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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.
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.
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.
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.
felt like a suffragette
face in elevator chrome
got off at twenty-seven
the view on top so rad
private island high rise
I spied the streets below
I had my baby’s camera
to shoot the passing scene
out into the lobby
escorted by the duke
then crashed my little dream
elbow to the window
ignoring all the din
I zoom on things below
to see what tales they tell
a traffic jam with police
directing all the flow
I couldn’t time the shot right
being jostled at the glass
finally I got it
the next moment I awoke
two cops, a jumping high-five
now that’s a dream with class
In spite of childhood swim lessons in frigid water at the crack of dawn (or perhaps because of them), I have always been a waterbaby. In the past six months I’ve made rapid progress in scuba diving, beyond PADI certified rescue diver into specialties like wreck penetration diving. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the geology and location of blue holes, occuring in equatorial karst regions throughout the Caribbean and across the globe, ranging from the cenotes of Mexico to the springs of Florida to the blue holes of the Bahamas, Belize, and the Red Sea. In exploring online what I hope to someday explore in person, I ran across this video and was entranced. If you can’t see yourself doing this, then imagine you were along with Lorenia today, as she swam in the azure waters off the Yucatan with massive sea turtles and giant whale sharks, exploring undersea caves and catching rides from 12-foot wide manta rays.
My coworker Chris was tucking his five-year-old son Miles into bed last night.
“Dad, I don’t want Mom to die.”
“Well, Miles, we all die.”
“Dad, can you build a time machine so we don’t have to?”
“Anything is possible, son, but I don’t think I’m smart enough to do that. Why don’t you get to work on it?”
Miles paused, and Chris could see the cogs turning in his son’s head.
“Okay, Dad, but I don’t think I can build it out of my legos.”
Arthur C. Clarke, one of my most exalted heroes, has passed to the next world. There is no way I could ever pay proper respect to his spirit or legacy, so I’ll let him speak for himself.
Rest in peace, Mr. Clarke, immersed in everlasting joy and assured in your new, infinite knowledge that all your wishes are true, and will come true for us.
You like coincidences? Check out my most recent flickr photo, which I posted before leaving for Mexico and have left up for nearly a week. I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 2010: Odyssey Two, but until today I did not know that the second sequel was entitled 2061: Odyssey Three. Third book’s the chardm, as they say.
P.S. This is my third visit to Mexico.