The Pluto team, by Kyle Cassidy

Last Saturday, I had a little brainwave about producing a portrait shoot of the New Horizons team (the media had all decamped and suddenly things were quiet and nerdy again) and I called Kyle Cassidy, and Kyle called Slate. He hopped a train down to DC and we set up a nerdshoot. We managed to get 42 sciencey people connected with the New Horizons Pluto mission photographed and quoted, and Slate published a nice essay with 16 of them featured. You can see it here, or click the image below.

Kyle wrote it up on his blog here, and there is a full gallery of all 42 people we managed to catch for portraits here, if you’d like to see them all. It was fun to arrange- and our timing was accidentally perfect, because Brian May was still around and Kyle was able to take a stereo image of him, which you can see at the bottom of the page.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 1.41.14 PM


And here is Brian May’s published version of Kyle’s stereo shot of him. Most excellent!


View it with his Owl steroscopic viewer, which he is showing off in the photo.


As Bill said when he introduced the science panel to present the first encounter results:
“Mind. Blown.”

It was certainly how we felt when what Alan Stern had been calling the “New York Times Dataset” (the first clearly resolved flyby images) did in fact go up on the front page of the New York Times, just like it had always been there. The mission was beautifully, perfectly on target, flown through every keyhole and with all instruments performing to spec. The team could see that the data storage devices were full of just the right amounts of data; could it be possible that it was time to let out the breath?

Orkan and Jeff

It felt surreal, beautiful. Above, Jeff Moore, with Orkan standing by (probably Tweeting a photo of it). If you know anyone who has an extra copy of this issue, by the way, we would love to send it on to one of the science team who wasn’t able to get one – leave a comment if you have one to give!

Bill’s been interviewed for many things, and people email or Facebook and say, “I saw Bill on TV!” but we’ve seen almost nothing – we’ve just been living, and not watching the news beyond the official press conferences and data releases.

He’ll be giving the Geology & Geophysics summary for the final presser this Friday, which is is nice. He’s a good choice to open and close the show, being sensible, senior, and very synthesis-minded.

Pluto Data Down

Team, family, friends and media gathered in the auditorium of the Kossiakoff Center at APL to view the first data down from the flyby

So many features on Pluto or Charon can be understood in the context of other features on other planets, moons, asteroids or comets that humankind has gone to great effort to study, to comprehend. Each timestep in our advancement is on the shoulders of previous effort.


photo by Michael Soluri /APL

Everyone is leaking around the mental edges, there is so much high-test fuel going in. I feel periodically like a garden snake that accidentally swallowed a giant ball of something. It has to untendril in foreground before it can all sink in. Much is lost to the experience; we try to take notes, but we mostly fail.

The past week has been whirly; Bill’s been mostly with the science team, and I’ve been with the media, or working, seeing friends. It’s nice to be able to hop a train and go into DC, or walk over to lunch from APL. There is a great Italian restaurant just a block away.

people I love Pluto encounter

At Italian lunch with Don Davis, Emily Lakadawalla, Dave Grinspoon, Jennifer Goldspoon, Carter Emmart, David, Pam, Fran Bagenal and others

Don Davis and Carter Emmart Pluto Encounter

Don Davis and Carter Emmart

Godfather Team

A Godfatherish looking dinner in DC with Jeff Moore, Alan Howard, the Spencers, Pam, Bill, Orkan, Dave and Jennifer.
Kelly Beatty and Kate McKinnon pluto encounter

Kelly Beatty, science writer and reporter, and I, during one of the pressers in the K Center auditorium

liam rocket engine

Liam at the launch of the spacecraft, which looked like this (photo by Ben Cooper)


we have no idea whose car this is, do you?

Mr Mars

Below, the gorgeous Pam Engebretson with Don Davis, space artist

Pam Engebretson and Don Davis

A few days ago, a particularly apt cartoon began spreading like a virus on the Internets, and the dig was justly earned by Tyson when he gave an interview (after seeing the glorious and entirely planetary surfaces of Pluto) reminding us all that Pluto is not a planet in his solar system.

Which is nice, because that means he must be moving to a different one. Click the image to see the full (and much ruder) four-panel cartoon with credits. Honestly, I like it better just like this. It says it all.
Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 2.09.43 PM

All sorts of impressive individuals are around, and so there is someone for almost anyone to fangirl or fanboy on. I was most excited to meet Yanping Guo, who did the trajectory calculations and design, and Alex Parker, who did some of my favorite data visualizations. Check out his page. I won’t shut up about how much I love his Beyond Neptune. Painted Stone is Alex’s current favorite.

Also awesome was sitting behind Buzz Aldrin during the first day’s science presentations, and seeing Brian May (astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen) here at APL for the last two days. It was thrilling for me, as I’m a fan – I’ve always liked it that he was a scientist as well as one of my favorite guitarists. Shoutout to Pam Engebretson for arranging it with Brian.

He spoke briefly yesterday to a hall packed with families and Pluto fans, and said that when he was advised to choose between science and music when he was a kid, he just said, “Why?” ignored them, and did both. He encouraged everyone to follow their dreams.

Brian May Keep Your Dreams Pluto Encounter

Sitting between two rock stars. I invited Kyle down for a photoshoot, which is being turned into a really cool piece that will likely run tomorrow – I’ll post a link when it’s up.

Brian May, Kate McKinnon and Kyle Cassidy at Pluto Encounter

Brian is here as a scientist, an enthusiast, and he’s got plenty to contribute (you should see his gorgeous little OWL 3-D stereo viewer). He missed the encounter, but that was only because he stayed in England to stand up for animal rights, which I love him for.

Dave and Paul Pluto

David and Paul Schenk, playing with Alan’s flags at the Flyby countdown, photo Bri Date

It was hard for us to take the flags too seriously. I hugely appreciate the US for footing the bill for the mission, but of course the American government has also perped so much misery and needless expense of war that sending science crafts to space is frankly the least they can do.

And because I do feel so deeply un-nationalistic about scientific achievement, I was deeply touched to see that two of the first three main geologic features on Pluto were named for explorers from across Terra; Pluto now sports Sputnik Planum as the name for the mysterious ice plains in the heart-shaped feature, and the tall ice mountains nearby have been called the Norgay Montes, after Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer who lead Sir Edmund Hillary’s team up Everest.

Thank you Jeff Moore and the team  for nudging those public-suggested names into such elegant spaces on the planet.

MORE SOON… to quote Leslie Young, deputy project scientist of the mission, “Squee!!”

ALSO: don’t miss Don Davis’s lovely writeup of his experiences… first firefly, first look at Pluto.

Kate and Don Davis



We did it, humans!

This was the photo released this morning, as the New Horizons craft began the flyby sequence of the planet Pluto and its five (or more?) lovely moons. Much rejoicing, after decades of work.

Here are Paul Schenk and Bill, watching live as the spacecraft trajectory intersects Pluto.

Paul Schenck and Bill McKinnon Pluto Flyby

bits and bobs

Yesterday, driving up the mountain road to my grandma’s service, my Miata started making a strange, very mechanical, very metal on metal sort of sound in high revs in 2nd and 3rd gears. I moved carefully up the hill for the last few miles, using only first and fourth gears (a bit tricky) and when I parked up at the family graveyard, I could smell the gear oil. I hadn’t realized that the tiny leak in my rear seal had become more than tiny; perhaps the insane heat of June helped things along.

Luckily, I was up a mountain with my family, who are competent and self-reliant and have a full shop, instead of up a mountain with some other less competent family with no shop. You can’t refill my transmission oil from above; heck, I’d never even seen the plug before. I couldn’t have solved this on my own.

My cousin Norman Harris, who is about the sweetest man on Earth (unless you count his dad, Lynn, or his brother, Les) put my little roadster up on the lift, unscrewed the plug and sure enough, I had just enough of a slick of oil left in there to know that I hadn’t wrecked my transmission. I’m glad I could hear the high whine in that rumble.

Norman Harris putting gear oil in my Miata

My cousin Kelly came along for the fun (or was it Shelly? they are identical twins) as did Evan, and we had a nice bonding time in the nice clean shop. We talked about driving, I told them the story of the little Miata, how it was actually the very car that would have been mine if I’d been able to order it when my uncle told me to in 1988, and we all laughed, and looked fondly at it, admiring its sturdy metal construction, the pretty arrangement of the engine.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be a Ranch funeral if someone didn’t somehow have to coast down the hill, or magic their way up it. I remember an enchanted and spooky coast down after my father’s service, where my rental car was out of gas and I was trying to remember what my Dad said once about being able to coast all of the way down from the Ranch to the Circle K if you handled the turn onto Mission Road correctly, and had the stones not to brake over the rollercoaster hills. (We made it.)

While looking for photos online of our family graveyard, I found an interesting piece from Alliance Conservation about my family land, and the sensible way that they manage it.

In that article, I also found an amazing photo of my cousin Ray McGee, taken by Scott Baxter.


Today, as we rocket along our own trajectories, Evan and I are off to meet up with Bill, Bri and Liam in Maryland (APL, Johns Hopkins) to take part in the Pluto encounter.

Bill has waited decades for this moment, as have so many others I’ll see there tomorrow. I feel a bit like a superball, here we go, sproing, back to the Eastern Seaboard. I’ll be around until the end of the month, stirring up trouble from Boston to DC. I hope to see Sagdeev again, perhaps introduce him to the Pluto team, play more chess at the Cosmos Club.

This photo (published yesterday by NASA) is maybe the last glimpse that New Horizons will have of the side of the little planet that faces the moon Charon.

Pluto, Charon face, July 11, 2015

I had no idea it would be so beautiful, but I can’t imagine why I am surprised.

one more goodbye

My grandma Dena passed away last week, and she was 101. I loved her very much; we had a deep bond. This was her, just before her 100th birthday.

Grandma Dena at 100

Yesterday, at her service, a cousin came up to me and said, “Even if I didn’t know who you were, I’d know who you were, you look just like your mother. I just loved your mother.”

That was about the last thing I expected to hear (especially since my grandma was on my dad’s side of the family) but it was sweet. My mom and my grandma were close too.

My family on my father’s side is frankly extraordinary… it would take some time to tell their tale, and even if I did, no one would believe me; its colours are as absurd, as unreal, at the desert my grandma loved to paint.

grandma dena red rocks


There is a family graveyard up in the mountains south of Tucson, where my great-grandfather and his companions made their home at the turn of the last century. My grandmother was born there, in the summer of 1914, and now she is buried by my grandpa Charlie, her parents, her brothers, sisters, cousins, and her sons, Randy and Stan.

Stan was my father, who died in his 60s. Randy was his younger brother, who died when he was only 13.

Randy’s death was an accident that was no one’s fault, and happened while I was a babe in womb. His loss almost destroyed my grandparents; he was a sweet, funny boy, and their youngest. My grandma was still in very tough shape when I was born some months later. The circumstances of my birth were difficult, my mother was hospitalized for months, and I, newborn, fully aware, and furious to have awakened in a crib on Terra, refused to eat.

My father did the only thing he knew to do, and flew me home into my grandmother’s arms, and we saved each other, and that was that. Although I forgot (in the way that babies must) who I was and where I came from, I never forgot the relief for each of us when she took my tiny little body into her arms and told me that everything was going to be all right, all right.

Grandma Dena and Kate July 2013

I don’t know that anything was really ever really all right for her again after Randy died. Certainly my grandfather changed forever; he died almost 40 years later, still angry at a God he didn’t even know if he believed in. My grandma, though, was made of different stuff, and had enough bandwidth to feel everything at once.

Like my mother did, she helped me understand that I could be both wild and free, destroyed and undestroyable, fearless and thoughtful. And she was truthful in a simple, clear way; however unlikely, however unbelievable, she said and she painted what she saw in her everyday life.

century plant, grandma Dena


It felt very strange to take this painting off of her living room wall. But it also helped me understand that she wasn’t coming back to that small house again.

And in a way, the painting really was of yesterday; the vigor of the plants still alive, still blooming, brought into context by the beauty of the other plant, finished, but heavy with seed. The death of the one gives full context to the life and ephemeral nowness of the others.


An East Coast whirl

It is lovely (and hot) to be home in Arizona for a few weeks. The rains started without me, but I am not important to the rain. It’s the other way round.

June was intense. I’ve tried to take notes as things have rocketed along, but everything has been so tightly packed that there hasn’t been much leftover space to process. I found Boston magnificent, the wedding of Dave Grinspoon and Jenna Goldsmith delightful, Provincetown glorious, and DC like an East Coast New Orleans. I could easily spend time there, and plan to add it into my rotation.

pink house on SE 6 DC

Just a night ago, I was sitting in the Cosmos Club in DC, a place I had never penetrated before, playing chess with Roald Sagdeev, the former head of the Russian space agency IKI. He was a chess champion in Russia; it was both foolish and delightful to play him. He beat me twice, but I am not ashamed. I came to DC to meet him, to connect with him, to hear his stories of sitting down with Reagan, with Gorbachev, with Edward Teller, Carl Sagan. And oh, did I.

Meeting Sagdeev is an interesting example of an experience that strongly affected me, but could pass by as a delightful, essentially personal moment unless I make something more of it.

Playing chess with Sagdeev at the Cosmos club

I have a similar feeling about other significant first-time meetings that happened on this trip; I can make of them what I will, which will affect their potential.

I find that when experiences that are over, I tend to be the part of the equation that retains forward motion; other people have different roles in life, or are busy, or have different agendas. If I want these meetings or moments to become integrated into my life, my work, or my heart, it is generally up to me. Both Lester Grinspoon (Dave’s father, and a man I have been wanting to meet for 30 years) and Sagdeev are open to writerly collaboration as well as human friendship; I can step forward or not. I hope that I will, and that I will do it in a timely manner.

This was me, in my tiny little hotel room in DuPont Circle (taken just for the night, to be a block away from the Cosmos and also the Metro to the airport, and to give the Newlyweds back their pad as they returned from their honeymoon) getting ready to walk the block to meet Roald.

kate going to Cosmos

I was so excited! I brought Liam’s portrait to give to him (he loved it) and I wore a clip-on Christmas tree bird on my shoulder, as I tend to do when something really important is happening.

Other things happened on this trip. Many things. I made a huge personal discovery about recurring characters in my life, and what it means when I see them (the shock of awareness of this reminded me of discovering that I was the one dropping the money I often used to find on the ground near my car…)

I’ve also been more serious about eliminating noise from my system; I am intimately aware of the implications of  “you are what you eat” and attempt to curate my experience of life, adding in more of what I like to see in myself and always removing the same things: noise, needless chatter, admin nonsense, and worry.

I particularly dislike worry; it’s pointless unless it stimulates creative thought about how one might survive a bad outcome. Other than that, it clogs the quantum space, brackens the local water, gives false results. I’ve recently discovered that a large part of my motivation to solve problems at a large scale is just so the anxious people in my sphere of awareness will relax; I am attempting a sort of environmental approach to curtailing it.

It may be the case that there are some people who live on worry like I live on good light, but I can’t help that. I want to try to cut a path through it whether people are comfortable on it with me, or if I walk it alone.

boston you make me feel things

I am overstimulated and have fallen a bit behind; I will spend the week catching up, swimming with Evan, clearing my head, and getting ready for the Pluto encounter in just 12 days. The photos coming down are… incredible. I’m so happy for the team of scientists, for humans, for Bill.

This was the official press release from yesterday… every minute the cameras get closer… even today, Bill says, OMG, just wait. Just look at that chain of dark spots. I am reminded of crater chains, of Comet SL9 into Jupiter. How exciting for Bill to be on the science team who gets to figure it out.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 9.51.53 AM



kate in the sky with diamonds

St. Louis, Day 3: the light here is awesome for field-gazing and fine for swimming at the public pool. However it is not useful for my photography, or for seeing the night sky. It is salted with mold spores and pollen grains and scraps of the air conditioner and the basement, of little tiny bug parts, mixed with the pieces of air that have floated off of the surreal church sign on the corner, the one that says strange things.

I lost my notebook with all of my notes in it about the 1979 situation; I can hardly believe that it could happen, much less that it did. It is inconceivable. I have one photograph of it; just think, all that I would have had to do is photograph each page.

sagdeev on the train

My grief is both abstract and sharp; the loss is indescribable and also meaningless. I am the one who made the notes. I am the notes. I am the sky, the sea. I do not need notes. And yet I am marked, scarred by this pointless loss as by other similar losses in the past and I vow, “never again” and this time I think I mean it. There are some things that I am just not going to take anymore. From anyone. Especially from me.

And who knows… it may return to me. It could be hiding under a bed, or in a little quantum pocket. I remain focused on it, in background, to help it find me.  Outside my second floor windows here I only see trees; I think of Gaudi. And for some reason, not having anything to do with disliking summer, I think of winter. Emotionally. I have no idea what that is about, but I go with it. I listen to Brian Eno, to old trippy music, to things I have never heard before, I rest in David Byrne like a cloud. And in the clouds.

Also, my action figure can’t wait to play with his action figure.

David Byrne Happy Clouds

I count the days in confusing fashion; days breathing in this thick air and my last days with Liam as a boy in the home, days until Evan joins me in Tucson for the summer, the days until I kiss Bill again, days until we get to Pluto, days until I come out into the clear light of Boston, until I have Jack Wisdom in my hug, until I meet Trophy Guy and Roald Sagdeev, until I see so many of our friends at an incredible wedding, until I stand in the new octagonal world created by Gail Crosman Moore, until I taste the insane beauty of the lumens at the tip of the Cape, or return to the shining glory of the Tucson sky… and do the things I want to do, like paint with Bill Hartmann and bead with Kate Stern and build tiny architectural living spaces with Kellner and make the books with ten thousand people… with Dustin… and always, forever, counting the days until I kiss Bill again.

My time in this odd place is like the time a monk spends with his being suspended or his body stretched across a gap. I can make of it what I will but I’d be best off in a state of deep meditation and a method of outflow, giving.

If there was ever a time to forget myself, it is here. And the now.


Each moment here, I focus on my self-control, on the love that I feel for my people, the meaninglessness of time, and the idea that I can be everywhere at once, experiencing the whole of my existence. I work, head down, on my projects, I write down lists of dreams, I encourage other people. Why not?

For those of you Bri-watching, she did in fact finish first in her Navy class, and she did get to choose first from the class orders, and she chose to go to Japan, and she will be there for three years, starting this fall or winter. She worked so hard, and I love her so much.

Bri Date in harness before going aloft

I love them all so much, really, I don’t know how my heart can hold it sometimes. In this picture, you can see Evan, Bill and Liam, all in a line to the left, walking toward Bri, who was in climbing harness, ready to head up to the fighting top of the USS Constitution.

Ah, how I dream of a day when these fine ships and these beautiful, strong, clever people can be used to build a better world, rather than defend the borders and the ideas of a time gone by. Maybe that day is now, if we want it to be.

. . .

Speaking of beauty,  have a look at this insanely incredible spherical panorama of the Sheats-Goldstein house, one of my favorite works by John Lautner, and featured in our friend Bette Jane Cohen’s film, The Spirit In Architecture.

Bette just recently digitally remastered her movie, and filmed an extra bit for it; I think this is a shot from the day that they took the extra footage. Spherical panos are fun to drive around on the screen… kind of like backing up a trailer in a mirror.

The one evening I spent in this house, courtesy of Bette, was one of the most formative evenings of my life.

spherical pano screencap Lautner house