A Gym, A Wedding and Two Solid Rocket Boosters

This is a story about the Huntsville Middle School gym and my wedding day and two solid rocket boosters.

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was in the gym at Huntsville Middle School when I heard the news. The space shuttle exploded. I’ve told the story several times about the poor student whom I convinced had misunderstood. Space shuttles don’t explode. It’s just not something they do.

The irony is, I was right.

No space shuttle ever exploded. In writing “Bold They Rise,” I gained greater understanding than I ever wanted of what happened on January 28, 1986, down to the fraction of a second. Of how a burn-through of the solid rocket booster began a series of events that led to the disintegration of the vehicle.

For 10-year-old David, the loss of Challenger was a remote but personal experience. I had no part of it, no connection to it, but I was touched by it. To say it was a moment I will never forget is understatement. Almost every year since, I have written something on the anniversary – thoughts, recollections, tributes.

Over time, these anniversary markers have evolved. The become less about the event itself and more about the passage of time, and the shadow that event still casts. I wrote about marking the anniversary for the first time from Marshall Space Flight Center, having a greater connection to the story. Four days after writing that, I awoke to learn we had lost Columbia. It was, to put it lightly, not a good day. I wrote about the anniversary as NASA prepared to, and then finally succeeded in, launching a teacher into space, Christa’s back-up, Barbara Morgan.

I’ve now lived almost three times as long since the loss of Challenger as I had before. I’m about to marry someone born after that day, for whom it is purely a historical event. Time and tide.

Which leads me to my wedding day. On March 15, I’m getting married.

I mention that in this story not because of where I’ll be that day, but because of where I won’t be. That week, just a few days earlier, many of my coworkers will be in Utah. There, they will witness the first qualification firing of the solid rocket motor for NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. This test and a follow-up will clear the upgraded and enhanced boosters for flight on the new rocket.

This is, quite literally, a long-awaited milestone for SLS. Preparations for the test were already well underway when I started working on the program two years ago, but a potential issue was discovered. Changes that had been made to the booster, to improve performance and make them more environmentally friendly than the shuttle boosters, had some unexpected side effects.

The booster team was left with ideas as to how to address those issues, but no definitive answer, and no exact timeline as to how long it would take to find them. There was also no definitive answer as to what would happen if the test were conducted with the issue. The program had two options — take the chance and continue the test, or take the time and find the answer.

The program chose to take the time.

In about a month and a half, their hard work will pay off. I do wish I could be there to see it, but there’s somewhere else I’d rather be.

I think it’s easy for history to be overly critical of the decision to launch Challenger, but, without question, mistakes were made.

The fate of Challenger, and later of Columbia, were sealed with a single argument — “We know there is an issue, but we have reason to believe it won’t be a problem.”

I was not in the meetings where the decisions to delay the booster test were made. I don’t know how much temptation there was or wasn’t to proceed with the test, and gain reason, rightly or wrongly, to believe the issues weren’t problems.

But I am proud, very proud, to be part of a program that chose not to. I am proud, very proud, that we took the time to get it right.

Another anniversary. Another year. And, this year, that is how we honor the memory of Dick, Mike, Judy, Ron, Ellison, Greg and Christa.

“Another year over, and a new one just begun…”

Probably the best case I could make that 2014 was a good year for Rebecca and I was that it was a year where things like Rebecca flying a plane, me hanging out in a green room with Cary Elwes, both of us going to B.B. King’s final homecoming concert in Indianola, and lots and lots of work travel for me all sort of fall into the “other stuff that happened” category.

It was a year that saw some really cool stuff:

8) IMPROV — Comic Science Improv had a challenging year this year, having lost our main rehearsal and performance venue when it closed in April. After a tough summer of rebuilding, the troupe has rebounded in a big way and is gearing up for an awesome 2015.

7) NASA SOCIAL — Rebecca got picked to participate in the NASA Social Event for the ribbon cutting of the world’s largest welding tool at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans, which will be used to build the world’s most powerful rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System which I have the honor of working for. We got to see core stage hardware and engines that will actually fly as part of the rocket. (I got to see booster flight hardware later in the year as well.) A very cool experience. Plus, Rebecca got to ride a train, we got to hang out on Bourbon Street, and we met Curt Godwin.

6) HISTORY — Rebecca and I both led Huntsville Ghost Walks, a first for her (and she did the Decatur Ghost Walk as well). We almost did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, but got rained out. I did the downtown Huntsville Trolley Tour. She gave bus tours of Marshall Space Flight Center. Depot things happened. We got to wear awesome clothes and tell awesome stories.

5) OLE MISS — When I graduated from Ole Miss, my commencement speaker was the then-NASA-administrator, Dan Goldin. As a graduating journalism major, I was so disappointed by his talk. I want to hear a more ambitious future for NASA. I wanted to hear about human exploration. This fall, I got to return to Ole Miss with a NASA Program Manager who said all of the things I wanted to hear 18 years earlier. I got to set up a model of the rocket outside my journalism building. I got to talk to three classes of j-school students. I got to sign copies of my books at Square Books. I got to eat a darned good breakfast with Todd May. Even if Auburn beat Ole Miss, it was a pretty memorable weekend.

4) ORION — In a few years, we’re going to launch Space Launch System, and then we’re going to use it to send astronauts farther into space than anyone’s ever been, and after that, we’re going to start a series of missions that will lead to Mars. And I get to be a part of that. But before any of that will happen, there was the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft, beginning the journey to Mars. And Rebecca and I got to be there to see it. (She also got to see an ocean for the first time, which was pretty cool. And we met the future first man on Mars, Kerouac G-k.)

3) BOLD THEY RISE — My second book, Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, was published in April of this year, and was accompanied by a series of signings and talks, from Huntsville to Pasadena, California. It was a great privilege to be able to recognize my dad, Bill Hitt, and introduce him to astronaut Hoot Gibson at the official book launch event.

2) BECKY’S JOB — Rebecca got promoted to an office job at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and became a full-time, permanent employee. You should have seen her excitement over having her own cubicle! Apparently she’s done pretty well with it, because she was named Employee of the Quarter later in the year.

1) ENGAGEMENT — We’re getting married in two and a half months!!! Huzzah!

We’re both blessed to have had an incredibly amazing year, and we are so so grateful to all of you who were a part of it.

… And, we’re even more blessed to know that, as awesome as 2014 was, 2015 has it beat, if solely for a little thing that’s taking place on March 15 at the Depot.