Endeavour landed yesterday on its penultimate mission. I tweeted about it, noting that there are only four space shuttle missions left on the manifest. My friend Patrick just asked me what’s next for NASA after the Shuttle retires. My reply on Facebook turned into an essay, so I thought I’d share it here.
What comes after the Shuttle? All the things about NASA that don’t make the headlines will continue. Some even get more funding. The Shuttle has been the poster child for 30 years, but in the meantime, NASA has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of climate dynamics, earth observation, deep space astronomy and cosmology. Robotic planetary and solar exploration, cutting edge research in biology, materials, aeronautics, energy generation, propulsion, you name it, have all continued. Shuttle launches are sexy. But when they end, perhaps a little more light will be shed on everything else NASA does. Cassini, the robotic probe that has taught us more about Saturn and its moons than we ever knew before, just got a seven year life extension. And human space exploration isn’t dead; the Falcon 9 rocket just went vertical last week, with a test capsule that SpaceX claims can be human rated. Static test firings of the Falcon 9 could come as early as this week. Private subspace (read: Virgin Galactic) should come online this year. The Russians are cranking out Soyuz launches like Henry Ford did Model Ts. Europe, Japan, China, & India all have launch systems. The Shuttle will stop flying, but humans won’t. Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll resurrect the HL-20. Or the X-33. And don’t forget: the Air Force has a spaceplane now.
Humans have had a continuous presence in space since the year 2000, thanks to the International Space Station. Think about it. For the last decade, a single second hasn’t passed that someone wasn’t zooming over your head at 17,500 mph. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but that’s the reason I answered a question about NASA’s future with international and private examples: as we go forward, this will be a cooperative effort. It’s one planet. One home. That is an inescapable fact. We are one species. Why not pool our efforts? There’s no need to reinvent the rocket just because you live in a particular spot on this planet behind some imaginary line. There’s no need for every country to send an individual probe to the moon or Mars just because we hoard information about our solar system as if we own it because we were the first to discover it. A fact is a fact; congratulations on learning it first. Now SHARE.
Newsflash: you can’t see borders from space. In my book, that means they don’t exist. They are mere constructs, accidents of history, that everyone seems to agree upon. They are fiction. Made up. There is true reality, and then there is that of which we are convinced. Exploration is inevitable. So is growth. I hope the void left by Discovery and the other shuttles makes room for the spaceships…and discoveries…of tomorrow.
There’s a lot of buzz lately about the so-called “Climategate,” with so much dispute and contention that the wiki article has been locked. Some say environmentalism has become ideology and should be regarded as a religion. Lines are drawn, people choose sides, the issue polarizes and progress grinds to a halt as we all stand around fiddling while Rome burns. I recently sent an email to a friend who tweeted about it, and she encouraged me to share my thoughts with the wider public. The following are excerpts from my side of our conversation, with a few additions.
Global warming, climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction…these are all tough things to swallow, especially when we humans decide to acknowledge our responsibility as the dominant species and custodians of this planet. It can be difficult to parse out just how responsible we are. We’re learning, after all. We don’t have a perfect overview of the situation, but I think the clues point in a general direction. Our emerging global awareness helps highlight that at a population of around seven billion, we’ve reached the point where the sum our actions, for better or worse, has a measurable effect on the life support system we call Earth.
I don’t get into the debate, and I try to find common ground with everyone. Surely there are things we can all agree on, and surely the solutions will be manifold, not singular. It is still an issue of science for me, and I think everyone needs to stop choking the air with uninformed opinions and politically-rooted (and ultimately self-serving) diatribes. The bottom line is obvious: we need to reduce our impact on the incredibly complex, wonderful, and naturally-occuring systems of the Earth, all of which are vital to our continued existence and prosperity. The solutions are easy to state, but hard for those profiting from the status quo to concede. Don’t dump trash and hydrocarbons into the air and sea. Use the sun and sun-powered natural phenomena to generate electricity. Reduce packaging and the frivolous use of plastic. Design, redesign and grow cities around the pedestrian. Make goods, including electronics, easy to disassemble and recyclable. Eliminate wanton and senseless consumption and destruction. Align ourselves with the seemingly hard to appreciate yet demonstrably priceless processes that recycle our oxygen and water and provide a temperature- and pressure-controlled, radiation shielded, food-bearing wonderland. One simply has to tick off the list of challenges and costs in supporting a continuous human presence in low earth orbit to make it plainly obvious that it is beyond our ability to do what the Earth does for all of us. We may be able to keep a dozen humans alive for a limited time and with a constant resupply in a precarious perch overlooking our little blue marble, but good luck doing that for the entire human race without the inestimable gift of our biosphere.
We can’t just blame corporations, think that clears our consciences, and go on contributing to the demand that drives global exploitation. We also cannot set up entities whose sole reason for being is profit at the expense of all else. “Else” in this case being the welfare of Earth and humanity, whose fates are inextricable. There must be balance. Profit is not bad if earned within a responsible framework. Unbridled, irresponsible profit that cuts corners, pollutes and exists only for the benefit of a mighty few is unsustainable, and will eventually crumble. We cannot continue to treat Earth’s resources as infinite and free and expect life to go on exactly as it is in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, there are a million other things to tackle, like the health, welfare and education of BILLIONS of our brothers and sisters. The Earth is going to warm up; we’ve already done it. That goose is cooked. It’ll be a shame to see some of my favorite islands and coastlines swallowed up, but we’ll adapt. We’re going to be forced to, and no amount of blathering in the high school hallways that our media has become is going to make a whit of difference about it, except insofar as it influences people to change their habits in manageable ways. The sum total of our lifestyle choices has an undeniable globlal effect. There’s only so much we can do as individuals…but that’s exactly what we should do, and all that can be asked of us.
On this and all topics, people need to be open to discussion, truly listen to each other, examine the facts, and most importantly be willing to change their minds. All too often ego trumps logic, and for some unfathomable reason, people think that admitting you were wrong, even partially, is a bad thing. On the contrary, it shows that you are willing to assimilate new information and to refine your viewpoint, bringing it closer to the actual truth! Truth, life, faith, they are all journeys of refinement. In manufacturing and economics they call it “continuous improvement.” In the Baha’i Faith we call it drawing nearer to God. We need to let go of the idea that as a single human being, we can be “right.” Only God has the claim of ultimate Truth, as the Source. All human understanding is limited by definition, thus are our opinions, including mine. No one should be proud of their opinion; our responsibility is to interact with each other with the utmost humility and love and to be ever-learning, ever-growing, ever-improving.
Think of it this way: what would you rather be? A feather, light and airy, devoid of any solidity, blowing about on the winds of public opinion and at the mercy of novelty? A rock, staunch and unmovable, stuck in the mud, powerless to move or progress but proud of your crusty and outdated sediment, gathering moss and refusing to interact, offering nothing but blunt, cold, and hard opinion? Or a blade of grass, firmly rooted in historical precedent but flexible, drawing upon the rich soil of previous human accomplishment and the guidance of the Almighty, able to bend in the breeze of new information and the breath of confirmation, soak up the rain of divine blessings and technological progress, and grow through the animating energy of the Sun?
This excerpt from The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, which Lorenia read to me this morning, says it better than I ever could.
Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men.
I’d like to share two new videos with you. The first is the landing of space shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on September 21st, complete with coworker commentary. The second is Lorenia, convincing me we need a pack of eight assorted specialty scissors. Enjoy.
Ever watch those old videos and wonder why the Apollo astronauts developed a loping gait when walking on the moon? Turns out the spacesuit, being inflated like a balloon, helped support its own 220-pound weight. The internal pressure also made it difficult to bend the joints of the suit. When the knee did bend, however, it would spring back, providing an extra pep in each step. This combined with the low lunar gravity meant that the transition speed (the point where humans break into a run from walking) for a suited Apollo astronaut was much lower on the moon. Hence the moonwalkers skipped, bounced and loped across the lunar surface at speeds where we earth-bound humans would simply stride. With any luck this discovery will be brought to bear on the design of Martian spacesuits.
BONUS: I just realized the music video for the Police’s Walking on the Moon was shot on location here at the Kennedy Space Center, back when the unused Saturn V rocket was on display outside the VAB, rusting away until it was restored and placed in a dedicated museum down the road.
Just in case you were wondering where I’ve disappeared to lately, here’s a quick recap:
I spend half my time in Florida testing, fixing, and launching shuttles, and the other half in Houston helping to design the GNC systems for the new Orion vehicle.
It’s a sweet gig. I ain’t complainin’.
This new MacBook Pro ain’t too shabby either.
All bragging aside, I checked my voicemail today and had 20 messages. In my defense, they aren’t showing up in my inbox. I need to give Verizon a call and have that fixed. My gmail inbox is below 100 unread messages, and that’s good. I get around 40 work emails a day, so when I fall behind, it’s bad. If I haven’t gotten back to you, I apologize. Life’s going to be busy for at least the next couple of years.
Didn’t think I was gonna get a post up in January, didja? HA! That’ll show ya.
Here’s a month’s worth of hope in one short film. Watch it full screen.
No light from any star on high
Can ever reach your earthbound eye
Unless it travels ‘cross the sky
Through time for you to see it
For time is just a form of space
As poets past have long embraced
So every photon starts a race
The moment its star frees it
The race is won when through the air
It strikes your eye while standing there
Its maker’s beauty brought to bear
The journey done at last
The sky of now you’ll never see
From here unto eternity
For stars in your reality
Are from the distant past
Indeed the closest star to us
Past twenty trillion miles must
Ring out its light in hope and trust
In four years it will shimmer
Watch it sparkle watch it dance
Think of how it took the chance
That in the future you might glance
Above and see it glimmer
So when you take in constellations
Think of ancient men and nations
Of firmament’s eternal patience
In shedding all its light
And know you’re watching history
That stars aren’t where they seem to be
And some have even gone to sleep
In that unending night
Hey kids! Been a while, eh? I hope you’ve been enjoying the photos from our trip to Bolivia and Peru; I’ve been using my nightly internet allowance to edit and post those shots. Lorenia put it best this afternoon when she said, “I consider flickr the same as blogging. You’re simply leaning on images more than words.” I hope that explains my absence of late.
Huge changes are afoot. I get married in a matter of weeks (YAY!); my fitness, diet and sleep goals (yes, I have sleep goals) are getting closer to reality; new opportunities are arising at work; and I just got word that one of the references on my astronaut application has been contacted. You could say things are going well.
There is so much I’ve wanted to blog about. I have several ideas every day, and it pains me not to have the time to write about them all at length. Now that I’m on the Zone diet, I spend a little more time each day planning and preparing meals. Add work, crossfit, and flickr to that, and I do well to get a movie in here and there. Right now I have over a hundred blog entries started, just waiting to be fleshed out. At the very least I know I’ll have plenty to do if I ever lose my job or go to the hospital.
What’s broken my silence tonight, first and foremost, is a little something about NASA I’d like to share with the general public. As you may be aware, most of the infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center was put in place in the early sixties. The VAB has recently been re-clad after a series of hurricanes over the past few years, and many other upgrades are underway in advance of the new vehicle. One of those projects is the removal of the large blast-shield louvers on the front of the Launch Control Center.
Given the decades that these iconic shields have been in place and the millions of visitors to the Kennedy Space Center every year, there are probably billions of photos of these louvers in existence. Now, with the fancy new windows going in, they are being dismantled and removed. Out of curiosity, I called up the project manager today to see if they were being donated to a museum. He was very excited to tell me about the project, emphasizing the care with which the crane operator removed them and gently placed them on a flatbed truck to be sent to KSC excess. His mood changed, however, when he recollected that once at the salvage site, the workers stabbed the louvers with a forklift and tossed them into the woods.
My plea to you is this: if you know anyone who would like to include a large part of U.S. space history in a museum, memorial or large-scale art installation, please contact me, and I’ll get you in touch with the right people. There are three more firing rooms whose louvers have not yet been removed. Now is your chance to do something to support the space program.
Ok, next topic! I was on the crossfit website today looking up WODs when I ran across this little gem of an article. The TSA is one of my favorite whipping boys, and I consider this piece to be the final word on the futility of their existence. I hope the next Administration has the good sense to abolish the organization and apply their seven-billion-dollar budget somewhere it might actually do some good. I mean, seven billion dollars? Where did that even come from? That’s more than half NASA’s budget! Do you realize what we could do with those funds? At the very least, if you’re worried about terrorists, apply them to intelligence where they might actually do some good. I’ve always found the hassle of the TSA’s security theater galling. I’m convinced it’s a) a jobs program and b) a crutch for the airline industry who otherwise wouldn’t make as much money on non-refundable tickets.
I’ll leave you with a few words about an epiphany I had today. After a near-death crossfit workout at the gym, I walked out into the brisk evening breeze and witnessed the glory of the fading sunset. The cold blanket of air hovering over the continent had pushed all the clouds out of the Florida sky, so we were gifted with a rare, clear-sky dusk. I marvelled at the strip of orange resting on the horizon, and how the gradient passed through green before fading into the midnight blue overhead. Two bright planets pierced the veil of the heavens before the stars spilled out, and in thinking about the tilt of Earth’s axis and its role in the seasons it dawned on me: someday soon we’ll model all the molecules in the atmosphere, and the secrets of how the giant globs of warm, wet, cold and dry air dance around the globe will be revealed. With a clarity that only intense exertion can create, I further realized that all of mathematics is but a simplification. It is true, it is correct, the science that rests upon it can be empirically verified, but it is an approximation. If our beloved equations fully described reality, we world create worlds when we wrote them down. Instead, they allow us glimpses into creation; they are useful tools for understanding our place in this universe and how to manipulate this wonderful reality to our ends.
Not bad for a weightlifting session. Exercise is for nerds.
First, to my father. Without him, there are countless reasons I wouldn’t be here.
So here’s to both of you! We celebrated in fine style this week, with the crew of STS-124 returning to KSC to visit the employees on Monday. I had the distinct privilege of meeting and speaking with Aki Hoshide, Mike Fossum, Ron Garan and Ken Ham. During the question and answer session I asked about their views on the future of space exploration, since Space X successfully launched the Falcon rocket into orbit on their fourth attempt just this Sunday, making it history’s first private orbital spacecraft.
Ron gave a brilliant answer, one which I didn’t forsee and which settles the false dichotomy between public and private space. Many people aren’t aware how much NASA supports private space exploration, even putting their money where their mouth is and seed-funding several startups, not to mention making arrangements for future private-party resupply missions to the International Space Station. Ron said it’s time for NASA to leave LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to the startups, and venture outward into the solar system. The ISS is an incredible outpost, and we should operate it as intended, as an international microgravity science laboratory, but it should be resupplied with cargo and crew by private companies. NASA should throw its weight behind efforts where it has historically excelled, namely exploration. It makes sense to field more robotic missions to planets and NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and to embark on human exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars. It’s a beautiful symbiosis. Ron emphasized that NASA and other government space programs are the only ones capable of pursuing the goals that are “seventy years out,” meaning the missions for which there is no immediately discernible financial return, but which intangibly benefit us all. LEO is ripe for commercial expansion. But Elon Musk doesn’t have the $40 billion it’s going to take to put a human on Mars. Yet.
Today, on the golden anniversary of NASA beginning operations, the employees of the Kennedy Space Center celebrated by walking, running and rollerblading 1-mile, 5K and 10K courses on the three-mile-long Shuttle Landing Facility. I take special pride in being the person who started the rollerblading tradition (much to the chagrin of the competitive runners) four years ago. Each year we have a greater number of dorks in helmets out on the slab. It’s fantastic fun. This year marks the first time I’ve been beaten to the finish line!
The highlight for me, though, is after the race. It’s not the free catered food and sports drinks, the camaraderie and the swag, all of which are good. It’s the chance to see what goes on nearly every day at the SLF, up close and personal. Astronaut pilots and commanders are training all the time in the STAs (Shuttle Training Aircraft), modified Gulfstreams with sophisticated flight controls and avionics to make them fall out of the sky just like space shuttles.
Today there were two STAs on the tarmac, and anyone who was brave enough to ask got a guided tour. There’s nothing in the world like sitting in the pilot seat of a split-down-the-middle frankenstein machine, half shuttle, half executive jet, looking through the futuristic transparent HUD (Head Up Display) as the astronauts arrive in their T-38 supersonic jets to train in the very seat in which you sit. We got the royal treatment, too, staying onboard while the engines spooled up and meeting the former astronauts and maintenance officers for the SR-71 and U-2 who teach the younger flyboys and flygirls how to handle the magnificent birds. I learned more in one evening about the STA than I have in all my years as an aerospace engineer. These planes have the longest service history of any Gulfstream (a company also celebrating its 50th) aircraft ever produced. The engines are different, as are the thrust reversers, the 30-degree-positive flaps, and countless other systems that give these planes their jekyll-and-hyde personality.
As I skated back to the car, the sky turned various brilliant shades of pink and orange as more astronauts arrived in their jets. I bid the crew farewell and said a silent prayer of thanks for the privilege I enjoy, working every day at the greatest spaceport on Earth, for an organization responsible for some of the crowning achievements of our era and that has contributed so much to humankind.