Tag Archives: Space Shuttle

Innocence, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, I was in second grade. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my last year at the elementary school that I attended and  lots of change would be coming over the next several years for me. Thirty years ago, I was young and didn’t believe that bad things could happen to me, to anyone I knew, or to my country. Thirty years ago, I had my innocence and it was a great state to be in.

On January 28, 1986, I was playing on the playground during morning recess and a friend came up to me and said, “the space shuttle exploded.” My first response was sheer incredulity, that he was testing me, to see if I would react… I said, “No, it didn’t, the Space Shuttle CAN’T explode.” I didn’t believe that such a thing could even happen. Space travel was routine, with the first shuttle launch just after my third birthday and the 25th scheduled for that morning. My friend replied, “yes it did, as it was launching this morning.” I still didn’t believe him. I couldn’t grasp that an event such as this was even possible.

From there, in my memory, that day becomes a big blur. The next thing I remember is being at a different friend’s house in the evening working on homework. The adults were in a different room, doing adult things. The room we were in had a TV, which was tuned to the news. They were showing Challenger’s 73 second flight over and over and over again. I’m sure that there were talking heads interspersed between the replays, but all I remember are the replays, over and over again. Looking back now, that was the beginning of the end of my innocence. The end of the belief that bad things couldn’t happen.

Every year, in mid-January, I post four pictures on my office door. The first is the Apollo 1 Crew, the second is the STS 51-L (Challenger) Crew, the third is the STS-107 (Columbia) Crew, and the final is a Red and Rover cartoon by Brian Bassett commemorating the aforementioned crews that all lost their lives in service of exploration.  I picked these pictures of the three crews because I think they represent the potential of the missions. Each crew is in their space suits, seemingly ready for launch, ready to being their exploration. I post these cartoons no later than January 16th, my birthday, which is the day that Columbia and her crew launched on their final mission in 2003. It’s also the day that the damage that caused Columbia’s demise occurred, though it would not happen for another fifteen days.

Last night I watched a wonderful documentary about the Challenger accident. The documentary focused not on the technical details of the accident, but on the reactions that people had to it. I was particularly taken by the audio of a reporter from Concord, New Hampshire, who was at KSC reporting on the flight because of its most famous crew member Christa McAuliffe. His station played several minutes of his spontaneous reactions to the incident, and at one point, he basically says, “I can’t talk any more. I’m in shock, I need to process this…” at which point I can imagine his dropping the phone he’s been talking in to and walking away. This struck me because it’s how I’ve been feeling since I posted those four photos on my office door.

Today, in 2016, my son is in second grade. He attends the same school that I did on that fateful day in January 1986, and though it’s been rebuilt, he plays on the same playground that I was playing on thirty years ago when I learned the news of the Challenger disaster. For some reason, this parallel, this coincidence that came about because he was born in my thirtieth year and started kindergarten when he did, has been bothering me this week. Ever since I put up those photos a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about my experience on the playground thirty years ago. I’ve been thinking about the beginning of the loss of my innocence and the changes that would occur in my life. I feel like spaceflight, to most people is again routine and the fact that there have been astronauts in space for nearly twice my son’s lifetime is taken for granted (if it’s even known) by most people. I feel like so much of the technology that we use on a daily basis, most of which was developed directly or indirectly as a part of the space program, is taken for granted.

My son is fully ensconced in his innocence and I work hard to protect that for him. I wonder what he will look back upon some day as the beginning of the end of his innocence. I hope that it will not be for a long time. I hope that I won’t be a cause of the beginning of this change in him. This year and ever year, I choose to remember the crews of Apollo 1, STS 51-L, and STS-107 in their flight suits, looking like they’re headed to the pad to launch into space and explore our universe.

I choose to look at them with the innocence of a child, knowing that it is not possible for anything to go wrong. I know that this is not true, I know that complacency and apathy will create problems for my country and my world. I just hope that my son won’t realize this for a long, long, time. I want to remember him like this, full of promise, full of innocence, and full of potential. I want all kids to have a look like on their face like my friend Shannon Moore‘s daughter Sara does in this picture.

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Up Close and Personal with Endeavour

The morning of February 11th, I watched my second rocket launch. It was an awesome experience, made even better by the fact my family was able to watch with me. After the launch, we had to drive to San Diego, traveling through Los Angeles. the trip was going to be tight on schedule, as I had to catch a flight home from San Diego that evening. WIth the unpredictable LA traffic, we might get down there early, or we might get down there just in the nick of time to get on the flight. The drive from Lompoc to SAN was about 4.5 hours without traffic.

After about two hours on the road, we realized we were ahead of schedule and, according to Google, the traffic wasn’t too bad, so I started to entertain the idea that we might be able to make a stop in Los Angeles to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I looked for tickets on the web site of the California Science Center, which told me that there weren’t any tickets available until after we needed to leave Los Angeles, which was a major disappointment. I decided that the web wasn’t the final answer and that I would call the center’s box office and ask them, pleading my case if necessary. I made the call, and inevitably had to hold before I spoke with an agent. When the gentleman was answered, I was nervous and could barely talk. I explained my situation to him, that we were in a tight timeframe, and asked if there was any way we could get in to see the Space Shuttle. His answer… Yes. There was availability about the time we should arrive at the center. I jumped from nervous to cloud nine, I was going to see an orbiter closer than I had ever seen one before.

I had seen Endeavour twice before, as she was being transported to Los Angeles for display at California Science Center. My son and I woke up very early the morning of September 20, 2012, drove from Oakland to Boron and watched her land at Edwards Air Force Base. After the landing, we headed to Los Angeles and, the next day watched her land at LAX, which was her final landing ever. I wanted to go down to LA in October when she made the 12 mile journey through the streets of Los Angeles, but instead got to cheer my wife on while she ran her first half marathon. There are a couple of really amazing time lapses of the journey through the streets of LA, one from the LA Times, the other from Givot on Vimeo.

Arriving at Exposition Park, we paid the parking fee, parked and walked toward the Science Center. As we were walking in, I was so excited that I forgot to take any photographs of the building. We went up to the ticket desk and were told that tickets were FREE and where we should wait in line. Waiting there for about 5 minutes, I was trying to explain the importance of this event to my son, but didn’t do very well. We were allowed to go exit the line and head toward the shuttle. We were routed through what I’m sure is a great exhibit about Endeavour’s history in California (all the orbiters were built here), but I was too excited to stop and read anything, so we powered through the exhibit and headed to the Shuttle. We exited CSC’s main building, made the 30 second walk to the Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Display Pavilion.

Entering the room, I was greeted with this site:

At which point, I basically started crying. Endeavour has been to space 25 times and I was standing within 10 yards of her. My wife, sensing my emotional state, said “I’ll watch the kids, you take your time.” Grateful for that gesture, I started walking and looking around. It a truly amazing experience. You can see all my pictures on Flickr.

What took me most aback was just how close visitors can get to this national treasure. Standing under Endeavour, I felt like I could reach up and touch her. I was amazed by the intricacy of the thermal protection system, the tiles and blankets that protected the vehicle as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. If you know me, you know that I am a shuttle, space, and NASA nut, so I’ve read a lot about the TPS. I know the stats, but being this close to the actual tiles that had done the job was amazing. Seeing the sheer number of tiles was amazing.

The visit was a truly personal experience. I felt like I was really in Endeavour’s presence, able to be close to her in a way that I never imagined possible. Here’s a view inside the bells of the forward RCS nozzles.

Here’s the hatch which the Astronauts who flew on Endeavour used to embark and/or disembark the vehicle while on the ground.

The sheer size of an orbiter is amazing. The best comparison is a Boeing 737, but I didn’t really get it until I walked into a room with an orbiter in it. The body of an orbiter is taller than that of a 737 and it seems longer to me. Endeavour’s cargo bay can carry a bus sized object and the length of the orbiter is longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.

I do want to say that the planned final display of Endeavour which will have her in an upright position, connected to tank and boosters, ready for launch, should be amazing.

Photo of planned final display of Endeavour in launch configuration. Photo by and copyright Robert Pearlman of Collectspace.com

With that said, I don’t think it’s going to be as personal of an experience as the current display. From the look of it, I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get as close to the orbiter as you can now. It will certainly be amazing, most likely breathtaking, and I will go see it, but I will always remember how up close and personal I was able to get to her in her current display.

We made it to San Diego on time and my flight home was uneventful. I’m so lucky that the visit to Endeavour worked. The space (and traffic) gods were smiling on me that weekend!

If you can make it to Los Angeles, a visit to Endeavour is certainly worth it. You won’t be disappointed! Tickets are free and it’s an experience you will never forget.

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STS-107 Disaster in Mission Control

As those who know me have already gathered, I’m a NASA geek, specifically a Mission Control geek. Though they don’t make it space, but the engineers and technicians in Mission Control and at the other NASA centers make the human spaceflight program possible.

The video below breaks my heart. It was taken in what is called the White Flight Control Room in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center in Houston, on February 1, 2003 as Columbia was making her way from orbit to earth.  What you hear is the conversations between the controllers and the Flight Director as they read the clues and gather the data and come to the realization that something has gone terribly wrong. These are men and women who have dedicated their lives to the safe operation of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

Watch this video, watch it again, see and hear the anguish in the voices of the controllers, see how they keep on doing their jobs even as they realize that the worst has happened to their friends, colleagues, and indeed, the entire space program. Then think that 10 years have gone by since this happened, we still have a manned outpost in space and we’re working on getting out of low Earth orbit once again. The people in this room are those who are getting us there, a fact which gives me tremendous comfort!

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A Tough Week in NASA History

Today begins a tough week in the history of NASA. All three of NASA’s major accidents have happened between January 27th and February 1st:

January 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 Fire

January 28, 1986 – Challenger (STS-51L) Disaster

February 1, 2003 – Columbia (STS-107) Disaster

Each of these events happened at a different stage of the mission, each of them had their own technical causes, but in my opinion, each was caused by ignoring or accepting some of the risks of spaceflight. After each accident, the people of NASA got together to solve the problem and make human space flight possible again.

As you go about your week today, remember the Apollo 1 Crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee;

Apollo 1 Crew


the STS-51L Crew: Francis R. Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe;

STS-51L (Challenger) Crew


as well as the STS-107 Crew: Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon

STS-107 Crew

and the sacrifices they made for knowledge, understanding, and their country. Be proud of the work they have done and be hopeful for the future of spaceflight and of humanity.

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The Space Shuttle Columbia Lifted Off 10 Years Ago Today for the Final Time

Ten years ago today, the space Shuttle Columbia lifted off for the final time. When the liftoff occurred, no one knew that it would be here final departure from the planet. Rather, it was the start of a science mission scheduled to last about two weeks. Onboard the orbiter were seven astronauts:

  • Commander Rick Husband
  • Pilot William McCool
  • Mission Specialist David Brown
  • Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

About 82 seconds after lift off, a large piece of the insulating foam on the external tank came loose and hit leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. This incident was captured on the film of the launch as a white streak training away from the wing as the shuttle ascended. Over the next two weeks, the crew flawlessly executed their mission, knowing that something had struck the wing, but not knowing that this impact would cause the end of their lives.

On the ground, at Mission Control in Houston and at other NASA Centers, some engineers were not so certain that the impact hadn’t caused damage. In the end, however, there wasn’t much done to investigate the effects of the impact. Truthfully, nothing could have been done to repair the damage.

Wayne Hale, a Flight Director at Mission Control and leader in the Shuttle program, has written a series of blog posts over the past several months examining the totality of the Columbia disaster, which are definitely worth a read. See his blog at waynehale.wordpress.com for his insights.

Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to post more thoughts on the Columbia disaster, its place in history, and other related topics.

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The Space Shuttle Discovery is Now Part of the National Collection

I came across a video this morning, posted by the Smithsonian Institution on YouTube entitled, “Space Shuttle Discovery Delivered to the Smithsonian.” It’s a wonderful video highlighting Discovery’s flyover of Washington, D.C., removal from the SCA, and the ceremony in which it was inducted into the National Air and Space Museum.

The video includes excerpts from several of the speeches that day, including one from the speech of France A. Cordova, Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Once the transfer document is officially signed, she remarks, “The Space Shuttle Discovery is now part of the national collection.” I’ve watched this video a couple of times this morning, and I tear up at that line. As I’ve said before, the Space Shuttle Program is the only space program I’ve ever known. I’ve grown up with it and lived through its triumphs and tragedies. Through the use of the internet and social media, I’ve been privileged to join a community of people interested in space travel. I was lucky enough to witness the launch of STS-131 in person in April of 2010.

I know the history of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I cherish the fact that humans have walked on the moon. I know how and why the space race occurred and I believe that it was a good thing for humanity. With that said, the only space program that I’ve experienced is the Space Shuttle. Whether on TV or the internet, I’ve followed missions and watched launches and landings. I remember exactly where I was both when I heard of the Challenger disaster and seventeen years later when I heard of the Columbia disaster. The Space Shuttle has been my space program and I truly treasure it. The end of the program has been coming for a while now, but the reality of it has just hit me.

Dr. Cordova’s remark that Discovery is now part of the national collection is true. She’s been retired and is no longer operational, but will be forever inspirational. I hope that Discovery will inspire others as much as she and the entire Space Shuttle program have inspired me. It makes me think back to the Brian Bassett cartoon from last year, What A Ride It’s Been.

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The End of the End Begins

Tomorrow morning, the end of the end will begin for the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery will take her final flight, not as a spacecraft, but as cargo on Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, leaving Florida for the last time, headed to the National Air and Space Museum.

One of my SpaceTweep friends @msengupta, posted last week on her twitter feed, “Just got an E-mail that started w/ “On April 17, 2012 space shuttle Discovery departs KSC for the last time.” Hit me like a ton of bricks.” It’s funny how different people get hit by different things. I was really hit when they powered Discovery down for the last time. Though they had stopped making the external tanks that she needed to fly to orbit years ago, shutting down her systems for the final time when it really hit me. The end of the Space Shuttle program has been coming for a while. President Bush announced its cancellation in 2004, but for subsequent seven years there were flight. It somehow felt like ti wasn’t really over. On Sunday morning, Discovery was loaded on the SCA for her flight. Tomorrow morning, the SCA will take off, do a low slow flyby of the launch facilities at KSC and Discovery will never visit Florida again.

My son and I were playing with our Space Shuttles last week and I was talking about how the Shuttles were meant to fly. In his three-year old desire to assert his independence, he said that the shuttles were not meant to fly, they were meant to be on the ground. He was laughing and playing as he said this, not knowing that the truth of his words was eating me up inside. When the Shuttles were built, they were meant to fly. They were meant to transport people and cargo from earth to orbit. Their purpose was to physically go to the heavens and show us what could be done when we put our minds to it. They were the manifestation of the ‘You Put an X Anywhere in the Universe” spirit that the American people dearly believed.

Now, their purpose has changed. No longer will they physically take a small number of people to the heavens, rather they will serve as a beacon and example of what people can do. My son was right, the Space Shuttles are not meant to fly themselves any more, they are meant to help us fly ourselves. Their purpose is to inspire the rest of us to fly in our own way.

It’s true, tomorrow marks the start of the end of the end, but I hope it can be a beginning. I hope that the four orbiters, who will together be seen up close and in person by millions of people each year, will help humanity fly.

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