Between Two Launches


Four years ago today, I was standing on the Kennedy Space Center Causeway to watch the launch of the Ares I-X rocket.

It was an exciting day; at the time, it was the beginning of the future, laying the groundwork for later flights of the Ares I vehicle. It was the first test launch of a new design for a crewed launch vehicle in almost 30 years, and I got to be there for it.

I remember there being some discussion of what would happen, some concerns from armchair rocket scientists that the test would go horribly wrong. From my uninvolved observer’s perspective in NASA education, I was willing to bet that if they weren’t very sure it was going to fly they wouldn’t be launching it, but I figured, either way, it would be quite a show.

And it was. She was beautiful. Ares I-X was incredibly beautiful on the pad, towering over the shuttle launch complex. And she was incredibly beautiful in flight, looking like she was defying the laws of physics in a way I’d never seen a rocket do before. Simply amazing.

Later, there would be discussion about the second stage recontact after separation, but in real time, it was incredible, and I still think it was completely worthy of its recognition as Time magazine’s Invention of the Year. What the Ares I-X team accomplished in the time they had and with the resources they had is amazing.

It’s been an interesting four years since then. Ares was cancelled; SLS was begun and in two years has completed its preliminary design review. Personally, my two-and-a-half-year “sabbatical” from NASA fell within that time. A lot of changes, for the agency and myself.

Looking back on that day, I’m struck by how blessed I am by my part of those changes. Like I said, watching I-X, I was basically nothing but a fan. We had a poster on the wall by my office, a gorgeous movie poster design about the mission. I saw that poster again recently in a co-worker’s office, and realized that back then, I’d never paid attention to the names in the credits. Those names meant nothing to me then. Today, they’re my co-workers, members of the team I’m a part of. I’m incredibly, incredibly blessed to be part of the team this time for SLS, instead of just an observer.

I talked to my boss a while back about that day four year ago, about how beautiful the rocket looked on the pad. Kimberly agreed, telling about standing at the base of the vehicle and looking up at her, towering well over 300 feet high into the sky. And, yeah, Kimberly’s rocket-on-the-pad story totally trumps my view from across the river. But it gave me something to look forward to, something to work toward. I want to see SLS on the pad.

And I cannot wait, I cannot wait, to see her fly. If this is going to be my first time being part of the team, I’m incredibly lucky that it’s for what will be the most spectacular launch anyone’s ever seen.

Not a bad motivation to get up and go to work every morning.

STS-133 Launch: Worth Waiting For


launch of sts-133

One earlier time, I was glad for a scrub.

A year and a half ago, I drove down for the launch of Ares I-X. After spending eight hours on the Causeway the launch was scrubbed for the day, a victim of the much-dreaded triboelectrification and of a wayward boat captain who wandered into the range.

The next day, we came back, waited, as I recall, nearly another eight hours, but this time with the payoff of watching a spectacular launch, possibly my favorite of the six or so I’ve seen from the cape area. The wait was well worth it; the skies were so much more clear the second day that it was an entirely different experience than it would have been the day before. That unknown boat captain was my best friend as I watched the Ares rocket soar in its unlikely fashion through the sky.

But that was just one day. There was one scrub, and it launched the next day.

STS-133, on the other hand …

Heather, the boys and I went down in November to try to watch it. It scrubbed the first time before we even left town, but we were already committed to our travel plans. The trip lasted a week. And at the end of that week, the launch was pushed back more than two months.

We hadn’t planned on going back, but circumstances sort of fell together the right way, and so last Thursday we were standing on a pier watching Discovery soar through the sky.

And I was glad the mission had scrubbed.

When we went down in November, the boys’ thoughts on the pending launch ranged from, at best, mild curiosity about this thing we’d brought them down to see to, at worst, annoyance that it would mean time away from Disney and the swimming pool. Excitement was not part of the equation. The afternoon we spend at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center was perhaps one of the low-points of the trip, in part because of my frustration stemming from wanting them to get it in a way they simply didn’t.

In the meantime, however, Heather and I finished the book we’d been writing about the early shuttle program, and Caden finally got curious about what this thing was that was taking up so much of mommy and David’s time that rightfully should have been his. So he came and asked me questions. I gave him answers. We watched videos together on YouTube of launches and landings and everything in between. Any chance he got, he asked me to tell him stories about space. And I did.

Going back down this time, Caden was excited. He got it. It was an entirely different experience for him than it would have been if it had gone the first time, and I was grateful for the delay that gave him time to catch up.

In the acknowledgments of both my books, I’ve mentioned my dad as the source of an interest in space that led me to where I am today. He shared his passion with me, and it’s lasted to this day. When the first space shuttle flew, I was five years old. Caden right now is five years old. I can’t tell you how cool it was for me to be able to share that with him at that point in life.

My dad tried more than once to take me to a launch. Fittingly, they all scrubbed. He and I did both watch STS-131 last year in person, but from two different locations. It wasn’t quite the same, but it meant a lot for me to complete the mission he started when I was younger, taking a child with stars in his eyes to see a launch.

And, yeah, afterwards, having him tell me that “the space shuttle launch was the awesomest thing ever”?

Totally worth the wait.

Caden and I at the launch with Discovery's plume in the background.