Tough And Competent: Remembering Those We Lost

Time is a funny thing.

Seventeen years passed between the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the loss of Columbia in 2003. During those 17 years, I went from my first year of middle school to finishing high school to graduating from college to have a career as a newspaper editor to taking a job on a contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

They were seventeen long years.

Seventeen years have now passed since the loss of Columbia. During those 17 years, I’ve gone from one contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to a different contract.

They were seventeen short years.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance.

The agency’s three greatest tragedies – the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in 1967, the loss of Challenger’s 51L crew in 1986, and the loss of Columbia’s STS-107 crew in 2013 – all mark their anniversary this week, on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, respectively.

Those tragedies occurred almost a generation apart. Nineteen years between Apollo 1 and 51L. Seventeen years between 51L and STS-107.

On average, eighteen years.

Next year will be eighteen years since Columbia.

The seventeen to nineteen year span starts this year and lasts until 2022.

From this year to 2022, we will see the first crewed flights of three new spacecraft.

There’s an expression you see a lot in media and discussions about spaceflight.

“Space is hard.”

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

Kennedy described it as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” I’d not argue.

Today, you hear “space is hard” as an explanation after something has gone wrong.

A rocket explodes, a capsule fails, a launch is aborted.

“Space is hard.”

After the Apollo 1 tragedy, Flight Director Gene Kranz told the Mission Control team that “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.”

In other words, space is hard.

But he didn’t stop there.

“From this day forward,” he instructed, “Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.”

Space is hard. We have to be harder.

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

In this industry, you have two choices.

You can either say space is hard every day before launch, as a reminder to be harder.

Or it will be said after launch.

As we prepare for a game-changing two years and the historic exploration to follow, may all undertaking this great adventure be tough and competent.

Ad Astra, Per Aspera, Per Aspera, Per Aspera


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.

Farewell To A Friend

Retiring the shuttle was the right thing to do.

I truly believed that. And still do.

Or, at least, that it was a right thing to do, and probably the more right thing to do.

After the loss of Columbia eight years ago today, something had to change.It’s really only been less than five years since the shuttle began flying regularly after that tragedy, and the smaller fleet has done a great job supporting that. But the shuttles are aging, and the fleet is smaller. That’s not to say that they couldn’t fly like this for some time to come, but eventually something would have to be done.

And continuing the shuttle program would have been option. Build, at great expense, an OV-106, a new orbiter from the old mold.  Or build an OV-201, developing from scratch a modern vehicle compatible with the classic shuttle infrastructure. Put the existing orbiters through major upgrades to extend their lifespan.

Or so something new.

And when the decision was made a few years ago to take that last option, I endorsed it as the right thing to do.

The shuttle has incredible capabilities. It will likely be a very long time before there’s another single vehicle with as much capability as the shuttle has. We could continue doing the things the shuttle lets us do for a long time.

But many of those capabilities are currently replicated elsewhere. Expendable rockets let us put satellites in orbit. The International Space Station lets us conduct science in space. Soyuz, for the near term, will let us put astronaut in orbit.

And for all those capabilities, one ability the shuttle does not give us is the ability to leave our planet. We’re confined slightly above our atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to do there. But there are plenty of other places to go as well. The loss of Columbia presented the nation with a choice — you have to make a decision, and either way, you have to do something. Do you keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you do something new?

I believe it’s time to do something new.

That said …

Having finished the manuscript of a book about the early years of the shuttle program, I’ll admit that last week I had this sudden dawning realization that, “oh, crap, there’s not going to be any more shuttle.”

I understood it, and was OK with it, from a technical perspective. As a space historian, educator and advocate, it’s the right thing to do.

From an emotional perspective … I guess I really hadn’t let myself thing about it from that perspective. You can’t let sentiment stand in the way of doing what’s right.

But, yeah, when I think about playing with shuttle toys as a kid, when I think about seeing the mock-ups at Space Camp while visiting the museum here, when I think about talking to astronauts that flew on it, when I think about following missions over the years, when I think about watching launches in the last couple of years, when I think about how much I’ve written about it over the past eight years at NASA, when I think about the book we just finished, it’s a little overwhelming.

I’m going to miss her.

And I know she’s not gone yet. Sometime later this year, I will write a post about the last flight of the space shuttle program. And it will be done. And that’s a little overwhelming, too. But that’s not this post. It’s not done yet.

This post is to say, it’s coming, but it’s not here yet. Three more launches are still scheduled.

Don’t take them for granted. Watch the launches. If possible, make your way to Florida for lift-off. Follow the missions. Watch the landings.

While you can.

Crime And Punishment

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Jails And Prisons.”

Jail Cell

Image by abardwell via Flickr

Having just finished reading John Grisham’s latest sermon-in-novel-form and having been reminded of a conversation we had not that long ago at my Bible study group, I’m going to go a little further afield with this one, and deal with criminal justice in general.

Specifically, Grisham’s The Confessiondeals a lot with the death penalty, writing a fictional account of an innocent man scheduled to be executed. Two major issues rose to the surface for me — is it right to kill someone as punishment, and is it right to take the risk of accidentally executing innocent people?

The former was the issue we discussed at my Bible study group. But, to me, the issue of appropriate punishment is asking the wrong question. I very much believe the death penalty should never be used. I’m also in favor of the death penalty.

I’m less concerned with what happens after crimes are committed than in preventing crime.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the former, only that I think, as our society, our focus should be more on the latter, both for the sake of potential victims and potential criminals. A lot of that is cultural; we should be fostering an environment that prevents people with opportunities that are more appealing than crime, and should be instilling values that encourage people to make other choices. But part of that should be making crime as unappealing an option as possible.

After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the entire world pretty much agreed that the weapons used were horrific, and that atomic and nuclear weapons should never be used again. We proceeded to build arsenals of those weapons, not so that they would be used but so that they wouldn’t. We created a culture in which the cost of using nuclear weapons far outweighed any potential benefit. And it worked.

The death penalty should, ideally, work the same way. It should serve as the ultimate deterrent. The price that isn’t worth paying.  To the extent that it fails, the question should be why does it fail, and how can we as a society create a better deterrent?

And, along those lines, I have a hard time with the idea that society has blood on its hands when someone is executed for committing a capital offense. The death penalty is not a surprise. It’s a cultural contract. If you live in a death penalty state, as a citizen, you have a societal contract with the state that if you commit certain actions, you could lose your life. If you then choose to commit those actions, you are choosing to forfeit your life.

If someone gets drunk and gets in a car, they do so knowing that bad things could happen. If they die, society understands it’s because that person made a choice that resulted in their death. If they died by running into a utility pole, no one would argue that society was wrong to build utility poles. People would understand that the death was not the fault of the utility pole, but rather the result of the choices that led to the car hitting the pole. The death penalty is a utility pole. It doesn’t not instigate deaths, but deaths result when people make choices that run them into it. Society no more has blood on its hands for having a death penalty than it does for building utility poles — you should no more commit a capital offense than you should drink and drive, and if you choose to do so, the results of your actions are on your hands. In an ideal society, neither utility poles nor the death penalty would be involved in any deaths.

The issue of tolerances is the more interesting one to me, and one I’m not really sure I know my feelings on. If you have a death penalty, you have the possibility that innocent people are executed because of that. If that happens, none of the things I said before apply — that person would not be dying as a result of their own actions, nor would they have done anything the death penalty should or could have deterred. That said, going back to the utility pole analogy, people are killed by utility poles in accidents that are not their fault, and yet we still don’t say society should stop building utility poles. It’s within our tolerances. We’re willing to tolerate some number of accidental deaths because of the benefits we get. The same issue is true for law enforcement in general. Innocent people die in instances involving using legal use of deadly force or in high-speed pursuits. But our tolerances allow that. I’m not going to do the research now, but I would imagine the number of alleged innocent deaths from capital punishment are a tiny fraction of total alleged innocent deaths caused by law enforcement and criminal justice. It’s a question of what we think is worth it. It’s a question of what our tolerances are.

Our cultural tolerances intrigue me at times, and were brought out in sharp relief for me in February 2003. At the beginning of the month, seven people were killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry. Toward the end of the month, 100 people were killed in a fire at a Great White nightclub concert. Guess which one prompted people to say that we as a nation needed to make changes? Seven people die in the cause of space exploration, and it gets questioned. A hundred people die so that pyrotechnics can pave the way for “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” and that’s a tragic but acceptable loss.  I’m not saying society should have demanded changes because of the fire. But I do believe we should be as willing to accept purposeful deaths as we are purposeless ones.