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.

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.

#SCTweetUp Follow Up


OK, I’m very late with this, but now that I’m posting again, I wanted to go back and finish blogging about the Space Camp Tweet Up about a month ago.

To start with, here are my pictures from the second day. (The pictures from the first day are here.)

First, let me begin by saying that you should follow @SpaceCampUSA on Twitter.

Now, the story —

They say that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

And that, certainly, is the root of my Space Camp tweet-up story.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I was selected for the first ever Space Camp tweet-up. Crazy excited, to resort to incredible understatement. I’d been wanting to go to Space Camp for 25 years. Back in middle school, I would enter the essay contest every year, hoping to win a scholarship, always to no avail. (Apparently my space writing wasn’t up to snuff. Oh, by the way, I have an appointment with them today to do some writing for them. Apparently the last quarter-century has been good for me in that area.)

But, Space Camp always remained just beyond my grasp.

So you can imagine it was a very very sad day when I had to turn down the chance to go to the tweetup. It was going to be the same day as the STS-134 space shuttle launch, and I owed it to some people to go to that instead.

To add insult to injury, the launch scrubbed. I had to watch it much later on television.

But …

So did the tweet-up. Remember that ill wind I mentioned? The tornados that blew through Huntsville two days before the scheduled launch caused the tweet-up to be delayed, and I was able to get back on the list. Which made me a very, very happy man.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some very cool space-related stuff, from watching launches with astronauts to going on a Zero-G flight to talking to the space station. But so many of the things I got to do at Space Camp had this great “I’m finally doing this!” quality to them that made the experience even more special.

One of the first things we did, for example, was ride the Multi-Axis Trainer, a chair  mounted in concentric loops that all spin in different directions at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I’d seen the MAT, and been jealous of the fact that I’d never gotten to try it. And now, here I was, strapping in. Awesome. (For the record, I didn’t get at all nauseated, but that’s typical. It has something to do with how quickly the spinning changes direction.)

While we were there, we also got to use the One-Sixth-G Chair, which simulates what it’s like to walk on the moon, using an elaborate pulley system. There was a bit of irony there for me — I’ve experienced “actual” one-sixth G during my reduced gravity flight, so I was probably one of a few people to get to experience the real thing before simulating it at Space Camp. What I learned is that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s real or simulated — I stink at being in reduced gravity. If the real moonwalkers had been as awkward on the moon as I was in the chair, NASA would have covered up that we ever landed out of embarrassment.

Also that night, astronaut Hoot Gibson came and spoke to us about — well, anything he wanted to talk about. Hoot’s a great speaker, and his talk was informative — I learned a few new things — and greatly entertaining.

The next day started with a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center, which was somewhat bittersweet for me. It was a little odd being back just over a month after I left, and I have to admit that I missed it a bit. They do some incredible things there, and it was an honor to have been involved with that.

Our lunch speaker was Tim Pickens, of the Rocket City Space Pioneers team that is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize. He’s a brilliant man, and RCSP is an incredible team doing brilliant things. Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about that on here at some point.

And then, it was time for our mission. For me, the highlight of the entire event. Again, I’d been waiting a long time for this.

OK, to be perfectly honest, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted to be in the orbiter. Instead, I was in Mission Control. Watching Apollo 13 one time, I decided that it wouldn’t be that bad being in Mission Control at Space Camp if you could be Flight, and say really cool stuff like Gene Kranz. But I wasn’t even Flight.

I was a prop.

Well, technically, I was PROP, the propulsion officer. And I did get to say some cool stuff. Heck, just going through the Go/No Go polling was enough to send chills through you. “PROP is Go!” Even if I wasn’t in the shuttle, it was still amazing to finally get to do a Space Camp mission.

I’m not entirely sure the crew would have survived the mission in real life; my pet peeve, for example, was that they never activated their auxiliary power units like they were supposed to. I’m pretty sure that would be a bad day on a real mission, but I’m not sure if they technically needed them on our simulation, which was a once-around abort. Also, the spacewalkers were basically doing a separate sim at the same time as the inside-the-orbiter, so from Mission Control, they basically got left in orbit. Still, I admire their dedication to the mission and their country.

A few things remained after that. We toured Aviation Challenge, where I crashed many simulated airplanes. I got to ride their centrifuge, but it only went up to 3G. (What can I say, I’m a G-snob at this point. It would be great fun for most people.) We rode Space Shot. We got to see the new Sue The T-Rex traveling exhibit, which was pretty cool.

And then it was done.

It was an exciting, exhausting, exhilarating two days, that was a complete dream come true for me.

The only downside —

The only downside —

Was that finally getting to go to Space Camp in no way, shape or form diminished my decades-long desire to go to Space Camp.

And next time, I wanna fly the orbiter.

And The Rocket’s Red Glare


Photo from The Washington Times

Hope you have a very happy Fourth of July!

Beach Time


More catching up from the month or so I missed:

It’s all relative, you know?

Arguably, it wasn’t a great shuttle launch trip.

Heather and the boys and I rode down to Titusville late last month with our friends the Meeks to watch the launch of the STS-134 space shuttle mission.

And Endeavour decided not to launch.

We got as far as the NASA Causeway, where I was waiting in line at the souvenir stand hours before the scheduled launch when we got the word that there would be no launch that day.

We ended up having to stay the following day and into the next before we found out for sure that the launch would be delayed too long for us to stay.

And, yeah, there were a few moments where it was frustrating.

There was one in particular when I was dealing with the disappointment of the scrub, the uncertainty of what would happen with the schedule, the challenge of keeping boys entertained while we were waiting, balancing the needs and desires of the four of us, the couple we traveled with and the family we were staying with.

And I realized —

Back home, Huntsville was still dealing with the effects of the major storms that had just come through. Everyone was without electricity. People were worried about water. Businesses were closed. Figuring out how to eat was a challenge. The city was under curfew.

If we weren’t there for the scrub, we’d be dealing with that. Instead, we had a free place to stay in Florida, power, water, food, things to do and places to go.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you can feel sorry for yourself while you’re standing on a sunny beach.

I’m just grateful I was able to remember that perspective in time to enjoy the sun and sand.

Because it really was a nice beach.

Congratulations, Bo Bobko


Because I’m woefully behind on blogging (and, yes, we will get back to that eventually), this post is coming about two weeks after I should have written it. Apologies.

Earlier this month, Bo Bobko was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

If you don’t know who Bobko is, follow the link to the collectSPACE article. Long story short, he’s one of the early shuttle commanders who flew on the maiden flight of two orbiters.

He’s sufficiently accomplished that a few years ago, talking to him, I made the faux pas of assuming he was already inducted. I’m glad that oversight has finally been rectified.

On a personal note, I’m glad to see Bo recognized, since he helped me with both of the space history books I’ve co-authored.

Back when he was still a fairly new astronaut, long before the shuttle commander stuff, he supported the Skylab program in several ways, including, most notably, as a participant in the SMEAT “simulation,” where he and two other rookie astronauts spent almost two months locked up in a altitude chamber testing Skylab equipment. It was a singularly unrewarding task — a full-duration space mission without leaving the ground — but vital to the success of Skylab. I got to sit down while working on the Skylab book, Homesteading Space, with Bo and SMEAT-mate Bob Crippen and have a great conversation that turned what on the surface might have been on of the drier chapters in the book into an entertaining and often hilarious story.

Bo helped me again with the space shuttle book Heather and I recently submitted to the publisher — at one point, he was going to serve as co-author of the volume. That fell through, but he was a huge help in shaping the book early on. In particular, as a pilot astronaut, Bobko gave me a perspective that was very key to understanding the development and early flight program of the shuttle. I’d always thought of the space shuttle orbiter primarily as a spaceship. To Bo — and, it turns out, others of his background — it was “the airplane.” Despite it’s very unusual flight profile, particularly during development it was just the latest and greatest airplane he was going to be flying. He talked to me less about the microgravity operations than about the avionics (pronounced with a short a). The discussions with him provided me with a foundation that proved hugely helpful later on in understanding the experiences of the astronauts involved in the early shuttle program.

So, Bo, congratulations on a well-deserved honor, and thanks again for all your help!