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.

We Stand With London


When Rebecca and I were planning our honeymoon, I photoshopped an image of her standing on Westminster Bridge in London to go on our wedding webpage.

On our first full day in London, two years ago last week, I took a picture of her standing in the very spot she was in that photoshop image.

We were discussing the other day a question about our favorite memories of our marriage, and I said mine very well may be that moment — we’d just gotten married, we were on our honeymoon, and we were on the other side of the world doing a thing we’d only dreamed of. It was surreal and inspiring. That moment redefined my sense of the possible.

That moment was dear to me. That spot is dear to me. London is dear to me.

It grieves me to see that city, that spot, come under attack.

But on my last trip to London, I made an odd sort of pilgrimage. I work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. A bust of Wernher von Braun stands within sight of my cubicle. Here, he’s the man who made the moon landings possible. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun, and I believed I owed it to myself to acknowledge that. I found and visited a block in London where people had died because of von Braun.

The Germans, with the V2s and the Blitzkrieg, believed they could terrify London into submission. They were grievously wrong.

During that time, King George VI said, “It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.”

It is a fool who believes he has the wherewithal to cause London to cower. Whatever it is a person might believe he is capable of, London has withstood worse.

I love London. I will return there.

We stand with London.

The Time We Were In A French Classic Car Rally


Laon, France. We visited Laon about a week into the trip, on our first full day in France; Tim thought (correctly) that Rebecca would enjoy seeing the 900-year-old cathedral there. I’d be tempted to combine Laon with some of the later French excursions, save that it was the site of one of our favorite stories of the trip.

The cathedral was built on the top of a mountain (a Huntsville-“mountain”-size mountain, at least), visible from miles away, and was surrounded there by the old city of Laon. Today, Laon is much larger, and the modern city has grown down the mountain and into the valley. As we’re passing through the new town toward the old town, we notice that it’s filling up with classic cars. We, however, are there for loftier things than a car show, so we continue on our way.

We visited Laon on a Sunday morning, so there was actually a church service taking place in the cathedral when we arrived. We joined some visitors who snuck quietly into the back, the beauty of the architecture complemented by the music of the voices raised in worship. When the service ended, we explored more fully a beautiful building that was in many ways a smaller version of Westminster or Notre Dame but still used primarily as a community church.

When we sat down to lunch in an Italian restaurant in the old town, the people next to us overheard us speaking English and spoke to us. English themselves, they were there for the car show, and assumed from the Alvis’ accents that we were as well. “What kind of car do you have?” Tim’s response that he was driving a Peugeot 308 was met with polite disdain, and their interest in us was extinguished. Quite all right, really.

We explore a bit more, including an old Knights Templar church, before finally being ready to leave. Tim heads down the road that should be the way out, down a hill on a one-way-street and under a bridge only to find barricades at the end of the short tunnel.

The car show, it turns out, has turned into a car rally, and the streets are blocked off to let it pass. Tim goes to ask the police officer how long we’ll have to wait, and is told four hours. At this point, more cars have pulled in behind us.

So Tim talks to the other drivers, and we succeed in all backing up the hill until we can finally turn around, and we begin looking for another way out. We finally came to another barricade, and Tim asked this officer how exactly we were supposed to get out of town.

The officer moved the barricade and let us through. Into the parade. Classic cars in front of us, classic cars in front of us, crowds gathered around, and us in our Peugeot 308. Which, to be sure, was a fine car that served us well on our travels, but isn’t exactly classic, per se.

The streets were lined with people watching the rally — cheering for the cars as they passed, taking pictures. Until we went past, and the cheering stopped and the cameras went down.

Tim and I were in the front seat; Rebecca and Mags were the in the back, and decided that they should make the most of the situation, so they began waving back to the crowd with proper waves that would have made the queen envious.

And, sure enough, the people began cheering again, and one or two pictures were even taken of the novelty of the 308 in the classic car rally.

We finally reached a point where we could make our escape, and got out of Laon as quickly as we could.

Laon was a beautiful city. The cathedral was amazing. The pizza was not bad at all. The templar church was a nice bit of history. It was a special experience, early in our time in France, being immersed in the architecture and language.

But we’ll always remember Laon for that time we were part of a French classic car rally.