On the Streets of DC


Any conversation with a man that walked on the moon is cool, but it was two random conversations on the walk home that were the highlight of the day.

The second day of the Humans To Mars summit was wonderful; it’s each year to step back to really appreciate how much progress is being made toward landing astronauts on the Red Planet. At the end of today’s summit, I got to have a brief conversation with Buzz Aldrin about Venus flyby missions of fiction and future.

I’d had zero chance to actually see any “DC stuff” on this trip except for glimpses of the Washington Monument from a balcony and down an alleyway, so I decided to walk back, from the Watergate on the river to far side of the senate office buildings.

As I snapped a selfie at the Capitol, a woman asked if I wanted her to take the picture. I was satisfied with what I had, so I offered to take one of her and her husband instead. We chatted for a bit. She was there on a work trip; she teaches at Clemson and had made the drive up that day. For both of them it was their first time in the city. It was one of those moments that just hit reset on what I was doing — for a moment, I got to share their perspective, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. “We’ve seen pictures of it, but now…” “You’re here. It’s right there.” A good reminder to never forget where you are, no matter where that is.

Walking a bit farther, I came across Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience bus parked on the side of the road by one of the Senate office buildings. No one was around, except the driver, so I spoke. “Do you travel with the bus?” “Yeah.” “So you were in Huntsville a few weeks ago?” “Yeah.” “And Houston a few weeks before that?” “Yeah.” I’d gone through the bus back in January at the Super Bowl Live event in downtown Houston, and again with Rebecca a month or so ago when it came to Huntsville for FIRST Robotics; he’d been there both times.

He and I chatted for a while also. He wasn’t affiliated with Orion and didn’t work for Lockheed, he was just staff for the exhibit bus. He’d spend weeks on the road with it; he was going home to South Carolina that night for a two or three week break before heading out again. He said he loved seeing the kids experience it; you can tell, he said, the ones that really get into it. He asked what they were saying at the summit, how things were going. “I’ve been traveling with this thing so long now, I really want to see this happen,” he said. I thanked him for his part in making that happen – his role in sharing with people what the future could look like is as important as any.

It’s weird watching D.C. in the news when you’re in the city. It’s easy to believe sometimes from the TV and Twitter and headlines that this place is tearing itself apart.

But you walk the streets of D.C. long enough, and you realize that maybe there’s hope for us yet.

We Stand With London


When Rebecca and I were planning our honeymoon, I photoshopped an image of her standing on Westminster Bridge in London to go on our wedding webpage.

On our first full day in London, two years ago last week, I took a picture of her standing in the very spot she was in that photoshop image.

We were discussing the other day a question about our favorite memories of our marriage, and I said mine very well may be that moment — we’d just gotten married, we were on our honeymoon, and we were on the other side of the world doing a thing we’d only dreamed of. It was surreal and inspiring. That moment redefined my sense of the possible.

That moment was dear to me. That spot is dear to me. London is dear to me.

It grieves me to see that city, that spot, come under attack.

But on my last trip to London, I made an odd sort of pilgrimage. I work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. A bust of Wernher von Braun stands within sight of my cubicle. Here, he’s the man who made the moon landings possible. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun, and I believed I owed it to myself to acknowledge that. I found and visited a block in London where people had died because of von Braun.

The Germans, with the V2s and the Blitzkrieg, believed they could terrify London into submission. They were grievously wrong.

During that time, King George VI said, “It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.”

It is a fool who believes he has the wherewithal to cause London to cower. Whatever it is a person might believe he is capable of, London has withstood worse.

I love London. I will return there.

We stand with London.

Summoning A Star


My favorite story to tell about our first date is how I summoned a star for Rebecca.

Hold that thought for a moment, though.

See those picture above? It’s Earth, from space. (Trust me, all this is going somewhere.)

Part of Rebecca’s job in education at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center involves the Sally Ride Earthkam project, a camera mounted aboard the International Space Station that provides students with pictures of Earth from space. Students pick the sites they want, and EarthKAM captures them when it flies over.

Those pictures are some from Rebecca’s work with the students. As luck would have it, they got taken on a cloudy day, but they are, nonetheless, pictures of Earth from orbit that she had a hand in.

So back to that date, and summoning the star.

My version goes like this:

We were already several hours into an awesomely epic first date that had thus far included a Sherlock Holmes movie and two bookstores, and we were walking through Big Spring Park. It was just dark, and there were no stars visible.

So I told her I would summon one for her. I pointed across the sky, and, sure enough, a star appeared in the direction I pointed, shining clearly and brightly, and then cut a path across the sky before disappearing.

I hoped she’d be kind of impressed.

The star, of course, was the International Space Station. I’d known that it would be passing overhead that night, timed things to be outside when it would appear, and then checked my phone really quickly to figure out exactly where it would be when.

While I like the magical romanticism of my version, her version was that she saw me doing something with my phone and then a little bit later the space station appeared, so clearly I must have called in some NASA connection to have the ISS fly overhead.

Frankly, I don’t know that having the ability to put in a request for the International Space Station to do things wouldn’t actually be more impressive than magically summoning stars out of the aether.

Flash forward five years. My magic is still limited to sometimes knowing when that bright star is going to pass overhead. And Rebecca actually does have the ability to put in requests for the International Space Station to do things.

And, yeah, I’m kind of impressed.

Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month: The Monster She Fights


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Yesterday began Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month.

Appropriately enough, Rebecca Hitt and I spent the day in Cullman for what could possibly be her last MS treatment. Possibly. Hopefully.

Rebecca’s experience with multiple sclerosis isn’t really a secret, but it’s not something we talk about a lot either. Honestly, it’s just sort of something that is.

She’s fortunate. We’re fortunate. If you follow us on Facebook, Rebecca doesn’t seem like someone struggling. We live full lives. There are people who have struggles with MS far far greater than she does. For Rebecca, it manifests in many “little” ways — heat can be more oppressive, she feels random constricting, her balance wanes randomly. It’s not always there, but it’s always nearby.

It’s easy not to know it. I respect her greatly for that. I’m half a foot taller than Rebecca. When we walk side by side, for every three steps I take, she takes four. You don’t notice it, but she’s always working a little bit harder. For those around her, that’s what her MS is like. She’s walking beside you, and you never notice how much more she puts into it than you, how much harder she works for it than you. It’s easy to miss. She makes it easy to miss. I’m proud of how brave she is. I’m proud of the positive attitude with which she undertakes her days.

For others, MS is a very different thing. They can’t walk beside you, because they can’t walk. It’s a condition that manifests itself in so many different ways. For some, it’s unnoticeable for years. For others, it’s crippling from its first appearance. We’re fortunate that hers is more benign. But we’ve also been always aware that could change at any moment. In MS, your body attacks its own nervous system. If you’re lucky, it does so in a way that causes mild annoyance. If you’re unlucky, it does so in a way that impairs you dramatically. Either way, it does so suddenly, randomly and without warning. We’re grateful for today, but we never know about tomorrow.

Save that, hopefully, now, we have some idea. Rebecca yesterday completed the second round of a relatively new treatment called Lemtrada. She took infusions for five days last year, and for three days this year. The treatment,a repurposed chemo, strips away her immune system. A new one grows, which, hopefully, decides not to attack her nervous system. It’s not a cure, they tell me, but a treatment that, hopefully, has permanent results. I understand some of it, but if you ask me too much about it, you’ll discover it’s one of those things that for me borders on Clarke’s Third Law – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I work at NASA, and this stuff befuddles me.

So far, it seems to be working. There’s noticeable improvement already from last year’s treatment. Hot days are less oppressive. The random constricting is less constrictive. She has more energy. Hopefully, those trends will continue and be amplified by the second round. We joke about that last change. At eleven years my junior, it can be hard enough to keep up with her as it is. If she gets any more energy, it’s going to be hopeless. I’ve joked that they should just half-Lemtrada her so I still have a shot.

But as nice as the improvement to the symptoms are, the biggest change will be not having to worry about tomorrow. She’s not had any new activity, any new lesions, any new attacks on her nervous system since round one. That’s a good sign. We’re never beyond worry – this is a new treatment, less than a decade old, so no one knows what year ten looks like. And nobody knows for sure what year two for Rebecca Hitt looks like. But maybe we can worry a little less.

We’re blessed. Crazy blessed. Blessed to live in a time that this is possible. Blessed to have insurance that will pay for it. Blessed to live near a doctor – Dr. Christopher LaGanke of North Central Neurology Associates – that’s been a pioneer in this treatment. (When we started dating and she told me about her condition, I pointed out that now that she was working in Huntsville, she could probably get a better doctor here. She just told me to Google her doctor. I did. I never suggested that again.) We’re blessed by casual miracles, wonders so seamless you miss the wonder of them. But they’re there. And we’re grateful.

So that’s my Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month story; my part for boosting awareness. I generally don’t ask or encourage others to give or work for a particular cause, and particularly not health-related ones. The sad reality is we all have our own monsters. If you’re reading this, you have felt the sting of cancer or heart disease or diabetes or any of the other thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. I believe we fight hardest when we fight our own monsters, so encourage you only to do so. But we become stronger through understanding each other’s monsters. And by knowing there are others fighting ours alongside us.

I’m honored to fight alongside Rebecca. I’m humbled by the way she perseveres and by the attitude she maintains. I admire her spirit and her strength, and proud and grateful to be part of her story.

From A New Hope to Rogue One


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Last night I went to see Rogue One again, with the man who took me to see A New Hope the first time, the better part of four decades ago.
 
(Also my mom, who may or may not have been there then, and my wife, brother, and sister-in-law, who are all prequel-age.)
 
I’m thankful he shared it with me then, and I’m thankful he shared it with me now. The older we get, the more and more I recognize and value the seeds he planted in me, and the more grateful I am that he’s my dad.

“She Moves On” – Farewell, Carrie Fisher


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My iTunes this morning randomly played Paul Simon’s “She Moves On.” I made plans to go with my father to see “Rogue One.”
 
I saw the news about Carrie Fisher on Twitter.
 
The song is one of a handful of Simon’s colored by his brief marriage to Fisher, along with “Hearts and Bones” and “Graceland,” arguably among his best. I’d not realized her connection to “She Moves On” until I went looking to see what of his she’d inspired; when you can’t find words, Paul Simon is a good place to start.
 
And I wanted words better than the easy one. It’s easy to say “RIP Princess Leia,” and, sure, I’ll admit that for a child of the ’70s, that’s a big part of how I process the news. It irks me a little when people reduce a celebrity to their biggest or favorite role. It was Leonard Nimoy, not Spock, who died last year. Spock will outlive Nimoy, and, unlike Nimoy, leaves behind no family and friends to mourn him. But I’d be lying if I denied being sad that, in a way, Leia has died — her story remains unfinished, and, while I hope much the bigger story will continue, there is a best version of it that we’ll now never see.
 
My day starts with a song Carrie Fisher didn’t write, it ends with a movie she didn’t work on; and yet both spring from her indelible mark on the world. She touched my day without even doing anything.
 
It’s a little unfair but also undeniable that, despite being a talented and prolific storyteller, she’ll be remembered most for her part in someone else’s story, but it’s a story that she helped shape into one of the most iconic and resonant of the last century, a modern myth. For that, and for so much more, thank you, Carrie Fisher.
 
“When the road bends
And the song ends
She moves on”

In the Wake of Captain Cook


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“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” ― James Cook

From the beginning of my time with NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ve been putting together presentations with some version of this chart — a picture of one of the ships Captain James Cook used in his voyages of exploration.

But as many times as I’ve seen it, today was special.

Cook has been a touchstone for the SLS Program, and has been for NASA for years. Two space shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour*, shared names with ships used by Cook. It’s easy to draw parallels between Cook and the work we’re doing:

Cook’s ships were robust vessels, which allowed him to take the same ships anywhere from the Antarctic to the tropics (and, in other lives, they were merchant ships or military vessels or prison transport). SLS is designed to enable a wide variety of missions, from speeding robotic probes to the outer solar systems to landing humans on Mars.

Cook’s missions were prime examples of how exploration enables science and science enables exploration. As he traversed uncharted reaches, he enabled the study of the transit of Venus, teaching us more about the scale of our solar system. He carried a botanist, Joseph Banks, who brought back a wealth of information. He used the latest ideas about nutrition, that eliminated scurvy deaths on long sea voyages for the first time. It’s very much the NASA vision — we reach for new heights and explore the unknown for the benefit of all humankind.

Cook and others went into the unknown, and because they did, it became known. He travelled new paths, and today, at any time, 50,000 ships are able to transport cargo. Where explorers dare, commerce follows. Already, this is happening in space in low Earth orbit; the voyages of the space shuttle have paved the way for orbital missions by SpaceX and Orbital ATK and Boeing and Sierra Nevada. SLS will take us farther, a blaze a new trail behind it.

That’s why we talk it. So why was today special?

Because today, we shared that chart as part of a presentation at the Reinventing Space conference. Held in London at the Royal Society.

As in, the organization that (along with the British Admiralty) commissioned James Cook to study the transit of Venus, his first voyage of discovery. The same Royal Society presided over by one Joseph Banks, after returning from voyaging with Cook. A telescope used to study the transit of Venus is displayed in the building. The roots of our shared story run deep in this place, and we had the honor of sharing how we are building on that story. It was simultaneously exciting, humbling and inspiring.

A statue of Cook stands within a tenth of a mile from here. His story is remembered, and inspires. I can only hope that the story we shared at this same Royal Society, the story we continue to make a reality, does for exploration and history the same service.

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*I was forwarded a note after publishing this from astronaut Al Worden with a reminder that his Apollo 15 command module was also named for Cook’s Endeavour.