Fred Haise and the Waning Record


Fred Haise holds the record for distance from Earth.

He’s famous today because of the movie “Apollo 13” that embedded “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option” in the world’s conversation about space. Bill Paxton is probably more often recognized for being Fred Haise than Fred Haise is.

Less known is the fact that, because of that mission and its off-nominal trajectory, Haise, Jim Lovell and the late Jack Swigert went farther into space than any other human being had before or has since.

Fred Haise was at Marshall Space Flight Center today, to speak to the workforce.

It’s an amazing and surreal experience when visitors like this come; I’ve seen Mercury and Apollo astronauts speak in Morris Auditorium; I’ve seen Gene Kranz tell the story of Apollo 13 from the mission control perspective.

Their stories are stories that belong to the world; their history is world history. Anyone, anywhere could listen to them talk and be enthralled and engaged, could listen to them talk and have their stories resonate.

Their history is world history, but they were wearing that blue circle with the red vector and the white word NASA when it happened. Their stories belong to the world, but, at Marshall, their stories are our stories.

It’s awe-inspiring and surreal to hear those stories and be reminded of the unbroken connection between that history and the present and the future. The rocket Fred Haise rode was designed yards from where I work. The story didn’t end, it continues a torch that is passed from generation to generation.

Fred Haise has been farther into space than any human being ever has.

And that will continue to be true, for about five more years.

I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are heir to that history. I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are carrying it forward.

I work with people who, yards from where the Saturn V was designed, are designing a rocket that will build on its legacy, continuing humanity’s outward odyssey.

The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will break Fred and Jim and Jack’s record. The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will, truly, go where no one has gone before. And that new record, pushing back humanity’s frontier into the void, will not be the goal of this new endeavor. It will be the starting line.

As he left the moon for the final time, the late Gene Cernan said, “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”

It was a rare pleasure to hear Fred Haise talk about his experiences, but even more exciting as NASA prepares to turn one of the greatest chapters of its history into a prologue for the future.

Peggy Whitson, Chocolate Candies and Mars


Peggy Whitson in the ISS cupola on her 638th day in space.

Peggy Whitson returned to Earth Sunday.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Peggy. My first day at Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 years ago last month, Peggy Whitson was in space; the only American astronaut aboard the International Space Station when I began working at NASA.

That was on Expedition 5, the fifth crew of the space station. (This weekend marked the beginning of Expedition 53.) The space station was a whole lot younger then; long-duration spaceflight, at least for NASA, a whole lot newer.

After that mission, Peggy came to Marshall on a tour of the NASA centers to share her experiences with the workforce, along with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that had brought her home. The significance of long-duration missions was really driven home for me during that visit, in the most seemingly trivial of ways.

Among the shuttle crew was astronaut Paul Lockhart, who had the unusual distinction of having been part of both the crew that delivered Peggy to the space station and the crew that brought her home five months later. Normally, an astronaut wouldn’t fly two shuttle flights so close together, but the STS-113 crew ended up needing to call in a backup member, and Paul was tapped to fly.

He and Peggy were both rookies on STS-111, and he talked about how gawky they were in microgravity compared to the veteran astronauts. Peggy was allegedly close to utterly graceless as she floated in orbit for the first time.

When he went back to the station on his second flight, he was more experienced, and moving more easily through the spacecraft. When they got to the space station, Peggy was in another class altogether; not only more graceful than when they dropped her off, but more efficient than any of the astronauts, no matter how many times they’d flown.

This was driven home during the crew’s video of their mission, in a relatively minor way. The astronauts, as astronauts are wont to do, were eating some candy-coated chocolates of a totally non-brand-specific origin. I’d seen footage before of this, and it usually involved astronauts floating through a cloud of the candies, Pac-Manning them into their mouth as they floated, catching what they could. Peggy, however, did not. Peggy reached out into the cloud, and, with a fingertip, began pinging them into her mouth with impressive speed and complete accuracy. Orbital Pac-Man had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself five years later, and was provided with some candy-coated chocolates of my own. I decided I was going to Peggy Whitson them. I was wrong. I tried. I failed. Now, granted, I was bad at microgravity in general, but my first effort, from a foot or two away, missed completely. I tried moving it closer. From mere inches, I finally made it to my mouth, the candy bouncing off my teeth before floating away. It was hard. It was hard, and in less than five months in space, Peggy could do it perfectly.

Peggy returned to Earth this weekend with more total time in space than any American astronaut. 665 days, almost 22 months. The better part of two years in space.

Pinging candy-coated chocolates into your mouth in microgravity is hard. But there are tasks that will be required of the first astronauts to sail between the planets, to visit other worlds, that will be far harder. It’s exciting that we are now in a time when astronauts like Peggy Whitson are gaining the experience, and the knowledge, we will need to make those things happen.

Welcome back, Peggy, and thank you.

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.

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.

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.

Rocket In The Rocket City


Photos courtesy of NASA

I don’t generally get to work at 6:30 in the morning, but today I made an exception. A test article of the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System was being raised by crane and placed in the test stand. The LVSA is a giant metal “waffle cone” that will connect the two stages of the rocket. It will soon be joined by test versions of the rocket’s second stage and the adapter for NASA’s Orion Spacecraft.

To be honest, it wasn’t the most dynamic scene in the world. A large metal cone was carefully prepared and slowly moved to the stand. But it’s a start.

This piece will be followed by others, and the test will begin of a 56-foot-tall stack of rocket hardware; NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center‘s first major test of a large campaign to ensure America’s next great rocket is ready to fly. Next year will see testing of the rocket’s core stage liquid oxygen tank and the 130+-foot-tall hydrogen tank.

This morning was a very real step in a big rocket coming to the Rocket City in a big way. Not a bad way to start your day.
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The Starship and the Rocket: Star Trek, NASA & Me


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“Space… The Final Frontier…”

I am not where I am because of Star Trek.

You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.

For me, if anything, it was the opposite.

I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.

The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.

For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.

At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?

I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.

I never finished my Star Trek novel.

I have written two books about actual space.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.

It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.

Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.

I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.

Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.

But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.

NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.

To boldly go where no one has gone before.