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.

Mars Rocket Yadda Yadda Horses’ Butts


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According to an old story that’s circulated the internet for years, the dimensions of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were prescribed by the width of a horse’s rear end.

The story goes from Roman chariots that were made wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses to British roads that were built for those chariots and ended up with ruts where their wheels were to Engish wagons that were built wide enough to fit those ruts to trains that were built from the jigs and toolings for those wagon and thus U.S. railroads were all built to the width of a Roman chariot and thus based on the width of two horse’s butts. And then it takes it a step farther to the fact that the shuttle solid rocket boosters were designed to be transported via rail and thus had to fit through a railway tunnel determined by the width of a  train and thus, yadda yadda, horses.

The particulars of the story get some stuff wrong. U.S. railways didn’t originally have a standard gauge, and were built to a variety of widths before being standardized, so there was no particular magic number that they had to be. On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that the original railroad cars were horse-drawn, so there was a more direct connection between the widths of train tracks and horses, so there is some basic truth to the story, even if the particulars aren’t exactly right.

I was thinking about this story again recently because of interesting fact I learned about the Space Launch System rocket I’m honored to support.

The core stage of SLS is 27.6 feet in diameter, because it’s designed to have the same diameter as the space shuttle’s external tank in order to more effectively take advantage of existing manufacturing and launch facilities. We were talking about that at work, and the question came up as to why the shuttle’s external tank had that diameter. We suspected at first it, in turn, had something to do with the facilities left over from the Saturn days, but weren’t able to find the answer anyway.

So I called someone I know who worked on the external tank, and asked him. And the answer has to do with the fact that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were to be mounted to the side of the external tank. Given the volatility of the fuels inside the tank, you wanted the attach points to be somewhere on the structure off of the fuel tanks inside it. The length of the solid rocket booster had already been established, and that determined what the length of the external tank would need to be to properly accommodate the attach points. The engineers knew what the volume of the tank had to be in order to hold enough fuel for launch, so once the length was established, the diameter was just a question of division.

Which means that the next time astronauts fly around the moon, they’ll be launched on a vehicle with a diameter determined loosely by the width of horses’ butts.

Another Draft Done


20121219-122830.jpgThis is one of those things that I included in the “when I start blogging again, I should blog about this” list, but I have no idea what I intended to say about it.

During the time I was offline, we finished another draft of the space shuttle book, “Bold They Rise,” that I’ve been working on for, what, six, seven years now? In fact, getting the book finished was one of the motivators for taking a break from blogging in the first place.

That said, there’s really not a whole lot to say about the latest milestone, other than the fact that writing a book can be a long, complicated process.

The latest revision mainly makes some stylistic changes to the book, changing the way it reads somewhat, and I think we all agree that it makes it much better. Next it goes to peer reviewers and the editorial board to see whether they concur, and then it comes back to us at least another time or two to make more revisions to make it publication-worthy. If all goes well, we’ll be looking at a spring 2014 publication date.

Still, even if the latest submission is just another milestone in a long string of them, a lot of work went into this one, and it was quite a relief to have the book off my plate for a little while.

Happy Birthday, John Glenn


In honor of John Glenn’s 90th birthday, a comic strip Lain, Jesse and I did many years ago before his return to space. For more comics, go here.


And in other space-related news:

— Here’s pretty awesome gallery of recent launches that a friend shared with me.

— I may write more about this later, but a flag flown on the first shuttle mission was left on the International Space Station by the last shuttle mission, and will be awarded to the first U.S. company to fly astronauts to the station. That’s pretty cool.

— Joy of Tech did a final undocking comic that’s not bad.

— Did you know astronauts can’t whistle on spacewalks? Learn something knew every day.

More Post-Launch Thoughts


• That’s the best picture I took of the STS-135 launch. I took my camera, just in case, and had my iPhone, but really before I ever went down that I was going to do like I did the first time I saw one launch, STS-125, and just watch. I’ve taken pictures of three shuttle launches since then, and gotten some good pictures, but I wanted to watch the last one take place with my own eyes, and not through a viewfinder. I was particularly glad since, as again with STS-125, a low-cloud ceiling meant that the shuttle was visible for only a short time before it disappeared, and I’m glad I didn’t waste that time trying to get the perfect shot. I knew there would be plenty of great pictures of this launch; it would be OK if none of them were mine.

• This was my tenth trip down specifically to watch a launch. On four of those trips, I watched, or attempted to watch, from the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. I watched one each from KARS Park and from the Saturn V Center. On two trips, the launch was scrubbed early enough each day that I never even made it to a viewing area.

On my first trip, I had no idea what I was doing. I went down with some friends, and we headed down to Highway 1 on the riverside in Titusville the night before the launch to scout the area out, and found this cool pier jutting out from a public park. We came back the next day, and set up on the farthest leg of the pier. The launch was scrubbed near the last minute, and I got possibly the worst sunburn of my life. We came back the next day, and sat for a while in the rain, only to have the launch scrubbed two or three hours before T0. We drove home the next day, and watched the launch on television in my living room.

I’d been back to that pier several times, generally on the day before launch to look at the pad at night. But it ended up that I had never gone back there to try to watch a launch again. Until last week. Friday morning, we got up early, and headed back to my pier in Titusville, with the weather looking no more promising than it ever had.

And yet, it flew. And I got to end my shuttle-launching streak where I started it, successfully watching a launch from where I’d first tried unsuccessfully five years earlier.

• I lost my radio scanner on this trip. I had it clipped to my belt, using it to listen to an amateur-radio rebroadcast of the NASA TV launch feed, and at about T -2 minutes, I leaned over to pick something up, and it came off my belt, bounced once on the pier, and dived into the water.

I was sad for about two seconds before realizing there was really no reason. I’d had the thing for 15 years. My parents gave it to me when I started my first post-college newspaper job; I used it to listen to the emergency band channels at home so I could go take pictures of house fires or car wrecks or the like. And when I left the newspaper business, it sat neglected on a shelf until five years ago, when I went to a launch for the first time, and used it to keep up with what was going on. It’s served me well in the years since for that purpose. So after all that time, I was a little sad to lose it. But I realized that it had served its purpose. Twice. It had been with me through my newspaper days until they were done, and it had been with me through the shuttle launches until they were done. It was sort of fitting to lose it right as it finished it purpose. Dulce et decorum est.

• The trip itself had an ambient feeling of it being the last time. We drove into Titusville on Thursday night and I saw the VAB for the first time on this trip, a familiar vista over the many trips I’ve made down there over the past few years. And now, I don’t know when I’ll see it again. And that’s weird. And there was a lot of that — places I didn’t know when I’d see again, places that I went while I still had a chance, places that I’ve never been and may now never get to. A lot of memories from a lot of trips over a significant period of time. I still haven’t fully wrapped me mind around the fact that the space shuttle program itself was almost over, and so those feelings of an ending were probably the closest I came to experiencing that finality.

• And the launch itself? I still can’t describe my emotions. There were too many, all at once. There was the standard awe, the standard elation, a tinge of sadness, a visceral sense of history. But the significance? Still beyond me.

Yeah, it was an ending. And, yes, the standard way of doing business is over. But I’m a dreamer. It’s hard not to have hope. The old way is done. I have no idea what exactly the future looks like. But there are other dreamers bringing it about right now. I have a real feeling that things will not only be as good as they are 15 years from now, they’ll be better than we expect. I couldn’t help but think o Isaiah 43:19:

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”

Florida Trip Photography


I haven’t had a chance to process things enough to do my big post-launch post, but here are some pictures I took (and one that was taken of me) during the trip. I didn’t take much launch photography, which I’ll get to in the bigger post, so most of these are from the Astronaut Walk of Fame.

I Was There


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I reserve the right to have more thoughts later, but this an e-mail I sent a friend tonight that I’m posting here as a starter.

I saw it.

It was, from a spectator standpoint, not the best launch I’ve been to; definitely in the lower half. It really looked like it wasn’t going to happen today because of weather. The weather ended up complying, but being very cloudy, so she disappeared pretty quickly after launch. In fact, she was out of sight behind clouds long before the sound reached us from the pad.

That said …

That didnt matter. At all. I was there. I was there.

I can’t tell you what that means. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I was there, in person, for the end, for the last launch.

I’ve followed the program my entire life. The shuttle was the first American spacecraft to fly in my life, and I was five when I watched the first launch on TV with my dad.

I’ve spent the last nine years of my life writing about it, and I wrote the story on the last launch before I left NASA. I’ve written a book about the shuttle. This was my ninth time driving down to see a launches, and the fifth I’ve seen. I’ve been invested.

And I got to be there, got to see it with my own eyes when she flew for the last time. And I’m glad.

I can’t believe it’s over. I really have no sense of that yet. I can’t wrap my mind around it.

Even just these mundane parts are slow to really dawn — Forget understanding what it means for the program to be over, I’m still working on the fact that my coming down here to watch launches is over. I don’t know when I’ll see the VAB again. I don’t know when I’ll drive down this road again. I’ve been down here at least a dozen times over the last few years. And I have no idea when I’ll be back. It’s weird.

OK, long answer to a short question. Sorry.