Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Believe

Believe is a word that now has significantly negative connotations for me. It wasn’t always so. When I was growing up back in the 1950s, if someone asked me about my religious beliefs, I would tell them that I was an Episcopalian with Episcopalian parents whom I respected and loved. I might have even been able to tell them some of the reasons why I was so strongly an Episcopalian instead of a Roman Catholic (I had Roman Catholic cousins) or a Baptist.

What has changed for me? This winter I received a copy of Rutgers – The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of The State University of New Jersey. I get this magazine because I am a graduate of Rutgers, as were my father and grandfather. Rutgers holds a special place in my heart.

On the cover of this issue is a photograph of a young man in a wheelchair with the title True Believer. Under that title is a brief description of an article – “Two years after his injury, Eric LeGrand reveals how his life has been a blessing and why he will walk again.”

The rather long article “True Believer” tells us about LeGrand’s severe injury to his spine when he was playing football for Rutgers in October 2010. His back was broken in two places. He is now paralyzed below his shoulders. This is what happens with such a break. I don’t believe he will ever walk again. Significant injuries in football – both “amateur” and professional – are beginning to draw attention. A few people think professional football will soon go away because of the inability to get people to come into the field. They could be wrong, but they are raising valid points.

What makes LeGrand’s case especially bad is that Rutgers football players now have the word BELIEVE on their uniforms. I don’t know how voluntary this is. Still, though, at least some people in the Rutgers community are supporting this young man in his irrational beliefs. Another factor making this bad is the fact that the new Rutgers president – Robert Barchi – is a professional doctor. I can see the doctor and others in the Rutgers community trying to help this unfortunate young man. Encouraging his irrational beliefs doesn’t fit that behavior set. Using what happened to LeGrand to call for reforms in football and other sports seems a far better idea.

Another Rutgers event – or should I say set of events? – that is drawing national attention is the recording of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players verbally and physically. At least that has resulted in the firing of Rice and the athletic director. Still, though, they departed with huge bonuses.

What has Rutgers turned into? It certainly isn’t the school my father and grandfather attended. It even seems different from the public university that I attended.

I have some especially strong memories of Rutgers sports when I was there. I spent four years helping the track and cross country teams as a team manager. I saw quite a bit of Coach Wallach and the young men who competed. Those associations gave me a highly favorable impression of runners, other team members and Coach Wallach. Those positive impressions helped get me into running, first occasionally, then regularly while still in my 20s. When I was in my 40s, I finally got into competitive running. I even finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 1996. Some years after that I got the now retired Coach Wallach’s home address from Rutgers. I wrote him a long letter describing my running career and how he and Rutgers had helped get me started at that. Soon after sending that letter, I got a phone call from Coach Wallach. He told me that my letter brought tears to his eyes. He was glad to have helped in the ways he did. Can you imagine someone like Coach Rice having that kind of impact on a young man’s life? I can’t.

Another set of beliefs has affected my life in even more serious ways. When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, there was a good bit of programming about space travel on TV and in the movies. I can remember things like Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and more. These stories were presented as things the human race would be doing in the future. Werner von Braun even made appearances on some Walt Disney shows talking about the near term future of space exploration. Mention was not made – at least that I can remember – of his German past and the things that his team had done in Nazi Germany. I even remember reading a good bit of science fiction that I found in the library. I can remember my parents buying for me Tom Swift, Junior science fiction novels. These things, plus some talents in that direction, led me to begin studying for a career in physics, astronomy or something similar.

I entered Rutgers as a freshman physics major in 1963. My years at Rutgers were ones of great turmoil for the school. It was by then a major state university. It wasn’t my father’s school. Still, though, I managed to get a decent education in physics. I think I would have done much better if the school had been smaller, though. Physics majors developed the impression that there were too many physics majors for the faculty. And engineering majors? Lots of them dropped out of that field in their freshman year.

Right after Rutgers I started work as a physicist at IBM. Shortly thereafter I was drafted. It turned out that my father had an enemy on the draft board. What did I do in the Army? Besides doing some physics work and some computer programming in California, I had huge conflicts with the hierarchy. After the Army I went back to IBM. One older woman there said I’d changed in the two years I was away. I lasted two years at IBM. Then I was dismissed in a budget cutting move. When I asked my manager why I was being let go instead of a couple of people lots of us viewed as incompetent, he replied “They like it here. They get along with management.” I’d tried doing my best work. That sometimes meant disagreeing with management when their ideas turned out to be wrong.

That was the summer of 1971. I’d already some grad work in physics at Vassar College at IBM’s expense. I went over to Vassar and explained my situation. The faculty warmly welcomed me as a full time student. The next year was good in many ways. The following year I transferred to the State University of New York in Albany as a Ph.D. student. By December I was fed up. I decided to switch into psychology. The next several years I spent studying psychology, first again at Rutgers, then at Columbia.

What got me interested in space again? In 1977 I read a book by Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill titled “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.” It claimed that such things were going to happen in the near term future. In the book I learned about the L5 Society – a group dedicated to making this wonderful future happen. I joined. I will note that I was one of the more moderate members. I tended to be that way in all sorts of ways. Still, though, I thought this was a rational belief.

I also returned to tech fields as a computer programmer for the State of New Jersey. The L5 work was a hobby for me – an important one, but a hobby. I even joined a professional group in the field – the American Astronautical Society. I attended some L5 events, some science fiction conventions, some AAS events and more.

By 1990 I considered L5 colonies to be far in the future. I doubted I would ever leave Earth for even a short time. Still, though, I thought the work was worth supporting. In 1990 I also answered an ad in Space Times, the monthly general publication of AAS. By March I was working at Goddard Space Flight Center. I thought I would be spending the rest of my career at NASA.

The group I joined was part of the supercomputer center. The center was badly managed. I still was able to make good contributions to the work at Goddard and elsewhere.

Then in 1999 I was told to quit or be fired. I managed to get a new job right away. Still, though, I was unhappy at this turn of events. The new company was much better led. It was a small company, though. Small companies started going out of business after 9/11 for reasons not at all related to the contributions they were making to society. I was briefly unemployed. I started work again as a CDC contractor in May 2002.

The Columbia accident happened in 2003. I began giving talks about NASA at Mensa events. The talks were well received. At the end of one in March 2004, a career NASA civil servant stood up, told us a bit about himself – and then proceeded to praise my remarks. That weekend he told me NASA needed people like me. That set my next course. In May 2004 my job was terminated at the CDC. I started looking into other things to do. After a Rutgers Club of DC talk by a professional lobbyist, I got involved in politics as a volunteer. Maryland Democrats welcomed me. In September I joined another professional aerospace group – the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They gave me a warm welcome as well. I thought I was on my way to helping an industry I thought important for the future of humanity improve in ways implied as necessary by the Columbia investigation.

The next few years were very interesting. Because of AIAA, I – along with everybody else in AIAA – was invited to a Aerospace Summit organized by Maryland’s Governor’s Workforce Investment Board. The day was interesting. A few months later we were invited to a follow up meeting. At that meeting I was unanimously chosen to lead an industry collaboration committee assigned the task of creating a Maryland Aerospace Association. Some people saw me as the paid executive director.

I now believed I was on my to a paying career I could be proud of. I thought I had met people who appreciated my talents and my commitment.

Things started changing in 2007. Maryland industry decided not to fund a new organization. This was essentially done behind my back. No one with any power said to me “We like what you did. Would you consider coming to work for us?”

In 2007 I was invited to a Hillary Clinton public policy breakfast by Lori Garver. It cost me $1000 to get in. I submitted a policy paper on workforce issues. It was ignored.

When Obama won in 2008, I thought I had some sort of chance at paying work. In December, the same day as Steny Hoyer’s holiday party, there was an article in the Washington Post about problems with the NASA transition which was being led by Garver. At the party that evening, I offered to help. That got an immediate positive response from Hoyer. That was the last I heard.

In January 2010 I got another award from AIAA for my public policy work in 2009. In February I was fired from my volunteer position.

It’s now 2013. NASA culture still isn’t nearly the way it needs to be. It is still too much the old authoritarian way that has been discredited. Other tech fields seem too much like that as well.

Beliefs I once held strongly have been severely weakened. Reality hasn’t gone the way I thought it would – and the way people told me it would.

I don’t know what is next for me. I can say now that reasonable beliefs about my world no longer seem reasonable. Too many people are asking people to believe nonsense – see my first story.

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