Category Archives: Space

The final frontier.

Shared History

Challenger Memorial at Arlington
Challenger Memorial at Arlington

Twenty-nine years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed in a horrific explosion just a minute into their mission.  And I have almost no knowledge or memory of what happened after that.

You see, that was the day I joined the US Air Force.

I was in Knoxville TN, at the MEPS station, awaiting time to ship out to San Antonio TX and six weeks of basic military training.  I watched the launch, and stepped away to the restroom, returning to the news that Challenger had been destroyed.

A few hours later, I was on a plane to Lackland AFB, and for six weeks, I heard no news about Challenger.

During my basic training, there was flow of news, and that was by design.  We were supposed to focus on becoming members of America’s fighting machine.  And we did.

In those weeks of isolation, rumors ran rampant among those of us learning to march, shoot and obey orders.  The story we heard the most:  The Russians.  They destroyed Challenger.

I can remember one afternoon when we were in the dorms, and heard the base air raid sirens go off.  We began putting mattresses in the windows (as we were instructed to do), until the all clear was sounded.  With the heightened rumors about the potential Russian influence, we definitely took the sirens seriously.

Every now and then, we’d find an instructor who would tell us some news of the investigation, which helped squelch the rumors for a while, before they spun up again.  It seemed the lack of information was a breeding ground for misinformation.

And now, almost three decades later, I still hear things about the mission and investigation that I’ve never heard before.  It’s as though I was in a coma during much of the first quarter of 1986, and occasionally, it’s all new to me.

Today, I won’t get on my soapbox about our country’s seeming lack of dedication to space exploration, and the benefits we’ve garnered from that.  I won’t pontificate on my view that we may need a way to escape this planet someday, and might find ourselves with no way out due to shortsightedness.

It’s all about the Challenger astronauts today, and the memory of those souls taken home far too early.

Orion Shall Rise

Anyone who has known me through a long view, knows of my passion around the space program, and the profound disappointment that the future in space that I was promised as a child hasn’t bourn the fruit expected.

Today, we humans took just a baby step farther along the path.  And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring tears to my eyes.

This is huge stuff.  Big huge stuff.  Orion was better than 3500 miles up, making it the first space vehicle designed for human flight to go to high in forty years!

It’s a very arguable point, but I still contend that the best thing mankind undertook in the last century was when JFK put us in the position “of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in the 1960’s.  In my mind, he got it right, and saw the big picture.

Just thinking about the industry, technology and other advances made from the discoveries and research from that era alone, it’s hard for me to look upon the Apollo program as a waste of effort or treasure.  Jobs and industries were created.  People created things and set in motion concepts and ideas that are still bearing fruit in our daily lives.

My contention has been that, despite the success of the Space Shuttle program, we have essentially sat on our laurels, though, and wasted the momentum brought on by Apollo.  We should’ve been figuring out a way to step off this frail little blue marble, and becoming the explorers that we once were as a people.  That next step beyond the Moon, or even the International Space Station, is big, and is probably more than any single country on the planet can undertake alone.  And there’s the rub.  We can’t all stop yelling and throwing stuff long enough to band together as a people — all people — and take a single step together, much less the many that it would take to continue exploring above low-Earth orbit.

I know my view of this is Pollyannic — I get that.  But the twists and turns of the last few decades have left us creating a really big “have and have not” consumerist society (and I’m guilty, too … just ask Becky), and in my view, we’ve lost sight of our roots as explorers and creators.  We’ve continued to be highly polarized — both on the international and internal playing fields — and it’s paralyzed any movement forward on exploring space, and all the wonders that it could bring to mankind.  It’s made all of us protective of our stuff and ideas, suspicious of others, and unwilling to share, regardless of the consequences.

Yes, things continue to be invented, some of which are unnecessary or are unnecessarily expensive, but aren’t things of profound impact.  In the industrialized world, we haven’t been able to get ourselves away from fossil fuels in any kind of appreciable fashion, and continue to soil our fragile little nest every day.  The poor still don’t get the health care and food they need, even in relatively wealthy nations.  And who knows if a child that dies from some simple malady in a third world country could’ve been the next Einstein, Salk, Sagan, Ghandi, King…

So, yes, I’m thrilled about Orion, and the fact that a foundational block has been laid to further the cause of manned exoplanetary voyages.  It’s a step.  There are so very many more that need to be taken, and an awful lot of them have very, very little to directly do with the exploration of space.

The Most Overused Phrase Today…

It’s gotta be “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

Yeah, yeah, the Mayans may or may not have predicted the end of the world, the shifting of the poles, some cosmic alignment, or just plain demonstrated that they were a little shortsighted in their calendaring acumen. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, but that’s with no research on my end. 🙂

Myself, I’m betting on… nothing happening. I’m planning to get up in the morning, survive past 5:12am, and go on into work, with a plan toward winding down early in the afternoon for a little Christmas break. I might even take some fritters into work.

I ain’t ‘fraid of no Mayans!

Where Were You?

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster in 1986. For folks of my generation, this was likely the biggest “where were you” events — although I’d contend, from a personal perspective, that the assassination of John Lennon in December 1980 was also a “where were you” event for me.

For me, I was sitting in the MEPS station in Knoxville TN, awaiting transportation to Lackland AFB TX for the beginning of my military term in the US Air Force. I saw the shuttle launch, and seeing it off the platform, I walked away to use the restroom. When I got back, someone said that the shuttle had exploded, and of course, I thought they were kidding. They weren’t.

The Challenger disaster is a surreal event for me. I saw the event itself on TV, but in just a matter of hours, I was dropped into a news blackout. You see, in basic training, we didn’t have access to television news or the newspapers, and were blind to what happened next. There were rumors running around in the dorms that the shuttle was destroyed by the USSR. This view was so strong that one afternoon, when the air attack sirens were accidentally sounded, we started to secure the dorm against a blast. It was that serious.

When we’d get the chance, we’d ask our class instructors about the shuttle, and what was taking place, but it was news through a filter, and of course, part of being in basic training is focusing on the training, and not much else. Until I graduated from Lackland in March, I’d heard very little about the investigation, and was really in the dark about much of the aftermath.

Even to this day, when documentaries about the crew and mission are shown, I learn new things that I’d missed due to being “sequestered” for the six weeks following the disaster. For a kid raised on Apollo and Skylab, being in the dark during this event was definitely troubling, and a part of the “where were you” for me.

Roadtrip: Falling Star Trek (FST)

After several months of planning, we have decided on our summer vacation destination and route. We are going to go watch the Perseid meteor shower under very, very dark skies. And in keeping with our recent roadtrips, we’ve named this one: Falling Star Trek. After all, we’re trekking out to see falling stars. 🙂

Having the dogs’ lodging arranged, the grass mowing scheduled, and the neighbors lined up to take care of the house, we will set out this weekend. Right now, our plan is to take three days to get to Moab, Utah, where we’ll spend five nights playing in the desert. From there, it’s two nights in Bluff, Utah, again to play in the desert.

And then it’s showtime.

From Bluff, we head to Monument Valley for three nights of astronomy and viewing of the Perseid meteor shower in some of the darkest skies you can find in the US. Don’t take my word for it, check out the Dark Sky Finder for the area! I can just remember seeing really dark skies from my grandparents place in Bokeelia, and I can’t wait to see those skies again.

Watch this space for more as we trek across the southern US in search of flaming rocks in the sky!

The Last Great Thing

Comments around the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing abound today. As well they should. For one shining moment, mankind stood on the edge of discovery unlike anything seen in so many years. And now, forty years later, only incremental gains have been made on the brave first step President Kennedy challenged this country with in the 1960s. To me, never since have we been united in such a vision, nor poised for such a giant leap of faith as Apollo 11 and subsequent lunar missions set the stage for.

Being born just about six weeks after JFK’s assassination, I grew up around the notion of man in space. My father worked at Cape Canaveral. I can remember seeing the splashdown of the returning astronauts, and listening to the only voice there was — Walter Cronkite — describing what we were all seeing take place in front of us. It was magic… or at least seemed like it.

In school, I was taken with space travel, same as many other kids starting school in the early 1970s. We were too young to understand the horrors of the war raging on the other side of the planet, too young to see and remember Star Trek on TV during its original run, but exactly the right age to be swept up in all the wonderful images from NASA and the books in the school library promising colonies in space. I think I checked out almost every book on astronomy and space travel in our school libraries at Harrison Elementary and Brown Middle Schools, and vividly saw the artists’ concepts of where we’d be by the time I was “all grown up.”

And being the age I am, I also got to watch the first shuttle flight — that of Enterprise, and how proud I was that the first shuttle was named that! — when I was working in the library at the middle school. Through a friend of my parents, I met an astronaut — Paul Weitz, a Skylab veteran, and later member of a shuttle crew — spending a whole day with him as he toured my hometown, preaching the virtues of the then fledgling shuttle program. I watched the early shuttle missions, and really, to me, that’s when things began to change. The shuttle launches became regular, and seemingly easy, and for years, they were lost on me as I reached into my early twenties, and began to consider what I’d do with my adult life.

I was sitting at the MEPS station in Knoxville TN on that day in January when Challenger exploded, and for six grueling weeks, I endured US Air Force basic training, hungry for any scrap of information that would tell me what had happened in this tremendous disaster. And for a while, it looked like we’d recede, pulling away from space, like a child burned by a hot stove. Suddenly, space was hard, and we all got that explained to us in the sacrifice of brave souls on a winter’s day.

The seeming ease and the sudden loss in the shuttle program have, to me, sabotaged the future I expected to see through the eyes of the child I was. Sure, the space station has enabled there to be few days in the last many years when there hasn’t been mankind in space, orbiting far above us. It still excites me to go out occasionally to see the ISS cross the sky, lit by the sun in our darkened sky, but it’s not as far as we should’ve been by now.

Kennedy challenged us — yes, as a country, but also as a species — to reach the moon inside ten years. And we did it. Even to this day, the impact of that challenge is felt around us in the technological advances that make our lives easier. And now, forty years after the dream was realized, we all engage in a certain kind of pride — as a people, not as a race or country — that we were there. To my view, it was the Last Great Thing — the last big scary thing we did as a people.

It’s an odd wistfulness that I hear folks look back on it though, somewhat akin to remembering “the good ol’ days.” Unless we were sitting somewhere in space, the Apollo missions shouldn’t be viewed as something quaint and somehow old, but instead as something of pride and wonder and inspiration, and as the first step to the mankind’s future.

Here’s where the skeptic in me comes out. Until we — again as a people, a planet — can begin to speak with enough of a common frame of reference, it’s just gonna be impossible to go much farther than the moon. A single country simply can’t bankroll that kind of exploration, even if it is set about with a single-mindedness akin to our response to Kennedy’s challenge. A visionary needs to step forward, a cause needs to be found before those next steps can take place.

Think about it. We had both in Apollo: Kennedy was the visionary, and the cause was to prove our might as a country, standing up to the Soviets. While I don’t think sabre rattling exhibitions of might are the best reasons to go forth on our next steps, I do believe that a common cause is needed before folks will truly line up behind such an effort. It just seems that there are so many obstacles nowadays.

Even within our own country, we can’t speak with a common voice. We are fractured, divided, divisive, simultaneously equally materially opulent and morally bankrupt at times, and that’s likely just within any given neighborhood. Multiply by a whole big bunch, and the scope of the problem becomes clear. Our culture has become too focused on what gains can be had in the short term, angling to take the credit or calling out where the blame must lie, rather than focusing on the long view and how we can all get there.

I heard it said well the other night in a Cronkite tribute. If you’re younger than your mid-40s, you probably have no recollection of the Apollo missions, no sense for the excitement, wonder and awe at what was achieved, and how much it meant. Folks born in the early years of the shuttle program are now in their early thirties, and my daughter, soon to be making her own way in the world, likely can’t see what all the fuss was about — after all, from the view of her years, we’ve always been in space, haven’t we? Those are the folks that need to get the fever to reach beyond our fragile planet. It won’t be my generation, and it may not be hers, but the foundation’s gotta be built upon, not for us, or our children, but for our children’s children and beyond. That’s why it’s important, that’s the cause.

This little rant started out as just some thoughts on space, the future that has yet to come, and my clumsy view of some of how we got to where we are. It’s a bit of a buggy ride, I know, fraught with crazy wild-eyed ravings. But tonight, in reflection of Apollo, I’m reminded of the future I was promised as a child, and crazy present that in so few ways lives up to those visions.


There’s an scenario out there called The Slashdot Effect. This is driven by the mention of some website in a story on Slashdot, and is the effect of the subsequent flood of traffic to the site mentioned in the story. Frequently, this crashes websites, and is more than a little irritating to the website owner and the network provider supplying its pipe.

Now, magnify that by a gazillion. That’s what NBC did tonight.

On the Nightly News, NBC reported on the floating tool bag accidentally lost during the shuttle mission, and mentioned that a website that shows the tracking of the bag was linked off their site. Like any good monkey, I swung from webvine to webvine. Apparently, I wasn’t alone, and found that the tracking site was cratered. No response. Not a whisper. (BTW, it appears — from the domain name — that this is an individual ham radio operator’s site.)

I can’t imagine the number of folks trying to hit that site, all at once, and probably at a substantially higher rate for days or weeks. I sure hope the webmaster has a lot of time on his hands. I suspect there will be quite a bit of webdust to sweep up after this little event!

All That’s Left Is “B”

When I was growing up, I was an avid science fiction reader, and voraciously chewed up just about anything I could get my hands on. And as part of that, we all knew about the ABC’s of science fiction: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. This morning, I caught the news that Arthur C. Clarke had died, leaving only Bradbury from the ABC’s.

I always enjoyed Clarke’s work, and have been reading his work since I was a kid. In my opinion, he had a better grasp of the science end of science fiction than almost any of his contemporaries. His writing went beyond just the science though; for me, he could spin quite a yarn. Just read the first part of Chapter Seven of The Songs of Distant Earth. If that description of the end of our solar system doesn’t touch you, I don’t know what will.

Happy trails, Arthur C. Clarke. Enjoy what’s next.