Monthly Archives: May 2010

You Put an X Anywhere in the Universe

“You put an X anyplace in the Universe and the engineers at NASA can land a spacecraft on it’’ – spoken by the character Isaac Jaffe, Executive Producer of Sports Night. That quote above pretty much sums up my feelings about NASA. They can do the impossible.

In May 1961, three weeks or so after the United States put its first man in space, President John F. Kennedy challenged our country to put a man on the moon and return him home safely in the nine years left in the 1960s. Our total manned space flight experience our country had at that point was 20 minutes, and he was challenging us to visit another celestial body which was 2400 times further away than we traveled before.

Most people would have said, “No way, we can’t do it.” The engineers at NASA said, “Let’s get going, we can do it.” It turned out to be an excruciatingly hard process, lives were lost and lessons were learned, but 8 years, 1 month, and 29 days later, we landed men on the moon. It’s interesting that I say “We” in the previous sentence. It was almost ten years before I was born when Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility, however like most people, I see the moon landing as an accomplishment of human kind, not of any particular nation. Surely, the United States put its prestige and wealth behind making it happen, but it was an accomplishment that all human kind could be proud of.

No other government government agency, regardless of country, has ever accomplished such a feat. No other government agency has inspired millions of people like NASA has and continues to do. When I visited Johnson Space Center last week, I was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the NASA and contractor employees that I met. Space was not only their job, it was their passion. I could plainly hear it in the way that they talked about what they did. Those are the kind of people I want running our space program, people who love space as much as I do.

Another reason that NASA inspires people is because of its almost human nature. NASA, as an agency, isn’t perfect. It makes mistakes, some big some small. Some of those mistakes and mindsets have cost lives, BUT the agency and its people have learned from each of them and grown past them. When Apollo 1 caught fire on its launch pad, people thought that it might be the end of the space program. Instead, NASA renewed its determination to get the job done, fixed the errors that it had made, and went forward. The mistake had been made, but NASA overcame it. When Apollo 13 suffered its explosion, the folks at NASA worked indefatigably to fix the problem and the crew came home against all odds. It was indeed NASA’s finest hour. When Spacelab lost part of its heat shield and solar panels during launch, sure people were disappointed and angry, but the attitude quickly changed to let’s fix this. In 1986, when the Challenger exploded during launch and in 2003, when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, the same thing happened each time. Errors were fixed, lessons learned, and our exploration of space went on.

Yes, that’s a simplification, but I stand by my point.

During the Apollo era, NASA’s budget was approximately 5.5% of the total federal budget. Today it’s only 0.5% of the federal budget. Look what we get for that amount. We have a functional manned spaceflight program sending astronauts to low earth orbit. We have a space telescope sending some of the most beautiful and stunningly scientific images down to Earth. We have numerous probes scouting different parts of our Solar System and sending back data every day. We have aeronautic research improving the aircraft that we fly on every day. We have satellites observing our planet and giving us data on what’s going on here on Earth. Imagine what we would get if we funded it to the proper level.

So, I say this: where are we going to draw our X? When is the deadline? Wherever we choose to go, NASA will get us there…

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STS-132 Tweetup at Johnson Space Center

I was one of the lucky 100 to be picked to attend the STS-132 NASA Tweetup at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. For those who don’t know, a tweetup is a gathering of Twitter users, usually folks who are interested in a particular subject. In this case, our common interest was human space flight. Ours was a dedicated group of space geeks, each paying our own way to Houston to participate. We were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the home of human space flight, ranging from Mission Control to the NBL, SVMF to the Saturn V.

To say the least, I was excited. More to the point, I was so excited I only slept for four hours the night before the event.

Arriving at Space Center Houston (JSC’s Visitor Center) at about 0800, I saw a bunch of folks waiting out front. Walking up, I was pleased to begin meeting my fellow space tweeps. I know everybody thinks Twitter is used exclusively by teenagers, but the attendees were folks of all ages and walks of life. We had people from many different states as well as the UK, Hong Kong, Australia, India, and Sweden. In my book the travel award went to the folks who drove 27 hours straight to be there, participated in the days events, then turned around and drove straight back to their home in Utah. Sure, I cam in from the Bay Area for the day, but their trip was true commitment.

Headed in to the auditorium where our day was to begin, I got to play with a space suit glove and a sample of tile from the Space Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System. At that point, I was in heaven, but the day was going to get even better. I took a front row seat and plugged in my computer. I brought a power strip and several fellow tweeps joined in using the electrons it supplied.

Before the program began, we had the chance to ask questions via twitter to Astronaut Ron Garan (@Astro_Ron). He was gracious and funny. We were lucky to get to spend this virtual time with him. He’s since flown to Russia to train for his upcoming mission to the ISS.

After the traditional welcomes from NASA, including John Yembrick (@yembrick) and Ellen Ochoa, Deputy JSC Director and former astronaut, we got under way. Our first presentation was on the Shuttle and Station’s Ku-Band communication system. Two days prior, two astronauts had put a spare Ku-Band antenna on the ISS, so it was a fitting start. Those who know me have heard me complain about presentations on space not being technical enough, focusing on broad topics rather than getting in to the nitty gritty. This was not the case with our lead off presentation. The powerpoint was filled with flow charts and diagrams and was the detailed information I am always looking for. Seeing this, I felt the latitude to ask my geeky, technical questions all day, and was very pleased to do so. This was an incredibly great thing for me. Also, I was very proud of my fellow tweeps, because we asked many questions that were answered with a, “I can’t go in to that.’ Our presenter was trying to hide anything, we were just asking questions that were very technical…

Next up was Astronaut Jeff Williams (@Astro_Jeff), who ended his six month stint as ISS commander in March. He’s spent just about one year in space on two trips to the ISS. He was scheduled to spend 45 minutes with us, but ended up spending an hour and a half. He started with a 20 minute video, which he narrated for us, then took questions. Some of the questions were about living in space, some were about being an astronaut, some were technical, and some were about space policy. He answered all with humor and grace.

Because Jeff spent so much time with us, we had a short lunch break and then boarded our buses (a tram in my case) to head to Mission Control. We entered Building 30 and headed to the White Flight Control room, where they control shuttle missions. We took our seats in the viewing room and were greeted by Ed Van Cise (@carbon_flight) one of the ISS Flight Directors. I was in heaven. Visiting Mission Control had always been a dream for me and was amazing. Ed gave us a little background and then answered our questions. He gave us a tour of the control room, telling us the purpose of each console and how they worked. He talked to us about the history and culture of flight control. I was in heaven. I had always wanted to visit Mission Control. I was looking down on the flight controllers actively guiding a shuttle flight in progress.

I got to meet Holly Griffith (@absolutspacegrl), who I’ve followed on twitter for a while. She spent her whole day with us, even though she had to go to work in flight control at 1800. She answered questions and gave us the inside scoop, it was awesome.

After the White FCR, we headed to FCR 2, which is where the latter Gemini, all of the Apollo, and early shuttle missions were controlled from. I sat in the Flight Director’s seat where Gene Krantz sat during the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. I held the “Oh Shit” handles on the consoles. I was in heaven. Ed gave us some more history and we then were free to roam and take pictures. It was great to spend some time in this historic room. I could have stayed in that building all day, if not longer. Alas, we had to head out.

Our next stop was the Space Vehicle Mock Up facility, where the astronauts train in live size mockups of the ISS and Shuttle. It was amazing to be there. Some of the folks from an earlier JSC Tweetup (STS-130) got to crawl around in the mockups, but there were astronauts training when we were there, bah 🙂 Astronaut Stephen Robinson talked to us while we were on the shuttle side of the building. Steve talked to us about training, his flights to space, and what its like to be an astronaut. It was awesome to talk to him in particular because he’s the only astronaut in the history of the program to do a repair on the heat shield of a spacecraft (STS-114). He described that experience to us in detail, which was cool.

We then headed over to the ISS side of the building and were greeted by Clay Anderson (@Astro_Clay) who I watched launch into space on STS-131 in April. Clay is a smart and very funny guy. He told us about his shuttle missions and his time on the ISS. He walked us around the various parts of the station, showed us the Soyuz mockup and talked to us about living in space. He’s proud to say that he has used the restroom in three different space vehicles (Discovery, Atlantis, and the ISS) and gave us some great trivia (the orbiter is as long as the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk). Gettint to meet clay was especially awesome because I saw in launch on STS-131. As I said in my post about that experience, it is something that I will never forget.

From there we went to the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, where they train underwater for space walks. It’s a giant pool, 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. There are 6.5 million gallons of crystal clear water in that pool. As it was 90 degrees outside with about 60% humidity, I wish I could have taken a quick swim. The last person to do so without permission was a drunk Russian diplomat. Needless to say it was not allowed.

After the NBL, we headed back to Space Center Houston and hit the gift shop.

In the evening, a smaller group met up at a local restaurant. We hung put and talked about our day. Our conversations were highlighted by a love of space and an enthusiasm for exploration. We were lucky enough to be joined by four astronauts Mark Kelly (@ShuttleCDRKelly), Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly), Stephen Robinson,  and Dan Burbank. It was great to talk to these guys on a one on one basis and they were gracious enough to let us get some pictures as well. There were several highlights of the evening, in no particular order:

1. One of our NASA hosts, Lucie Delheimer (@LucieD_inthesky) sponsored a NASA Acronym contest. The challenge was to compose a full sentence using nothing but NASA acronyms. Steve and Dan were the judges and I was ecstatic that they picked my entry (ET TLM I/F BIT REOD) as the winner. I’ll take guesses as to what it stands for in the comments.

2. At 2038, the ISS and Atlantis did a 6 minute flyover. It was so amazing to see the station and shuttle together flying over head after spending a day learning about how they’re supported on the ground.

3. Shortly thereafter, the Hubble Space Telescope flew over as well. HST has alwys been a favorite NASA project of mine, not only because of its amazing scientific prowess and discoveries, but for the effort that we as a nation put in to developing and repairing this wonderful asset.

All in all, it was a wonderful day, filled with excitement and pure joy. I’m going to talk about what the visit meant to me in another entry, but I’ve been working on this one for a couple of days now and want to get it posted.

Thanks to all of our NASA hosts for putting this wonderful event on. I know I’m forgetting some, but here’s a try anyway @yembrick, @bethbeck, @LucieD_inthesky, @absolutspacegrl , @txflygirl, @GodspeedDiscvry, @schierholz, @Carbon_Flight, @amikokauderer, and many more.

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STS-131 Launch

Back in April, I traveled to Kennedy Space Center to watch STS-131 launch. I am so happy that I had the chance to do this before the Space Shuttle Program ends with STS-134. The flight, as all but one since the Columbia disaster have been, visited the International Space Station. It carried a Multi-Purpose logistics module stocked with supplies and experiments to be conducted on orbit. The flight carried seven astronauts and was a tremendous success. The launch was originally scheduled for March, but was delayed until April.

My trip out there was a whirlwind. Because I used frequent flier miles for my ticket, I flew OAK-SEA-MCO, which made for a long launch day… I woke up at 0800 EDT on Sunday and didn’t go to sleep until 1100 EDT on Monday. I didn’t feel at all tired until after the launch…

Going to a space shuttle launch was a dream come true for me. It lived up to my expectations and to the hype.

From my location on the causeway, there was nothing but 6.5 miles between the shuttle and me. It was a great angle to view the stack, with no interference from the RSS. Seeing the Orbiter, SRBs, and ET sitting there bathed in Zenon light was a truly awe inspiring sight. It was completely dark except for the pad and the shuttle. It was my first view of a shuttle ever at it was perfect. There was nothing in my field of view EXCEPT the shuttle. Granted, I would have rather have been a little closer, but such were the logistics of the trip.

I was on an early bus, so I ended up at the rope line. I set up my tripod and put the long lens on the camera with the doubler. I had about 2 hours before the launch. It took some time before I could get the camera and lens working properly. After getting the camera set up, I was able to snap some shots. You can see them on my flickr page along with the post launch photos.

It was amazing to be there, surrounded by space geeks, able to keep up a conversation using almost all acronyms from SRB to ET, SSME to MECO. We could all talk about our memories of previous shuttle launches… We took a collective breath at the “Go at Throttle Up” call, we prayed for a successful launch. We cheered at launch, but cheered even louder at MECO.

I have always been interested in space, I’ve always cheered for the space program and what it has done for our nation. Seeing the STS-131 changed that for me. It gave me the personal experience with the space program that can never be taken away. It stoked a fire in me that I know is shared by thousands, if not millions of people who work in, follow, and cherish the space program on a daily basis.

I am grateful beyond words for that!

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