Huntsville and Pluto


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Ten years ago today, Pluto was officially reclassified, recognizing that it was less like our solar system’s eight planets than it was like the many, many small bodies populating the region beyond Neptune.

To put that in context, this year’s high-school freshman class has never been taught in school that Pluto was a planet.

If you’ve ever discussed Pluto on an iPhone, it wasn’t a planet when you did.

It’s exciting to think about how much our understanding of our solar system has increased in the last decade. And as a Huntsvillian, I’m proud of my city’s role in the story — “Pluto Killer” Mike Brown is a graduate of Huntsville’s Grissom High School, and Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center managed the program that sent the New Horizons mission to explore Pluto. We had a connection to both correcting a major misconception about Pluto, and to revealing the amazingly spectacular truth.

 

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Worse Than Not Being Able to Fly


I was sharing this story with someone the other day, and realized that as many times as I’ve told it, I’ve never actually written it.  Now I have.

launch of sts-133

The first time I ever drove down to Florida to watch a shuttle launch was STS-121 in July 2006. It was three and a half years since we’d lost Columbia. STS-114 had flown a year earlier, but the fleet was re-grounded after foam shedding issues were seen again on that flight. Now, the shuttle was ready to launch again, for the first time in a year and the second since January 2003.

The launch was scheduled for Saturday, July 1. I was on a pier on the river in Titusville, and it was packed. There were maybe that many people there for STS-135, the last shuttle flight, but only maybe. The shuttle was flying again, and people were excited.

The shuttle didn’t fly that day. The weather looked perfect, to which my sunburn would attest. But despite looking perfect, when the launch window opened, it wasn’t. The crowd went home.

We went back the next day. The weather looked the exact opposite of perfect, but as long as there was a chance, we were going to stick around. We were rare in that decision; only  a tiny fraction of the crowd from Saturday returned on Sunday. The crew boarded the vehicle, and began preparing for launch. They got to the point where they were ready to close the hatch. They called back to Mission Control. Before we close the hatch, is there really any chance we’re flying today?

Pause.

No, came the answer finally. The astronauts exited the shuttle.

There was no launch opportunity Monday. I had to drive home. I watched the launch on my television in my living room on the Fourth of July.

Fast forward four years and change. I’ve been back several times. I’ve seen launches now. I’ve seen more scrubs, too. The shuttle program is winding down, and I head down to Florida to watch STS-133, the pre-penultimate flight. The chances of successfully seeing a launch increase the longer one was willing to spend in Florida, and this time I had a week reserved to wait.

It wasn’t enough. After multiple delays for multiple reasons, it reached a point where not only was Discovery not launching that week, she wasn’t launching that year. Home again.

Fast forward another three months. Discovery is on the pad again. I’d been to multiple scrubs and multiple launches, but I’d never made the trip back down to try again to see a launch I’d seen scrubbed. This, for me, was a first.

On the day of launch, I was supporting some education activities at the KARS Park campground. We watched from a pier on the river there as well. Lacking the launch-feed speakers we’d had on some of my previous launches, news came from social media and rumors.

Launch drew close. And then it wasn’t drawing close anymore. There was a hold, at minutes before launch. We knew they were holding, and we new it had something to do with range safety. A monitor wasn’t working. 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, months after their last week of scrubs, it was unlikely they were going to space that day. To make it worse, the issue was with range safety — the team responsible for, among other things, being ready to destroy the orbiter during launch if it looked like it could endanger the public. You’re not going to space, and the reason you’re not going to is because we couldn’t kill you if we wanted to.

Were I the crew, I’d be happy to suggest a compromise where range safety just decides to forego being able to blow us up, and let us go. But instead, 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 and steam 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, the answer was no. They hadn’t been scrubbed, and as long as there was a chance to fly, they were going to do their part to make it happen.

As 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.

Times Square and Mars


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When I get to give talks about NASA’s Journey to Mars, I walk through most of the voyage with sexy, inspiring artist’s renditions — a shiny Orion beyond the moon on its next launch, a habitat module keeping astronauts alive for long durations in deep space, an astronauts standing on the surface of Phobos with rusty Mars looming in the sky overhead.

But when I get to the end of the journey, I ditch the artist concepts, and instead of showing an astronaut on Mars, I show this photograph instead.

The Curiosity rover landed on Mars four years ago today, and this is what Times Square looked like when it happened.

In the middle of the night, people packed the place to watch a robot land on another planet.

Why? Because this is who we are. Because as a people, we have our differences and our struggles and our frustrations, but as a people, we yearn to be better. We yearn to be more than what we are. We yearn to reach farther.

And when we do, we as a people celebrate that part of ourselves.

Instead of showing a picture of an astronaut on Mars, I show this picture of Times Square. I tell the audience what it is, what it captures.

I challenge them to picture what Times Square will look like the day that, instead of watching a robot, we’re watching a human land on Mars.

I use this picture because, as much as I’m excited about what we’ll find when we get to Mars, I believe that what will happen on Mars that day is less important than what will happen in Times Square that day. What that day will mean for us as a people. What we will celebrate.

My favorite, though, is giving the talk to teenagers today. I talk about everything that has to happen over the next 20 or so years to prepare for that moment. I remind them that when that day comes, they’ll be the same age Neil Armstrong was when he took the first step on the moon. That they today are exactly the right age to be the one to take that first step on Mars.

I show them that picture of Times Square, and challenge them to think about what it will look like when its a human instead of a robot. If that many people came out to see a rover, when it’s a human being taking our first step on another planet, I tell them, everyone will be there.

“Everyone,” I say, “except you.”

“Because where will you be?”

After all, somebody’s got to take that step.