The Boy They Left Behind

In ACEAP by Brian Koberlein7 Comments

The main site at ALMA is at an elevation of 16,400 feet. Roughly half the atmosphere is below you at that point, and oxygen levels are pretty low. It can have some minor adverse effects in the best conditions, and downright life-threatening effects in the worst. So you have to pass a basic physical on site, and if you don’t pass, you don’t get approved for the ALMA high site.

I didn’t pass.

So, as the pied piper led the children up the mountain, I was the boy left behind. While the rest of the ACEAP team is visiting the highest astronomy project in the world, I’m writing this, and the taste is bitter indeed.

There isn’t a clear trend for those who don’t pass. Overweight sedentary folks have passed while young, marathon-running vegetarians haven’t. It all depends on how you react to high altitudes. If the medics deem you too much of a risk, you don’t go, and there’s no arguing with them, as it should be. That “I’ll be fine” approach at high altitudes is how you get into trouble.

It’s tempting to sit and stew about it. Curl up a fist and start pounding sand. But that’s not how science works. On twitter right now there is buzz about the explosion of SpaceX’s Dragon this morning. I’m sure Elon Musk is having a bad day as well, so at least I’m in good company. I have a feeling, however, that Musk and his team aren’t going to pack it up and get out of the space business. Not everything happens as planned, in science and in life.

Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying.


  1. Gutting …

    I know you are on a business trip and I don’t know what they expect you to do right now but roughly 8h north of you is the “Salar de Uyuni”, on roughly 11.000 feet attitude. Just wanted to point that out. How close will you ever get to that place again?

  2. That is right, but sometimes when you think the UNIVERSE tells you no, is might be telling you “be patient, not yet”. I am sorry you didn´t get to go up, but just think how lucky you were to travel all the way to Chile and learned that wonderful pisco sour tutorial ´´hands on workshop¨. Cheer up, there is still a lot more to be wow about!

  3. Long time reader, first time commenter. Just wanted to say thank you for all your writing. This setback is disappointing for you no doubt – but you’ve done a huge service writing about this and everything else. You’ve inspired me to delve deeper into the math behind astronomy and astrophysics, while also igniting a spark in my best friend, who recently decided to pursue a career in teaching young kids. She wants to help develop the next generation’s interest in everything STEM where she can. We really appreciate the insight you provide – even on the inevitable setbacks.

  4. Sorry to hear you had to stay back 🙁

    Hopefully there will be that much more to see and experience during the rest of your trip! 🙂

  5. Long time reader – first time commmenter here. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate you taking the time to write as much as you do. You’ve encouraged me to dive deeper into the math behind astrophysics and quantum mechanics as a hobby, while simultaneously inspiring my best friend to develop a newfound interest in astronomy. She’s decided to go into teaching sciences at young ages, to spark some intrest in STEM, especially with young girls. Your blog is one of the few I always recommend by default, whether it’s to a fellow software engineer, or to an artist like my friend. It’s rare to find someone able to communicate science so well across the spectrum of backgrounds.

    Sorry to hear about the setback, Brian – all your writing is immensely appreciated either way. 🙂

  6. Truly sorry about your set back. However, on the up side, how many humans have ever had an opportunity to travel where you have and had the opportunity to share your world? A: Not many… less than 0.00001 percent.

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