“So Let Us Continue the Journey”


Nineteen years ago today, the STS-107 crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia lost their lives, and gave us the Moon.

Today marks the end of a six-day period that includes NASA’s three most somber anniversaries – the loss of Apollo I on January 27, 1967; the loss of Challenger on January 28, 1986; and the loss of Columbia, on this date in 2003.

In the wake of each of the three tragedies, speeches were given that have stood the test of time; the later two by the presidents, and the first by Flight Director Gene Kranz. I encourage anyone in the space community to read them. Here are some excerpts:

Apollo I:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

– Gene Kranz (Read the rest here)

Challenger:

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

– President Ronald Reagan (Read the rest here)

Columbia:

In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

– President George HW Bush (Read the rest here)

And I’ll include one more speech here, given by that same president, less than one year later. Bush came to NASA Headquarters, and gave a speech that would become known as the President’s Vision for Space Exploration (which later became known as Constellation). At the time, NASA’s future was firmly rooted in LEO, as the Shuttle constructed and supported the then-new International Space Station. New crew spacecraft were in concept development, to provide alternate access to LEO. The “M words,” Moon and Mars, weren’t spoken in connection to human spaceflight. The loss of Columbia shook that plan, and forced NASA and the administration to reevaluate the future, and from that reevaluation came a new plan, that would call for astronauts to again journey into deep space.

With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.

We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos.

The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia was less than one year ago. Since the beginning of our space program, America has lost 23 astronauts, and one astronaut from an allied nation — men and women who believed in their mission and accepted the dangers. As one family member said, “The legacy of Columbia must carry on — for the benefit of our children and yours.” The Columbia’s crew did not turn away from the challenge, and neither will we.

Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit. So let us continue the journey.

– President George HW Bush (Read the rest here)

Much has changed since that speech. Constellation has come and gone. The Asteroid Redirect Mission has come and gone. The “Journey to Mars” has come and gone. But one thing has not changed – human beings are headed into the cosmos. For the last 18 years, concurrence has remained and work has continued toward toward sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to other worlds.

The picture of the Moon with this post was taken by the crew of STS-107. As we today are closer than ever to sending astronauts once more around our Moon, and not long afterward back to the lunar surface, they will be flying on a mission born in a very real way from the ashes of Columbia. Our mission honors theirs.

From Tiny Space-Acorns, Might Space-Oaks Grow


When I was in the VAB, I took a picture with this pin, and was going to make the joke that It turns out if you plant enough of these little SLS seeds, you can grow a full-size NASA’s Space Launch System.

I was struck, though, by how true that really is. We handed out a lot of those little pins when I was part of the SLS Strategic Communications team, to industry leaders and political stakeholders and pop culture convention attendees and fifth-grade teachers and so so many more.

An effort like SLS takes not only engineering expertise, it requires the will of a nation to make it happen, and the SLS comm team, under the leadership of Kimberly Robinson and Marcia Lindstrom and Trey Cate, deserves a huge amount of respect for their part in stirring imaginations and excitement to make this game-changing rocket – and all the Artemis efforts it’s inspired – a reality.

They’ve planted a lot of seeds, and it’s amazing to see what’s grown from them.

Metal and Might and Magic


Somewhere twixt the pages of Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, Skylab was in the VAB at Kennedy Space Center. In Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, there’s mention of Columbia undergoing testing at the VAB. When the latter happened, I was about five years ago. For the former, I was a few years from being born.


How amazing, then, to witness that history this time? How incredible to have been a part of it?


I got to see the rocket.


I got to stand across the transfer aisle of the VAB and look over at this skyscraper-size vehicle I got to work on, whose height and breadth and thrust were defined by friends of mine, this tower of metal and might and magic that will return humanity to the Moon.


It’s a beautiful creation. It was an amazing experience.


I can’t wait to see it fly.

The Work of a Planet


To say all roads led to this is understatement:

From Utah came the solid rocket boosters.

The engines came from Mississippi, and, before that, from California via outer space.

The core stage came from New Orleans, as did the crew module; the former stopping in Mississippi for a hot-fire test on the way to Florida.

From North Alabama came the upper stage and its adapters, one of which now carries payloads from California and Italy and Japan and Kentucky and Colorado and Texas and Alabama and Florida and Arizona.

The service module was born in Italy and grew up in Germany before coming to America.

They came by airplane, by boat, by train.

And now, for the first time, they are all in the room together, to finally be assembled into one.

The work of a nation – the work of a planet – come together, to leave that planet and set sail for another world.

“Same Six Columns”


1280px-James_Meredith_OleMiss

Fifty-nine years ago today, James Meredith integrated The University of Mississippi.

I had the opportunity to meet Meredith in 1996, the first time he returned to Ole Miss, more than 30 years after he graduated. There was no big event; he just wanted to visit the campus. Hardly anyone knew he was there.

It was weird just being in his presence. At the time, he seemed like the sort of person everybody knew about but almost too legendary to be real. Not the sort of person you’d actually meet.

I stood with him in front of Ole Miss’s iconic Lyceum, still marked with bullet scars from his admission. There were maybe five of us there. I asked him what he saw, looking at that building, all these years later.

“Same six columns,” was all he said.

That answer’s stuck with me. I think I appreciate it more now than I did then. It was a good answer.

(The column I wrote about the visit is still online, sort of. It would have been better if 20-year-old David didn’t think he could write. So it goes.)

On Oct 1, 1958, NASA began operations.

On Oct 1, 1962, James Meredith integrated Ole Miss.

Half a century later, I was working at NASA for James Meredith’s daughter-in-law.

The world is weird sometimes.

Not-So-“Deadly Engineering”


I might have chosen a name other than “Deadly Engineering” for the series, but I’m nonetheless honored to be on the Science Channel talking about Skylab again.

The Skylab segment in the first episode of the third season of this series and my previous SCI appearance on “Engineering Catastrophes” take a little more sensationalist approach than the “Searching for Skylab” and “Saving Skylab” documentaries I’ve appeared on, but I’m also far more likely to have people stop me randomly in public to say they saw on my TV from these.

:The Telly-award-winning and Emmy-nominated “Deadly Engineering” series is taking Skylab to the masses, and I’m glad to be able to be a part of it saying nice things about one of history’s greatest human spaceflight programs. You can watch it here – https://www.sciencechannel.com/…/deadly-engineering… – or if you’re a cable-cutter like me, you can purchase the episode on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and other fine places.

A Couple of Julys and a Space Race


Ever have that experience when you have dinner with two inspirational women one July and then two Julys later they’re racing each other into space?

You may have seen the news about the billionaire space race, with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson each planning to fly on their companies’ respective suborbital spaceships within the next three weeks.

Honestly, while I’m hugely in favor of increased access to space, I’m utterly uncaptivated by the billionaire bragging rights part of the story.

But Thursday, it became a bit more interesting –

Bezos will be flying with aeronautics pioneer Wally Funk, famed as one of the “Mercury 13” women who passed medical tests like those taken by the Mercury 7 astronauts 60ish years ago.

Branson will be flying with Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer and the first woman to earn commercial astronaut wings.

One thing Wally Funk and Beth Moses have in common is that I got to MC their inductions into the Space Camp Hall of Fame two years ago this month.

I’ve long hoped that Wally Funk would get to go into space, and it’s sort of surreal to me that two years to the month after I was having dinner with them, they’re making spaceflight history (again).

Review: “The Mission,” by David W Brown


Watch enough space movies, read enough space books, whether science fact or science fiction, and there’s a moment you’ll see play out time and time again – And Then A Rocket Appears On The Pad.

Maybe it’s not a rocket. Maybe it’s a starship or a science probe. But the moment plays out the same. An incredibly complex piece of machine appears out of nowhere – machina ex deus – having and needing no origin, and then the “real story” begins.

But rockets and starships and science probes don’t appear out of nowhere. They do have origins. For every rocket that appears on a pad, there’s a story of toil and ingenuity that explains how it got there.

David W. Brown’s “The Mission” is not that story. “The Mission” is the story before that story.

Before a rocket appears on a pad, before a space probe appears in a payload fairing, before a starship appears in the stars, there is an official program, a concerted effort of the aforementioned toil and ingenuity, and multiple flavors of engineering and probably some science.

But before that official program, there’s an idea. A dream.

“The Mission” is that story. The titular Mission is a mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, a smallish orb of rock and water and ice that looms far larger than its physical size in the landscape of solar system science because of that water. On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life. And Europa not only has twice as much water as the pale blue dot where we live, it’s conveniently spewing that water into space, right out there for a visiting spacecraft to taste.

“The Mission” is not a story of flying a yet-unflown Europa mission, nor a story of building a yet-unbuilt yet-unflown Europa mission. It’s the story of an idea, a dream dreamt over decades to explore this strange new world, and perhaps to seek out new life in its ocean.

It is still, most definitely, a story of toil and ingenuity. It is also a very human story, and it is there that Brown elevates his subject from interesting to captivating.

As an experienced journalist, Brown has a portfolio packed with well-told space stories. He has a demonstrated knack for taking “rocket science” and not only making it accessible, not only conveying Why It Matters, but also capturing Why It’s Awesome, finding amidst the data the things that stir souls.

That talent is brought fully to bear in “The Mission,” and impressively so – it’s one thing to bring that level of creativity to short-form non-fiction, but here Brown sprints a marathon, maintaining the same engaging style over hundreds of pages he delivers on the first.

The heart of “The Mission,” however, is a very human heart. It’s a story laden with science spacecraft and alien worlds and trajectory comparisons, but it’s a story about people. Brown’s tapestry here weaves the story of its Europa mission through the lives of the people who have touched, and been touched by, the dream of that mission, interlacing space science with chicken farms and car wrecks and former NSYNC member Lance Bass.

At the end of “The Mission” the call of Europa is still calling. Its mysteries are still mysterious. But Brown has pulled back the veil on another little-seen world – a world of men and women with dogged determination to clad a dream in metal and propel it toward the stars.

The Story of Amos, a Good Dog


Over the years there have been stories that I have known, when the time came to tell the story of Amos, would be the stories that I tell.

How he barked at me the first time he saw me because he was in Becky’s car and it was his job to protect it. It was his job to protect her, to take care of her. And he did.

How amused Becky was the first time we all went to a dog park and played. I was never a dog person, but I made a valiant effort at playing with Amos. Maybe partially to impress her, but I guess I thought he was OK, too.

How one day early into dating Rebecca, the three of us went to a state park in Mississippi. We’d been hiking for a while and he was hot and thirsty and there was a fountain, but he wouldn’t drink from it because he didn’t trust it. So I got some of the water in my hands, and he drank that, because he did trust me, and that made it OK to drink from the fountain.

How the day came when he could be in Becky’s car and not bark at me when I approached it. Her mom got barked at, but I didn’t. I’d never been a dog person, but I sort of became an Amos person. I would tell people I tolerate him. I loved that dog a lot.

How Becky would have to be careful, when she was living with her mom in Decatur, about saying my name, because Amos would get excited and look for me. I think he loved me a little, too. One day I went over to visit, and he was hiding because his paw was sore and it hurt to walk, but when he heard me, he made his way out to see me, step by painful step.

There are other stories I could tell, about how excited I was the first time I taught him a trick or how he unscrewed a jar to eat our wedding candy and it gave him superpowers or how he became a blogger or or how he convinced my mother-in-law to let him knock everything off her table and stand on it and how he bulked out into Tank Dog because he took me too literally one time. There are so so many other stories I could tell.

But the story, more than any story, that was my favorite Amos story was the first time Rebecca got sick after we were married. 

It was his job to protect her, to take care of her. And he did. If Becky was sick, nobody was allowed near her. Even if her mom was there, Amos would lovingly try to distract her and herd her away, and then go back to Rebecca’s side to watch one her.

But one day after Rebecca and I got married, she was sick, and she stayed home from work, and he stayed there by her side the whole day while I was at work.

And then, when I got off work and came home, this dog, who’d spent his entire life staying by Becky’s side when she was sick and making sure nobody came near her, got up, came and met me in the hall, gave me this look that let me know she was my problem now, and went to the other end of the house. 

His shift was done, he left her in my hands, and he went to get some rest.

Amos turned 13 in April, and he’d been an old man for the last two or three of those.

But he saw the woman he’d protected, that he’d taken care of, grow up and get married and have a baby of her own.

He loved that baby, and that baby loved him.

But he was old, and he was tired, and he hurt, and he’d seen that she was taken care of.

Today, his shift was done, he left her in my hands.

And he went to get some very very well-earned rest.

Review: “The Mars Challenge” by Wilgus and Yates


Mars is hard.

In fact, just the prospect of humans missions to Mars is so hard that even talking about why Mars is hard can be hard because, well, it’s hard.

Alison Wilgus and Wyeth Yates’ The Mars Challenge is a shockingly good book on this topic.

To say The Mars Challenge gets it right is an understatement.

The prospect of sending humans to Mars is daunting, and the reasons for that get very technical very quickly. Try to explain it, and you start talking about things like the rocket equation and orbital mechanics and EDL, and the specter of complex mathematical formulas starts quickly drawing near like a gathering storm. 

It becomes very easy to let the technical become so technical that the average person, or, for that matter, a decent number of fairly technical people who haven’t immersed themselves in this particular deep dive, get overwhelmed.

On the other end of the spectrum, there can be a temptation to try to make the topic accessible by watering down the technical to the point where you’re not really doing it justice.

The Mars Challenge does neither of these. It lunges bravely directly into the very real technical challenges of a human mission to Mars and then deftly unpacks them so that a lay reader can understand.

Oh, and did I mention The Mars Challenge is a graphic novel?

The framework for the book is a conversation between a teenager with dreams of dirtying her boots with Martian regolith, and her space professional mentor all too aware of the hurdles that must be overcome to make that happen. 

In Wilgus’ hands, that mentor speaks the language of spaceflight with a  realism worthy of an insider, but lovingly translates it into human in a way a teenager could believably understand.

Ably assisted by Yates, the creators overcome another substantial challenge to tell the story – keeping what is essentially a 200-page comic book consisting solely of two people having a conversation from becoming tedious. Both the writing and the artwork, replete with visions of the past, present and future of space exploration, are lively and engaging.

The Mars Challenge takes an admirably even-handed approach devoid of agenda – unlike many books on the subject, it eschews “all you have to do is” editorializing in favor of an honest analysis.

The book is a perfect primer for teens who feel the call to boldly go – or build the ships for those who do – and is a quick and accessible read for adults who’d like an overview of how space exploration works.

Mars is hard, but it’s doable, and The Mars Challenge is an inspirational tool for equipping the next generation of explorers for the challenges ahead.