falls. After hiking back into the woods for about an hour, we reached a decently large waterfall that spewed crystal-clear water. On the way back from Ravencliff Falls, we stopped at Uncle Shuck’s Corn Maze in Dawsonville, GA. Noah and I were able to weave our way through the maze like experts, while my girlfriend and Clair had a somewhat tougher time at navigating through the hedges (let’s just say, I was not a-mazed).

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Aside from hiking around Georgia, we also found plenty of new things to do in Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium opened a new exhibit with sharks, so we had to stop by to see the lawyers in the tanks (haha…please don’t sue me if you (or your dad) is a lawyer). We also went on several flights over Atlanta and up over the North Georgia mountains. There was one flight where we had a miscommunication with another pilot who had also booked our plane and ended up zooming back halfway through our flight so we didn’t make her late for her checkride. Carrying on the fun of doing escape rooms in Waco, TX over the summer, we did another escape room with Noah and Clair that was treasure-themed. We ended up finishing with several minutes to spare! Through the Yellow Jacket Flying Club, I found out about a new VR simulator opening up at the airport that was offering cheap rentals to club members. Being the nerd I am, I signed up for it almost immediately and went with my girlfriend to try it out. We loved it so much that we went back the next weekend and brought another friend along!

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Although I didn’t get to fulfill my dream of true skydiving, I came close to doing so by going indoor skydiving at iFly with my roommate. Through the GT skydiving club, we received heavily discounted iFly sessions that had us zooming around the wind tunnel and pretending to be MI6 agents jumping out of an airplane.

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In March, I had the opportunity to go to my first ever NASCAR race! It was extra sweet, because we had with us an experienced NASCAR race watcher. If my friend, Ted, hadn’t been there, we would have just thought it was loud cars making left turns for 2 hours and occasionally stopping. However, he was able to tell us what the occasional stops meant and pointed out which drivers to watch out for. Attending the NASCAR race was also an exposure to a side of Georgia that I hadn’t been able to see much of in Atlanta. It was definitely eye-opening and something I want to go back and watch. Just after we left the race, two of the drivers got into a bit of a fist-fight and went at it to “settle their issues”.

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One of the most impactful things of the entire year was training for the Publix Half Marathon at the end of February. It all started with a casual suggestion to my roommate that I was interested in running a half marathon. Before I knew it, there were 5 of us training to run the marathon. My roommate and I went on 10 mile runs every week to condition our body for the eventual experience. Having never been on that long of a run before, I was apprehensive at first. But it wasn’t that bad and it gave us a chance to see Atlanta early on Saturday mornings. When the race day came, my goal was to get a sub 2 hour time for the half marathon. While I started out strong and was able to keep pace with my roommate for the first 8 miles, he took off quickly when I began to slow down. The final 3 miles of the race were extra painful because it was on the concrete desert of the Georgia Motor Speedway (yes, the same one I went to watch in March!). The day happened to be cloudless and the hottest one of February, which only intensified the heat wave that radiated from the tarmac. If I was going somewhat slow for the last quarter of the race, being on the race track made me slow down to the pace of a snail. Unfortunately, I did not meet my sub 2-hour goal and ended up coming in around 2 hours and 8 minutes. My roommate came in at 2 hours and 3 minutes for his time.

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In April, I had my shot at redemption with the Tear Drop Half Marathon. This half marathon took place in the North Georgia mountains and featured 8.5 miles of straight downhill. If I was going to get a sub 2 hour race time, this was the place I was going to do it. What I had yet to realize about downhill running is that the pain is not immediate, but sets in later than usual. This meant that I cruised along for the downhill portion, but the final two miles were excruciatingly painful. Even the smallest uphill after the continuous downhill felt like I was climbing Mount Everest. It was around mile 6 that I realized if I kept my pace up I might be able to come in just under 2 hours. Although it certainly wasn’t easy, the thought of finishing sub 2 hours fueled me and kept me going strong for the latter half of the race. The last quarter mile was scary, because I could see the race clock and saw that I only had 2.5 minutes left on the clock. I skirted across the finish line with 30 seconds to spare. While on some mental plane it felt awesome to finally reach the goal I had set out to do, in the physical world my body was on fire. My legs were so messed up from the downhill that I had to hobble around for the next week. Sitting down and standing up was a feat each time I did it without falling over. Overall, I’m very happy I could enter into the world of half-marathon running with my friends and make some awesome memories.

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So that’s a wrap! Besides a bunch of classes, some work here and there, and various to trips to restaurants all over Atlanta, that was more or less my Master’s experience in a nutshell (Hmm, now that I have my Master’s I wonder if they’ll give me a green golf jacket too). Graduation was a busy affair with my family coming into town to watch not one, but TWO graduations. I’m such a goober that I decided to walk for both the undergrad and graduate ceremonies. It would haven’t been so bad, except that I forgot my sunscreen for the first ceremony and turned into a bright red tomato for the next few days. On the bright side, I did get two fake diplomas that contained advertisements to join the alumni association!

Once again, I’m very thankful that I had this extra year to complete my Master’s and hang around Georgia Tech. I’ve had an unforgettable 5 years on the campus and will always try to find ways to make it back to Atlanta whenever I can. It’s a wonderful city filled with wonderful people and food. It’s hard to move away from where you know home is, but I know I’ll be back one day, I’m sure of it.

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Posted by oklempay 01:55 Archived in USA Tagged hiking georgia half_marathon masters georgia_tech gt Comments (0)

Closing Time

sunny

When kids have summer off in Middle School, they usually go to Summer Camp where they’ll play games, meet new people, spend time away from home, and enjoy being a kid. When nerdy kids in college have summer off, they go get an internship at NASA and do much the same!

This summer at NASA has been an unforgettable experience. I’ve been able to meet test pilots, astronauts, brilliant engineers and scientists, and get to become friends with the coolest gang of interns you could hope to end up with. We all shared a passion for hiking, late night board games, nerdy stuff about heat shields, and of course, anything NASA related. I had no idea what to expect when I rolled up to the front door with my neon green suitcase and black duffel bag, but it was everything I hoped for and more. This is a recounting of my last few weeks at NASA Ames.

Following my trip to Edwards, I had a lot of work to catch up on. By the end of that week, I had to get a rough draft of my presentation ready: no small feat when it had to make it through the approval of the world’s leading engineers in entry systems technology who knew this stuff better than you knew the back of your own hand. I stayed late nights and even had to forego trips to the gym to make sure I would get the results I needed in time. That being said, I was still able to fit trips to Game Kastle (our newest board game haunt) in for at least two nights. When Friday rolled around, I was able to scrape together enough plots for a presentation that was sufficient by their standards. It still had a long way to go, but the edits were not that major and I was in a good shape for my second practice presentation the following Monday.

With it being my last weekend to do stuff in the Bay Area, I took Saturday as a chill day to play more board games, bike out to the Stanford Dish Loop, and chow down on some awesome donuts from my newest favorite donut shop: Happy Donuts. The last time I ate a cinnamon bun from this place, it gave me enough energy to bike 26 miles and hike up and down a mountain in a day, so clearly it had something extra special in its glaze. That Saturday, I enjoyed another beautiful, cloudless, 80’ degree day as I hiked the 3 mile loop and mounted my bike for the journey back. Later in the evening, my friends and I met up for board games and dinner at the closest burger joint we could stumble into.

The following day, I met up with a close friend of mine from Georgia Tech. We were planning to meet in North San Francisco by the Golden Gate Bridge, but I bought the wrong bus ticket to get from the train station to the Presidio. Being the cheapskate that I am, instead of spending the $4 for the right bus ticket, I made the executive decision to “speedwalk” the 4.5 miles across San Francisco to meet her. Cutting right through the heart of the city, I was able to view Chinatown firsthand and experience the “fun” of San Francisco’s hills. Nonetheless, I got a good feel for the vibe of SF. I believe every city has a personality to it, and I certainly got to experience this one as I sped through the crowded streets. Luckily enough, my legs were able to make it there in one piece and on time!

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I met her under the massive arched dome of the museum. We spent the first hour just catching up and trading stories about what we were doing at our respective internships. Then, we walked over to a large, grassy picnic area ringed by food trucks of various persuasions. We settled on one that sold delicious Chinese food at a price that didn’t make my wallet cry. After a lunch filled with more catching up, we meandered along a trail that brought us down to the waterfront and under the shadow of the impressive Golden Gate Bridge. We were feeling pretty ambitious that day, so we hiked up a steep path to the entrance of the bridge itself. The adventure continued as we walked all the way across the mile long bridge and back.

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Our legs were feeling pretty sore by the end of it, so we hitched a bus from the Bridge over to Ghirardelli Square. After snagging some free chocolate samples from the store, we made our way down to Pier 39 to grab some famous sourdough bread bowls and clam chowder. Sitting there and enjoying a bowl of SF’s finest was a wonderful way to wrap up my time in the Bay Area. We rode back to the train station where I was dropped off for my 6:30pm train. Although I made it the entire summer without getting sunburnt, today was finally the day that I slipped: I forgot to pack sunscreen and boarded the train as bright as a cherry tomato! In addition to that, we hiked over 10 miles that day and my legs were certainly feeling it. Once I got onto that train, I collapsed into the seat and listened to my new favorite podcast, “The Fighter Pilot Podcast.”

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The upcoming week would be my last, which was filled with dozens of happy and sad moments. I went through my practice presentation on Monday without encountering any major hitches and received some helpful advice to refine my final presentation for Thursday. Between working out and Game Kastle, I was able to coast the last couple of days until the final presentation. When the big day finally arrived, I was nervous but excited. I had practiced the 12 minute talk a half dozen times, but I was afraid that I might screw up and say the wrong thing in front of a room full of engineers who had been doing this for 20+ years.

As we went up one by one, my slot finally arrived at 10:15am. I got up in front of the room, faced the thirty or so odd people sitting in front of me, and did what I did best: faked it till I made it. The twelve minutes of terror went by in a heartbeat and before I knew it, I had hit my final slide. I was able to deliver everything I had hoped to say and do so without getting my tongue in a knot. Even better, shortly after my presentation we were all invited out to the main lawn for a free lunch with lots of goodies being given away! I grabbed my fill of free stuff and stuffed my face with delicious hot dogs and coleslaw.

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With a full stomach, I headed over to man my poster at the poster session for the next two hours. Tucked away in a corner behind someone else, I felt like I was hiding out at a High School dance all over again. Even worse, any time I made eye contact with someone, they would duck away and move on to someone else’s poster, leaving me to stand there in solitude. I guess poster sessions aren’t quite my thing: I like to go up to others and engage in conversation. I’m not a huge fan of waiting around for others to come to me. In the down time I was able to find, I did end up doing just that. I made a sweep of the perimeter and visited some of my friends’ posters. I was eager to check out the work I’d been hearing about all summer long! When the poster session finally came to a close, I skedaddled out of there to catch the tail end of our branch presentations. I made it back just in time to hear about someone who modeled the different violent and ultraviolet spectrums of Titan’s atmosphere (fascinating stuff, really).

After sitting through five or six more presentations with topics that went so far over my head I couldn’t even reach them, we wound down the day with a beer and wine party in the building’s cozy, little kitchen. Our boss had filled the fridge with so much alcoholic beverages that it was practically coming off the hinges! The party was a great celebration to the conclusion of our time here at Ames and the fact that no one had passed out during their presentation. It was a bittersweet ending, because as we all said our congrats, we also knew that it was the last time we would all be united.

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That evening we met up at our favorite haunt for one last get-together: the mother of all game stores, Game Kastle. As the hours passed, we joked and laughed and acted like this wasn’t the end of it all. We followed up with some Thai food across the street that we were seriously underdressed for. Afterwards, we gathered in the parking lot to say our goodbyes. With awkward hugs exchanged and numerous slaps on the back given, I’ll admit that it was tough to see the faces depart.

I packed up the next day like I always do: at the very last possible minute. As I shoveled my clothes one by one into the suitcase, I reflected on what a truly incredible experience I had at NASA Ames. I mean, it’s NASA! The place I had been dreaming about for years. The organization that had brought man to the Moon and images from the farthest reaches of our solar system to the comforts of our home television set. Although I was just a small gear in the giant machine of progress, I was putting in blood, sweat, and tears to keep it grinding forward and delivering us to a brighter future (okay, maybe I’m being a tad dramatic). I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: the work we did was meaningful.

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Even more important to me, however, were the friendships I made. This world-class group of people is one that I’ll hardly forget any time soon. From their willingness to help out no matter how small the problem, to the playful banter we would have on hikes that started at 7am, to the numerous downtown trips to overpriced restaurants along Castro Street, the people you live and work with are what have the biggest impact on your job, your happiness, and even your life. Their words and wisdom leave marks on the soul that stay with you long after you’ve left them. That, right there, is why I had one of the most remarkable summers that I’ve had in many, many years. If any of you are reading this right now, thank you! I’ll wrap this blog up in the words of our current NASA chief administrator: “Ad Astra!”

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Posted by oklempay 17:47 Archived in USA Tagged travel california friends nasa moon san_francisco sf hikes presentations friendships ames ad_astra game_kastle boardgames Comments (0)

The Trip of Your Dreams

sunny

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to meet your heroes? What would you say to them? Where would you meet them? Would you stumble on your words and make a fool of yourself? I’m sure you’ve imagined that day over and over again, but what if it actually came true? For me, I was able to meet my heroes this past weekend in the middle of a dry, dusty, lake bed that has more spindly cacti sticking up through cracks in the ground than people living there. For me, that dream became a reality.

I’ve been reading about Edwards Air Force Base for years. It was there that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the “Glamorous Glennis”, where NASA tested scores of ‘X-planes’ to understand the fundamentals of flight, and where a humble, little school sits astride a runway that has character packed into every square inch of its hot asphalt. In the middle of this desert resides a school that trains people how to push machines to the edge of their limits and recover from them. It requires the ability to learn a system in and out in a matter of hours, have flexibility for plans that change by the minute, and the ability to make critical decisions in mere seconds. Test Pilot School (or TPS as it is usually called) calls for the strong of heart and quick of mind. It’s a grueling 48-week training regimen that pulls out the best in a person. A place that I’ve dreamt of visiting for years, a series of lucky events finally brought me to this humble lakebed over the past weekend. This is the story of my adventure to Edwards Air Force Base.

Thanks to the help of my cadre back at my detachment, I was put in touch with an F-15 fighter pilot who was close friends with the test pilot community. He provided the contacts which eventually let me get in touch with one of the pilots at Edwards. After talking with him a couple times, I asked a question that I figured would be a firm, “no”. With my working in the Bay Area this summer, and with Edwards ~only~ being a 6 hour drive away, would it be at all possible to visit the coolest school in the world? Luck was on my side that day, because my contact said that was something that could definitely be arranged, especially given that I had planned it far enough out in advance.

Weeks passed and I counted down the days that I would make my trek southward. When the day finally arrived, I was met with bad news that morning: the car that I hoped to borrow from a friend was out of commission. I would have to find another ride down. With no one else able to lend a car and the departure time ticking down to four hours, I was forced to rent a small sedan that didn’t even have a working radio (apparently you needed a “code” to turn it on).

Nonetheless, I set off from San Jose with a pack of snacks sitting in the passenger seat and multiple podcasts loaded up on my phone. Aside from my phone overheating and losing a third of its battery spontaneously (stupid Google Maps update), the drive out of the city and into the farmland was uneventful.

The hours passed like the rolling, golden hills around me. I passed big farm country with even bigger cows lining the wooden fences that bordered the highway. When it finally began to get dark, I pulled over near Bakersfield to eat at the Golden Arches. Filling myself up with more fuel, I set out on the most difficult portion of this journey: a night-time ride through winding mountains with a phone that hovered below 20%. At this point, with the phone battery acting on the fritz and an hour and a half to go, I had no music or podcasts to listen to. The only thing keeping me awake was going to have to be myself (easier said than done when you’ve been for driving for 5 hours and it’s 10pm).

Luckily enough, I made it there without a hitch and was incredibly thankful when I pulled up to a glowing silver sign in the desert that read “Edwards Air Force Base”. Like a message from the heavens, it was signaling that a bed of my own was not far away. I passed through security and traveled through this strange, dark landscape to the High Desert Inn, which would be my home for the next 48 hours.

The bed was an incredibly comfortable, full-size mattress that felt great on my weary back. I was asleep in minutes. Now, given that I didn’t go to bed until 11:30pm, I decided to sleep in a little bit the next day to 6:15am. It was a good thing I did that too, because my contact bumped up our meeting time from 8am to 7:30am.

After a quick shower and a bite to eat, I met him over at the compound that was lined with rows of the world’s coolest planes. I can’t exactly talk about numbers or specifics, but I will tell you that they were very, very cool. We went into the compound together and I listened to a brief given about fighter defensive systems that really opened up my eyes to how much pilots know about all the different systems on their respective airframe. After the presentation, I followed my contact on a tour of the compound and tried on night vision goggles, saw the custom bar that was built out of scrap plane parts, and even got to fly a plane (in a simulator, that is)!

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Once the tour was finished of the compound, we moseyed on over to Test Pilot School HQ, which was just a short drive away. My contact showed me around the planes that are used to train the pilots. They fly big planes, little planes, fast planes, slow planes, and everything else in between. In fact, by the time they’re done training, they’ll have flown in almost 28 different aircraft! They are constantly learning and adjusting themselves to new systems and, like Goggins always says, “Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I went inside the school and was shown around the workroom and some of the briefing rooms.

My contact had to leave right before lunch time, which meant that I was free to go grab some of the finest Asian cuisine one can get in the middle of a desert: Panda Express. After chowing down on chicken prepared by an actual general (General Tso, that is), I headed back to TPS to sit in on a briefing being given by some students to their instructors. As part of the curriculum, they have to complete a series of “reports” from a customer who wants to test a specific parameter.

It’s up to the students to write and carry out their plan, which involves flight testing the aircraft being examined. I sat in on three guys who were nice enough to have a report printed out for me. They treated me like I was part of the operation and even allowed me the chance to sit in the back of the operation room where the data would be gathered for processing throughout the flight. They gave an hour brief to the two instructors and then prepared for the flight. However, just as we were about to head off from the step deck and go to our places, the maintainers called up and said that the plane was no longer operable to fly. It wouldn’t be fixed until the next day, which pretty much ruined our chances of going out into the wild blue yonder.

I was saddened that I wouldn’t be able to watch their project come to life, but I did end up talking with them for a good while. They provided all sorts of helpful advice for applying and insights into what to expect from Test Pilot School (short answer – it’s not easy). The funniest part of it all was when one of the dudes came walking in with a massive bowl of ice cream and said, “Yo guys, there’s an ice cream sundae bar in the other room. Better hurry up before it’s all gone!” An ice cream sundae bar isn’t the first thing I’d expect to find at the premiere training facility for military pilots, but I guess the consumption of ice cream has no bounds.

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I said goodbye to all of them and beat it out of there in the mid-afternoon. It was a scorching day out (105’), but I headed over to the safety of the air-conditioned Test Pilot Museum, which was chock-full of cool, old airplanes. Inside the museum were plaques and displays and TV recordings of everything from the 1950’s to now. F16 cockpit bubbles were used as the glass to house the displays. Hanging above it all was the Bell X-1, a vibrant orange shell that housed Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier. Outside were scores of different X-planes and other carcasses that were done with their days of flying. I spent well over an hour there before driving back to the hotel for a quick pit stop.

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It still wasn’t dinner time when I got to the High Desert Inn, so I drove over to the NASA Armstrong complex to see if I could poke my head around there. Unfortunately, I arrived just a bit too late and was only able to see more of the planes sitting outside the gates. Lessons I’ve learned this summer: don’t visit a government complex after 4pm on Friday. No one will be there!

After that disappointment, I drove back and grabbed dinner at Louisiana’s famous ‘Popeyes’ to cure my craving of fried chicken. There wasn’t much else to do that evening except unwind at the hotel and relax after a hectic 24 hours. I made sure to get plenty of sleep that night before my drive home the next day.

Before I left, I was able to meet one more person! Another contact of mine was a student who just started TPS. He picked me up in a 1966 silver Ford Mustang (it was a sweet car) and drove me around to some parts of the base I hadn’t seen yet. Along the way, he gave me advice and told me a bit about his time as a pilot before entering TPS. He showed me to the Bell X-1 loading pits, the graveyard of old NASA planes, and the “Mothership”, which was the B-29 that launched the X-1 and many other famous rocket-powered aircraft. It was a great send off before I hopped in my own (not nearly as cool) car for the journey back.

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The ride home was uneventful, long, and boring. Once I got back and dropped the rental off, I took a long, hot, shower and went to bed early again. I was beat from the back and forth 6 hour drive in such a short time frame, but the people I met and the experience of visiting the coolest place in the world made it absolutely worth every penny and ache.

I never imagined that I would get the opportunity to visit Test Pilot School. It goes to show that you never know what might happen next. The best thing you can do is to keep your options open and spring for those chances when they pop up: you never know how or when you’ll be able to it again. Also, it never hurts to ask someone for an opportunity. What's the worst they can do, say no?

Before I traveled there, I was scared that I wouldn’t like Edwards: that it might be too isolated, or too dry, or too hot, or too “something” that I wouldn’t like it there. After visiting, yes it is “too hot”, and a “tad isolated”, and I’m sure there’s a “something” there too, but surprisingly, those fears all vanished. I’m excited for the day I can apply to TPS and, if all goes well, hopefully end up there. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two years, it’s that I can’t wait to see what the future has in store. I’m sure it’ll be beyond my wildest dreams.

Posted by oklempay 13:48 Archived in USA Tagged california nasa plane aircraft test dream pilot instructor edwards_afb tps test_pilot x_plane air_force Comments (0)

Growing Your Network

sunny

This summer has been an eye opening experience: not just in the work I’ve been doing and the places I’ve visited, but mostly because of the people I’ve met. From the interns around me to the mentors who helped me with simulations that crashed every 30 seconds, everyone at Ames has been approachable, friendly, and eager to help. The talks that are given weekly here are truly out of this world (haha, get it?). Whether you’re working somewhere like Ames or just taking classes on campus, you have to realize that there are a million opportunities that surround you. It’s up to you to take advantage of them.

This post will be somewhat different from my other ones. Several people have asked for me to talk about networking and how, for example, I was able to work out a trip to visiting the bros at Test Pilot School, or get in touch with someone on a podcast that I happened to listen to.

I’ll admit that I’ve had trouble with networking over the years: whether it was sending poorly worded emails, not talking with the speaker after the event, or (heaven forbid) tossing business cards away, it is incredibly important to grow your connections and keep them alive and well. Beyond that, it’s just nice and courteous to keep in touch with people that (I’ll assume) you generally like on some level or another! The biggest hindrance in my internship hunt over junior year was that I did not keep up with the contacts I made along the way. I expected things to work out on their own.

Let me tell you, a close connection of yours that can talk with a hiring manager is far superior to any stellar resume you might have sitting in a bottomless pool of online applications. If this were an ideal world, HR would pick the best people for the internships based on credentials. Unfortunately, with the sheer volume that they have to process nowadays, it’s incredibly easy to slip through the cracks and go unnoticed, even if you are extremely qualified. That’s where your connections will come in handy. They will be your “in”, your way to get your foot in the door and get noticed by your dream company.

However, if you’re just starting out and saying to yourself: “Gee, I don’t really have anyone in my network at company X”, let’s figure that out first. The best thing you can do is to find events on campus or in the area being hosted by said company. Go to those! Learn what you can, don’t be afraid to be the only one taking notes, and find someone to talk to afterwards. You don’t have to walk up to them and hand them a resume, but prepare good questions and indicate your interest in their company. At the end of the talk, if you can slide it in naturally, don’t forget to ask for their contact info! Whether it’s a card, a cell number, a LinkedIn invitation, or an email, establishing that first line of contact is crucial! You can usually ask them: “Thank you so much for your time, is there some way I can reach you in the future if I have more questions?” or “Thank you for talking with me! I’d love to hear more about your work sometime. Would I be able to get your contact info?”

Once you’ve gotten their info, it’s always good to reach out to them within a couple days and thank them for their time. You can indicate your interest in their company again and/or ask more questions as well. The whole point is that you’re building a relation with them that will (hopefully) get you remembered.

If you talk with them after an event and blow it, don’t sweat it! You can try talking to other employees or go to a different event run by them. It can be difficult to connect with someone on a personal level when you first meet them, but showing your enthusiasm for their company is a good way to let them know how interested you are.

Career fairs are dicey territory, because you’re standing in a line with 15 other people just as intent on getting a job as you are and you have to leave a lasting impression on the recruiter. The recruiters are faced with a barrage of qualified people every hour: leaving that impression is not an easy task. That’s why I recommend going to an info session for a company. You might be in a long line as well, but hopefully it’ll be easier for you to build a relation with the recruiter when you have more than 2 minutes to talk with them in a hot, noisy gym.

Maybe the career fair came and went and you’re saying to yourself: “Shoot, all they told me was to apply online!” Don’t be discouraged by this either. Look at the connections around you (professors, mentors, coaches, etc.) and start asking them questions early. Indicate your interest in company X and ask if they might know anyone there. A lot of the connections I’ve been able to make aren’t because I knew the person I wanted to talk to, but because I knew someone who knew someone else. If you build a good relationship with your first source, then they’ll be happy to put you in touch with someone else who you might want to talk to.

It’s important to ask the people around you early because that will give them more time and flexibility with their contacts. I made the mistake of waiting to reach out to the network around me until the March/April timeframe, which meant that although my contacts knew people in places I wanted to work, all the jobs were already gone! If the career fair goes south for you, this method of contacting people will still be incredibly useful: but do it early!

Lastly, if you set up a meeting or a phone call with your person of interest, always come prepared with questions. It can help get the conversation rolling and give you something to move onto if the conversation slows down. In the meeting, listen closely to what your contact is telling you and try to tie in your responses/questions to things that they bring up with you. It shows that you’re paying attention and thinking about what they’re telling you. If it’s a phone call, I always like to have a notebook open with a pen at the ready to catch all the advice that I can.

After they’ve given you their time, it’s always nice to send a “thank you” email within a couple days. If you can, tie in some advice that they might have passed along with you in the meeting. Once again, it shows that you were paying attention and were thinking about what they had to say.

I hope that this advice has been helpful for you! This summer I’ve been able to meet astrobiologists, astronauts, test pilots, and many other wonderful people thanks to these techniques. Some people might say you’re “crazy” or make fun of you for going out of your way to build a connection, but I believe that every person I build a reputation with is valuable and might open up doors later down the road. You should always seek to find paths that will open doors for you, as opposed to ones that close them. Good luck with your personal quest to find connections! I know it can be tough when it feels like a lot of people are expecting great things from you. This is my final piece of advice (and passed along by a close friend): "Get involved. Change the world. But don't worry: have some fun! Believe in yourself! You've got this!"

Posted by oklempay 10:10 Archived in USA Tagged advice networking internship hr connecting ames astronaut career_fair Comments (0)

Yosemite Ho!

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Better hit fast forward on that remote because I am going to skip ahead quite a ways in time to the present – July 8, 2019. I wish I could come up with some excuse about why I haven’t been writing in the subsequent weeks, but really, the truth of the matter is that I was working in Area 51 and had no access to the outside world during that time. And yes, I already know you’re going to ask about the aliens: they keep them over at Area 52, so I never got to see them.

Now that the pleasantries are aside, I suppose I can move on to what you’re really here for: a juicy recounting of the past 72 hours spent traveling across the California countryside to visit the incredible Yosemite National Park. Let me start from the beginning…

Our plan was simple, but that didn’t mean I liked it. For one, it required staying up until midnight on the 4th of July! What sort of sane person stays up past 10pm? Regardless, we would depart shortly after midnight and drive for four hours to reach our destination: a ‘first-come-first-serve’ campground that would undoubtedly fill up as fast as a line at Chick-fil-a around lunchtime. This place would be a madhouse (especially considering that it was around the 4th of July), so we wanted to make sure we snagged a campsite before anyone else.

Our two cars departed around 12:45am full of sleeping bags, clothes bags, tents, cooking equipment, and a variety of other odds and ends that would satisfy the camping needs of seven guys for two nights. After picking up one person from Stanford and partaking in a long detour to find ice for our cooler, we finally set off on the road at 1:30am.

The car I rode in is nicknamed “Grandpa Roach.” I need not say more than that, but I suppose I should paint a picture to give you an idea of how it got its name. Grandpa Roach is a dull, brown, Ford Explorer that is older than I am. The dents on it are so numerous that it looks more dimpled than a golf ball in some parts. When it goes above sixty miles per hour, it begins to shake harder and harder like a joyride at a county fair and the radio system in the dashboard begins to slide out of its socket. I swear its fuel efficiency hovers somewhere around 30mpg as well: that is to say, meters per gallon. Meanwhile, the fumes from the engine aren’t filtered out correctly, so the interior always smells like gas unless the windows on all four sides are down. The doors on one side won’t open, so the passengers in the back have to slide in one at a time to ride. The car stays locked unless the trunk is opened first and the unlock button is pushed from inside the trunk. Finally, as if you don’t already have a vivid enough description by this point, the suspension makes more squeaks than a pile of mice going through a slab of cheese. Every time Grandpa Roach hits a bump, it oscillates up and down for what feels like minutes and makes an angry squeak out of the ordeal. I hope you have a good idea of the contraption that we took to get there in now.

When we arrived at the campsite in the cold morning dawn, it was 5:30am. Our other car had gone ahead of us and was supposed to meet as at the first location to secure a campsite. We arrived to the site of an empty parking lot and a closed gate that said our first choice location was closed. While we stretched our legs out in the chilled air, we decided to backtrack an hour on our drive to see if they were at our second-choice campsite. When we rolled up to it, we were disappointed to find that they weren’t there either. What greeted our site was a group of other eager campers who had gotten in line (at 6am) to secure a campsite like us! I told you they were crazy people that we were competing against.

With our companions at neither the first or second campsite, and the closest cell service a half hour drive away, we made the executive decision to stay where we were and hope that they would pass by. If worse came to worse, we would snag a campsite and then come back for them later with the knowledge that at least we had somewhere to stay. The real problem was that they were the ones with all the food, leaving us to chew on what to do (with nothing to chew on!).

As we waited for them, a pickup truck that looked just like our companions’ zoomed on by us. On the inside, I could see two people sitting that seemed like the right build as well. I quickly shouted, “That’s them, they just drove by!” Our driver high-tailed it out of there and pushed Grandpa Roach to its limits on the windy forest roads as we went in high pursuit of the runaway car. Despite having nothing to eat and no sleep for the previous night, the adrenaline that pumped through gave us a surge of energy. As we caught up to the pickup truck, we began honking the horn and waving our hands out the window at it from 50 feet behind so that they would get the message to slow down. As we got closer to the truck that seemed like it was ours, we began to make out the license plate, which brought us to a frightening realization. This…was not our car. The license plate that should have read, “Arizona”, instead had “California” scrawled across it. We had tracked the wrong people.

Before the car in front could stop and question why some crazy, random lunatics were chasing and honking them, we slowed the car down as fast as we could and made as quick of a U-turn as we could legally do. With crushed hopes and our energy fading, we headed back to the second campsite point only to find that the line had grown from before. Even worse, a park ranger came out after waiting for 20 minutes and told every car up to the one in front of us that it could pass through for a campsite, which put us right back to where we started. The ranger assured us that he would be by in 30 minutes to check up on campsites and see about moving us up the queue.

Almost two hours later, just as we were about to leave, the ranger appeared back again and summoned us through the mystical gate to the campgrounds. We excitedly went the 3 miles down the windy traverses to reach the site of the campground only to find….another line of cars in which to wait for a campground. As we sat there and waited for another hour, we were all beginning to feel the gnawing effects of the hunger that comes with lack of food for over 10 hours. Suddenly, in what seemed like a miraculous turn of events, a pickup truck that looked just like the one we had chased after came rolling down into the clearing. Except this time, it didn’t have California plates on it: no, it had Arizona! Like a group of kids that had just won the Little League World Series, we ran up to the truck and began banging on the sides of it as we barraged our compatriots with questions like, “Where were you?, How did we not pass you?”, and of course, “Where’s the food?” In another streak of luck, another ranger approached us shortly thereafter and told us that a spot had opened up for us. The one bad piece of news was that the campgrounds could legally only hold 6 people, which would not fly for our 7 person group. After some debating and weighing of options, the group behind us offered to take in one extra person as a refugee for the two nights. By 2pm that day, we had finally reassembled our group, pitched the tents, had a delicious snack, and were ready to go hiking. And we were only 6 hours behind our original estimate!

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The drive down to the Valley Basin had us pass through psychedelic tunnels that opened up into stunning views of the valley below with a river flowing through swiftly at the bottom. It was all fun and games until we hit our recurring theme for the day: a long line of cars. This one stretched for well over several miles and wound its way through the valley and down to the base camp where every available parking spaces were fought over tooth and nail by desperate families trying not to walk more than 2 miles with young kids dragging at their ankles. We weren’t quite that desperate, so we accepted a spot a mile from the base camp and walked along the side of the road at the same speed as the cars next to us. At the advice of an old couple that drove by us with more bumper stickers than space on the back of their car, we walked the “Valley Loop” trail, which was nothing more than a small, flat loop around the Valley that had been so hard to get into by car. Nonetheless, it offered stunning views of El Capitan and the other impressive monoliths around us. Although we had wanted to be more ambitious with our hike for the day, we were all beginning to feel the effects when you have no sleep, little food, and are crammed into a car for over 6 hours in one day. Our muscles were aching with every step and everyone was slow to act. The heat of the day only made matters worse: causing us to sweat profusely and fend off bugs who saw us as easy targets.

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When we got close to El Capitan, we found a dry creek-bed to walk along that led us to the base of the world’s largest granite monolith. Looking up from the base of it was stunning: a sheer, smooth, rock face that stretched up so far it seemed impossible for anyone to attempt to climb. However, the impossible has been done: El Capitan has attracted the world’s toughest rock climbers who want to face a challenge and there are several documentaries you can watch about their impressive feat. We even found the remnants of some old ropes and carabiners that had been used by people much more courageous than us.

After we had our fill of gazing up at El Cap, we traveled back to the car around 5pm enticed with the thought that we would be able to fill our stomachs with some real food soon. The drive back proved to be far better than the first, with almost no traffic at all on the quiet ride to our little patch of dirt. As soon as we got there, we began setting up the small, propane traveling-grill and building a campfire. Within half an hour, we were munching down on some hamburgers and roasting hot dogs over the fire. One kid even brought a banjo and his bongos, so we had ourselves a campfire sing-a-long. Games ensued and soon enough the marshmallows and chocolate were pulled out for s’mores.

When it got dark enough, the stars appeared slowly in the twilight evening. One by one, the little dots joined the entire performance until it was a full symphony of light. On the black canvas of the sky, the multitude of these tiny holes created a patchwork of light that is impossible to see in a city. We climbed up to the flat top of a massive rock adjacent to our campsite and watched the stars come out while lying there in the slowly-chilling darkness. It was a surreal experience to be able to see Jupiter, Mars, and the Milky Way Galaxy out in full force. I felt like I was back in meditation and completely at peace with everything around me. That night I went to bed exhausted, dirty, cold, and exhilarated at what I had seen in the past 24 hours. Sometimes the most memorable adventures are ones that don’t always go as planned.

The next morning, we had planned to wake up at 6am, eat breakfast, be out by 7am and go hiking on a nice, long hike for the day. Once again, our time-management skills were not exactly top notch. Just figuring out how to make the pancakes without a mixing bowl for the batter took half an hour (we used water bottles filled halfway with water)! After eating pancakes that tasted suspiciously like the hamburger grease they had been cooked in, we set off at 8:30am to secure a parking spot for ourselves. Despite our late start, we were able to get a parking spot that was within a mile of the base camp. We made a quick pit stop at the Visitor’s Center to fill up on water and set off on our new challenge for the day: “The Mist Trail”.

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The trail was named appropriately: it would require hiking up the sides of two waterfalls and would subsequently soak you in the fresh spray of the water that tumbled over the edges of these two gorgeous falls. The path started out paved and with several rest areas for less physically fit people. It was pretty tame and there were many hikers that were not wearing the appropriate attire at all, but were hiking up a little bit just to say they’d been hiking on their Instagram. We passed over a bridge and left behind half of the crowd that had been hiking with us beforehand. Now, we were on a dirt path that wound its way up through the mountains.

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Soon enough, we reached a series of stone steps that looked just like the ones Frodo would have used to climb Mount Doom. Water trickled down them from the waterfall up ahead that began to peek out through the trees. The going got slow as only one person could pass up the stairs at a time, which made it difficult when others tried to come down. As the waterfall began to materialize in our sights, the spray from the mist grew stronger. Within a few steps, we were drenched and walking through a full-on raincloud. We took refuge where we could behind rocks, but there wasn’t much in the way to keep us from getting soaked from head to toe. After taking a group picture, we continued up the path and out of the misty spray to another wooded part of the trail. Some strenuous minutes later, we were up on top of the waterfall and watching the water flow over the edge and down onto the hapless hikers that we had been in the shoes of minutes before.

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The water was a stunning blue-green color that was a result of it being pure snow-melt and mixing with the minerals in the rocks. It looked to be the cleanest water I had ever seen, but none of us were brave enough to drink it. As a result of our work to scale this first waterfall, we rewarded ourselves with an hour-long lunch and sun-dried ourselves on the rocks. The squirrels in the area were ruthless: they kept coming over and begging for food. It’s no wonder they were so fat!

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When we felt that we were rested up enough, we began our trek onwards and upwards. Similar to the bridge, we left behind half of the other travelers who decided that the first waterfall was a sufficient hike for them. Man, did they miss out on an even cooler opportunity.
Making our way up the switchbacks, we continued higher and higher until it became dry, dusty, and hot. To keep sane, we debated important topics like, “What house would you be in Harry Potter?” The trail signs kept telling us that the second waterfall was only 2.5 miles away, but we would walk for what felt like forever and then be greeted by a sign that read “Only 2.4 miles away.” The hike stretched on as we shuffled our feet up the dirt path to the top of the second waterfall. The path we took didn’t take us directly under the waterfall this time, but rather, wound us around a ridge that gave us a beautiful view of the entire valley and the waterfall that was our endpoint. With our target in sight, we continued on to our destination.

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When we got to top of the waterfall, we were greeted with views far better than the first one. We were little kids on nature’s playground as we clambered over rocks that brought us right up to the edge of the water and the falls itself. It flowed by us at a staggering rate, seeming to go almost thirty miles per hour and making a deafening roar as it surged and crashed into the rocks beneath us. I was able to get many jaw-dropping pictures of the view from up there.

After an hour of rest and taking in the incredible views as we were cooled by the misty spray, we decided that it was about that time to start heading back. We took a different trail to get down this time: this one much steeper, but about half the length of the first one. As we carefully side-stepped down the rocky trail, we could see the waterfall begin to rise up in front of us as we came to look at it from the bottom. We explored some caves and were greeted once again by the misty spray that seeped into our clothes. At the bottom we had to backtrack slightly and climb up the path we had been on several hours prior before finally getting to the right track downwards. The sign taunted us by saying, “Valley Floor, 2.5 miles”. The switchbacks we hiked down felt much, much longer than that on our tired legs.

Once we reached the bridge from this morning, we broke out into a full-on sprint for the last mile of the trail. The seven of us streaked past groups of confused tourists as we weaved in between them and cut our time down by a half. The one thing dominating our brains at this point was getting back and eating dinner. When we made it down and back to the car, we had hiked over twelve miles and for over 6 hours. Nonetheless, the exhaustion didn’t dampen our spirits as we made the journey once more out of the valley and back to our patch of dirt. We talked in excited voices at the prospect that soon enough we would be filling our stomachs with delicious, greasy food.

By the time we got back, it was almost 6pm. The grill was taken out in seconds and the skillet thrown the flames before everyone was even out of Grandpa Roach. Within fifteen minutes, we were chowing down on a delicious round of hotdogs, hamburgers, and s’mores for the second night in a row. After a filling meal, I climbed back to the top of the rocks and watched the stars come out again. Tonight was even more special, because I was able to see some falling stars and satellites! My friend pointed out the different sights to me and recounted which satellites were which and how they functioned. I ended up staying out even later than the night before because I was so engrossed in the spectacle above us.

We slept in the next day and cleaned up camp around 8am. By 9am we were on the road and saying “Sayonara” to ranger who had given us the hassle two days ago. Initially, our plan had been to do an intense twelve-mile hike that would have been just as long as the day prior and an hour drive in the wrong direction. However, after some debating, we chose to do a much milder hike that was only two miles and would be flat the entire way, similar to the Valley Floor Loop. We encountered little traffic on the way down and were able to get a premiere parking spot close to the Visitor’s Center today.

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As we walked along the trail, we were stopped by a gaggle of tourists ahead. The group was poised with phones out and muttering excitedly in hushed voices. What had appeared on the trail was a small black bear! It looked to be 2 or 3 years old and somewhere around a hundred and fifty pounds. It approached some logs lying on the edge of the trail and proceeded to rip through them as it hunted for lunch. His paws were powerful clubs that ripped right through the dead wood and sent splinters flying back several feet. It was understandable that people would be scared. After the bear moved far enough away, we were able to continue on the trail to the lake that was famed for showing a perfect reflection of the valley we were in (hence the name, Mirror Lake Trail). Unfortunately for us, the lake was mostly dried up and filled only with stagnant water that was crowded with bugs skimming across the surface.

On the journey back, our new friend, Fozzie, made a guest appearance on the trail once more. It was great to see him again, but by this point, we were getting pretty hungry and wanted Fozzie to move along so we could get some lunch of our own. After a 15 minute delay to wait for him to move out of the way, we walked back to our car and keyed in the closest restaurant we could find that was on our path. Two hours later, we were sitting inside a Mexican restaurant just outside Yosemite National Park and chowing down on the special of the day: a decent-sized steak covered in grilled onions and peppers and surrounded by mounds of rice and beans. Although La Fonda would knock this place out of the water, it was amazing food for our empty stomachs.

Unfortunately, we weren’t quite out of the thick of it yet. The driver of Grandpa Roach had to do a tire rotation before we could leave, lest his tires pop on the drive back (they were getting pretty thin). He had parked on a slanted surface covered in rocks that made it difficult to get the car jacked up. In fact, the car almost slid back at one point when the first tire came off! The second set went on much more smoothly than the first, mostly because we pulled into the smooth, flat, concrete parking lot of a gas station.

By the time the tires were finished, it was 6pm and we still had a three-hour car drive ahead of us. Our initial planning had said that we would be back by 6-7pm at the latest. Instead, we got back at 10pm. You’d think for a group of engineers we would be good at making estimations, but this trip we were seriously off the mark almost every time. I guess it means that none of us should ever go to Vegas. That night I fell asleep immediately in a bed that I had originally considered to be hard and lumpy, but now felt like the softest cushion I could have ever lied down on.

The trip was an incredible experience overall and the seven of us definitely bonded and got to know each other in ways we hadn’t before. Staring up at the stars those nights was a memorable experience that I won’t forget any time soon. When you’re out in nature, it opens up a new side to life that is impossible to replicate in the city. I still consider it incredibly lucky that I’ve been given this opportunity to work out in California and that life has led me down this road. I love being able to go on eye-opening hikes every weekend and experience the beauty of the natural world. I think that John Muir would agree too: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Posted by oklempay 12:52 Archived in USA Tagged hiking california nasa camping yosemite el_capitan mist_trail Comments (0)

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