In the Wake of Captain Cook


“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” ― James Cook

From the beginning of my time with NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ve been putting together presentations with some version of this chart — a picture of one of the ships Captain James Cook used in his voyages of exploration.

But as many times as I’ve seen it, today was special.

Cook has been a touchstone for the SLS Program, and has been for NASA for years. Two space shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour*, shared names with ships used by Cook. It’s easy to draw parallels between Cook and the work we’re doing:

Cook’s ships were robust vessels, which allowed him to take the same ships anywhere from the Antarctic to the tropics (and, in other lives, they were merchant ships or military vessels or prison transport). SLS is designed to enable a wide variety of missions, from speeding robotic probes to the outer solar systems to landing humans on Mars.

Cook’s missions were prime examples of how exploration enables science and science enables exploration. As he traversed uncharted reaches, he enabled the study of the transit of Venus, teaching us more about the scale of our solar system. He carried a botanist, Joseph Banks, who brought back a wealth of information. He used the latest ideas about nutrition, that eliminated scurvy deaths on long sea voyages for the first time. It’s very much the NASA vision — we reach for new heights and explore the unknown for the benefit of all humankind.

Cook and others went into the unknown, and because they did, it became known. He travelled new paths, and today, at any time, 50,000 ships are able to transport cargo. Where explorers dare, commerce follows. Already, this is happening in space in low Earth orbit; the voyages of the space shuttle have paved the way for orbital missions by SpaceX and Orbital ATK and Boeing and Sierra Nevada. SLS will take us farther, a blaze a new trail behind it.

That’s why we talk it. So why was today special?

Because today, we shared that chart as part of a presentation at the Reinventing Space conference. Held in London at the Royal Society.

As in, the organization that (along with the British Admiralty) commissioned James Cook to study the transit of Venus, his first voyage of discovery. The same Royal Society presided over by one Joseph Banks, after returning from voyaging with Cook. A telescope used to study the transit of Venus is displayed in the building. The roots of our shared story run deep in this place, and we had the honor of sharing how we are building on that story. It was simultaneously exciting, humbling and inspiring.

A statue of Cook stands within a tenth of a mile from here. His story is remembered, and inspires. I can only hope that the story we shared at this same Royal Society, the story we continue to make a reality, does for exploration and history the same service.


*I was forwarded a note after publishing this from astronaut Al Worden with a reminder that his Apollo 15 command module was also named for Cook’s Endeavour.

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.

Times Square and Mars

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.42.34 AM

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.

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.

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.


Only These 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.

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.

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.

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

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.