Excerpt from A Funny Thing Happened on the
Way to Energy Independence
by Robert Danziger
JPL and Caltech Days
After graduating from law school, my professional career began
at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Home of the U.S. deep space exploration program, JPL was called
upon to work its magic leading the alternative energy programs essential to winning
the “moral equivalent of war” due to oil embargos and the deep recessions that
The California Institute of Technology,
popularly known as Caltech, is the “academic home” of Jet Propulsion Laboratory
and runs it as a national laboratory, mostly for NASA. Caltech is one of the elite
universities, like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. It has a small enrollment of fewer than one thousand
students and about the same number of teachers.
Einstein taught there, as did Linus Pauling,
Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann.
Nobel Prize winners get special parking places.
JPL has about six thousand employees,
primarily space scientists and engineers, and it’s the place that managed the
exploration of our solar system for the United States. Starting with the moon, JPL has sent
satellites to all the planets, unless you include Pluto, which was demoted to a
space rock and is no longer considered a planet.
JPL has taken incredible pictures and made amazing
sound recordings of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Venus, Mercury, the
sun, and now interstellar space.
Just a few years earlier (1970), the
greatest environmental movement in history started when more than 90 percent of
ALL the people in the United States ranked clean air and water in their top
three political concerns after Apollo 8
took this picture:
The view of the earth from the moon brought
home the fragility of the planet to people in ways that scientific studies and
political rhetoric have never equaled.
It was a shining moment of bipartisanship I’ve never seen again but
still believe in.
Then, in the mid-1970s, a confluence of several
events heightened the world’s awareness of energy and environment to levels never
seen since. OPEC, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli
War, started choking off oil supplies to the United States. Actual gasoline shortages resulted in long
lines of cars waiting to buy rationed gas. Oil prices skyrocketed, causing a severe recession combined with
sky-high interest rates.
President Carter called the situation the
“moral equivalent of war.”
Seemingly impossible things needed to be achieved for victory in this
war—energy independence and a clean environment coupled with prosperity. Solar energy had to be reduced in cost
by 99 percent (by 2009, we were 94 percent of the way there) to compete with
fossil fuels. A mass-producible
electric and hybrid car had to be invented. Natural gas had to be produced from rocks like coal and
shale. Giant windmills needed to
sprout like cornfields. A thousand
other ideas had to be examined, often tried, and then decisions had to be made
about their future.
JPL, at that time, had never failed at
accomplishing the impossible. Fly
to the moon? Fly to Jupiter? Saturn? All done to perfection. Incredibly difficult scientific and
engineering systems had to be invented, on a schedule, and had to work under
the watchful eye of the people on earth.
And JPL had never failed, unlike the other national labs, which had
experienced a more normal failure rate.
With this national energy crisis, JPL was
called upon to work its magic in interplanetary space exploration on the energy
and environment problems of earth.
JPL responded by undertaking lead responsibility for solar energy and
the electric and hybrid vehicle, and was deeply involved in alternative fuels,
underwater nuclear power plants, solar-powered satellites that could beam
energy back to earth, and everything in between.
Like many, I dove into this national
emergency, and suddenly found myself among JPL’s mix of academic and scientific
elite who were trying to solve these problems. I had no undergraduate education, let alone a degree, and
the highlight from my law school education was a professor giving me a B and
“That’s the highest
grade I’ve ever given to anyone who didn’t actually attend my class.”
Nevertheless, it was the perfect start for a
young kid just out of school to pursue the impossible dream of prosperity
coupled with energy independence and a clean environment. JPL expected to achieve the impossible,
and that suited me perfectly.
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JPL had put together a systems analysis
section, to support the scientific and engineering work and to meet the
nation’s need for policy formulation and analysis. More common today, systems analysis was in its middle
childhood at the time.
analysis involves a Noah’s ark of professionals, all looking at a challenge
from each of their unique perspectives: architects, operations researchers,
environmental engineers, economists (lots of economists), lawyers, biologists,
anthropologists, geographers—all kinds of people in the same boat.
systems analysis works right, all these professionals are rowing in the same
direction. When it doesn’t work
right, as my mom observed, “The
smartest people do the dumbest things.”
That’s how I know I’m a genius.
My Weird Education and Career
A look of horror spread across the face of my wife’s friend, a
professor at Stanford, as I described my checkered, out-of-the-box educational
history to her. Although, to be fair to myself, I actually am infinitely curious,
love to learn, and spent my time away from law classes studying engineering,
physics, and a bunch of other things while working two jobs—as a data
processing manager and as a musician playing in recording sessions.
The weirdest thing about my education is that, even though I went to
law school, passed the bar, developed and taught alternative energy law, worked
for and lectured at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Stanford, I went to
undergraduate school for only three months and then became a professional
musician. After barely making a
living as a musician, I took and passed the college equivalency exam and got
into law school.
I first tried Mid-Valley College of Law—the “best law school on Van
Nuys Boulevard”—a school distinguished by the fact that not one of its students
ever passed the bar exam. I
eventually transferred to a real law school, Whittier Law School, which wasn’t
And, as the professor who gave me the B noted, I didn’t exactly go
when I went, if you know what I mean.
I would stay just long enough to be counted for attendance purposes and
then get out of there as fast as possible.
What did get my complete focus was an
alternative energy device I had invented just a few months before starting law
school. It used solar, wind, and
biomass energy to supply all the electricity a home needed, with some left
over. I was very curious, since I
was in law school anyway, about what laws and regulations my invention might
My invention featured a windmill and solar
system that both produced heat.
The heat went into a storage tank that also used a burner for natural
gas and biomass (i.e. “bathroom burps”) generated around the home. All this stuff was incorporated into a
prefabricated garage. Although, as
it turned out, not commercially practical because of the size of the heat
storage required, it was a great platform for learning about energy because it
had more or less every technology and energy product
folded in. Fortunately, the legal and regulatory implications of the
device extended into the areas that became the big issues of the next decade.
I was given the freedom at law school to
concentrate on and write about alternative energy law, and this was before any
such class existed anywhere in the world.
As a result, I was one of the first students to study and then
teach alternative energy law.
My thanks to Dean Friesen, who declared:
“When someone is
describing the nature of the universe to you, unless they are floating six
inches above the ground it’s just an opinion.”
“When two men
are discussing the universe, the one thing you can be sure of is that theirs is
bigger than yours.”
I can’t tell you how often those thoughts came in handy…especially when
things did not go as expected.
JPL: Getting the Job
For the first National Renewable Energy Technology
Conference, held in Tucson, Arizona, I submitted two papers on solar energy and
both were accepted. I had recently
graduated from law school and was looking for a job.
When I received the program for the conference,
I called the other presenters and tried to subtly sound them out about recommending
possible employers. With their recommendations,
I interviewed at TRW and Fairchild Semiconductor, both of which were doing early
work in solar energy under various federal programs.
One conference speaker was from Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. He told me JPL didn’t use
the normal interview process. Rather,
prospective employees were first invited to give a seminar, and if that went well,
they were invited back to do a more standard interview. A seminar was organized, and I got paid
a couple hundred dollars as well! That
was big money for me then.
But first, I needed a topic for my seminar.
As a follow-up to my law review articles and
the speeches at the conference, I wondered what would happen if trying to build
a gigantic solar energy system. Sort
of a giant version of my invention.
Such giant solar and wind systems are common around the world now, but none
existed back then. What legal problems
would they face? How would they finance
it? Did different technologies raise
different legal issues? Did size matter?
I had recently given a lecture at the University
of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Engineering School based on this study of the
legal implications of large solar energy systems making and selling electricity. I decided to title my seminar at JPL “The
Legal Implications of a One Megawatt (Five Million Dollar) Solar Power Plant.” Unbeknownst to me, JPL had just gotten a
contract from Congress to write a report on “The Legal Implications of a One Megawatt
Solar Power Plant.”
name, same subject matter.
Sometimes you just seriously luck out. The dream was steaming down the track.
or Take $500 Million
JPL was the lead center in the United States for alternative energy in
the late 1970s and early 1980s.
One of JPL’s responsibilities was to recommend a budget for solar
electricity research for the coming year.
I was one of the junior staff people on the effort, and we worked day
and night for several weeks to prepare three options for the government to consider.
If I remember correctly, the “low” scenario was two billion dollars or
so, the “medium” was four and a half billion dollars, and the “aggressive”
scenario was seven or eight billion dollars. A Saturday conference call was arranged with the chief of
staff for the congressional committee, Henry Eaton, to brief him on our
On some of my earlier trips for JPL to Washington, DC, I had gotten to
know Henry. We had a few meals
together, and he’d helped us out on a bizarre problem we had with the
Department of Energy. Congress had
allocated ninety-eight million dollars to put solar electric systems on federal
buildings. For political reasons
too strange to recount here, the Department of Energy had decided to use the
money to put solar-powered fans on outhouses in the middle of national forests.
I’ll stop for a moment while you think about that one.
We were in the middle of a national energy crisis and the Department
of Energy wanted to put almost one hundred million dollars into outhouse
fans?! Henry got the department to
change course and install the solar systems in places where they were really
needed, which you’ve probably seen, around remote towers, gates, and harbors.
Anyway, we were all standing around the conference table, senior JPL
people briefing congressional staff and leaders, and we junior-staff types
getting documents, preparing numbers, and so on. They had been going at it for an hour or so, and the
Washington folks focused on the four-and-a-half-billion-dollar program. In the middle of all this, Henry asked,
“Is Bob Danziger there?”
“Yes, I’m here, Henry.”
“Bob, is the four-point-five-billion-dollar
scenario right? Are the numbers
“Yes, Henry, give or take five hundred million.”
And that’s what went to Congress.
About an hour later it hit me: give or take five hundred million! I
was making $19,500 a year at the time.
Give or take five hundred million?
Perp, Purple, PURPA
A law was passed in 1978 that changed the
course of energy history. This law
was the focus of that first JPL seminar about the legal implications of big
solar energy power plants. Until
this law was passed, only public utilities and governments could own power
plants in virtually the whole world.
Solar energy, wind energy, and energy conservation were not of much
interest to them, and many viewed all this alternative energy stuff as a
threat. The law was on their side,
so they could stop it.
JPL took a keen interest in the new law,
which was called the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, and I
was authorized to write a book about the law and the regulations because of
their potential impact on solar technology and other technologies JPL was
The next thirty years proved that the
predicted impacts of PURPA largely occurred as expected—enough alternative
energy has been installed worldwide to equal one whole United States’ worth of
electricity production. And almost
every one of those companies that opposed alternative energy now supports it.
SWEL and the Beautiful Blonde
When this energy law was passed, making it
legal for companies and individuals to own their own solar, wind, and other
alternative energy power plants, the regulations and guidelines for
implementing it were put together by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
(FERC). FERC is a powerful federal
agency little known to the public, but its influence in our daily lives is felt
every day—unless you don’t use electricity or gas. You could say we get FERC’ed every day.
As part of the process of implementing the
law, hearings were held in a handful of cities around the country, and they
were dull. Incredibly dull. If you think your life is dull, try ten
days of parsing public utility law; it’ll make you want to be a proofreader for
the white pages of the phone book.
The big hearing, though, the one where the
big guns came out, was in Washington, DC, in the old FERC offices near DC’s
Union Train Station, right down the block from the Capitol. The hearings in Washington were
scheduled for three mind-numbing days and promised to be a steady drone of
lobbyists and delusions of grandeur.
The staff actually had been fun, but the speakers had been snoozers.
then in walked a gentleman, probably in his late sixties, wearing a white suit,
white shoes, white fedora, red silk tie, and gold nugget cuff links. He was rocking an ebony cane with a
carved ivory handle and gold inlay.
On his arm was a drop-dead gorgeous blonde, probably twenty-eight years
old, also dressed in white—white silk dress five inches above the knee,
four-inch spike heels, seamed white fishnets, a pin overflowing with white
pearls, sparkling diamonds, sapphires, and a large ruby implying a flower. Her wedding ring, in a traditional
setting, had a rock the size of a cherry.
They registered to speak and found a spot in
the corner to begin the three-day wait.
He was one of the last speakers.
In the meantime, they’d stroll around the room, he leaning on the cane, and
she holding his arm so that her “ampleness” was well framed. We had two choices: we could focus on
the speakers—“Section 201 is silent on the propitious opportunity of
blah-blah-blah”—or we could look at them, and by them I mean her.
Each day the mystery deepened. Who was he? Who were they?
Where were they from? How
did that old guy get that girl?
They weren’t discourteous; we knew they had Southern accents. They nevertheless did not engage in
much conversation with the rest of the audience
Finally, after maybe a hundred speakers, he
was called upon to make his statement.
From the witness chair, he said he was representing SWEL
Electricity. That’s right, SWEL,
the same things our hearts and minds did when we saw that girl.
SWEL, it turned out, was a program started
by Oglethorpe Rural Electric Cooperative, the largest in the country, to use
the poop from cows, pigs, and other farm animals to make electricity. The idea was that if it took the manure
from fifty cows or the pig pies from 120 pigs to power a farm or something, the
farmers in the cooperative would each locate that number of animals at a
central location, where the manure would be collected and processed into
electricity. He wanted to make
sure the law didn’t prevent that kind of thing.
At the end of his testimony, a commissioner
said that he understood the man’s concerns, but had a question:
“What does SWEL stand for?”
“You take the first two
letters of swine, SW, and the first
two letters of electricity, EL, and
that’s what you get: SWEL—Swine
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These were the hearings that launched the
largest alternative energy, environmental, and economic happening ever in
energy, and all it took was a beautiful blonde and a whole bunch of pigs.
the “Rock” Back in Rocket
Oil isn’t always oil.
Sometimes it’s something like oil that is squeezed out of sand or shale
rock or coal. In fact, there’s far
more of the part of oil that we use (hydrocarbons) in these other things than
there is in oil itself.
These gooey or rock-hard types of oil need a lot of water and they
pollute, just like oil. Many of us
were and are researching ways of bringing up the good stuff, while leaving the
bad stuff like greenhouse gases and smog makers deep in the earth. Many of these underground energy
conversion systems require very large tunnels to process the rock and collect
JPL had a program to fund pet projects of scientists and engineers. A JPL engineer came in to present his
idea for building gigantic tunnels to our team, which was evaluating grant
requests. He noted that big
rockets are the same size as train tunnels—the perfect size for large-scale
recovery of these oil substitutes.
He got the bright idea to build a rocket that went down instead of up.
He excitedly exclaimed:
“What is the
earth? It is just thick space!”
He was very animated, which is always funny for a guy with pocket
protectors and a long-ignored hairdo.
But the thick space in this case was between the ears.
He also had the idea of building a tunnel from
New York to Los Angeles, two hundred miles beneath the surface (now that’s an escalator!),
that would have had these trains capable of traveling from coast to coast in
half an hour. When I asked him how
it worked, he said, “It spends most of the time slowing down.”
Jump Out of Cakes Too
Congress and the country wanted to know then,
just like today: how cheap does solar energy need to be to compete with fossil fuels? It might seem like a simple question, but
there were so many things we didn’t know that computer models were needed to figure
out what the questions were, let alone give us answers. No models existed, so JPL needed to make
had dozens of PhD economists, operations researchers, analysts, computer programmers,
engineers, and scientists working on this problem.
Twenty of us were sitting around waiting for
a conference call. A secretary popped
her head in and said there was a call for Dr. Brun. He assumed it was the call we were waiting for and put it on
the loudspeaker. The caller asked:
“Is this Dr. Brun?”
“Were you an engineering
professor at UCLA?”
This was a strange question.
We were expecting a call from a colleague in Washington to talk about
some administrative stuff.
“Well, I’m Bill Watson and
I’m the CEO of an advertising company in San Francisco. This might sound funny, but…next week is
Secretary’s Day, and the secretaries were looking through old copies of Playgirl magazine and voted you the man they
most wanted to see jump out of a cake.
Doctor, do you jump out of cakes?”
Twenty pairs of eyes turned slowly to Dr. Brun.
It turned out that, in addition to holding two PhDs and an MBA, he had
been a centerfold in Playgirl. Some guys. As a friend once said, “It’s not a talent pool; it’s a
talent puddle.” Dr. Brun was in
You might be interested to know that the financial model that came out
of this work was the foundation for thousands of models which came later and
resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars invested in alternative energy.
JPL encouraged its employees to teach and allowed flexibility in work
hours to accommodate the many people at the lab who taught at local schools.
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Corona-Norco State Prison
I was teaching at a few places, including
Corona-Norco State Prison, a medium-security prison east of Los Angeles that
had a program to train the inmates to install solar energy systems. During the two-year program, they would
learn the skills and get some experience so they hopefully could land a
good-paying job when they got out.
Corona-Norco Prison was built after WWII
from a military base given to the state by the army. The land and buildings had been owned by an Italian
millionaire before the army commandeered them for the war effort. The millionaire’s mansion had become
the headquarters and cafeteria for the prison. The prison cafeteria was in a room that featured forty-foot
painted ceilings and a fortune in grillwork.
The mansion also had a gold-plated swimming pool. Corona-Norco
Prison had, for real, a gold-plated swimming pool.
The students in the solar installer class
were a colorful group. To enter
the program, an inmate needed to have at least two years left on his sentence,
so none of the guys were choir boys.
For example, I was showing a picture of long lines of cars waiting for
gasoline during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and one of the swarthier inmates
asked me to stop. He walked over to the picture, pointed at a freeway
underpass, and said, “That’s where I used to buy my coke.”
And when I mentioned that, as installers,
they had to be careful what promises they made to the homeowner because their
employer could be liable for these, he said:
“I can say whatever I
want; they’ll never prove it.”
You could see why this guy was in prison.
Another fellow was clearly smarter than all
the other guys. I asked him where
he had gone to school. He told me
that he got his MBA at UCLA and his PhD in economics from the University of
Southern California. I inquired:
“What the hell are you
doing in here?”
He thought a moment, then
said, “To be honest with you, I was running my business out of a briefcase, and
it was snowing all the time.”
A few weeks later, some of the first inmates
were about to graduate from the program.
One asked the instructor what happened to graduates. He told them that they would be sent to
prisons that were installing solar systems to get some hands-on experience
before being released. The inmate
asked what prisons had installations going on. The instructor replied San Quentin and Soledad, which are
maximum-security prisons with frequent brutal violence, in contrast to
medium-security Corona-Norco with the gold-plated swimming pool.
A sudden chill swept across the room.
The inmate said, “Let
me get this straight. When I graduate,
you’re going to transfer me from this nice medium-security prison to a war
The instructor affirmed this.
“I ain’t graduating,”
said the inmate.
He walked from the room, and every single
other inmate did the same. End of
program. A little fender bender on the road to
widespread solar energy.
Teaching At the Real Law School
I was also teaching alternative energy law
at Whittier Law School, my alma mater, and one of my students missed the
final. She claimed her husband had
been diagnosed with a brain tumor the day before and she had to take care of
the situation. I went to the dean
to get permission to give her another final, and he said:
“Oh, did she use the
brain tumor excuse again?”
Turned out it was the third straight
semester she’d done this. A for
creativity, F for redundancy!
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I had one assignment for the students that
required them to speak to a businessperson in the solar industry, the gasoline
station business, and a big oil or utility company. The one question they were required to ask was: “How often
do you see a lawyer?”
The solar folks saw a lawyer once a year or
so, to learn about new government incentives. The gas station people depended on the oil company
lawyers. The oil company or
utility executives spent over four hours a day with them.
The best lesson, though, came from the gas
station operators who had been fined five thousand dollars per day for charging
more than allowed for gasoline.
They made twenty thousand dollars per day extra by charging more and
would just cut a check for the five-thousand-dollar fine, no questions
asked—needed to get out and do some more pumping.
General and Space Stories
These next stories don’t have much to do with energy. JPL was mainly in the deep space
business. Most of the lab was
engrossed in the deep parts of space that only satellites could get to. Our energy work was a small part of
JPL’s work, and it seeped into the lab’s consciousness only occasionally.
On the other hand, the space stuff was very
cool—major-league toys, exquisite beauty, exotica. We always tried to get involved where we could. It was great fun and a nice vacation
from the urgency of our energy and environmental work. The next few pages include some of the
The Sex in Space Program
I love this story.
JPL got the assignment to design the conjugal bed for the
International Space Station.
Apparently, folks trying to join the two-hundred-mile-high club had a
problem: when one person thrusts against another in space, they both go in the
direction of the thrust until a wall gets in the way.
Volunteers for this “research and development” effort registered at an
all-time high. Jacuzzis all over
Pasadena were commandeered as simulated weightlessness conjugal test facilities
that required careful scientific (and sometimes engineering) attention. That is my story and I’m sticking to
We interviewed a lot of people to get suggestions, and boy, did we get
them. Velcro garters, bungee
cords, padded rooms with handholds, fur handcuffs, giant clamshells, and
something involving ice cube trays all received multiple endorsements. So much so that, after a while, we
often ended interviews with comments like:
“Ya know, there’s a guy (or girl) you
should meet. You two have a lot in
It became a sort of dating service. At least one couple is still together, a happy little
A PhD in
I heard on
the radio one day that something was stuck on the Voyager spacecraft and threatened the whole mission. Then I heard on the radio that “JPL
scientists had sent up new programming from the ground” and had solved the
problem. I asked one of the Voyager scientists if he knew what the
“new programming” was. He
explained that something was stuck inside the satellite, so they programmed a
camera arm to fully extend and then rebound to strike the satellite body right
near the stuck part. This new
genius science programming stuff was that they
My first day on the job, I was in a van going to the JPL personnel
office in the pouring rain. I
remarked to the guy sitting next to me, “It’s raining.”
He asked, “Are you sure?”
I asked, “What else could it possibly be?”
He said, “Water falling from the sky.”
I asked, “What do you do?”
He replied, “I’m the chief meteorologist for
I said, “You know too much; it’s raining.”
Uranus? Is There Another
Early that first day at JPL, I was at my desk when a brown-haired
middle-aged man with a slight paunch and a leather jacket wheeled his bicycle
into our room. He took off his
leather jacket. Hung up his
helmet. Kicked off his shoes. Took
off his pants and hung them on a hook, and proceeded to sit cross-legged in
his mighty-whitey underwear on one of the gray army surplus office chairs we
used. He then pulled out a
restaurant-sized jar of peanut butter and
a serving spoon, took a big shmear of the peanut butter, stuck it in his mouth, finally noticed
me taking in the show, burbled a hello through the gooey peanut mess in his
mouth and started laughing. Rich
Caputo and I have been friends ever since.
Because of Rich’s sartorial business attire in flagrante, the typists
(yes, we used typists back then, a now nearly extinct species vaguely related
to the triceratops) would walk into our office backward to avoid looking at
Rich’s “fashion statement.” Rich wrote speeches for the director of the lab, so
the typists would come in waves to pick up changes and deliver drafts. They’d walk backward a few feet into
the room, then hold the papers out behind them for Rich to take. Sometimes they’d just leave the papers
at the door; then Rich would poke his head out, and, if the coast was clear,
grab the papers and jump back in the room—fast.
Rich is crazy, talented, brilliant, nice, funny—a great mentor for
me. He was also responsible for at
least three extraordinary scientific and engineering masterpieces. The best had to do with the Voyager spacecraft, which is the first
man-made object to have left the solar system, and after more than thirty years
is still sending information back to earth. Although the Voyager
was originally designed to run out of energy after passing Saturn (around four
years), Rich and six others bootlegged the materials and modified the design so
it would go for many decades, not just a few years. I personally think Voyager
is one of the ten greatest engineering achievements of all time, certainly of
the twentieth century, and Rich was one of the greats who made it happen.
The second masterpiece led to the largest natural gas finds in
history. Rich noted that millions
of years ago the earth’s atmosphere was mostly natural gas, and asked:
“Where did all that gas go?”
Since the time that question was asked by Rich, we’ve found gas in
coal and shale, trapped under lakes, and in thousands of places no one
The third masterpiece was a very simple way of figuring how much of
what we pay for energy, and even medical care, is “social costs.”
When you do all that, I guess you don’t have to wear pants if you
don’t want to.
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Three months later, JPL had just successfully flown the Voyager spacecraft by Jupiter, and it
was on its way to Saturn. Congress
had that day authorized JPL to continue the Voyager
mission for several more years.
The new authorization was for something called the “Grand Tour,” in
which the spacecraft would travel past Uranus and Neptune before flying out of
our solar system into interstellar space.
This is what Rich and his cohorts were dreaming of when they bootlegged
the nuclear battery. Man’s first
attempt to leave our solar system and communicate beyond it was made possible
by not following orders. So
Bruce Murray, JPL’s director, was worried about the press conference
happening in the next hour, with live hookups to dozens of countries. He showed up at our door and said,
“Rich, I can’t go on television and tell five hundred million people that we’re
flying to Uranus [pronounced ‘yer anus’].
What do I do?!” Rich, with
a sandwich’s worth of peanut butter in his mouth, answered, “Call it Uranus
[pronounced ‘urine us’].” Murray
exclaimed, “That’s a great idea; that’s exactly what I’ll do!” And that’s what he did.
That night on NBC’s national news broadcast, the sonorous anchor, Tom
Brokaw, announced at the end of the program that NASA/JPL was flying to “urine
us”; then he looked in the camera and cracked up.
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One of the coolest things about Voyager
was the thick gold record secured to the side of the spacecraft. Pictographic instructions on how to
assemble a player to listen to the sounds were engraved into a plaque alongside
the gold record.
The record is truly one of the great assemblages of human sounds ever
collected. It has superb examples
of music from every corner of the globe, along with lovingly selected sounds of
babies, heartbeats, trains, whales, and other samples. And in addition to these prime examples
of our sonic world, leading off the record are fifty-five speeches from world
leaders in their own languages.
Think about this a second.
This is humankind’s first organized attempt to leave our solar system
and to tell unknowable but knowing organisms about ourselves. Billions have been spent, and the
skill, hopes, and dreams of almost everyone on earth are riding in some ancient
way on this thing. The eternal
quest to reach out to other worlds.
And the first thing this poor alien has to do is sort out fifty-five
different languages?! I don’t know
about you, but my English is OK and I know a bit of Spanish and some tourist Thai—that’s
my max. I know a couple of people
who speak six languages, but fifty-five?
On the side of the spacecraft are instructions for a RECORD
PLAYER. A record player. Most
people alive today have never seen or heard a record player, which have now
been replaced by iPods and CD players, which didn’t exist when Voyager was launched. And this record player has to play
pictures, too. Dealt with RPMs on
your record player lately? Maybe
your grandfather did when he was a kid.
There are a few really funny things in those speeches, though. First of all, the recording starts with
a few words from then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim. It later emerged that Waldheim was in
fact a relic of the Nazis from World War II. So the first words this inhabitant of another world is going
to hear will be spoken in heavily Austrian-accented English: “I send greetings
on behalf of the pipple [people] of our planet.” From a Nazi.
After a babble of a dozen or so languages, a voice comes on and says,
like an emcee at a club in the New York Catskills, “HELLO,
EXTRATERRESTRIALS.” And then a
little while later, another voice says: “As you probably already know, we are a
question-mark-shaped country on the west coast of Africa.”
“As you probably already know”?
Can they see lines from space?
Do they already know that Kurt Waldheim was a Nazi? What an interesting set of assumptions
the speakers must have had.
The alien is going to need a space martini after listening to this
thing. At least it’ll have a
I recently had a chance to go back to JPL and give a speech. Part of our job had been to predict the
energy future twenty or thirty years hence. That was thirty-one years ago, so I had the chance to talk
about what we’d gotten right and what we’d gotten wrong.
The best thing about the speech, though, was that a full-scale
engineering replica of Voyager was
right next to the podium, while the Cassini
spacecraft flanked the other side of the stage. Both were wrapped in the shiniest gold foil you can
imagine. A display about the
sounds on the gold record was at the base of the stage stairs. That was so cool.
We’d definitely gotten some things right: the hybrid and electric car,
oil prices, underground gasification, personal computers, even specific
corruption and criminality. But we
missed a few things too: the Internet and cell phones.
Lesson: everyone just has a batting average when it comes to
predicting the future. I once made
something like a hundred great decisions in a row—and then screwed up for the
rest of the decade.
There Is a Solar System in My Oatmeal
I’m having breakfast one day in the JPL cafeteria and start chatting
with some guy sitting next to me.
We have the usual work conversation: “What do you do?” (Navigator
for a future mission to Jupiter to be managed by JPL called Galileo.) “What do you do?” (Energy
He explained to me that, because of the Challenger Space Shuttle crash and tragedy, solid fuels could no
longer be used to power interplanetary space missions, but liquid fuels weren’t
powerful enough to get the spacecraft to Jupiter as in the earlier Voyager missions. They had no way to get their Galileo
satellite to Jupiter.
I was eating oatmeal. He
took it and smoothed out the surface, arranging raisins and walnuts to
represent our solar system—“This walnut is the sun and this walnut is
Jupiter, this small raisin is
earth and this cube of sugar is Venus”—until he had the whole solar system in
there. Then he started drawing
lines in the oatmeal with his finger while withdrawing into his own
thoughts. He drew some circles
around raisin-earth and explained that you could go in fast orbits around earth
and slingshot to Jupiter, but you still needed more energy than could be
provided by liquid fuels. His
slingshot mimicry sent oatmeal flying toward the big sun of a walnut, and he
said, “The orbit’s not big enough.”
Then he started musing to himself, “But you know, if we made the orbit
all the way between Venus [sugar cube] and Earth [small raisin], we could build
up enough energy to get to Jupiter!”
He was drawing circles all over the cereal now, and oatmeal was flying
everywhere, including on my shirt and his arms. He got really excited and ran from the table, leaving my
oatmeal to congeal and the planets to drip off the table and onto my pants.
And believe it or not, that’s exactly what they did. They called it “VEEGA,” for
Venus-Earth-Earth Gravity Assist.
Galileo would slingshot once by Venus, and twice by Earth, gathering
enough momentum to get to distant Jupiter. And it all started in my oatmeal.
Space has taken up enough space,
back to the energy stories…