Standing Between Giants

Fifty years ago today, my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Joe Kerwin and his crewmates departed Earth for Skylab on a Saturn IB rocket launching from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B.

This anniversary is a special one because it’s a big round number, of course, but it’s also special to me because since the 49th, I’ve seen “my own” rocket launch from that very same launch pad. I’m jealous that Joe got to ride his rocket, but it’s surreal to me that I got to be any sort of part of a launch from the same pad.

I have the privilege of talking to Space Camp teachers every summer, and I think that I stress to them is that Skylab and Apollo and Shuttle and Artemis aren’t stand-alone discrete stories; that they are all part of an ongoing journey, and that they will go back to their classrooms and shape the astronauts, scientists, engineers and others who will author the next chapters of that story.

We stand today on the shoulders of giants who got us to where we are, we now are at the dawn of a new golden age of exploration, but that next generation will get to see and do things we have not yet even dreamed.

Fifty Years of Skylab

Fifty years ago today, my life changed, though I wouldn’t know it for 30 years, and wouldn’t even be born for two.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Skylab. There are lots of articles today about how Skylab changed spaceflight. And it’s true – I’ve given many many talks over the years about how Skylab was the reboot, to use today’s parlance, of American spaceflight, a new start after Apollo that shifted the focus from racing *through space* to the Moon, to living and working *in space* for the first time, to homesteading space, laying the foundation for everything that’s come since.

But that’s big and academic-sounding and the sort of importance about which history books are written. More visceral and more powerful are the stories not about how it changed spaceflight, but how it changed people.

That was the biggest joy of writing Homesteading Space, was talking to those people, from astronauts to engineers to educators and more, and hearing their voices as they talked about how this giant can of metal in the sky had changed their lives, how it had touched them.

It’s surreal to me that I get to be one of those people, to tell stories of friends that it’s still weird that I even got to know, of adventures I’m incredibly blessed to have had, and of the stories I get to steward for the rest of my life.

And I love the idea that, when my son is a few years older than I am, someone might ask him about his name, and he can talk about his dad’s friend, and about a rocket that launched an entire century earlier, and paved the way for space stories I today can’t even imagine.

That One Night of Skylab and Comedy

I’ve given a lot of Skylab talks over the years, and I’ve been in a lot of comedy shows, but they’d never been the same thing, until Saturday night.

It was an incredible thrill to be invited by Rocket City Improv to be the guest storyteller at their Stories on Stage show at Shenanigans Comedy Theatre this month, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Skylab. I told stories from Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, and they performed hilarious scenes “inspired” by the stories – feuds with the windmill section astronauts, the best zero-g special effects you’ve seen on stage, and research into what WOULD happen if you launch cobras to bite and kill astronauts in space, which really hasn’t been studied.

The beauty and sorrow of improv is that it’s ephemeral – if you weren’t there Saturday night, you’ve missed out forever on an incredible show, but if you haven’t been to one of the Stories on Stage performances featuring a new storyteller each month, you really should.

Artemis II: We Are Going

NASA today announced the Artemis II that soon will become the first human beings to fly around the Moon since 1972 – Commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Christina Koch and Jeremy Hansen.

When I was awarded NASA’s Silver Snoopy several years ago, Glover was the astronaut that presented it to me. More recently, I had the opportunity to emcee Koch’s induction into the Space Camp Hall of Fame. (I didn’t get see her in person that night, she was in space at the time.)

I say that as a reminder of this – this is real. This is happening. These are real people, about to do something incredible, for all of humankind. Even if you’ve never met any of these four astronauts, if you’re reading this, you’re just two degrees of separation from real people who are about to carry our species once more into deep space. How crazy is that?

This is the Golden Age of space. 

We. Are. Going.

(Almost) Everything I Need to Know About Going to Mars I Learned From Skylab

One of the perks of having written a book about Skylab is that I sometimes get asked to talk about Skylab.

Over the years, I’ve developed a fun talk, “Everything I Need to Know About Going to Mars I Learned From Skylab,” that I’ve given countless times, but no one’s heard it except the folks who have been in the room for those events.

Earlier this year, I got asked to talk Skylab as a keynote for APL’s 2022 Flight Software Workshop. To contextualize what a Big Deal this was, the keynote before me was former SpaceX VP Hans Koenigsmann.

Obviously, for a technical event like that, I needed to make the talk more technically accurate, so I changed the title to “(Almost) Everything I Need to Know About Going to Mars I Learned From Skylab.”

The cool thing is, the organizers have posted the talks on YouTube, so, for the first time, you can hear the talk without being there in person. (Bad news for folks at future events, because I’m going to keep giving it. That said, it’s way better live.)

One of Those Days That Opens Doors

Nineteen years ago today, so long ago I didn’t have an iPhone to take pictures of it with nor a Facebook to post them on, I had one of those amazing random days that stays with you in ways you could never imagine.

Nineteen years ago today, NASA Marshall and UAH had a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Skylab, and the day started off with two of the Skylab astronauts getting to go in the payload operations room at Marshall to talk to the International Space Station, back then only three years old and early in its assembly.

A few months earlier, I’d written a series of stories about Skylab for a NASA education website that no longer exists, and somehow got invited to be IN THE ROOM as Jerry Carr and Bill Pogue talked to ISS.

The day as a whole was an incredible experience, and that moment was probably the highlight of it. It fueled my interest in Skylab, and my belief it was a story that needed to be better told. It wasn’t THE moment that Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story was born, but it was certainly A moment in its history.

One other moment stood out as a footnote to that day. When I arrived at the Huntsville Operations Support Center for the uplink, I discovered my badge wouldn’t let me in the building. No problem – I saw the Center Director coming up behind me, and figured I’d let him open the door and go in with him. Only, it turns out, the Center Director’s badge wouldn’t open the door either. Finally someone else showed up, and let us both in. It gave me an appreciation for how special that building is.

Nineteen years later, I have the privilege of supporting the office at Marshall that manages the Huntsville Operations Support Center, getting to tell others what I discovered that day – how special that building, and its amazing team, are. The room we were in looks a lot different, but its mission of supporting science aboard the International Space Station has continued around the clock every second of every day ever since.

And today, my badge opens that door.

What Awesome Problems to Have

What awesome problems to have.

When I started working at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center 20 years ago, there was a flag for each space shuttle orbiter. When the shuttle was in space, they were flown on two locations – under the US flag atop the Marshall HQ building, and on a dedicated pole in front of the Huntsville Operations Support Center – recognizing Marshall’s role in the missions.

When the shuttle wasn’t in orbit, NASA’s flag flew under the American flag at the HQ building, but the pole in front of HOSC was empty when the shuttle wasn’t in space. Flags flew on it three times in my first half a year at Marshall, and then it sat empty for two and a half years after the loss of Columbia. It was a somber daily reminder of the tragedy. I was excited when flags flew again after the shuttle returned to flight, but then the last shuttle flag flew in July 2011. The pole sat empty for over a decade – even after American crewed flights resumed in 2020, the center was shut down for the pandemic. Earlier this year, I had the honor of clipping the first flag to fly on that pole since STS-135, for the Crew-4 Commercial Crew mission, supported out of the HOSC.

With yesterday’s Crew-5 launch, a mission flag was to be displayed at the Marshall headquarters building for the first time since Shuttle ended, but there was a problem – shuttle flags went up for a couple of weeks and came back down when the shuttle did, and then the NASA flag went back up. If Commercial Crew flags flew the duration of the mission like shuttle flags did, we’d never fly the NASA flag – there should never again be a day without a Marshall-supported mission in space. Solution – we leave the NASA flag flying, and display the flag in the building.

We had a different problem at the HOSC – the pole where the Crew-5 flag would go already had a flag on it; Crew-4 is still in space until next week. Solution – the pole was modified, and yesterday, for the first time ever, two flags flew together on that pole.

After years of the flagpole sitting empty, it was such an incredible beautiful sight to see not one, but two, flags flying on it.

Amazing problems to have, indeed.

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.