Rocket In The Rocket City


Photos courtesy of NASA

I don’t generally get to work at 6:30 in the morning, but today I made an exception. A test article of the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System was being raised by crane and placed in the test stand. The LVSA is a giant metal “waffle cone” that will connect the two stages of the rocket. It will soon be joined by test versions of the rocket’s second stage and the adapter for NASA’s Orion Spacecraft.

To be honest, it wasn’t the most dynamic scene in the world. A large metal cone was carefully prepared and slowly moved to the stand. But it’s a start.

This piece will be followed by others, and the test will begin of a 56-foot-tall stack of rocket hardware; NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center‘s first major test of a large campaign to ensure America’s next great rocket is ready to fly. Next year will see testing of the rocket’s core stage liquid oxygen tank and the 130+-foot-tall hydrogen tank.

This morning was a very real step in a big rocket coming to the Rocket City in a big way. Not a bad way to start your day.
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The Starship and the Rocket: Star Trek, NASA & Me


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“Space… The Final Frontier…”

I am not where I am because of Star Trek.

You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.

For me, if anything, it was the opposite.

I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.

The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.

For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.

At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?

I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.

I never finished my Star Trek novel.

I have written two books about actual space.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.

It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.

Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.

I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.

Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.

But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.

NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.

To boldly go where no one has gone 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.

The Silver Snoopy


This probably comes as a bit of a shock to some, but I’m a bit of a space nerd. (I’ll give you a moment to recover.)
 
Long before I had the honor of working at NASA, I was excited about the things the agency does. I still have my Fisher-Price space shuttle and a story I wrote about space exploration in elementary school displayed at home. It’s unbelievable that I get to be a part of it, and it’s a rare day I’m not keenly aware of where I work and what we do here.
 
But even so, there are the days that take that to another level. I remember a day early on when Gene Kranz came and spoke at Marshall about his experiences in mission control. This is the guy that told Neil and Buzz they were Go to land on the moon; the “failure is not an option” guy of Apollo 13. And the NASA I support is the same NASA he did those things for. Surreal.
 
Last week, when I received my Silver Snoopy, I didn’t actually post anything about it; I was content to let Rebecca and my family and friends share the news. But with the excuse of now being able to share the official photos from the event, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.
 
Tuesday was one of those days for me. The Silver Snoopy has a long history in the agency; between the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the success of Apollo 11 it was decided that the astronaut office needed a way to recognize people who make significant contributions to “safety and mission success.” It was their way of thanking the people whom they entrusted with their lives and their labor. For almost 50 years, the astronaut office has continued that tradition, and last week they saw fit to include me in it. Surreal.
 
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a thing I hoped for eventually; I think everyone out here does. And the thing is, you look around you at work, and everyone you see deserves one. The crazy thing about NASA is that it’s NASA. Extraordinary is the average. I am surrounded with insanely talented people. For the astronaut office, the office that has been home to John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Bob Crippen and Sally Ride and Joe Kerwin and Victor Glover and will be home to the astronauts who fly Orion and SLS to tell you “well done”? Surreal.
 
As a communicator, as a liberal arts major from Ole Miss, it’s gratifying to see the work we do recognized. I don’t turn screws on the vehicles. I couldn’t put together a schematic drawing to save my life. But NASA has a mandate, going back to its original charter, to tell the world about what we do and what we’ve learned. It means a lot for the work my team does toward accomplishing that to be recognized as important to “mission success.”
 
My pin was presented by astronaut Victor Glover. You may not know his name yet, but you will. Victor was part of the last class of astronauts selected, and is an incredibly accomplished pilot before coming to NASA. He just became eligible for his first spaceflight, but, in the meantime, he’s supporting the team at Kennedy Space Center that’s preparing the facilities there for SLS and Orion. He’s crazy passionate about the future of exploration, and does a great job communicating both that future and that passion. I had the opportunity to put some charts together for a panel he was on at South by Southwest this year; it makes it easy when you know somebody’s going to knock it out of the ballpark whatever you do.
 
Each Silver Snoopy pin is flown in space; my pin was in orbit when I was in eighth grade at Huntsville Middle School. It flew on STS-27; the second flight after the shuttles were grounded after the loss of Challenger and her crew. The commander of STS-27 was the rather incredible Hoot Gibson, who two years ago was part of the book launch event we had at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for the release of Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986. It was neat having Hoot connected to another amazing moment.
 
I’m thankful every day for the opportunity I’ve been given, for what I get to be a part of. I’m thankful for the people I get to work with, for the amazing team we have. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be here, surrounded by people working to not only be worthy of the legacy we have inherited, but to surpass it, to learn more, to go farther, to explore as we never have before.
 
Surreal, indeed.

From Oxford to Oxford


So while almost all of our England/France trip was vacation, a really neat opportunity popped up during the planning that I had to take advantage of — a conference about deep-space CubeSats at the University of Oxford.
 
For those that don’t know (and Facebook was really insistent that instead of CubeSats, I probably meant cubists, which would have been an entirely different thing), CubeSats are small satellites ranging from a little larger than a softball to a couple of lunch boxes put together. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on with CubeSats in Earth orbit now, but this conference was focused on using them for interplanetary missions. Huge potential, but the trick is getting them there. Conveniently, we’re building a rocket that’s going to be launching 13 deep-space CubeSats the first time it flies. (No planned cubist launches at this time, though.) So the folks at work agreed that it would be worthwhile to go and build some relationships with people in this relatively new field.
 
And, yes, it was professionally very gratifying to help build those bridges, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also very very cool on a personal level. I mean, I went to college in Oxford, just not that one. The opportunity to give a presentation at a 350-year-old theater in “the other Oxford”? Yeah, that’s kind of awesome.
 
I put on my Oxford shoes, because that’s the sort of nerd I am. (I realized that I left an Oxford comma out of my presentation. #APforLife!) We spent the night in the converted prison of a thousand year old castle. We ate lunch were Tolkien and CS Lewis hung out with their writer friends. I saw where the OED is edited. We saw the lamppost and faun decoration that supposedly inspired Narnia. (Rebecca got to see some cool Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter stuff while I was NASA-ing.) I saw posters for a talk Buzz Aldrin was giving in the same theater the next week. (He often shows up places after I’m there. I guess he’s comfortable being second.) I bought some Oxford gear to wear the next time I’m in Oxford. I randomly told Rebecca “Hotty Toddy” from time to time.
 
‘Cause, you know, my Oxford may not be that Oxford, and that Oxford is probably a bit more prestigious, maybe. But I wouldn’t have been at that Oxford if it weren’t for my Oxford and folks like Joe Atkins and Robin Street and Samir Husni and Judy Crump. So, yeah, you know what, Hotty Toddy.
 
There was a neat bit of serendipity around the talk, too. Boeing’s Above and Beyond exhibit is at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, and the first time we went into London after we got back from France, we saw a poster for it in Fenchurch Street Station. A poster featuring NASA’s Space Launch System. When we went to Oxford, we were seeing that poster everywhere — the train stations, tube stations, newspapers. It was incredibly, incredibly encouraging to be seeing the rocket randomly and ubiquitously on the other side of the pond. Maybe the word is getting out. But the timing was nice, too. Here I was, over in England, getting ready to go talk about the rocket at a conference in Oxford, and the rocket had come to London to wish me luck.
 

…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.

Only These Bones


Driving down to the see the latest progress at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside of new Orleans, where welding takes place for the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew modules, I was struck by dichotomy.

The event was taking place two weeks before Mardi Gras, and already that spirit was in the air — visitors to the event I was going to were fed king’s cake and received beads as their group identifiers. But then, the spirit of Mardi Gras is never really gone from New Orleans, is it? You think of everything that the name New Orleans evokes, and that’s where we’re building the biggest rocket in history. Again.

I don’t write a lot of poetry (or, you know, for decades, any), but it seemed the best way to capture how appropriate that juxtaposition is.

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Only These Bones

Bones
in boxes
resting higher.
The ground too shallow for its dead.
Old bones, old stones;
History creates mystery.
The old world becomes ever new,
But here the new world remains ever old.

Bones
with beads
strewn all over.
Foreign streets of Bacchus’ own.
Magicks, carnal;
Emerald and amethyst and gold.
Here abide vampires and spirits,
In a quarter owned by flesh.

Bones
of buildings
sinking lower.
A city challenging the sea.
Winds tear, waters dare,
The buildings rise again.
The storms, looming, relentless,
The city’s heart more relentless still.

Bones
of metal
rising higher.
A tower taking shape.
Welding wonder;
Eyes toward unwalked ground.
A city’s history, magick, resolution
Come together in a rocket’s heart.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rocket plant…