Ode to Opportunity


A poem for the Mars rover Opportunity, still silent in the midst of a planet-wide dust storm on the Red Planet.Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 10.27.21 AM.png

At The Beginning…


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Three years ago today, Rebecca and I were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It was, to put it lightly, an incredible experience. I’d returned to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and joined NASA’s Space Launch System two years earlier that week, but I’d been following Orion for far longer than that, so it was overwhelming finally seeing it fly.

Sunday marked five years that I’ve been part of the SLS program, and they’ve been the most incredible of my career. I’m incredibly blessed to be here – I was talking to a friend, recently, about how, when I was in early high school, this is basically where I’d dreamed of being, that I’d abandoned that dream before college, but had somehow halfway-accidentally ended up where I’d wanted to be in the beginning. The irony is, if I’d stuck with my initial dream, there’s a good chance I would have ended up somewhere else.

All that to say, I’ve watched the SLS team pour themselves into this work, and we’re now seeing it pay off in a very real and very big way as the rocket takes shape. It is phenomenal to see the things they’ve already built, and to watch those massive pieces come together. But the real payoff – I was about to say the real payoff will be finally seeing in launch in two years, but, while that will be incredible, it’s not really true. The real payoff will be seeing what is accomplished when this rocket starts flying, and seeing a generation inspired as humanity reaches farther than ever before.

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.

…Speaking of Mars


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Waaaaay back in aught-two, when I was still new to Marshall Space Flight Center, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe came to the center to talk about the state and future of NASA. I was watching the the talk on center TV, and I turn it on to see O’Keefe on the stage at Marshall’s historic Morris Auditorium, with a banner behind him reading “Mars Space Flight.”
 
And, yeah, space nerd me was excited. This is really happening? The NASA administrator is here to announce something about sending people to Mars? OK, that’s kind of cool.
 
And then the camera zoomed out. And the banner did not read:
 
MARS
Space Flight
 
It read:
 
MARSHALL
Space Flight Center
 
Oh. Well, that’s cool, too, you know. And, to be sure, we were doing exciting things, but for that one moment, I was really hyped that somebody was about to stand on the stage at Morris Auditorium talking about sending people to Mars.
 
Today, I stood on the stage at Morris Auditorium, talking about sending people to Mars.
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I had a really neat opportunity to brief the latest class of Leadership Huntsville about the challenges we face on the Journey to Mars. It was an honor to talk to that group, it was an honor to stand on that historic stage, and it was an honor, due to a scheduling change, to have Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May as MY opening act.
 
But it was one of those moments that drove home what an incredibly exciting time this is. This is happening. We’re going to Mars. And we’re actively working on it now.

Standing on Mars, Virtually


Three virtual figures on a Mars-scape

NASA’s OnSight tool, which it developed with Microsoft creates a simulation of Mars’ surfaces scientists can use in their research. Image: NASA/JPL

I read this story about NASA’s new HoloLens collaboration with Microsoft to create a virtual Mars environment in the news a while back, and thought it sounded pretty cool.

Last week, I got to put the headset on myself at JPL, and can confirm that it is, indeed, very cool. One of my NASA Headquarters team members and I got to walk “together” on virtual Mars, standing by Curiosity and surveying the Martian landscape. Another team member who was there (physically but not virtually) laughed at me for the fact that I was, in real life, walking around the rover, which wasn’t, technically, there, but the experience was so immersive that I just didn’t think about the fact that I could walk through it.

It was kind of surreal that I was getting to experience it just days after first reading about it, but this could very well be a technology that we’ll all be using before too long. Amazing.

Ad Astra, Per Latrina


Per Space.com:

NASA is considering using the International Space Station to practice for a trip to Mars, officials said …

“Clearly, in order to be able to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to stay in orbit for longer than six months,” space station program manager Mike Suffredini said during a news conference today.

Suffredini said NASA is exploring the possibility of setting up a mock journey to Mars aboard the space station, where astronauts would stay for longer than the usual six months, and would be subject to other conditions that such a trip would impose. …

“It won’t be in the near future,” he said. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to do this sooner than two or three years from now.”

First, let me say, I’m for it.

NASA’s lead up to the Apollo program was a perfect example of space exploration done right — test it at home, then do it for real. In order to successfully put footprints in the lunar regolith, certain capabilities were going to have to be developed and demonstrated, including increased spaceflight duration, rendezvous and docking, and extravehicular activities.

The moon is about four days from Earth. Low Earth orbit, on the other hand, is minutes from the surface. So rather than doing all of these for the first time when we went to the moon, all of them were first tested in Earth orbit, where, if something went wrong, home was just a stone’s throw away.

About four years ago, a toilet on the International Space Station failed. NASA took a lot of ribbing for it in the press, but I said then, and maintain now, that if the only thing that happened on the International Space Station was its toilet failing, it would still be worth doing.

Mars is about six months away. And that’s just one way. A mission there would involve a trip of six months out, six months back, plus whatever time is spent on the surface, which arguably should be long enough to justify the travel time.

Someday, humanity will go there. If I were an astronaut, and the toilet for that mission were going to fail, I would sure rather it be during an Earth-orbit test of the equipment than on the way out to Mars, leaving the crew without a toilet for months. Every single system and procedure needed to go to Mars should be tested in Earth orbit, broken, fixed and tested again, so astronauts heading to the Red Planet will know everything that can go wrong, and what to do when it does.

Right now, we have a spacecraft in Earth orbit that is capable of supporting tests the duration of a Mars mission. (I will note, however, that I don’t believe that should be step one — I think it would be much more responsible to first double the current seven-month record of ISS increments, and then move up from there.)

While the details are uncertain and constantly in flux, for the last eight years, the goal of American human spaceflight has been exploration.

It’s high time we can began fully utilizing the assets we have to support that goal.

A Voyage to the Moon


From a Plinky prompt — “If you were offered a free trip to the moon, would you go? Why or why not?”

Puerto Madero and the Moon

One-way, or round trip? That might make a difference. Maybe.

My answer to this pretty much always would have been “yes” — the novelty of being one of the only people to have been there, the excitement of exploring somewhere new and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, the awe of seeing first-hand the terrible beauty of the “magnificent desolation,” the experience of actually BEING THERE.

And all of that was without any actual experience. If you’ve never really felt the one-sixth gravity of the surface of the moon, trust me, it’d be worth the trip.

I had the opportunity to go on a Zero-G reduced gravity flight a while back. The plane goes up into a huge arc, and then back down, and then back UP and then back DOWN. Inside the plane, you don’t really feel the up and down. What you do feel is that, as you go over the hill, for about half a minute, gravity goes away. It’s a rather interesting experience.

On my flight, we got about 15 weightless parabolas, spent floating in mid-air. Rather fun, to be honest. We also got two arcs at one-third G, the gravity that you would experience if you were walking on Mars.

And, because the Mythbusters were on our flight filming a segment debunking the conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked, we got extra parabolas at lunar one-sixth G.

Space exploration is kind of my forte. I’ve studied what it’s like to experience weightlessness, lunar gravity, etc. I’ve talked to people who have experienced both. I was surprised at what a surprise one-sixth G was.

In orbit, you’re weightless. Weightlessness was interesting, but not surprising. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but upon experiencing it, I had somewhat of a “well, that makes sense” reaction. On Earth, there’s gravity. On the moon, there’s gravity. So the moon should be more like Earth than space, right? I expected something like everyday walking around, but different. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

One-sixth G was like being weightless without being untethered from the surface. You could jump high enough that you basically experienced freefall coming back down, but you did always come back down. It was amazing. It was freeing. And, yeah, I would definitely make the trip to experience it for more than half a minute at a time.

Please?

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