The Starship and the Rocket: Star Trek, NASA & Me


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“Space… The Final Frontier…”

I am not where I am because of Star Trek.

You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.

For me, if anything, it was the opposite.

I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.

The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.

For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.

At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?

I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.

I never finished my Star Trek novel.

I have written two books about actual space.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.

It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.

Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.

I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.

Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.

But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.

NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.

To boldly go where no one has gone before.

There’s Magic as Long as We Make It


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Thirty years.
On the day I heard the news at Huntsville Middle School, it had been 19 years and a day since the Apollo 1 fire. That was history, distant. Eight years before I was born.
Today, it’s been far longer than that since the loss of Challenger. And it it still looms. It’s still immediate. To be honest, in some ways, Challenger for me has left a scar deeper than the more recent Columbia.
Thirty years later, Challenger is a “why.” It motivates. It demands. It’s why we don’t take things for granted. It motivates better solutions. It demands our best. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never again.
It’s an odd memory for me today. It’s something I remember as who I was then, and something I remember as who I am now. At this point, I’ve worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for longer than I’d been alive when it happened. It is a part of our agency history, and it informs my professional life.
But that’s who I am now. Who I was then was a kid in middle school who grew up playing with toy spaceships. One of my favorites, which helped decorate a table at my wedding last year, was the Fisher-Price Alpha Probe, one of those early transitional toys that stopped showing spaceships as tall cylindrical things and started showing them with wings.
My connection to Challenger was not as immediate as it is now, but it was bigger in some ways. The shuttle wasn’t a vehicle, it was a national mythology and science fiction and hope and excitement and science. It was the future, wrapped in tile and foam and rocket engines. And thirty years ago today, I learned that even myths and science fiction and the future can fail. There was a little less magic in the world.
But the secret — part of the real legacy of Challenger — is that there’s not. There’s magic as long as we make it.
I had the opportunity to wander Tuesday through the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans. The factory where the Apollo I crew’s rocket was built. Where the external tanks for the final flights of Challenger and Columbia were built. The factory where Neil Armstrong’s Saturn V was built and the tanks that held the fuel that launched the first shuttle and the last, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station.
The factory where the core structure of a spaceship that will go around the moon was just welded. The factory where the rocket that will send it there is being built.
On the way down, I visited some friends, and in the midst of the visit, they bought their son a spacecraft playset he can sit inside. One of the early transitional toys showing spaceships not as things that look like airplanes, but as tall rockets and exploration capsules that fly atop them.
Their son won’t remember the shuttle. Challenger and Columbia are ancient history for him. But he’ll be seven or eight when we launch this rocket. Old enough to know, and appreciate it. A thing of wonder and hope and excitement and science fiction and the future.

A Gym, A Wedding and Two Solid Rocket Boosters


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This is a story about the Huntsville Middle School gym and my wedding day and two solid rocket boosters.

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was in the gym at Huntsville Middle School when I heard the news. The space shuttle exploded. I’ve told the story several times about the poor student whom I convinced had misunderstood. Space shuttles don’t explode. It’s just not something they do.

The irony is, I was right.

No space shuttle ever exploded. In writing “Bold They Rise,” I gained greater understanding than I ever wanted of what happened on January 28, 1986, down to the fraction of a second. Of how a burn-through of the solid rocket booster began a series of events that led to the disintegration of the vehicle.

For 10-year-old David, the loss of Challenger was a remote but personal experience. I had no part of it, no connection to it, but I was touched by it. To say it was a moment I will never forget is understatement. Almost every year since, I have written something on the anniversary – thoughts, recollections, tributes.

Over time, these anniversary markers have evolved. The become less about the event itself and more about the passage of time, and the shadow that event still casts. I wrote about marking the anniversary for the first time from Marshall Space Flight Center, having a greater connection to the story. Four days after writing that, I awoke to learn we had lost Columbia. It was, to put it lightly, not a good day. I wrote about the anniversary as NASA prepared to, and then finally succeeded in, launching a teacher into space, Christa’s back-up, Barbara Morgan.

I’ve now lived almost three times as long since the loss of Challenger as I had before. I’m about to marry someone born after that day, for whom it is purely a historical event. Time and tide.

Which leads me to my wedding day. On March 15, I’m getting married.

I mention that in this story not because of where I’ll be that day, but because of where I won’t be. That week, just a few days earlier, many of my coworkers will be in Utah. There, they will witness the first qualification firing of the solid rocket motor for NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. This test and a follow-up will clear the upgraded and enhanced boosters for flight on the new rocket.

This is, quite literally, a long-awaited milestone for SLS. Preparations for the test were already well underway when I started working on the program two years ago, but a potential issue was discovered. Changes that had been made to the booster, to improve performance and make them more environmentally friendly than the shuttle boosters, had some unexpected side effects.

The booster team was left with ideas as to how to address those issues, but no definitive answer, and no exact timeline as to how long it would take to find them. There was also no definitive answer as to what would happen if the test were conducted with the issue. The program had two options — take the chance and continue the test, or take the time and find the answer.

The program chose to take the time.

In about a month and a half, their hard work will pay off. I do wish I could be there to see it, but there’s somewhere else I’d rather be.

I think it’s easy for history to be overly critical of the decision to launch Challenger, but, without question, mistakes were made.

The fate of Challenger, and later of Columbia, were sealed with a single argument — “We know there is an issue, but we have reason to believe it won’t be a problem.”

I was not in the meetings where the decisions to delay the booster test were made. I don’t know how much temptation there was or wasn’t to proceed with the test, and gain reason, rightly or wrongly, to believe the issues weren’t problems.

But I am proud, very proud, to be part of a program that chose not to. I am proud, very proud, that we took the time to get it right.

Another anniversary. Another year. And, this year, that is how we honor the memory of Dick, Mike, Judy, Ron, Ellison, Greg and Christa.

Space Adventures, A Decadal Survey


It’s taken two stints to get there, but today marks a total of 10 years that I’ve spent supporting NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’ve had some incredible experiences working here during those years, and many more not directly work-related that the job inspired. I’m lucky to do something that I truly truly love.

When you don’t work your 10 years continuously, you don’t get a pin or recognition. But you do get a whole lot of good memories.

Of course, on the to-do list for the next 10 years is opening the solar system for human exploration. So check back then …

Apollo Moonlander Game


So back in the day, my coworker Tim Whitten created this moonlander game, using actual photos from the Apollo missions. It’s pretty cool, and to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t exist anywhere else now, so I thought I’d share it.

Apollo Moonlander Game

 

Year 1999: A Space Story


So going through some old stuff over the weekend, I found this story written by elementary-school David. In my retconned biography, I’m going to stay that check-plus convinced me I should pursue writing stories like that professionally.

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Several Orbits Later


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All in all, it was a beautiful coda to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to record, and to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to live.

Last week, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosted its annual Space Exploration Gala, and this year the event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program. The eight living Skylab astronauts all came back to Huntsville for the event.

A similar night, almost 10 years ago, helped plant the seeds in me for a life-changing adventure. The eight were in Huntsville for the 30th anniversary, and it was one of the times I started to think seriously about what it would be like to work on a book telling the Skylab story. I was still a little ways out from having the nerve to actually step out and stop thinking about it and start doing something about it, but that night brought me a little closer.

So it was an incredible experience, on the other side of that adventure, to see the guys gathered in Huntsville once more, to see them and the program being celebrated, and to be a little more involved this time.

I had the chance to see most of the crew members the night before the event as we signed books to be sold the next night as a fundraiser for the museum. It was good getting to have a little time to visit and catch up, and even better to get to be present while they visited and caught up. I’ve been blessed to be in some amazing situations through the book, and this was one of them. I try to always appreciate what a blessing and responsibility it is; the legends will long live in history, the men behind them will only be known as long as there are people to talk about them.

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Five of the Skylab crewmembers came to Marshall the next day to talk about their experiences with the workforce. The event started with an awesome video overview of the program. I’ve always wondered if you could make a good movie about Skylab; certainly, that video showed you could make a great trailer for one. It was a little odd watching the video; I know the guys more as they are now, it was fun and a little odd seeing them looking so young. I ended up watching them watch the video more than watching it myself; it was fun watching their reactions to their younger days.

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It was also neat for me seeing my friend Andy Herron watching their talk from the front row. Andy’s a young NASA engineer working on SLS, and it was encouraging to see one of the team members who are taking on the torch appreciating the value of the experiences and wisdom of those who have paved the way.

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Afterwards, there was a reception at which I ate Skylab cake …

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… and photo-bombed astronauts. (Unintentionally, of course.)

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It was a fun combination of past and present, getting to be there with both the past NASA team I worked with on the book, and the present NASA team I work with today. That’s my former NASA boss in education, Jeff Ehmen, talking to Joe Kerwin. If you work at Marshall, you are the heir of an incredible legacy, and events like this really drive that home.

I was talking with my team lead after the talk about the fact that is a big part of why we do what we do — someday, I’m going to go to an event at Morris auditorium and hear astronauts tell about their experiences flying atop a rocket I was part of. And that will be a good day.

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The Space & Rocket Center used the occasion for another exciting Skylab milestone — the Skylab trainer that had been deteriorating in the parking lot for years was brought inside the Davidson Center for display. What the public didn’t realize is that not only had they fixed up the outside to bring it inside, they had actually also done a substantial amount of work on the inside, and the interior was ready for display also, if not complete. I was amazed at the work they had done. Very very exciting!

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Skylab trivia: Differently colored Snoopy stickers were used by each astronaut to mark his property.

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The Skylab display was particularly exciting to me because that was actually how I began my years as a Space & Rocket Center volunteer, by participating in a volunteer effort to fix up the exhibit many years ago. We made some progress, but it fell apart long before the trainer was display ready again. But we did reverse some damage and laid the foundation for the recent professional effort, and, for me, it was a great experience to be able to spend time inside a Skylab mock-up while working on the book. At one point, we closed the airlock door on the trainer, which was a Gemini hatch that was repurposed for Skylab. How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to close a Gemini hatch? So it was very exciting for me to be inside the trainer for the first time in a long time. Not nearly as many years as it had been since the crew members had been aboard Skylab, but still a nice homecoming for me as well. Before the volunteer effort ended, we all were given the opportunity to sign an out-of-sight wall, and it was a neat experience to see my name still there.

I don’t have good pictures of the talk, but it was great as well. The guys did a good job of telling the old stories, and they have some great ones.

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