Ad Astra, Per Aspera, Per Aspera, Per Aspera


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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.

Coming Home


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I’ve come home.

A few weeks ago, I accepted a new job, returning to my old stomping grounds — after being gone for more than a year and a half, I am once more working as a contractor at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

It’s good to be back.

I’m here in a new capacity, and one that I am extremely excited about. During the nine years I was here originally, I supported NASA Education, primarily as a writer for the NASA homepage. In my new job, I’m working in communications, supporting the new Space Launch System, an in-development rocket that will eventually out-power even the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. It’s an incredible honor to be involved in the project; as much as I enjoyed working in education, it’s a very different sort of experience to be in a position where I’m playing a substantive role supporting the development of a new launch vehicle that will make possible the future of space exploration. I am, in a very real way, working to send human beings into the solar system, and that is more than a little unbelievable.

As I’m writing this, a bit in advance of publishing, I’m in the latter parts of the process of getting settled back in — getting various accounts re-activated, getting a new computer, and, ultimately, getting my new badge. As one thing after another is gradually restored, the feeling of coming home just gets stronger.

The new assignment means I’m working with a new team. There are many familiar faces I’ve encountered during my time here (including someone I went to kindergarten with), combined with several new faces. It’s a great team, and I love working with them. From my first interview, I just really enjoyed talking to these people, especially when I found myself lapsing back into a rarified dialect I’d not used in months. These people speak my language.

I’m quite excited to be starting this grand new adventure.

#SCTweetUp Follow Up


OK, I’m very late with this, but now that I’m posting again, I wanted to go back and finish blogging about the Space Camp Tweet Up about a month ago.

To start with, here are my pictures from the second day. (The pictures from the first day are here.)

First, let me begin by saying that you should follow @SpaceCampUSA on Twitter.

Now, the story –

They say that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

And that, certainly, is the root of my Space Camp tweet-up story.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I was selected for the first ever Space Camp tweet-up. Crazy excited, to resort to incredible understatement. I’d been wanting to go to Space Camp for 25 years. Back in middle school, I would enter the essay contest every year, hoping to win a scholarship, always to no avail. (Apparently my space writing wasn’t up to snuff. Oh, by the way, I have an appointment with them today to do some writing for them. Apparently the last quarter-century has been good for me in that area.)

But, Space Camp always remained just beyond my grasp.

So you can imagine it was a very very sad day when I had to turn down the chance to go to the tweetup. It was going to be the same day as the STS-134 space shuttle launch, and I owed it to some people to go to that instead.

To add insult to injury, the launch scrubbed. I had to watch it much later on television.

But …

So did the tweet-up. Remember that ill wind I mentioned? The tornados that blew through Huntsville two days before the scheduled launch caused the tweet-up to be delayed, and I was able to get back on the list. Which made me a very, very happy man.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some very cool space-related stuff, from watching launches with astronauts to going on a Zero-G flight to talking to the space station. But so many of the things I got to do at Space Camp had this great “I’m finally doing this!” quality to them that made the experience even more special.

One of the first things we did, for example, was ride the Multi-Axis Trainer, a chair  mounted in concentric loops that all spin in different directions at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I’d seen the MAT, and been jealous of the fact that I’d never gotten to try it. And now, here I was, strapping in. Awesome. (For the record, I didn’t get at all nauseated, but that’s typical. It has something to do with how quickly the spinning changes direction.)

While we were there, we also got to use the One-Sixth-G Chair, which simulates what it’s like to walk on the moon, using an elaborate pulley system. There was a bit of irony there for me — I’ve experienced “actual” one-sixth G during my reduced gravity flight, so I was probably one of a few people to get to experience the real thing before simulating it at Space Camp. What I learned is that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s real or simulated — I stink at being in reduced gravity. If the real moonwalkers had been as awkward on the moon as I was in the chair, NASA would have covered up that we ever landed out of embarrassment.

Also that night, astronaut Hoot Gibson came and spoke to us about — well, anything he wanted to talk about. Hoot’s a great speaker, and his talk was informative — I learned a few new things — and greatly entertaining.

The next day started with a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center, which was somewhat bittersweet for me. It was a little odd being back just over a month after I left, and I have to admit that I missed it a bit. They do some incredible things there, and it was an honor to have been involved with that.

Our lunch speaker was Tim Pickens, of the Rocket City Space Pioneers team that is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize. He’s a brilliant man, and RCSP is an incredible team doing brilliant things. Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about that on here at some point.

And then, it was time for our mission. For me, the highlight of the entire event. Again, I’d been waiting a long time for this.

OK, to be perfectly honest, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted to be in the orbiter. Instead, I was in Mission Control. Watching Apollo 13 one time, I decided that it wouldn’t be that bad being in Mission Control at Space Camp if you could be Flight, and say really cool stuff like Gene Kranz. But I wasn’t even Flight.

I was a prop.

Well, technically, I was PROP, the propulsion officer. And I did get to say some cool stuff. Heck, just going through the Go/No Go polling was enough to send chills through you. “PROP is Go!” Even if I wasn’t in the shuttle, it was still amazing to finally get to do a Space Camp mission.

I’m not entirely sure the crew would have survived the mission in real life; my pet peeve, for example, was that they never activated their auxiliary power units like they were supposed to. I’m pretty sure that would be a bad day on a real mission, but I’m not sure if they technically needed them on our simulation, which was a once-around abort. Also, the spacewalkers were basically doing a separate sim at the same time as the inside-the-orbiter, so from Mission Control, they basically got left in orbit. Still, I admire their dedication to the mission and their country.

A few things remained after that. We toured Aviation Challenge, where I crashed many simulated airplanes. I got to ride their centrifuge, but it only went up to 3G. (What can I say, I’m a G-snob at this point. It would be great fun for most people.) We rode Space Shot. We got to see the new Sue The T-Rex traveling exhibit, which was pretty cool.

And then it was done.

It was an exciting, exhausting, exhilarating two days, that was a complete dream come true for me.

The only downside –

The only downside –

Was that finally getting to go to Space Camp in no way, shape or form diminished my decades-long desire to go to Space Camp.

And next time, I wanna fly the orbiter.

Great Moonbuggy Race 2011


This is how it’s supposed to be done:


This is how it’s more often done:


This is what happened to the team from Russia:

They did, eventually, push the buggy out of the obstacle, and pushed on to the next one before giving up.

I was amused by the fact that when they hit the obstacle and got stuck, the guy on the team launched into a flurry of Russian I didn’t understand, punctuated with a couple of words starting with F— and S— that I and the other bystanders did.

I guess English is truly the new Lingua Franca when it’s the language used when we have to pardon your French.

I thought it was really cool that Russia joined the participants this year, but I’ll admit that I still had enough nationalism to find it amusing that they struggled. I’ll admit having a passing thought along the lines of, no wonder we beat them to the moon.


These are some pictures I took:

Crushing The Hopes Of Tomorrow


VanCleave and Olden in front of the test article

Dee VanCleave and George Olden get paid to break things.

Not only that, they get paid to take physical manifestations of hopes and dreams for the future, and crush them. Under the weight of 50 years of history, no less.

Dee and George are test engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. They test hardware to analyze its load limits and related failure modes. In other words, you give them something, and they’ll tell you how much pressure it takes to cause it to buckle or break. And what happens when it does.

They do this using a facility designed for the development of the Saturn rockets that went to the moon. Later, it was used to do very unpleasant, and messy, things to test versions of the space shuttle’s external tank.

Now, all of that is pretty cool.

So I’m ashamed to admit, when I first heard about the test they’re doing Wednesday, I was a bit blasé about it.

We were called into a meeting to discuss providing education support for tomorrow’s test. The test, we were told, would involve taking a 27.5-foot-wide and 20-foot-tall cylinder, putting it in the test equipment, and crushing it like an aluminum can. OK, at that point, it sounded pretty cool.

But then it was explained that in this case “crushing” actually means slightly buckling in a way that you probably won’t be able to see easily. Less cool. But it will probably make a loud noise. Uh … kinda cool?

But then Heather and I got to go meet Dee and George at the facility and find out more about what was going on.

First, just being there was cool.

The particular room and equipment that will be used for tomorrow’s test hasn’t been used since the mid-1970s. You can see marks on the equipment from past tests, putting loads on Saturn rocket stages and shuttle external tanks. George noted that if you know the diameters of the vehicles, you can tell what marks were left by what hardware. We went up into the catwalks in the top reaches of the high bay, largely untouched since the 1960s.

It was one of those moments that I love when I was aware of the continuity — George and Dee and Heather and I work for the same NASA that went to the moon, and are continuing the work today that von Braun and Faget and Kraft and Gilruth and others started 50 years ago.

But, also, what they will be doing is cool.

If you build a rocket, you have to know that it’s going to be strong enough to withstand the crazy variety of loads it will experience during launch — axial loads from vehicle weight and thrust and air pressure and shear loads from wind and burning fuel and torsional loads from rolling and many many many others.

It’s the great conundrum. Making the rocket stronger adds weight which requires more fuel which adds weight which requires more fuel, etc. Make it too light, however, and it comes apart during launch. Not a good day.

Engineers today are still following rules on how strong a rocket needs to be that were born, in part, in that same room decades ago. Hardware was tested until it broke, and that told how strong it needed to be. Back then, it was a different age — analog and less precise. So engineers erred on the side of caution, going with stronger instead of lighter when there was uncertainty.

Today, there’s better equipment — computers and sensors and video and all sorts of other toys that will allow the measurements to be more precise. Tomorrow’s test is verifying a new computer model about what sort of loads a vehicle can withstand. If the testing validates the models, it means engineers will know more precisely how strong their vehicle needs to be. Smaller margins will result. Lighter instead of stronger.

The difference could be substantial. The weight savings will make rockets smaller or more powerful. They will make access to space easier and cheaper. Tomorrow’s test may not be as telegenically impressive as if it were the equivalent of crushing an aluminum can. But it’s revolutionary.

Appropriate that in a room drenched in the past, the future will begin tomorrow.

Heather’s got a great post about the test on her NASA Taking Up Space blog.

“My Radio Tuned to the Voice of a Star”


Heather talked to the space station Friday.

It was cool.

For those who don’t know, she’s been writing an official NASA blog for a while now.

So way back when, I suggested we should try to set up a downlink for her to talk to the International Space Station as material for her blog.

Downlinks aren’t necessarily that easy to get, but, I figured, if I could get one msyelf years ago, it wouldn’t hurt to try again for her.

Our friends from the education wing of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston delivered, big time.

Not only did she get a downlink, she got a downlink while the space shuttle was docked with the space station.

i did my downlink back in 2004. I talked to the entire crew of the space station at the time — two people. U.S. astronaut Mike Foale, who was becoming the first American to spend a year in space, and Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri.

Heather talked to eight people — the entire crew of Discovery, and both U.S. members of the space station crew.

I’m not jealous. Foale and Kaleri were both very interesting, and I had a great conversation with them. Plus, coincidentally, Sasha’s in space again right now. He talked to me on my downlink. He didn’t talk to Heather. We can tell who he likes better.

But that meant every U.S. astronaut in orbit Friday morning was participating in the downlink. The entire focus of America’s human spaceflight program for 25 minutes last week was talking to Heather. That’s kinda cool, too.

(Of course, I guess that was not only true of mine, but I was the focus of all the world’s human space complement. It seems less impressive when it’s just two people, though.)

Preparing for the downlink was a lot of fun. One of the goals of the downlink was to get student involvement, which we did, peaking with having two Marshall interns each ask a question of the astronauts.

But we also had to write several of the questions ourselves, and that was a neat opportunity. I’ve done a downlink before, we’ve both watched several other downlinks, and we’ve done astronaut interviews. We heard all the standard questions and all the standard answers, and challenged ourselves to come up with something different, to get the crews to give us something different.

I think we did a good job of coming up with questions, and I think the crew did a great job of coming up with answers.

The downlink took place in the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall, essentially the “mission control” for space station science. If there’s something going on with vehicle or crew operations, the astronauts talk to Houston. If they’re talking about science, they’re talking to Huntsville.

It’s a cool room, with the flags of ISS participant nations on the ceiling and patches of supported missions on the wall and console stations with easily a dozen monitors. It was a great setting for the downlink, and it was an honor to be allowed in. (I did mine in a small supply room in the building I worked in. Totally not jealous about that, either.)

It was rewarding seeing the flight controllers enjoying the downlink. One said that in 11 years of watching them, this was the best she’d seen.

Heather did a great job. She was nervous beforehand, but, of course, handled it perfectly.

I suggested the downlink originally in part because I thought it would make for good blog content, but mainly because I wanted Heather to have that experience. I believe firmly in the value of doing things; I believe that hands-on experience gives you an insight and investment that you don’t get other ways.

I was glad she got this opportunity, and proud of what she did with it.

I got to help, too. I was the coordinating line. I stayed on the phone from an hour before the downlink until after it was over, communicating with the folks in Houston that were making the connection, and letting Heather know what was going on. When the downlink was extended three minutes before it was to end, I got to let her know that. (For my downlink, I had to manage both lines myself, with Houston on my cell phone on one ear and ISS on the landline on my other ear. Still not jealous.)

Going to the launch last week also enhanced the experience — Heather was talking to astronauts that she had just seen blast into space in person eight days ago.

It also meant that Caden, her five-year-old who was fascinated by the launch, was sufficiently interested to spend half an hour at 6 in the morning watching astronaut talk to his mom on television. (How many kids can say that? [On a personal note, it amused me that I now can say I have the clout to arrange for the space station to call my girlfriend. How many guys can claim that?])

Caden knew about the downlink, but wasn’t thinking about it earlier last week when he saw an airplane contrail and said, “I think that’s the space shuttle coming back to land.” I told Heather to remind him that the shuttle couldn’t come home until after they talked to her. I think he now thinks his mom has to give the shuttle permission to land. He has an interesting view of what she and I do.

Landing is scheduled for Wednesday. And they have Heather’s permission to come home.

Photos by Emmett Given of NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

We Are Marshall


Yesterday we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Specifically, yesterday marked 50 years since President Eisenhower came to Huntsville to dedicate the new center, which brought elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency based at Redstone Arsenal under the auspices of the then-two-year-old National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The center’s first director was the ABMA’s German genius, Wernher von Braun.

In his comments on that day, Eisenhower recognized the ABMA’s work on the Redstone and Jupiter rockets and Explorer 1 satellite, and the already ongoing work on the Saturn architecture. (“No doubt this mighty rocket system makes its presence known loudly — possibly too loudly — in Huntsville.”)

Eisenhower went on to say:

Marvel as we will these technical achievements, we must not overlook this truth:

All that we have already accomplished, and all in the future that we shall achieve, is the outgrowth not of a soulless, barren technology, nor of a grasping state imperialism. Rather, it is the product of unrestrained human talent and energy restlessly probing for the betterment of humanity. We are propelled in these efforts by ingenuity and industry — by courage to overcome disappointment and failure — by free-ranging imagination — by insistence upon excellence — with none of this imposed by fiat, none of it ordered by a domineering bureaucracy. In this fact is proof once again that hard work, toughness of spirit, and self-reliant enterprise are not mere catchwords of an era dead and gone. They remain the imperatives for the fulfillment of America’s dream.

Not pushbuttons nor electronic devices, therefore, but superlative human qualities have brought success and fame to this place.

There are far more famous words that the agency has been charged with over the decades, but we would do well not to forget these that Eisenhower shared with this center. I hope that, fifty years later, we continue to live up to them. I feel like we do. I hope that I continue to live up to them.

Yesterday was a proud day for me. As Marshall marked 50 years of existence, I have been a tiny part of the Marshall team for eight, about a sixth of the time it’s been around. A minority, to be sure, but a measurable minority. And that’s a huge honor and privilege for me, to have worked at this storied institution for so long and to have seen so much of its history. Marshall continues to do amazing things, and his poised to do unprecedented things again. And I get to watch from the front row, and chronicle those things for those who will continue that work in years to come.

Like I said, an honor.


The picture above was taken to celebrate the occasion. Can you find me?

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