Huntsville and Pluto


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Ten years ago today, Pluto was officially reclassified, recognizing that it was less like our solar system’s eight planets than it was like the many, many small bodies populating the region beyond Neptune.

To put that in context, this year’s high-school freshman class has never been taught in school that Pluto was a planet.

If you’ve ever discussed Pluto on an iPhone, it wasn’t a planet when you did.

It’s exciting to think about how much our understanding of our solar system has increased in the last decade. And as a Huntsvillian, I’m proud of my city’s role in the story — “Pluto Killer” Mike Brown is a graduate of Huntsville’s Grissom High School, and Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center managed the program that sent the New Horizons mission to explore Pluto. We had a connection to both correcting a major misconception about Pluto, and to revealing the amazingly spectacular truth.

 

RELATED:

Pluto and Other Things That Aren’t Planets

Lackluster Secrets of the Pluto Time Capsule

Worse Than Not Being Able to Fly


I was sharing this story with someone the other day, and realized that as many times as I’ve told it, I’ve never actually written it.  Now I have.

launch of sts-133

The first time I ever drove down to Florida to watch a shuttle launch was STS-121 in July 2006. It was three and a half years since we’d lost Columbia. STS-114 had flown a year earlier, but the fleet was re-grounded after foam shedding issues were seen again on that flight. Now, the shuttle was ready to launch again, for the first time in a year and the second since January 2003.

The launch was scheduled for Saturday, July 1. I was on a pier on the river in Titusville, and it was packed. There were maybe that many people there for STS-135, the last shuttle flight, but only maybe. The shuttle was flying again, and people were excited.

The shuttle didn’t fly that day. The weather looked perfect, to which my sunburn would attest. But despite looking perfect, when the launch window opened, it wasn’t. The crowd went home.

We went back the next day. The weather looked the exact opposite of perfect, but as long as there was a chance, we were going to stick around. We were rare in that decision; only  a tiny fraction of the crowd from Saturday returned on Sunday. The crew boarded the vehicle, and began preparing for launch. They got to the point where they were ready to close the hatch. They called back to Mission Control. Before we close the hatch, is there really any chance we’re flying today?

Pause.

No, came the answer finally. The astronauts exited the shuttle.

There was no launch opportunity Monday. I had to drive home. I watched the launch on my television in my living room on the Fourth of July.

Fast forward four years and change. I’ve been back several times. I’ve seen launches now. I’ve seen more scrubs, too. The shuttle program is winding down, and I head down to Florida to watch STS-133, the pre-penultimate flight. The chances of successfully seeing a launch increase the longer one was willing to spend in Florida, and this time I had a week reserved to wait.

It wasn’t enough. After multiple delays for multiple reasons, it reached a point where not only was Discovery not launching that week, she wasn’t launching that year. Home again.

Fast forward another three months. Discovery is on the pad again. I’d been to multiple scrubs and multiple launches, but I’d never made the trip back down to try again to see a launch I’d seen scrubbed. This, for me, was a first.

On the day of launch, I was supporting some education activities at the KARS Park campground. We watched from a pier on the river there as well. Lacking the launch-feed speakers we’d had on some of my previous launches, news came from social media and rumors.

Launch drew close. And then it wasn’t drawing close anymore. There was a hold, at minutes before launch. We knew they were holding, and we new it had something to do with range safety. A monitor wasn’t working. The launch opportunity was nearing an end, rapidly. It looked bad.

On the orbiter, the crew continued to prepare for launch. From what they were hearing, months after their last week of scrubs, it was unlikely they were going to space that day. To make it worse, the issue was with range safety — the team responsible for, among other things, being ready to destroy the orbiter during launch if it looked like it could endanger the public. You’re not going to space, and the reason you’re not going to is because we couldn’t kill you if we wanted to.

Were I the crew, I’d be happy to suggest a compromise where range safety just decides to forego being able to blow us up, and let us go. But instead, they’re on the orbiter, going through the motions of preparing for a launch they’re hearing is next to impossible.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I heard it came down to seconds. If it had taken seconds longer to resolve the issue, they would have stayed on the ground. Again.  But it didn’t. They left Earth on a column of fire and steam on their way to the International Space Station.

Two months later, they were at Marshall Space Flight Center for their post-mission visit. They did their briefing in Morris Auditorium, and when they opened it up for questions, I had to ask — what was it like sitting in the crew cabin of the orbiter, going through the steps of preparing for a launch that almost certainly wasn’t coming? Was it discouraging or frustrating?

In a word, the answer was no. They hadn’t been scrubbed, and as long as there was a chance to fly, they were going to do their part to make it happen.

As Alvin Drew put it, the worst thing wouldn’t be to be ready and not be able to go. The worst thing would be to able to go, and not be ready.

Not bad advice, for more than just space shuttles.

Times Square and Mars


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When I get to give talks about NASA’s Journey to Mars, I walk through most of the voyage with sexy, inspiring artist’s renditions — a shiny Orion beyond the moon on its next launch, a habitat module keeping astronauts alive for long durations in deep space, an astronauts standing on the surface of Phobos with rusty Mars looming in the sky overhead.

But when I get to the end of the journey, I ditch the artist concepts, and instead of showing an astronaut on Mars, I show this photograph instead.

The Curiosity rover landed on Mars four years ago today, and this is what Times Square looked like when it happened.

In the middle of the night, people packed the place to watch a robot land on another planet.

Why? Because this is who we are. Because as a people, we have our differences and our struggles and our frustrations, but as a people, we yearn to be better. We yearn to be more than what we are. We yearn to reach farther.

And when we do, we as a people celebrate that part of ourselves.

Instead of showing a picture of an astronaut on Mars, I show this picture of Times Square. I tell the audience what it is, what it captures.

I challenge them to picture what Times Square will look like the day that, instead of watching a robot, we’re watching a human land on Mars.

I use this picture because, as much as I’m excited about what we’ll find when we get to Mars, I believe that what will happen on Mars that day is less important than what will happen in Times Square that day. What that day will mean for us as a people. What we will celebrate.

My favorite, though, is giving the talk to teenagers today. I talk about everything that has to happen over the next 20 or so years to prepare for that moment. I remind them that when that day comes, they’ll be the same age Neil Armstrong was when he took the first step on the moon. That they today are exactly the right age to be the one to take that first step on Mars.

I show them that picture of Times Square, and challenge them to think about what it will look like when its a human instead of a robot. If that many people came out to see a rover, when it’s a human being taking our first step on another planet, I tell them, everyone will be there.

“Everyone,” I say, “except you.”

“Because where will you be?”

After all, somebody’s got to take that step.

Space Camp, I Demand A Recount!


Another fun find from my recent cleaning:
 
So I never went to Space Camp.
 
I never went to Space Camp, but not for lack of trying to get a scholarship. Every year I could, I wrote an essay for the competition to try to win a free stay at Space Camp, and every year … well, I didn’t.
 
Nowadays, it rather amuses me — I couldn’t write about space well enough to impress Space Camp, but I write about space well enough that NASA pays me to do so, which shows you who has the higher standards.
 
So it was neat to find in my cleaning a copy of my submission from 7th grade. Here’s what 11-year-old David had to say about the future of space.
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I shared it with Rebecca, who has actually reviewed scholarship applications for Space Camp as part of her job, and she said it was fine, but not exceptional. (She did give me bonus points for my teacher recommendation, which was very kind.)
 
Which, to be sure, is one theory.
 
But in looking at it, I think the *real* issue is obvious. This was written 30 years ago, while the fleet was still grounded after Challenger. It talks about space telescopes, three years before the launch of Hubble. It talks about tourism on the space station, 23 years before any astronauts were on ISS. It talks about asteroid resource prospecting, which is still on the to-do list. Clearly, I was just too forward thinking. It’s taken 30 years for space to catch up with my essay.
 
I demand a recount, and am happy to clear my schedule for my visit to Space Camp.

Me And John Grisham


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One of my favorite brush-with-fame stories over the years has been the time I got invited to John Grisham’s private screening of his first movie, The Firm.

The story goes like this: I was in school during the summer semester at Ole Miss, way back in ’93. Grisham, who has a house in Oxford, was a favorite son, and was riding high after the release of his fourth book, The Client. So the release of an actual movie based on an actual bestseller by a local guy was a Big Deal locally of the type we’d not seen since the Faulkner days (which, lets face it, most of us couldn’t remember anyways).

In fact, it was so exciting that I’d gone to the matinee show during the day on the Wednesday it came out at the theater in the local mall. I went back to the newspaper office afterwards, to discover I had an invitation waiting for me: Would I like to come that night to watch the movie at Grisham’s private screening at the other local theater, The Hoka?

Um, yes.

(I wrote a lot of stories about The Hoka and movies playing there, and the owner figured it would be good publicity to have us cover the event. I was certainly willing to do so.)

And so there I am, at the theater, with John Grisham and various local notables, watching The Firm. Which, to be sure, was kind of cool.

But you know what would be cooler?

So this was during a period when Grisham didn’t do interviews. Like I said, he was at a pretty high point with four huge bestsellers behind him and now a movie, and he decided that interviews just weren’t worth the trouble.

To the best of my knowledge, he only did two interviews during a half-year period.

One, for Parade Magazine, was with himself. He agreed to the article, but got to ask and answer his own questions.

The other —

I approached John that night, and told him I knew he didn’t do interviews, but told him who I was and that I was with the Ole Miss paper, and asked him, if he’d be willing to answer just one question.

He said he’d never met a reporter that could ask just one question, so if I could do it, he would answer it.

So I did.

I can’t tell the story without being asked what the question was, and really, the story demands a question that lives up to that situation. My question wasn’t that epic, but it worked. “When you watch the movie, can you detach from the process of writing the book and enjoy it like any other movie, or are the two too tied together?” Again, not brilliant, but I figured it would require him to talk a bit about the book and the movie and the writing process, etc., so I could cover a lot of ground with one question.

And that’s how I became the only person in the summer of 1993 to interview John Grisham.

The End.

Except …

I hadn’t seen the story in probably 20 years. If I still have a copy, it buried in a box buried in a closet with countless other newspapers. The story of what happened and the story that came from it, for me, both existed only in my head.

Until Lain came across it randomly recently and sent me a picture of the story, which ran exactly 23 years ago today.

It’s interesting to note that the story ran a week after the screening, which I don’t understand, unless it was around the school holiday schedule. (Which might also explain why I didn’t try to submit what seems like a decent exclusive to the AP.)

But every time I’ve told the story, I’ve never been able to share what he said. Here, then, is the printed answer to The One Question.

The Time We Were In A French Classic Car Rally


Laon, France. We visited Laon about a week into the trip, on our first full day in France; Tim thought (correctly) that Rebecca would enjoy seeing the 900-year-old cathedral there. I’d be tempted to combine Laon with some of the later French excursions, save that it was the site of one of our favorite stories of the trip.

The cathedral was built on the top of a mountain (a Huntsville-“mountain”-size mountain, at least), visible from miles away, and was surrounded there by the old city of Laon. Today, Laon is much larger, and the modern city has grown down the mountain and into the valley. As we’re passing through the new town toward the old town, we notice that it’s filling up with classic cars. We, however, are there for loftier things than a car show, so we continue on our way.

We visited Laon on a Sunday morning, so there was actually a church service taking place in the cathedral when we arrived. We joined some visitors who snuck quietly into the back, the beauty of the architecture complemented by the music of the voices raised in worship. When the service ended, we explored more fully a beautiful building that was in many ways a smaller version of Westminster or Notre Dame but still used primarily as a community church.

When we sat down to lunch in an Italian restaurant in the old town, the people next to us overheard us speaking English and spoke to us. English themselves, they were there for the car show, and assumed from the Alvis’ accents that we were as well. “What kind of car do you have?” Tim’s response that he was driving a Peugeot 308 was met with polite disdain, and their interest in us was extinguished. Quite all right, really.

We explore a bit more, including an old Knights Templar church, before finally being ready to leave. Tim heads down the road that should be the way out, down a hill on a one-way-street and under a bridge only to find barricades at the end of the short tunnel.

The car show, it turns out, has turned into a car rally, and the streets are blocked off to let it pass. Tim goes to ask the police officer how long we’ll have to wait, and is told four hours. At this point, more cars have pulled in behind us.

So Tim talks to the other drivers, and we succeed in all backing up the hill until we can finally turn around, and we begin looking for another way out. We finally came to another barricade, and Tim asked this officer how exactly we were supposed to get out of town.

The officer moved the barricade and let us through. Into the parade. Classic cars in front of us, classic cars in front of us, crowds gathered around, and us in our Peugeot 308. Which, to be sure, was a fine car that served us well on our travels, but isn’t exactly classic, per se.

The streets were lined with people watching the rally — cheering for the cars as they passed, taking pictures. Until we went past, and the cheering stopped and the cameras went down.

Tim and I were in the front seat; Rebecca and Mags were the in the back, and decided that they should make the most of the situation, so they began waving back to the crowd with proper waves that would have made the queen envious.

And, sure enough, the people began cheering again, and one or two pictures were even taken of the novelty of the 308 in the classic car rally.

We finally reached a point where we could make our escape, and got out of Laon as quickly as we could.

Laon was a beautiful city. The cathedral was amazing. The pizza was not bad at all. The templar church was a nice bit of history. It was a special experience, early in our time in France, being immersed in the architecture and language.

But we’ll always remember Laon for that time we were part of a French classic car rally.

Book Review: “Lessons From the East” by Bob Roberts Jr


I was recently offered an advance copy of “Lessons from the East: Finding the Future of Western Christianity in the Global Church” by Bob Roberts Jr to review for this blog. Since she enjoyed the last review she did and wanted this one as well, today’s entry is a guest post by Rebecca Hitt.

You know, I like to think I know things. Well, I feel like I know a few things at least and am reasonably confident that I know how some things should work. I know Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 by heart (or used to…). I know how to scramble an egg (with bacon grease, of course, being a good, civilized Southern lady). I know how to play Pachelbel’s Canon on piano. I know how to beat a large foam ball until it looks exactly like a heavily cratered moon. And like a lot of American Christians, I’m fairly certain I know church. And “how to” church, so to speak. You bow your head when you pray, you sit in your designated pew at your local church, you put some money in the collection plate when it passes by, you sing a few hymns slightly off-key (but not too loudly, let’s not get carried away now). Maybe you invite someone from work to come to Sunday School with you or you pitch in for some community service. It’s a well-oiled machine of a system and you know it well. And a good many American Christians are comfortable with the routine. It’s not too hard. It doesn’t really require much out of you except on Sundays and maybe Wednesday night. But what if… what if that view of proper churching was incomplete? Or even spiritually inadequate? Bob Roberts book, “Lessons from the East” sets out to shake up the Western view of the church’s purpose and how the church functions.

The book is written as a challenge and a call to arms for American ministers, pastors, and church leaders. Basically, it says, if you think you know how to successfully grow or plant a church, you probably are wrong. Roberts uses examples of his extensive world travels and visits with world religious and secular leaders to convince the reader to rethink concepts that may have seemed a given, like what a successful church looks like. Well, clearly it’s one with an extremely large worship sanctuary and thousands of people attending any one of the multiple services, with just the right amount of projectors and screens, a nice sound system, and reasonably talented praise band. Everyone reads just the right books and speaks just the right words. Even better if the church is supporting multiple missions in a handful of countries. And if your church doesn’t look like that despite your best recruiting and fundraising effort, despite having followed THE tried and true formula for structuring church… sorry, Pastor… guess it’s just not in the cards for you to be one of the “good” preachers. Or maybe it’s the Enemy who is keeping the masses from busting down the doors to hear your sermon. Or maybe if you had had a hipper youth program, families would have flocked to join. But certainly not your methods, right?

Roberts proposes that you are looking at it all wrong. According to him, mistake number one that you made is that you failed to actually serve your community. Not communities in Africa or Asia or Central America but the one you are living in. You failed to meet the needs of people around you. Before you build a church, address the needs of the locals. In other parts of the world, that might look like provide access to clean water or creating gardens to produce food. Here it might look like providing childcare to single working parents. Serving others shows you truly care and wins their trust and respect. Roberts stresses respect as a vital tool in creating a successful church. Respect for customs and religions of other cultures and strong sense of kindness has gained Roberts access to areas in the Middle East and Asia that are usually more difficult for Christian missionaries to visit.

Second mistake you made was wanting to build a mega church when instead you should be forming cell churches focused on discipleship. He explains cell churches are similar to the small group movements in a lot of American churches but not nearly as categorized. Instead of youth groups and women’s groups and singles’ groups, they need to be diverse with people of various ages, social statuses, and interests so they can help each other grow spiritually.

And lastly, you had a picture of what YOU thought good proper church should look like. You never asked God what it needed to look like. Maybe He needs it to look like a couple of families gathered together in someone’s home. Maybe it looks like a group of coworkers that gather in breakroom during lunch.

I’m not a church leader. I’m not a preacher. I don’t even teach a Sunday School class. So what did I get out of the book? A question that kept popping up in my mind was “What do you want to be when you are a grown Christian?” I want to be kind. I want to be compassionate, to others and serve with a glad heart at every chance. I want to live my life in such a way that to mention I believe in God is redundant. To love others in such a way as to remind them of the much greater and infinite love that God has for them. I don’t want to be good at churching; I want to be good at following Christ. I never want to get so lost in the ritual that I forget the reason. I want to break down my expectations and allow His will to work through me.

I don’t want to know church; I want to know God.

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