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.

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…

There’s Magic as Long as We Make It


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Thirty years.
On the day I heard the news at Huntsville Middle School, it had been 19 years and a day since the Apollo 1 fire. That was history, distant. Eight years before I was born.
Today, it’s been far longer than that since the loss of Challenger. And it it still looms. It’s still immediate. To be honest, in some ways, Challenger for me has left a scar deeper than the more recent Columbia.
Thirty years later, Challenger is a “why.” It motivates. It demands. It’s why we don’t take things for granted. It motivates better solutions. It demands our best. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never again.
It’s an odd memory for me today. It’s something I remember as who I was then, and something I remember as who I am now. At this point, I’ve worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for longer than I’d been alive when it happened. It is a part of our agency history, and it informs my professional life.
But that’s who I am now. Who I was then was a kid in middle school who grew up playing with toy spaceships. One of my favorites, which helped decorate a table at my wedding last year, was the Fisher-Price Alpha Probe, one of those early transitional toys that stopped showing spaceships as tall cylindrical things and started showing them with wings.
My connection to Challenger was not as immediate as it is now, but it was bigger in some ways. The shuttle wasn’t a vehicle, it was a national mythology and science fiction and hope and excitement and science. It was the future, wrapped in tile and foam and rocket engines. And thirty years ago today, I learned that even myths and science fiction and the future can fail. There was a little less magic in the world.
But the secret — part of the real legacy of Challenger — is that there’s not. There’s magic as long as we make it.
I had the opportunity to wander Tuesday through the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans. The factory where the Apollo I crew’s rocket was built. Where the external tanks for the final flights of Challenger and Columbia were built. The factory where Neil Armstrong’s Saturn V was built and the tanks that held the fuel that launched the first shuttle and the last, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station.
The factory where the core structure of a spaceship that will go around the moon was just welded. The factory where the rocket that will send it there is being built.
On the way down, I visited some friends, and in the midst of the visit, they bought their son a spacecraft playset he can sit inside. One of the early transitional toys showing spaceships not as things that look like airplanes, but as tall rockets and exploration capsules that fly atop them.
Their son won’t remember the shuttle. Challenger and Columbia are ancient history for him. But he’ll be seven or eight when we launch this rocket. Old enough to know, and appreciate it. A thing of wonder and hope and excitement and science fiction and the future.

Apollo 8 and Orion: “Christmas Miracles”


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I really enjoyed reading this great blog post by astronaut Rhea Seddon about the “Christmas Miracle” of Apollo 8, because I was thinking about that very topic two weeks ago today.

Rhea talks about what a miracle Apollo 8 was for NASA, but it was, in maybe even a bigger way, a miracle for the nation. 1968 had been a very dark year for the United States, which had seen the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and was mired in Vietnam. And then, on Christmas Eve, human beings are reading words of hope as they circle the moon. It was a reminder of who we as a species are, and what we can be.

Two weeks ago today, I was standing on the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. And the night before, Twitter could not have been more depressing; the trending topics about police controversies and civil unrest seemed adequate reasons for despair. And then, for two days, social media was ‪#‎Orion‬. And, while EFT-1 was admittedly not Apollo 8, it was nonetheless a reminder again that we are and can can be more.

I love what I do. I’m honored to be a part of it. There are countless reasons why I think what NASA and the space industry do is important, from technological advancement to scientific knowledge to economic benefit. But there are a lot of intangibles, too, and this is high among them — because, as JFK said of the moon, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” because that goal constantly requires us to be better than we’ve been before.

PA1


This morning, I got to work early to watch PA1.

Sexy, huh?

You may not even have heard about PA1. Not one of NASA’s most high-profile missions. Definitely not as big as a space shuttle launch. Heck, it wasn’t even Ares I-X caliber.

PA1 was the Orion Pad Abort 1 test. The test demonstrated the Launch Abort System developed for the Orion/Ares stack. If something went wrong during launch, the LAS would carry the crew, aboard the Orion spacecraft, safely away from the launch vehicle. For PA1, an Orion mock-up, with attached LAS, was sitting on the ground and the abort system was fired, boosting the capsule to an altitude of over a mile.

It was spectacular.

The test was shown on a large screen in an auditorium at Marshall, a special event not done for most launches, so it was a great privilege to get to see it, not only on a big screen, but also with a small crowd of fellow members of the NASA team.

There were three rounds of applause in the auditorium during the test. The first was pretty obvious — launch of the Orion/LAS stack. It happened ridiculously fast; there was a flash, and the picture flickered, and it was gone. It switched to a wider angle camera, but by then, the stack had already flown out of that view, too. Finally, they caught up with it, and we watched it soar.

I should point out here the power involved in this test. The solid rocket motor in the LAS burned for less than seven seconds, but during that time, it packed quite a punch — half a million pounds of thrust. In comparison, yesterday marked the 49th anniversary of Alan Shepard making the first U.S. manned spaceflight atop a Redstone rocket that produced about 83,000 pounds of thrust. Even the Titan II rocket used for the two-person Gemini orbital missions generated less thrust than the PA1 LAS. Now, the fact that it burned at that power for only seconds means the LAS is far short of being comparative to the Titan, but it’s still an incredibly powerful motor — and it’s goal isn’t to put astronauts into space, but to get them away from danger FAST, which it would definitely do.

Skipping ahead, the last round of applause was pretty obvious, too — the successful end of the test; the capsule drifting safely back down to the ground.

The middle round of applause was a little more interesting. There had been failures during Constellation parachute tests before, and, after the initial adrenaline rush of the launch, the focus became on whether the mock-up’s recovery system would work properly. The audience wasn’t sure exactly when that was supposed to happen, so there was briefly bated breath as people worried that it wasn’t working. When we saw that the chutes deployed, the relief translated quickly into applause.

But — I couldn’t help wondering … was there more to it than that? Yeah, it was exciting that the system worked properly. But it was an interesting sight, that flattened-gumdrop cone-shape dangling from the parachutes. There was something very familiar about it. From a distance, it looked like something you would see in historical footage or a Tom Hanks movie. But this wasn’t a recording of something that happened in the late ’60s or early ’70s. This was happening right then. And that? That was kind of cool.

I’ll admit. I had my moment of doubt at the end of the test. The system works. Ares I-X in October demonstrated the merits of the architecture, and PA1 demonstrated it again. The technology from Constellation that has been tested, has been tested successfully. Yes, there have been problems, like the aforementioned Orion parachute tests. But that’s why you test. To find them bugs and fix them. And today, they sure looked fixed. So, in the moment, it seemed a shame to throw away something that seems to be working.

But that’s not the point. You don’t stop with what you’ve proved you can do, if you believe you can do something more. The switch from Constellation to the new program isn’t about a lack of faith in the Constellation technology. It’s about trying to accomplish something greater. The work done on Constellation, including the lessons learned today from PA1, will pave the way for that.

And, for me, the greatest lesson was this. This IS NASA. I’ve written before about what an honor it is to wear the badge. And today was definitely one of those days. But it’s bigger than that. Few people knew or cared what the agency did today. PA1 really isn’t that sexy. It’s not a big deal.

How amazing is that? NASA launched a rocket with more thrust than the boosters that sent the first Americans into orbit, and then safely recovered a capsule in an Apollo-esque descent, and it’s just not a big deal. The agency does stuff that awesome as an aside. NASA is that good.

The time has arrived to take that potential, and really set it loose. It was exciting to watch the small-scale results of that expertise and brilliance this morning. Now let’s apply that expertise to something worthy of it, like the rocket that will truly open up the solar system to humanity.

It was rather appropriate that they served coffee and donuts outside the auditorium this morning. ‘Cause stuff like today, stuff that only a handful of organizations on the planet can do?

Yeah, NASA does that everyday before breakfast.