Number Nine

Scrub Number One came not with a bang but a whimper. But, then, that’s sort of the point, right?

I was in Florida shortly after my 30th birthday, hoping NASA would light a rather large candle for the occasion. I was there for an education conference, the highlight of which was to be the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

At that point, I was one-for-one on launches, at least in my adult life. Earlier that year, I had attended the Astronaut Hall of Fame induction, and during the dinner had witnessed the last Titan launch from KSC, which was a rather cool experience.

My first scrub was a rather anticlimactic experience. They came into the conference the day before the scheduled launch to tell us there was a problem with the vehicle, and launch was being pushed back a day. I called back to work, and got permission from my boss to stay an extra day, which meant I was able to be there for …

Scrub Number Two. This time, we woke up at a time that, before this current trip, seemed ridiculous, and went ought to the NASA Causeway viewing area at KSC. Where we waited and waited and waited. Only to have the launch scrubbed about five minutes before launch. I watched the MRO launch on TV at home the next day.

Scrub Number Three was about a year later. STS-121 was the Return to Return to Flight mission; a year earlier, STS-114 had been the first flight since the Columbia accident, but had revealed more issues NASA needed to fix before resuming regular flights.

I had been wanting to try to attend a launch, and this was the first opportunity in a while, so four of us loaded up in a car and headed for Florida. There was an incredible crowd there that first day, and we spent hours sitting on a pier on the river in Titusville, waiting, ultimately, for weather to scrub the launch with minutes left on the clock, and, in the process, earning the worst sunburn of my life.

Scrub Number Four came the next day. The weather was substantially worse — it rained on us while we were on the pier — and the crowd was much smaller. Nonetheless, they made a valiant effort with launch preparations, until, finally, as they were preparing to shut the hatch, the orbiter radioed back to launch control asking, before they closed things out, whether there was really any chance they were going that day.

At least we didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the scrub.

I watched the STS-122 launch on TV at home two days later.

Scrubs Number Five through Seven were all in one trip just over two years ago, for the STS-122 launch. These were different in that they were all announced hours before launch, since they stemmed from an issue revealed during fueling of the shuttle’s large external tank. Basically, we would wake up in the morning, check the news, and have the rest of the day to do what we wanted. That trip, for example, included a visit to Epcot.

I watched STS-122 on TV months later, after the issue was resolved.

Scrub Number Eight was less than four months ago, when I was here for the Ares I-X launch. Concerns over triboelectrification, and a wayward boat, meant that, after we waited for hours on the Causeway, the window closed with no launch.

I-X was different from previous scrubs, however, in that it broke a streak — I watched the launch not on TV, but from the Causeway the next day.

Scrub Number Nine was this morning, and I’m hoping that streak continues. Despite weather having been 80 percent Go as recently as yesterday, it ultimately prevented this morning’s launch of STS-130. I’m hoping that the 60 percent green they’re giving us now for tomorrow us better than yesterday’s 80 percent.

That said, either way, I had an unlikely thought go through my head today as we were coming back — a line from a Trace Adkins song, “You’re gonna miss this.”

She was beautiful this morning. I had never seen an orbiter like that before. Always before, I was at an angle where she was hidden behind the pad, or, when I’d gone out to the launch complex, she was covered by the servicing structure still. This morning, we were at an angle where we could see her fully and clearly. And, wow, she’s beautiful.

And this is it. Five more times. And then there won’t even be scrubs anymore. And who knows now what the future will hold. And, yeah, I’m gonna miss it. Heck, I’ll even miss coming down for scrubs.

I’m going back to the Causeway in just a few hours. I hope I get to see Endeavour launch. I really do.

But, if not, how awesome is it to be able to go spend just a few more hours with an old friend, one more time?

Godspeed, Endeavour!

“Dull, Right?”

Another review of Homesteading Space, recently posted on Amazon:

Apollo’s Forgotten Sibling
By Gary Schroeder “GS23”
For me, Apollo has always been where it’s at. Big rockets, big missions, groundbreaking history. Skylab? A bunch of guys floating around the earth for months at a time. Dull, right? Your mind will most certainly be changed when you read this excellent addition to the “People’s History of Spaceflight” series.

I picked this volume up immediately after finishing the terrific “In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969”. I was so impressed with the quality of “Journey” that I was certain that “Homesteading” would be worth reading. Indeed, I was not disappointed.

Since few authors have ever devoted the kind of attention to Skylab that Apollo has received (aside from the dry, official NASA documents), a void was really waiting to be filled. Until now, there’s been a serious gap in the historical record. One of the best things about the “People’s History” series is its reliance on first-person eyewitness accounts. In this volume, the story of Skylab is brought to life by those who designed it, lived aboard it and supported it from the ground. “Homesteading” relies heavily upon lengthy quotes from the astronauts themselves, assembled from relatively recent (post-2000) oral histories. The reader gets direct accounts from Alan Beam, Jack Lousma, Owen Garriot, Joe Kerwin, Paul Weitz and many others. (It’s terribly unfortunate that Pete Conrad’s untimely death in 1999 prevented him from being similarly interviewed as he considered his crew’s rescue of Skylab more significant than his Apollo 12 lunar landing mission.)

The tales range from the high drama of rescuing Skylab from its nearly fatal launch malfunction to chronicles of the reality of living in space for extended periods. Other interesting bits include detailed descriptions of how the second parasol was deployed by the second crew and how two malfunctioning RCS quads almost necessitated a “rescue mission” of that crew. There’s also a great and detailed description of what it was like to ride the Saturn 1B into orbit — something I’ve seen nowhere else.

With the success of observatories like Hubble, robotic astronomy is something we now take for granted, but in 1973 humans armed with film-based cameras were needed to collect images of the sun that could not be obtained by earth-bound observers. Skylab delivered a tremendous scientific return for a comparatively modest investment. “Homesteading” spends quite a bit of time recounting that scientific research. (My one quibble with the book is that the chapter “Science on Skylab” near the end recapitulates much of what was covered in earlier chapters.)

“Homesteading Space” will make you pine for the days before spaceflight had become “routine” in the shuttle era. It will also make you wistful for the days when the U.S. had the machinery to launch a cavernous space station into orbit in a single shot, something that was given up in favor of a system that in retrospect seems like a regrettable 25-year detour.