Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Memorial in (Cyber) Space

For a bunch of "space geeks," the Orbiter community is pretty cool. Today I participated in an unusual memorial service that took place (virtually) on the Moon, within Orbiter itself, and which is part of the latest release of the AMSO Apollo simulator whose main author is Alain Capt, known as "ACSoft" on the Orbiter forums.

Although Alain is the main author, AMSO includes contributions from a number of other people. One of its key features is the autopilot that allows you to land safely on the Moon (it also allows some manual overrides, similar to the real Apollo autopilot software). This brilliant piece of programming was provided by Dennis Hare, known on the Orbiter forums as "LazyD." Sadly, Dennis passed away suddenly last year.

While many people expressed their sympathies at Dennis' passing in forum comments, Alain created a special tribute within the software itself. He constructed a virtual monument at the Apollo 17 Taurus-Littrow site, and provided a special scenario which uses LazyD's autopilot to land you near this site. You can then drive the Lunar Rover to the memorial and plant the US flag there. This triggers a musical and graphical tribute to Dennis, with a sort of "eternal flame" as well as several photographs of Dennis with comments about his life. I've included one of my screen shots above (you can see more here).

I personally never knew Dennis, though I would have liked to - he was close to my age and shared some of my interests such as flying, astronomy, software, and Orbiter. As Alain discusses in his notes on the tribute, I too have experienced close friendships through the internet, as he had developed in working and talking with Dennis (Alain lives in Switzerland, and Dennis lived in Lopez Island, Washington). So I know this must be a real loss for him. I would like to express my condolences to Dennis' wife and family, and to also thank Alain for remembering him in this special way, and for sharing this with the Orbiter community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was very saddened to read of Dennis Hare's passing. He and I went to graduate school together in the Department of Biochemistry at UC Riverside. Dennis was a gifted computer programmer who went back to graduate school after working awhile (both to find different applications of his computing knowledge and to get over a bad divorce). He lived in a small white house in the hills above the school at the end of an unpaved road, a place of perpetual parties amongst the graduate students. One day, I was on a hill across from that house and took a picture with a telephoto lens; Dennis later said that when he went to New York for a postdoctoral fellowship, he had that photo taped on his NMR instrument to remind him of home). It was during that period that he met Jane, who did much to ease his post-divorce trauma and became a central supporting figure in his life.

For those of you who only know Dennis through this forum, Dr. Dennis Hare was a historic figure in molecular modeling. He fused his knowledge of computing and of NMR studies of nucleic acid structures (the subject of his thesis research) and wrote one of the first programs that used NMR data to create molecular models of RNA and DNA. He formed a company - Hare Research - that was one of the first commercial molecular modeling ventures. Dennis did two things I particularly remember. One was that his programs did not artificially create structures that the data did not show - if the data that described a particular region of the molecule was fuzzy or nonexistent, that is what the resulting structure showed. This was significantly different from existing programs, which tried to create the best approximate structure given the known nucleotide sequence and the allowable conformations of nucleotides (and which often creates incorrect structures, which lead to reputable scientists publishing bad information). The second thing Dennis did was to protect his program by setting it up so that it had access to certain core computational programs within the host computer, and if someone tried to hack his program, their mainframe suddenly became nonfunctional. Dennis told me of several telephone conversations in which users initially said that they didn't understand what was happening to their computer, but later were forced to admit stepping beyond their legal bounds. As much as he loved computing and science, he was never that thrilled by the business end - he said it was like "running a kindergarten". He sold the company in the mid-1990's and used the proceeds to buy his ranch in Washington, along with a sailboat to sail up to Vancouver and a small private plane he enjoyed flying.

I always loved the thought of Dennis - who took his Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Examination wearing a Mickey Mouse T shirt - being so successful and living life on his own terms. I am glad that he found other outlets for his computing genius, and am terribly saddened that his life ended so early.