One Giant Among Many


Without a doubt, one of the coolest parts of my job is getting a front-row seat for history, and today was an incredible one in that respect. The test area at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is a cradle of exploration — tested here were the propulsion systems that carried the first American into space, the first humans on the moon, and everything from Hubble to the International Space Station.

And now, we’re about to add to that list the core stage that will eventually send humans to Mars. NASA’s Space Launch System has made its own addition to the Marshall test area with two new towers, one of which will test the rocket’s liquid oxygen tank and the other its hydrogen tank.

Pictures don’t do justice to the size of this tower. And as I approached it, I had to remind myself that this gargantuan construct was there not to test the rocket, or even the core stage of the rocket, but one tank of the core stage of the rocket. Seeing how big the stand for that tank is was an awe-inspiring reminder of just how incredible the finished machine will be.

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.

“NASA Doesn’t Hire Bored Astronauts”


QM-1 booster firing

At the Orbital ATK test facility, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep space destinations. Image Credit: NASA

If today’s QM-1 test of the Space Launch System’s solid rocket booster had been delayed a little less, or a little more, I very likely would have been at Promontory, Utah, today.

As it is, I’m in town preparing for a wedding, which has a booster firing — even a firing of THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL BOOSTER — beat hands down, and so I watched the test from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where I got to talk to Space Camp kids trainees about the rocket that one of them may someday ride on their way to Mars. Which, really, is a pretty cool way to watch it.

So, yeah, I had to wipe my eyes after the test before talking to the kids again. This job is exciting on a daily basis, but then there are those days where something huge happens, and you just sort of look around and say, “hey, we’re DOING this!”

The Orion launch in December was one of those. How long has NASA been working on Orion, and then one day I’m in Florida, and Orion is IN SPACE. And it’s mind-boggling. QM-1 has been imminent since I started at NASA (see my earlier blog post about that) but today it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. One step closer to a real, finished rocket. One step closer to launch. One step closer to Mars. This is happening. We’re doing this. It’s amazing.

It’s an incredible thing to watch. I’m blessed to be a part of it.

And, yeah, to share it with Space Camp trainees and other museum visitors? Such a thrill. I love watching stuff like this with my coworkers because it’s amazing that I’m actually a small part of the team that’s making this happen, but it was a different, unique and special experience to watch this one with these kids. In a very real way, they’re the ones we’re doing this for. We’ll be flying it long before they get out of school, but the really fun stuff, the walking on Mars? They’re just about the right age to be ready when NASA is. We’re building the future, and the future is theirs.

David Hitt peaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

Speaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

And such great questions from these kids. I was lucky to have SLS engineer (and former boosters engineer) Brent Gaddes with me to take the technical stuff they were throwing at us.  How can you apply ground test data to system decide to operate in low-pressure environments? (Good engineering and good modeling.) Why don’t you do subscale testing of something so big? (We do; the big stuff just makes for better television.) Why do you test so far in advance? (Because you don’t always know what’s going to come out of a test.)

My favorite: “What do I need to get a degree in to be as awesome as y’all?” Brent was able to give the right answer, talking about his engineering path to being a NASA engineer.

And here’s journalism-major David, pointing out that I’m the case study for the fact you don’t have to do it that way, but adding that, if this is what you want to do, you probably should. If your passions take you in a different direction, don’t automatically assume, like I did, that means there’s no place for you in NASA. But if you want to be a part of making something like QM-1 happen, figure out what part it would excite you to play in that, and pursue it with everything you’ve got.

Brent and I come from different backgrounds, but the thing we have in common is that we were both excited to get to come to work today. Astronauts will say that’s the best advice for joining their ranks — do something you love.

As I told the kids, “Follow your passion. NASA doesn’t need bored astronauts.”

Sunrise, Sunset


So one morning almost three months ago, Rebecca and I are standing on Cocoa Beach. It’s her first time ever visiting an ocean, and I’ve arranged it that the first time she sees the Atlantic, she’s watching the sun rise over the horizon. It is, all in all, a neat experience.

Flash-forward to two weeks ago. I’m on a business trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s my fourth trip to California in less than a year, and so I decide that this time I’m going to finally get around to doing something I’ve put off on previous trips — I’m going to watch the sun set on the Pacific. And so I do.

I’m currently helping one of the Space Launch System executives work on an upcoming TEDx talk, using the transcontinental railroad as analogy for the future of human space exploration, playing with themes like public-private partnerships and the fact that, historically, there are almost no new transportation capabilities that do not improve everyday life.

I thought about that as I was standing on the beach in Los Angeles. I, a fairly normal person, had watched the sunrise over one ocean and set over the other two months apart. Just 150 years ago, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, that was impossible in the United States. Today, if you really wanted to, you could see them both in the same day. On the International Space Station, you see sixteen sunrises and sunsets a day.

We live in a time of miracles and wonders. It’s good to be reminded to wonder at it.

A Gym, A Wedding and Two Solid Rocket Boosters


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This is a story about the Huntsville Middle School gym and my wedding day and two solid rocket boosters.

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was in the gym at Huntsville Middle School when I heard the news. The space shuttle exploded. I’ve told the story several times about the poor student whom I convinced had misunderstood. Space shuttles don’t explode. It’s just not something they do.

The irony is, I was right.

No space shuttle ever exploded. In writing “Bold They Rise,” I gained greater understanding than I ever wanted of what happened on January 28, 1986, down to the fraction of a second. Of how a burn-through of the solid rocket booster began a series of events that led to the disintegration of the vehicle.

For 10-year-old David, the loss of Challenger was a remote but personal experience. I had no part of it, no connection to it, but I was touched by it. To say it was a moment I will never forget is understatement. Almost every year since, I have written something on the anniversary – thoughts, recollections, tributes.

Over time, these anniversary markers have evolved. The become less about the event itself and more about the passage of time, and the shadow that event still casts. I wrote about marking the anniversary for the first time from Marshall Space Flight Center, having a greater connection to the story. Four days after writing that, I awoke to learn we had lost Columbia. It was, to put it lightly, not a good day. I wrote about the anniversary as NASA prepared to, and then finally succeeded in, launching a teacher into space, Christa’s back-up, Barbara Morgan.

I’ve now lived almost three times as long since the loss of Challenger as I had before. I’m about to marry someone born after that day, for whom it is purely a historical event. Time and tide.

Which leads me to my wedding day. On March 15, I’m getting married.

I mention that in this story not because of where I’ll be that day, but because of where I won’t be. That week, just a few days earlier, many of my coworkers will be in Utah. There, they will witness the first qualification firing of the solid rocket motor for NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. This test and a follow-up will clear the upgraded and enhanced boosters for flight on the new rocket.

This is, quite literally, a long-awaited milestone for SLS. Preparations for the test were already well underway when I started working on the program two years ago, but a potential issue was discovered. Changes that had been made to the booster, to improve performance and make them more environmentally friendly than the shuttle boosters, had some unexpected side effects.

The booster team was left with ideas as to how to address those issues, but no definitive answer, and no exact timeline as to how long it would take to find them. There was also no definitive answer as to what would happen if the test were conducted with the issue. The program had two options — take the chance and continue the test, or take the time and find the answer.

The program chose to take the time.

In about a month and a half, their hard work will pay off. I do wish I could be there to see it, but there’s somewhere else I’d rather be.

I think it’s easy for history to be overly critical of the decision to launch Challenger, but, without question, mistakes were made.

The fate of Challenger, and later of Columbia, were sealed with a single argument — “We know there is an issue, but we have reason to believe it won’t be a problem.”

I was not in the meetings where the decisions to delay the booster test were made. I don’t know how much temptation there was or wasn’t to proceed with the test, and gain reason, rightly or wrongly, to believe the issues weren’t problems.

But I am proud, very proud, to be part of a program that chose not to. I am proud, very proud, that we took the time to get it right.

Another anniversary. Another year. And, this year, that is how we honor the memory of Dick, Mike, Judy, Ron, Ellison, Greg and Christa.

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.