Worse Than Not Being Able to Fly


I was sharing this story with someone the other day, and realized that as many times as I’ve told it, I’ve never actually written it.  Now I have.

launch of sts-133

The first time I ever drove down to Florida to watch a shuttle launch was STS-121 in July 2006. It was three and a half years since we’d lost Columbia. STS-114 had flown a year earlier, but the fleet was re-grounded after foam shedding issues were seen again on that flight. Now, the shuttle was ready to launch again, for the first time in a year and the second since January 2003.

The launch was scheduled for Saturday, July 1. I was on a pier on the river in Titusville, and it was packed. There were maybe that many people there for STS-135, the last shuttle flight, but only maybe. The shuttle was flying again, and people were excited.

The shuttle didn’t fly that day. The weather looked perfect, to which my sunburn would attest. But despite looking perfect, when the launch window opened, it wasn’t. The crowd went home.

We went back the next day. The weather looked the exact opposite of perfect, but as long as there was a chance, we were going to stick around. We were rare in that decision; only  a tiny fraction of the crowd from Saturday returned on Sunday. The crew boarded the vehicle, and began preparing for launch. They got to the point where they were ready to close the hatch. They called back to Mission Control. Before we close the hatch, is there really any chance we’re flying today?

Pause.

No, came the answer finally. The astronauts exited the shuttle.

There was no launch opportunity Monday. I had to drive home. I watched the launch on my television in my living room on the Fourth of July.

Fast forward four years and change. I’ve been back several times. I’ve seen launches now. I’ve seen more scrubs, too. The shuttle program is winding down, and I head down to Florida to watch STS-133, the pre-penultimate flight. The chances of successfully seeing a launch increase the longer one was willing to spend in Florida, and this time I had a week reserved to wait.

It wasn’t enough. After multiple delays for multiple reasons, it reached a point where not only was Discovery not launching that week, she wasn’t launching that year. Home again.

Fast forward another three months. Discovery is on the pad again. I’d been to multiple scrubs and multiple launches, but I’d never made the trip back down to try again to see a launch I’d seen scrubbed. This, for me, was a first.

On the day of launch, I was supporting some education activities at the KARS Park campground. We watched from a pier on the river there as well. Lacking the launch-feed speakers we’d had on some of my previous launches, news came from social media and rumors.

Launch drew close. And then it wasn’t drawing close anymore. There was a hold, at minutes before launch. We knew they were holding, and we new it had something to do with range safety. A monitor wasn’t working. The launch opportunity was nearing an end, rapidly. It looked bad.

On the orbiter, the crew continued to prepare for launch. From what they were hearing, months after their last week of scrubs, it was unlikely they were going to space that day. To make it worse, the issue was with range safety — the team responsible for, among other things, being ready to destroy the orbiter during launch if it looked like it could endanger the public. You’re not going to space, and the reason you’re not going to is because we couldn’t kill you if we wanted to.

Were I the crew, I’d be happy to suggest a compromise where range safety just decides to forego being able to blow us up, and let us go. But instead, they’re on the orbiter, going through the motions of preparing for a launch they’re hearing is next to impossible.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I heard it came down to seconds. If it had taken seconds longer to resolve the issue, they would have stayed on the ground. Again.  But it didn’t. They left Earth on a column of fire and steam on their way to the International Space Station.

Two months later, they were at Marshall Space Flight Center for their post-mission visit. They did their briefing in Morris Auditorium, and when they opened it up for questions, I had to ask — what was it like sitting in the crew cabin of the orbiter, going through the steps of preparing for a launch that almost certainly wasn’t coming? Was it discouraging or frustrating?

In a word, the answer was no. They hadn’t been scrubbed, and as long as there was a chance to fly, they were going to do their part to make it happen.

As Alvin Drew put it, the worst thing wouldn’t be to be ready and not be able to go. The worst thing would be to able to go, and not be ready.

Not bad advice, for more than just space shuttles.

Scenes From Inside The Beltway


I went to Washington, D.C. I took some pictures. Here they are.

Arguably, they’re kind of telling to how I see the world.

Discovery, Wheels Stop


Unfortunately, it’s a little hard right now to really write anything meaningful about the fact that Discovery has now returned to the Earth for the last time.

Last year, I wrote an emotional piece like that about the final flight of Atlantis. Only to later learn that it wasn’t the final flight of Atlantis.

I’m pretty sure Discovery has flown her last. But last year’s post makes it a little harder to be in that same place.

Discovery and I have a long history.

She was the first vehicle I ever saw sitting on the pad. I was down at Kennedy Space Center prior to the STS-114 mission, and she was waiting for launch. Granted, she was later rolled back and rolled out again, but I got to see her nonetheless.

She was the first vehicle I ever drove down to watch launch (or, rather, not launch). I spent a couple of days on the riverside in Titusville back in 2006 as the STS-121 mission was scrubbed twice. Got a horrible sunburn, too.

She was the first — and so far only — vehicle I’ve ever been close enough to touch. When I was down at Kennedy for the STS-125 launch in May 2009, I got to tour her Orbiter Processing Facility while they were working on her. Being that close to her was an amazing experience and an incredible honor.

She wasn’t the first shuttle I got to see launch, but I did eventually get to see her launch. She was the first — and so far only — shuttle that I’ve seen launch twice, though I hope to rectify that.

I really don’t remember if she was the first one I saw fly overhead in orbit, but I did get to see her that way, and that’s an amazing experience as well.

And now, there’s only one experience left for Discovery and I to have — for me to go visit her in a museum.

Is it wrong that prospect feels a little like going to see her in a nursing home?

I’m glad she gets the opportunity. I’m glad she did what we asked of her, time and time again, and came home safely every time. I’m glad that others will get the opportunity to get almost as close to her as I did, and that doing so will make the stories of what she, and her sisters, accomplished a little more real.

But hopefully it’s OK to be a little sad that the oldest and most-flown of the extant orbiters will never orbit again.

Godspeed, Discovery, and thank you.

Discovery's flag, never to fly again.

“My Radio Tuned to the Voice of a Star”


Heather talked to the space station Friday.

It was cool.

For those who don’t know, she’s been writing an official NASA blog for a while now.

So way back when, I suggested we should try to set up a downlink for her to talk to the International Space Station as material for her blog.

Downlinks aren’t necessarily that easy to get, but, I figured, if I could get one msyelf years ago, it wouldn’t hurt to try again for her.

Our friends from the education wing of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston delivered, big time.

Not only did she get a downlink, she got a downlink while the space shuttle was docked with the space station.

i did my downlink back in 2004. I talked to the entire crew of the space station at the time — two people. U.S. astronaut Mike Foale, who was becoming the first American to spend a year in space, and Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri.

Heather talked to eight people — the entire crew of Discovery, and both U.S. members of the space station crew.

I’m not jealous. Foale and Kaleri were both very interesting, and I had a great conversation with them. Plus, coincidentally, Sasha’s in space again right now. He talked to me on my downlink. He didn’t talk to Heather. We can tell who he likes better.

But that meant every U.S. astronaut in orbit Friday morning was participating in the downlink. The entire focus of America’s human spaceflight program for 25 minutes last week was talking to Heather. That’s kinda cool, too.

(Of course, I guess that was not only true of mine, but I was the focus of all the world’s human space complement. It seems less impressive when it’s just two people, though.)

Preparing for the downlink was a lot of fun. One of the goals of the downlink was to get student involvement, which we did, peaking with having two Marshall interns each ask a question of the astronauts.

But we also had to write several of the questions ourselves, and that was a neat opportunity. I’ve done a downlink before, we’ve both watched several other downlinks, and we’ve done astronaut interviews. We heard all the standard questions and all the standard answers, and challenged ourselves to come up with something different, to get the crews to give us something different.

I think we did a good job of coming up with questions, and I think the crew did a great job of coming up with answers.

The downlink took place in the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall, essentially the “mission control” for space station science. If there’s something going on with vehicle or crew operations, the astronauts talk to Houston. If they’re talking about science, they’re talking to Huntsville.

It’s a cool room, with the flags of ISS participant nations on the ceiling and patches of supported missions on the wall and console stations with easily a dozen monitors. It was a great setting for the downlink, and it was an honor to be allowed in. (I did mine in a small supply room in the building I worked in. Totally not jealous about that, either.)

It was rewarding seeing the flight controllers enjoying the downlink. One said that in 11 years of watching them, this was the best she’d seen.

Heather did a great job. She was nervous beforehand, but, of course, handled it perfectly.

I suggested the downlink originally in part because I thought it would make for good blog content, but mainly because I wanted Heather to have that experience. I believe firmly in the value of doing things; I believe that hands-on experience gives you an insight and investment that you don’t get other ways.

I was glad she got this opportunity, and proud of what she did with it.

I got to help, too. I was the coordinating line. I stayed on the phone from an hour before the downlink until after it was over, communicating with the folks in Houston that were making the connection, and letting Heather know what was going on. When the downlink was extended three minutes before it was to end, I got to let her know that. (For my downlink, I had to manage both lines myself, with Houston on my cell phone on one ear and ISS on the landline on my other ear. Still not jealous.)

Going to the launch last week also enhanced the experience — Heather was talking to astronauts that she had just seen blast into space in person eight days ago.

It also meant that Caden, her five-year-old who was fascinated by the launch, was sufficiently interested to spend half an hour at 6 in the morning watching astronaut talk to his mom on television. (How many kids can say that? [On a personal note, it amused me that I now can say I have the clout to arrange for the space station to call my girlfriend. How many guys can claim that?])

Caden knew about the downlink, but wasn’t thinking about it earlier last week when he saw an airplane contrail and said, “I think that’s the space shuttle coming back to land.” I told Heather to remind him that the shuttle couldn’t come home until after they talked to her. I think he now thinks his mom has to give the shuttle permission to land. He has an interesting view of what she and I do.

Landing is scheduled for Wednesday. And they have Heather’s permission to come home.

Photos by Emmett Given of NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

Just Go!!


launch of discovery on sts-133

The final launch of space shuttle Discovery

You have two more chances.

The space shuttle Discovery is in space right now. She’ll be landing soon. And she’ll never fly again.

If you haven’t seen Discovery launch already, you never will.

The space shuttle Endeavour has one launch left. Currently, it’s scheduled for April 19.

If you haven’t seen Endeavour launch, and don’t go to the STS-134 mission launch, you’ll never see her, either.

The space shuttle Atlantis also has one launch left. Currently, it’s scheduled for June 28.

If you haven’t seen Atlantis launch, and don’t go to the STS-135 mission launch, you’ll never see her, either.

But, most importantly, if you’ve never seen a space shuttle launch, you only have two chances left.

And then, you’ve missed out forever.

To put in in a larger perspective, if you miss out on watching one of those two launches, you’ve not only missed out on seeing a space shuttle launch, you’ve most likely missed out on watching an American crewed space launch for years.

And when astronauts start launching from America again, they’ll fly on vehicles much less powerful than the shuttle. If you miss out on seeing one of the next two shuttle launches, you’ve missed out on seeing a vehicle that powerful launch for even more years.

And when America builds a new launch vehicle as powerful as the shuttle again, the plan is that it won’t carry astronauts. So if you miss out on seeing one of the next two shuttle launches, you’ve missed out on seeing a vehicle that powerful launch with astronauts onboard for … well … who knows? Very possibly your lifetime.

This is history.

And you have two chances left to see it.

Go.

Just go.

Whatever opposition is in your head right now, ask yourself, really, does it matter?

But ask it this way — twenty years from now, which am I going to want to talk about, going to see a shuttle launch, or whatever I did instead?

Maybe you’ll have to skimp financially in other areas to afford it. But, twenty years from now, are you more likely to tell people about seeing the shuttle, or the extra few times you ate at McDonald’s?

Maybe you’ll have to use vacation time you’d planned for something else. But, twenty years from now, which trip are you more likely to talk about?

Maybe you’re busy. What are you doing those days that you’re going to talk about twenty years later?

The launch schedule may change, but you can check the current planned dates here.

I’ve had so many people say they’re jealous of the launches that I’ve seen — four shuttles, two unmanned rockets.

But I’ve had no real advantage. I’ve paid for my trips, and I’ve taken time off. Seeing those six launches involved making nine trips to Florida.

I’ve seen those launches for one reason, and one reason only.

I went.

You have two chances left.

Go.

Just go.

STS-133 Launch: Worth Waiting For


launch of sts-133

One earlier time, I was glad for a scrub.

A year and a half ago, I drove down for the launch of Ares I-X. After spending eight hours on the Causeway the launch was scrubbed for the day, a victim of the much-dreaded triboelectrification and of a wayward boat captain who wandered into the range.

The next day, we came back, waited, as I recall, nearly another eight hours, but this time with the payoff of watching a spectacular launch, possibly my favorite of the six or so I’ve seen from the cape area. The wait was well worth it; the skies were so much more clear the second day that it was an entirely different experience than it would have been the day before. That unknown boat captain was my best friend as I watched the Ares rocket soar in its unlikely fashion through the sky.

But that was just one day. There was one scrub, and it launched the next day.

STS-133, on the other hand …

Heather, the boys and I went down in November to try to watch it. It scrubbed the first time before we even left town, but we were already committed to our travel plans. The trip lasted a week. And at the end of that week, the launch was pushed back more than two months.

We hadn’t planned on going back, but circumstances sort of fell together the right way, and so last Thursday we were standing on a pier watching Discovery soar through the sky.

And I was glad the mission had scrubbed.

When we went down in November, the boys’ thoughts on the pending launch ranged from, at best, mild curiosity about this thing we’d brought them down to see to, at worst, annoyance that it would mean time away from Disney and the swimming pool. Excitement was not part of the equation. The afternoon we spend at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center was perhaps one of the low-points of the trip, in part because of my frustration stemming from wanting them to get it in a way they simply didn’t.

In the meantime, however, Heather and I finished the book we’d been writing about the early shuttle program, and Caden finally got curious about what this thing was that was taking up so much of mommy and David’s time that rightfully should have been his. So he came and asked me questions. I gave him answers. We watched videos together on YouTube of launches and landings and everything in between. Any chance he got, he asked me to tell him stories about space. And I did.

Going back down this time, Caden was excited. He got it. It was an entirely different experience for him than it would have been if it had gone the first time, and I was grateful for the delay that gave him time to catch up.

In the acknowledgments of both my books, I’ve mentioned my dad as the source of an interest in space that led me to where I am today. He shared his passion with me, and it’s lasted to this day. When the first space shuttle flew, I was five years old. Caden right now is five years old. I can’t tell you how cool it was for me to be able to share that with him at that point in life.

My dad tried more than once to take me to a launch. Fittingly, they all scrubbed. He and I did both watch STS-131 last year in person, but from two different locations. It wasn’t quite the same, but it meant a lot for me to complete the mission he started when I was younger, taking a child with stars in his eyes to see a launch.

And, yeah, afterwards, having him tell me that “the space shuttle launch was the awesomest thing ever”?

Totally worth the wait.

Caden and I at the launch with Discovery's plume in the background.

A Shuttle-Launch First — Seconds!


Back in November, I spent about a week in Florida. Waiting for the space shuttle Discovery to not launch on its STS-133 mission.

Going down there for a launch and coming back without seeing it was not a first for me.

This week will be.

I’m going back down this week with Heather and the boys to try once again to watch the launch of STS-133.

I’ve been down to Florida for shuttle launches six times now.

I’ve seen three launches.

I’ve seen three scrubs.

I’ve never been back down to watch one launch that I also watched scrub. This week will be my first time making a second attempt to watch a particular mission launch. Obviously, I’m hoping this trip is more successful than the last.

We hadn’t been planning on trying again for this mission, so soon after our last trip down, but Heather was offered the opportunity to go down to the launch on a work trip, so all four of us are driving down there.

I’m really hoping it goes this time, so that she and the boys get to see it. As we finished up the book, Caden in particular took a real interest in the shuttle, and started talking recently about wanting to go try to see one again. (“Even if we don’t go to Disney this time,” he offered.) On the plus side, it will probably mean more to him this time than it would have in November. And, of course, Heather, having now co-authored a book about the shuttle, really out to see one launch.

So, wish us luck. Should be an interesting trip.