An Ode to Physics and Nature

For eons untold we’ve walked this ball,
There’s been one thing true of us all – 

Gravity, that force that whirls worlds around
Inexorably, unavoidably holds us down.

Until we summed humanity’s wisdom and might
And, for the first time, a rocket took flight!

And with that column of metal and flame,
Even gravity, we overcame

For when we join together as one,
There’s very little that can’t be done.

And the laws of physics begin to bend,
As to the cosmos, our best we send.

But into each life, still comes some rain –
Even rockets don’t mess with a hurricane.

Rockets and Flight Termination Systems and Life

Six days (maybe).

This is a story about rockets and flight termination systems, but it’s also about life, and living it.

SLS could potentially launch on Tuesday, if…

…if it passes testing today to make sure that all the work over the last couple of weeks to address the issues experienced in the recent scrubs did all the things it was supposed, and

…if Space Force gives NASA permission to launch the rocket without recharging the battery for the flight termination system, which gives them the ability to blow up the rocket if something goes wrong.

The test should be done by early afternoon; hopefully a decision on the waiver will come not long afterwards. Fingers crossed. By the time you’re reading this, you may already know how it all turned out.

It’s all, for me, a bit reminiscent of a shuttle launch I went to over 11 years ago.

STS-133 was the third-from-last flight of the Space Shuttle; Discovery was delivering supplies, a robot and a storage module to the International Space Station.

It may have been the only launch I traveled to see twice; I went down in late 2010, but there were issues significant enough that it delayed longer than the week I could stay in Florida. (Like I said, echoes of recent events.)

Three months later, I was in Florida again. The first time I went down, it had never gotten close; the launch attempts were scrubbed before we even got to the viewing area.

This time, it was close. The countdown was at minutes from launch when an unexpected hold was announced.

There was an issue with range safety. That flight termination system that blows up the rocket if something goes wrong? Range safety is responsible for blowing the rocket up. A monitor wasn’t working, so they wouldn’t know if they should blow the rocket up.

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, it was unlikely they were going to space that day.

I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been, not only to be on the verge of a scrub, but for that to be the reason. You’re not going to space, and the reason you’re not going to is because the range wouldn’t know whether to kill you. Had it been me, I’d have happily suggested a compromise where they just agree it’s OK not to kill us, and we go to space.

But it wasn’t me. It was a crew of real astronauts, doing real astronaut things. 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 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, no. They were too busy doing what they needed to get ready, regardless of what was going on somewhere else.

As one of the astronauts, 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.

The Rocket Is the Boring Part

Here’s an interesting fact about space exploration that may seem at odds with my posts over the past couple of weeks:

The rocket is the boring part.

Don’t get me wrong, I love rockets. Rockets in general, and that giant rocket sitting on the pad at Kennedy Space Center that I devoted several years of my career to.

But even when I was actively working SLS, as weird as it was to admit it, I would readily cede that it’s the boring part of this whole space thing.

The interesting part is not the rocket; the interesting part is what the rocket lets you do.

The interesting part (knock on wood) is not the eight or nine minute uphill climb of smoke and fire, it’s what happens after the uphill climb is done.

Everybody remembers what Neil Armstrong said when he stepped on the Moon. How many people know what he said when his Saturn V left the pad?

Everybody loves the beautiful pictures the Hubble Space Telescope continues to send back; far fewer people remember which shuttle mission lofted Hubble into space.

The Voyager probes are in the news this week, celebrating their 45th anniversary of unprecedented science. Few of those articles mention the rockets they launched on.

If a rocket does its job properly, history may remember it in some awe-inspiring pictures, but most of the record will focus on what happened after the engines cut off.

The interesting part is not the rocket; the interesting part is what the rocket lets you do. What it makes possible. What it enables. What it inspires.

A lot of people are disappointed today that SLS is still sitting on the launch pad. A lot of criticism is being thrown at the program today because the rocket is still sitting on the launch pad.

But that one interesting fact about space exploration is a big reason why I am so proud to have been a part of SLS and everything it has accomplished, even without having left the pad.

Without having left the pad, it has inspired new missions, provided confidence to begin development of science spacecraft that will reveal new secrets of our solar system and beyond.

Without having left the pad, it has paved the way for a new era of exploration, providing the confidence (and inspiring the funding) for Moon landers and lunar habitats that will enable to us to return to deep space, this time to stay.

And perhaps more importantly than any of that, there’s the human element. It made me feel old the first time I talked to an engineering intern who was excited to be working on SLS because hearing about it in middle school was what made him want to be an engineer, but it also made me proud. It’s exciting seeing the excitement generated online for last week’s launch attempts. And, of course, I’m living proof of its inspirational power myself – I would never have dreamed of going back to school or studying engineering if it weren’t for that giant rocket sitting on the pad.

Without having left the pad, SLS has launched careers of people who will shape the next next era of exploration.

And all of that without having left the pad.

Imagine what it will accomplish when it does.

Once the boring part’s over, and the real excitement begins.

Four Days And Counting

Four days and counting.

The last time a human being traveled farther than anyone had ever gone was 1970.

The last time a human being traveled faster than anyone had ever gone was 1969.

For more than half a century, we’ve let those records stand.

Throughout history, our measure of progress as a species has been how well we go – going farther, going faster, going to new places, going with more people. Today, that measure has become how well we stay. What can I accomplish without leaving my house, and how comfortable can I make it.

Artemis I will prove, that after half a century of being constrained within the boundaries we set in Apollo, Artemis II could break those records and push humanity, as a species, forward in a way that we haven’t pushed in generations.

It’s time.

We. Are. Going.


Five Days and Counting

Five days and counting!

From sheets of metal in New Orleans through engine tests and hardware delivery and stacking, it has been an incredible privilege to watch this rocket grow up. The life story of this rocket has been entwined with the story of my own family, milestones of getting engaged and married and expecting and being joined by Owen overlapping with milestones of core stage welding and booster tests and hardware delivery and stacking. What I got to be part of – watching history being made – would have been special to me in its own right, but it’s all the more special for overlapping such a special time in my own life. But now, after we’ve watched so many milestones and first steps, SLS and Orion are all grown up, and I’m so proud of what it’s become.

And so, the time has come for them to leave the nest and fly! Godspeed, Artemis I, and safe travels.

Eight Days and Counting

Eight days and counting!

For anyone on the fence about going to launch in person, go!

If a rocket were designed purely for the experience of watching it launch, it’d look a lot like SLS – towering almost as tall as a Saturn V, with more thrust at launch than Saturn or Shuttle, with the sonic mix of liquid engines and solid boosters, and SRBs you’ll potentially be able to watch fall away. No rocket in history or planned offers quite the mix of sensory awe that SLS will provide.

This WILL be a show, and unforgettable.

Virtual-Meet George Jetson

You may have seen that today is supposedly the day that George Jetson was born – he was 40 years old in 2062 when the show was set.

In honor of his birth, I tried to track down a paper I wrote in my mass media technology class at Ole Miss over a quarter century ago and don’t think I’ve read since – “Elroy and the Really Small TV: ‘The Jetsons’ as a Nondystopian Future as a Context for Modern Mass Media Technology and Sociological Impact” – and succeeded, kind of. (In opening the old MacWrite file, bits of it got lost.)

The paper analyzed what the real-world impacts might be of the communication and media technologies shown in The Jetsons.

It’s fascinating how many of the technologies actually do exist now – a screen in your car that lets you tell the radio what song you want to hear and gives you personal traffic information – but my favorite part is my analysis of what it would be like if people really could make video calls at work:

“In real life, it is probably unlikely that this sort of communications system would be used for asking someone to come to face to face meeting; the convenience of simply holding conversations over the screens would probably be overwhelming.

“This could result in a decrease in personal contact in the workplace, not only through reducing the necessity to actually go see people, but also simply through eliminating encounters with others just walking from one place to another.”

“…Another issue brought up by this type of innovation is privacy.”

Not bad, teenage me. Not bad at all.

Ground Control to Major Cool

I had a great time this week at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference, my first big conference since supporting ISS work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Our team was part of a larger NASA booth at the conference, and brought an amazing exhibit – a camera in the booth could be used to take pictures that were then transmitted to a laptop aboard the Space Station, allowing booth visitors to take a picture of their face in space!

It was so cool to get to see my picture on the space station (and Rebecca and Owen and Joel!), but even better – while helping in the booth, I got to upload files to the Space Station!

It was surreal that I got to do that, but it’s an incredible testament to how amazing the systems are that the Marshall ISS operations support team has developed, that I could go in a matter of minutes from “I know nothing about this” to “I’m actively uploading files to a spaceship!”

We’re living in the future, y’all!

Memories Much Older and Richer Than Our Own

Sad news – The Chickasaw Journal in Houston, Mississippi has published its final edition after well over a century.

As my second job out of college, many many moons ago, I was the managing editor of this newspaper, back when it was known as The Houston Times-Post. I’m not entirely sure how far back the paper’s history went; The Times-Post was formed by the consolidation of the Times and Post in 1913. The Tupelo-based company that owned the Daily Journal in that city acquired it a few years later and changed the historic name to match its own.

There’s a lot I could say about this, a lot of raging I could do against the dying of the light, but time is precious and life is short. Instead, I’ll say only this – among the many things I hope to inculcate in my son, high among them is the virtue of stewardship.

In my journalism career, I had the privilege of being a caretaker of institutions many times older than myself, and felt strongly I had a responsibility to honor their legacy and to do my best to ensure that when I moved on, I left them behind as strong as I’d received them. An individual or company might legally own a newspaper, but their old names belonged to the community they served.

Later, as president of the Historical Society here, I served the same principle – my duty was to preserve and pass on both the institution and the stories it safeguards, so that future generations will inherit all that past generations left me.

Too often today, we act as if things are there for us for which we should instead be caretakers, and allow to fade from this Earth memories much older and richer than our own.

Celebrating 40 Years of Space Camp

What a thrill to be there last night for the celebration of Space Camp’s 40th anniversary! At an 80s-themed dinner event, eight new members were inducted into the Space Camp Hall of Fame, including the crew of last year’s historic Inspiration4 space mission.

I broke out the Walkman and rocked a mustache for an amazing night. Rebecca and I got to hang out with mustache icon astronaut Hoot Gibson, and get my Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University magnet signed by two fellow Eagles – Inspiration4’s Jared Isaacman and Chris Sembrowski.

Wearing my SpaceCamp: The Movie t-shirt, I got my picture made with one of the stars of that film, Jinx the robot.

It was wonderful seeing so many friends, including U.S. Space & Rocket Center CEO Dr Kimberly Robinson – the announcement this week of a new building funded by a gift by Isaacman is just the latest growth to the Center since she began her tenure last year.

Over 1 million people have attended Space Camp in its four decade history, and it has inspired so many people and changed so many lives – many of whom are now inspiring others and changing lives themselves. It will be exciting to see what the future holds!