Linenger's Letters to his Son

March 13, 1997
Good report on you from Mommy"

Dear John:

I sure got a good report on you from Mommy today.

I'm impressed with the new things you can do. Get Mommy's gloves for her when she is leaving the house. Grab your own boots and gloves when Mommy says "okay John, time to go for a walk". Select the peach-apple-pear book from your collection of books when Mommy asks for it. Walk in the snow. Crawl up, and now down, the stairs. And actually listen through a whole bedtime story without trying to rip out the pages!

When I heard that you broke through some crusty ice into mud up to your knees--I thought, wow; he really must be getting big. Breaking through ice in Russia in the middle of the winter means your weight is getting up there. At least thirty pounds I'd bet.

I'm staying about the same. Look about the same. Feel about the same. Think that you will have no problem recognizing me when I return.

One change that I've noticed in me: I feel very comfortable and competent up here in space.

The competent part may surprise you. But if you saw the varied list of experiments that I'm conducting, maybe you'd understand. One day I'm looking at microbiological samples, the next processing metals in a furnace, and the next observing how flames behave in space . Your self-confidence wanes a bit, no matter how much training you do. You are here alone. The top-notch specialists who worked so hard to prepare the experiment are on the ground. And it's on your shoulders to execute.

The opposed-flow flame experiment is a good example. The equipment consists of an igniter coil encircling one end of a cellulose sample, which in turn is wrapped around a ceramic core. Heat sensors probe near the surface, and an oxygen sensor sniffs the air. A solenoid-activated vacuum bottle sucks in air samples during the burn. The sample and probes are contained in a miniature wind tunnel which allows me to vary the rate of airflow. The whole kit and caboodle is inside a sealed, darkened glovebox, with shrouded cameras peering in. Quite a complex little set-up.

I'm not only getting through this experiment, but I'm expanding it a bit, based on my real time observations. For example, by the time I got to the eighth and final flame-test sample today, I had enough feel for the behavior of fire in space to predict that it would not ignite at the prescribed air flow rate. This is an important piece of information in and of itself; so I ran the tunnel at this rate to start. But I slowed the photography interval a bit, in order to buy time to later increase the flow rate and observe whether it would ignite at the higher flow.

A programmed machine can't do that. You need a trained human observer, a scientist, to do that. Human observation and intervention give us better data, better understanding.

Peach-apple-pear--guess that you are a good observer also. When I get home, you can spend lots of time showing off your new skills to your father. You make me so proud, John.

Love you. Enjoy your bedtime story, and pleasant dreams. Give another kiss to Mommy for me, please. I'll be watching over you.


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