All Good Things

One more time.

One last time.

At 11:26 EDT today, the space shuttle is scheduled to launch.

For the last time.

Please watch. Whatever you’re doing, stop. Turn on a TV, watch online, whatever. Just watch.

Because you’ll never see it again.

(For updates on the status of the launch, I recommend Spaceflight Now.)

Truth be told, I’m cheating a bit. I’m writing this post on Sunday before the launch, just to make sure it gets written and posted in time to remind people to watch. I’m a little emotional writing it. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel that day.

The other day, the last thing I wrote for NASA was published online, STS-135: Wheels Stop. I wanted that to be my last act there, my closure — to finish out the space shuttle program after writing about it for almost a third of the program. I believe that while NASA is going to go through a difficult transition, it does have a bright future ahead of it. But those will be someone else’s stories; someone else’s spacecraft. Mine, the one I first watched fly when I was five years old, has run the good race, and will soon finish the course.

I have had the good fortune of seeing all but two of the shuttle launches since the beginning of last year in person. The last one, STS-134, I drove down to see, but had to come back when it was delayed a couple of weeks. I ended up watching it on television. Launches always move me. It’s not unusual for me to have to stifle tears. But I was utterly unprepared for how hard that one hit me. I remember someone asking me a question while we were watching, and having to take a moment to compose myself before I could find my voice to answer.

There were a lot of reasons why. It was the first launch after I left the agency, and that had an impact. It was disappointing to watch it on TV after investing so much in trying to see it, and there was that, too.

But more than ever before, it hit me — this is the end.

It was the last launch of Endeavour. And the end of the program was now only one launch away.

I’ve known it was coming forever. I wrote about the impending end for years. But two things were different. When I started writing about it, there was a plan. We were going to retire the shuttle, and Constellation was going to take us to the moon. An end was coming, but something better was underway. Heck, a couple of years ago, I stood on the causeway and watched in person the first flight of that new era. But that Vision faded. And now, the future is a little more clouded.

The other thing that was different is that the end was no longer an eventuality, it was immediate. It is upon us. I was watching it unfold. The idea was one thing, the reality something else.

There is still a future. And it may be brighter than I dreamed that day two years ago. The Vision is no longer proprietary to the U.S. government, it now rests in the hands of visionaries. And that’s not a bad place for it. With any luck, I hope to continue to contribute to that future, working with those who want to bring it about now.

But today …

Today is still an ending. Take the time out of your schedule to participate in it, to share with the nation and the world a historic moment, to honor one of our country’s greatest achievements, one last time.

She’s Always A Woman To Me

(Supposedly, three-quarters of a million people are going to drive down to Florida this week to try to watch the Atlantis make the final launch of the space shuttle program. This post is dedicated to them.)

Quite a while back, a child asked me why I referred to the space shuttle as “her.”

I explained that it was a long-standing naval and aviation tradition since time immemorial. I posited that early naval and air crews were predominantly male, and that because they loved their vessels, they referred to them as if they were women.

A couple of months ago, though, I watched on television as Endeavour launched on her final mission, not terribly long after I had gone down to Florida for a few days to wait for her to fly. And I had some further thoughts on the space shuttle.

She’s complicated and complex and temperamental, and she doesn’t do anything until she’s good and ready. But when she does, she does it like no one else.

She doesn’t care how much time you have to spend waiting for her. But when you do, she’s always worth it.

She’s fragile and delicate and requires incredible amounts of care. And she’s stronger and more powerful than anything you’ve seen.

She’s the very definition of high maintenance. And she’s beautiful and graceful enough to bring a tear to your eye.

She burns hot enough to melt lead, and goes from that to ice cold in minutes. But she always protects those in her care.

There’s nothing like her in the world. And she’s always a woman to me.

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.

‘To Touch The Face Of God’

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

—President Ronald Reagan, 28 January 1986

Twenty-five years. It’s hard to believe.

One of the first posts I published on this blog was my “Where were you?” story about how I heard. There’s an inclination to think of today in those terms. I was 10 years old. Today, I’m 35. I’ve lived a long time in between.

But my perception of the anniversary this year is different than it has been in years past, in large part because, today, I should be shipping the book Heather and I have written about the shuttle program through the Challenger accident to the publisher. And my thoughts today are very much rooted in that.

In his book Riding Rockets,astronaut Mike Mullane wrote:

“The NASA team responsible for the design of the space shuttle was the same team that had put twelve Americans on the moon and returned them safely to Earth across a quarter million miles of space. The Apollo program represented the greatest engineering achievement in the history of humanity. Nothing else, from the Pyramids to the Manhattan Project, comes remotely close. The men and women who were responsible for the glory of Apollo had to have been affected by their success. While no member of the shuttle design team would have ever made the blasphemous claim, ‘We’re gods. We can do anything,’ the reality was this: The space shuttle itself was such a statement. Mere mortals might not be able to design and safely operate a reusable spacecraft boosted by the world’s largest, segmented, uncontrollable solid-fueled rockets, but gods certainly could.”

In Greek mythology, hubris was blasphemous pride, putting oneself equal to the gods. And its consequences were almost always disastrous.

In Judeo-Christian beliefs, there’s a great story of hubris:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole Earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the Earth: and they left off to build the city.  Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the Earth.

Let me make two things abundantly clear. I do not believe the 51-L crew of Challenger was guilty of pride. And I do not believe that God destroyed Challenger because of hubris.

I believe NASA did. At their simplest, the lesson of the stories about hubris could be boiled down to the basics: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

And that’s what happened in 1986.  The agency became over-confident. It had undertaken to create a vehicle that was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken, and succeeded in creating it. But then the agency took its creation for granted. The shuttle flew, and flew well. There were problems, some of which, in retrospect, were near-disastrous. But none of those problems resulted in loss of life or vehicle, so NASA took for granted that they weren’t that big a deal.

Until, one morning 25 years ago, they were. And men and women died.

And NASA picked up the pieces. And figured out what went wrong. And moved forward.

The agency learned that it could not take its creation for granted. It was taught, the hard way, that the line between life and death is all too thin, and that every decision made needed to be made with that in mind.

It would stumble again, most notably and obviously with the loss of the STS-107 mission of Columbia in 2003.

But, as a rule, it learned the lessons. And went on to accomplish greater things than it had before the loss of Challenger.

More than 10 years ago, NASA and space agencies of the world gathered together, working together despite their many languages, and created a laboratory that went so high that it reached the heavens. The curse of Babel was, in a real way, undone.

But this time, because of the lessons of Challenger, it was done not out of pride, but humility.

And that is the legacy of 51-L.

TDRSS and the End of Space Shuttle’s Mentos Era

So one thing Heather and I have decided while working on “Bold They Rise” is that the TDRSS may be one of the worst things to have happened to the American space program. (If you don’t know what TDRSS is, be patient, I’ll explain in a second.)

You ever see one of those classic 80s-era shows where the climactic solution is always the same? No matter what else they try, the Voltron team is always going to win in the last three minutes by forming Voltron and creating the mighty sword. There were few problems KITT couldn’t solve with Turbo Boost. For the A-Team, it was van modifications.

In writing the book, we’ve notice that, in proper 80s-era fashion, the pre-Challenger space shuttle program had its own version — LOS.

You see, when the space shuttle program started, astronauts in orbit could only talk to mission control in certain locations. There were communications stations on the ground, and the shuttle had to be in range of one of those in order to talk to people on Earth.

You came into range, and you could talk. You were AOS — Acquisition of Signal.

You moved on, and you went LOS — Loss of Signal. No contact between space and ground.

And then came TDRSS — the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. Now, instead of communicating directly with ground stations, spacecraft communicate with a network of satellites, and those communicate with the ground. TDRSS covers pretty much anywhere in orbit — AOS and LOS are a thing of the past.

Back in the olden days, though, LOS was when things happened. During AOS, you worked with the ground, and you followed the book.

But sometimes, going by the book didn’t work.

In those occasions, which were not in frequent, LOS was when things got done. With no one to tell them not to, astronauts moved the shuttle’s robot arm in ways it was never designed to move. They reached out and grabbed satellites in ways that weren’t entirely nominal. They did what they thought needed to be done, and, as a general rule, it worked.

Mission control would lose contact with the shuttle facing an insurmountable problem. With AOS, the problem would be mysteriously solved.

And then came TDRSS, and the mystery solutions ended. Progress does have its costs.

All of that, Heather and I agreed on. The thing we disagreed on is this:

Heather imagines the shuttle going AOS, mission control finding out what happens, and people slamming things down when they realized that the crew had played fast and loose with things with which one should not play fast and loose. “Those darn astronauts …”

I, on the other hand, picture the scene in mission control as being more like the end of one of the classic Mentos commercials, in which someone has done something annoying but is immediately and amusedly forgiven for their wacky antics when they flash a pack of Mentos.

“Oh, you guys …”

“Help Wanted,” or “Your Name In Print”

printed manuscript for Homesteading space

Printed manuscript for my first book -- NOT what we're asking for help reading.

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about the book Heather and I are writing, “Bold They Rise.”

The book is a history of the space shuttle program, to be published by University of Nebraska Press as part of the same Outward Odyssey series that included my first book, Homesteading Space,co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.

We’re now rapidly approaching our deadline, and we need your help!

We would love to have some volunteers read over chapters as we wrap them up, and give us some feedback. It would be great to have a variety of people — space buffs, people who know nothing about space, grammar nazis, history fans, whatever.

There’s no monetary pay, however, but if you help us, we’ll include your name in the acknowledgements, and you’ll have the benefit of knowing that you have helped share an important part of our nation’s history. And, a handful of people who give us the most help with get a small bonus token that I shan’t mention here.

If you’re interested, let us know either by posting a comment here or by contacting one of us directly. Depending on what the response looks like, we may not need everyone, since we’re trying to keep the readers diverse, but we would really appreciate anyone willing to step up!