Home Away From Home


So of course I would travel 4,000 miles from home, and go look for Twickenham and rockets. I’ve already written about going to “the other” Oxford and about seeing SLS in the London Underground, but one of the cool (and accidentally convenient) pilgrimages of the trip for me was getting our picture made with a Twickenham sign.

Early on and very briefly, Huntsville was named Twickenham — the “father of Huntsville” Leroy Pope’s namedropping nod to his famous poet cousin, Alexander Pope, one of the original Twickenham’s more famous sons. Since this was happening around the time of the War of 1812, pro-British sentiment wasn’t at an all-time high, and pro-Leroy-Pope sentiment wasn’t that great either, and the city was named for founder John Hunt instead.

The name has stuck around, however, and it still used fondly in talking about old/downtown Huntsville. As a fan of Huntsville history, I thought it would be neat to visit our city’s quasi-namesake. For logistic reasons, that visit was a selfie out the window at the train stop, but it was still a neat experience. (In doing some quick research, it looks like Huntsville is the only other place to have used the name.)

We also made a trip to the British science museum, which has a room dedicated to space. It was neat seeing an Apollo command module and some Saturn engines so far from home, but it was more interesting seeing the early-space-history stuff. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun and his V2 missiles than Huntsville did (one thing I wanted to do but failed to make happen on either of my London trips was to [knowingly] visit a V2 bombing site), and it was interesting seeing the difference in presentation. Honestly, what surprised me most wasn’t the more realistic depiction of the V2 as a war machine, but the graciousness with which von Braun was treated. They were far kinder about his place in history than one might have expected.

And, really, Iooking at the pictures, I think we’ve held up pretty well in the exchange — we’ve taken Oxford and Twickenham from them, and in return we’ve given them space ships. Not too shabby.

Why I Love My Job


Neil Armstrong

 

Why I love my job…

The guy in that picture? Forty-six years ago today, he was walking on the moon.

Which, really, is kind of amazing.

On his right shoulder, that man, who walked on the moon, is wearing a red-white-and-blue patch. The symbol of the agency that put him there.

Some days, I get to wear that same symbol and go tell people what that agency is doing today.

Which, really, is kind of amazing.

I don’t, in my line of work, get to do things quite as amazing as that man did. But I do get to do some amazing things. And it is humbling and inspiring in the midst of those things to remember that the same agency that saw fit to send Neil Armstrong to the moon has seen fit to let me blog on its behalf or represent it in another country or share with the public the excitement of a rocket launch or an engine test.

But here’s the really amazing part…

It’s tempting and easy to be overshadowed by that history, by that legacy. It’s easy to go to work one day and listing to Gene Kranz talk about the landing of Apollo 11 or the rescue of Apollo 13 and to feel like our job now is simply to be worthy of what we have inherited.

It’s not.

Our job is to do better.

The NASA I am incredibly incredibly lucky to be a part of is one that is in the midst of undertaking endeavors more ambitious than any it has undertaken before. It is in the midst of beginning a journey monumentally more challenging than the one marking an anniversary this week.

Just as Neil Armstrong will hold a larger place in the history book than Alan Shepard, our job today is to write history that will hold a larger place than his.

That? That’s amazing.

Ad Astra, Per Aspera, Per Aspera, Per Aspera


STS107-crash-04

Maybe I should be writing this Friday. I’ve always done it today, and this year won’t be any different.

Where were you?

Forty-six years ago, when a fire during tests in an Apollo spacecraft on the launchpad killed three astronauts, I wasn’t around yet. Odds are, statistically, neither were you. The Apollo I fire has been long enough ago now that the world’s population then was only half what it is today. I knew the names of the crew for the namesake schools honoring them here in Huntsville. I was teaching at one of those schools last year on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was a new transfer student at Huntsville Middle School when we lost the space shuttle Challenger. I was in the gym when I heard, and I literally couldn’t believe it. Space shuttles do many things, but blowing up, to my 10-year-old mind, was not one of them. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I knew it was true. It was a universal touchstone for my generation, and it’s odd as time passes to encounter those for whom it’s just a historical event.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago, I was at home. I was asleep, when a coworker called to tell me about Columbia. I was addled, and it made no sense. I finally understood enough to go downstairs, to turn on the TV. To hear the repeats of “Columbia, Houston, Comm Check.” I was working at Marshall Space Flight Center already then; I had been for about half a year. It was different. It was personal. It hurt. It still does.

I made myself some promises then. I was nobody. I worked at NASA, but I had nothing to do with the shuttle or its safe flight. But I promised myself I would watch every launch. I promised myself I would watch every landing. I wouldn’t take them for granted. We, as an agency, needed to take less for granted. And even if I couldn’t contribute, I could at least hold myself to that standard. And so I did. I set my alarm for some weird hours sometimes, but I watched every crew launch after that, and I watched every crew come safely back home after that. I heard every “Wheels stop,” right up until the last time they did.

The last time I marked this anniversary at Marshall, we were still flying humans into space. We’re not, today. But we are preparing for the day we do. And this time, in a very small way, I have the honor of being a part of that. I’m not an engineer. I’m not directly responsible for safety. I’m glad to be a part of a team that does have safety as a prime value in this new rocket they’re designing. But even in my small role, in the ways that I can, I will still work to uphold that standard — Don’t take it for granted.

Twixt Yesterday And Tomorrow


 

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I wrote a little bit ago about starting my new job at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, providing communications support for the new Space Launch System rocket. At the time of that post, I was mostly settled in, but had one milestone I’d not yet crossed — receiving my new badge. I’d planned to write another post when that happened, but I was busy. So I’m writing this one instead, which is better anyway.

The badge was always a big deal to me. It meant I was part of something incredible. I was proud to wear it, and when I was hired for this job, I very much looked forward to wearing it again.

There were two types of occasions, however, when I was most proud of wearing it, when I was most aware of what it meant.

There were the days when I was aware of its history. Days that I was in the room with Flight Director Gene Kranz, talking about his experiences on Apollo 13. Days when I was in the room with Alan Bean, telling us about what it was like to walk on the moon. In its history, NASA has done incredible things without parallel, and the badge means I’m part of that heritage.

And then there were the days when I was aware of its potential. Watching a shuttle launch. Watching the Ares I-X launch. This agency does incredible things today, and the badge means I’m part of that team.

So I was glad to be wearing it again.

Yesterday was one of those days. And by those, I mean both of those. I’m not going to say it was the most incredible day I’ve experienced, but I don’t recall another day that brought home both the heritage and the potential like yesterday did.

Yesterday, I watched an engine component test firing.

The component being fired was over 40 years old; a gas generator from the F-1 engine that powered the Saturn V rocket that carried men to the moon. Obviously, this particular piece didn’t fly, but it was produced alongside the ones that did, for that very purpose. F-1 engine testing at Marshall Space Flight Center was a major milestone on the road to the moon 50 years ago, and I was there watching hardware from that era come to life again, in the same test area.

The component was being fired because it’s being studied to create an improved, modern version of the F-1, as part of a program to develop a new rocket. The goal is a new launch vehicle that will ultimately be more powerful than the Saturn V and that will unlock the solar system for human exploration and for robotic missions beyond anything we could do now.

NASA has done amazing things. But the best is yet to come. It’s an honor to be a part of that. It’s an honor to wear the badge.

“Nothing Beats An Astronaut”


The commercial above is part of Axe’s Axe Apollo Space Academy contest, in which you can win a trip into “actual space.”

Regardless of what you think of Axe, you gotta admit the commercial is good.

And it plays to idea that one could argue has gotten lost over the years — the raw coolness of astronauts, of spaceflight, of rockets. It’s unapologetic in presenting astronauts as cool.

Because, you know, they kinda are.

Apollo 18 Movie Review — Unrealistic Realism


Lloyd Owen as Commander Nate Walker in Apollo 18. Photo credit: Dimension Films

There is a note towards the end of the credits for “Apollo 18” that watches were provided by the Swatch Group.

Which, of course, is just wrong. Everyone knows the official watch of the moon landings was the Omega Speedmaster.

And given the level of attention to detail in “Apollo 18,” it’s a little surprising they would use Swatch. Maybe they were just for the Earthbound scenes or something; I can’t rule it out.

“Apollo 18” is the most realistic unrealistic space movie I’ve seen; or possibly the most unrealistic realistic space movie, I’m not sure. I was impressed with the level of detail, but distracted to the point of it taking away from the movie by the whole “found footage” approach.

Basically, there are two types of people who will watch this movie.

There are those who will actually believe it is, or could be, real. For those people, the incredible level of detail makes it easier to buy the lie. However, those people are idiots, and we shall speak no more of them.

The other type of viewer is the people who will watch it understanding that it’s fiction. And for those, the approach is a mixed bag.

For people like me, the level of detail is entertaining. The moviemakers were advised by Gerry Griffin, who would have been the flight controller for the actual Apollo 18, had it flown, and in a lot of ways, they get it right. During descent, there’s a line — “You’re go on the 1201” — that’s just a little present for the space nerds in the audience.

However, for the space nerds in the audience, the “found footage” approach asks you to buy into some things that are just too hard to swallow. Set the movie in a fictional universe in which this happened, and, OK, fine. Ask me to believe that someone no one noticed the launch of a Saturn V in 1974, and you’ve just taken me out of the movie — my mind is being filled with all the reasons why that’s unbelievable. (They were keeping this mission so secret that the crewmembers couldn’t even tell their families they were flying, and yet NASA went ahead and contracted out for mission patches? Really?) And that’s just the obvious stuff. The movie protects itself a little in that you can’t really criticize the “found footage” approach without major spoilers.

All of which is a shame. Because it’s an entertaining movie, and very well made — the best cinematic version of Apollo on screen since “Apollo 13.” It takes some unrealistic flights of fancy, but even those are done in a cool “what if” sort of way — if they had just settled for taking a “what if” sort of approach.