Ad astra per aspera

Ten years ago today, my friend Doug interrupted a lazy Saturday morning to call with an urgent question: Do you have the TV on?

STS-107 memorialThat’s when I learned that the space shuttle Columbia should have landed in Florida but never would. I spent the rest of the day obsessively watching the news and thinking “I hate to see the good guys lose one.”

(I’m embarrassed that I’d forgotten about Columbia’s scheduled return before that call, but more so that I didn’t head into the newsroom to help in some way that Saturday.)

When Challenger disintegrated, I was all of 15 years old, and it shook me to see the people I had thought capable of engineering miracles stumble so badly. But it was comforting to think that NASA–that we–had learned and would never again think that “this worked every other time” outweighs “here’s why it might not.”

We didn’t learn enough, because we should have seen the tragedy of STS-107 coming. Only two launches after Challenger, Atlantis came home with hundreds of tiles scarred by insulation flying off after liftoff. Fourteen years later, that risk caught up with Columbia.

Columbia was the shuttle my 10-year-old self, entranced and exhilarated, woke up early to watch launch in 1981, and the one I looked forward to seeing in the Air and Space Museum someday. Instead, the shuttle and astronauts Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon were gone.

When I made my long-awaited pilgrimage to the Kennedy Space Center two years ago, I was struck by the enormous STS-107 insignia hanging inside the Vehicle Assembly Building–a silent reminder to stay skeptical in the face of apparent success.

We honor the crew of Columbia as well as Challenger’s Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith–and before them, Apollo 1’s Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White, Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and Soyuz 11’s Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov–if we remember that lesson as we continue their worthy endeavor.

T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

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A sort of homecoming for Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery completed her last journey a week ago. An airport tug towed the shuttle, with tiles and insulating fabic looking toasted or outright torched from 39 re-entries, into a display hall at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

It was not an altogether joyous occasion. The proper home for a spacecraft is space, not a museum. Discovery might have kept flying for years longer–had the Bush administration not acted on the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to retire the shuttle, after which the Obama administration reaffirmed that decision while adding two last flights to the schedule.

During the handover ceremony itself, former senator and two-time astronaut John Glenn said the shuttle was “prematurely grounded.”

But there are reasons why we only have three space-flown shuttles to retire to museums after building five. Challenger’s remains sleep in a missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; Columbia’s occupy part of the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Neither spot is open for tourist visits, although anybody designing a manned spacecraft should find a way to pay their respects there.

What makes me mad, not just sad, is seeing people use this occasion to break out a “The End” stamp for the space program.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, pronounced Discovery’s final trip “a funeral march”–apparently unaware that the shuttle’s would-be successor, the behind-schedule and over-budget Constellation program, had been fired for cause. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a “Hard Landing” episode that suggested the battered Space Coast economy will never recover. (For all of of that episode’s neglected angles, I hated seeing that the bar I stopped in for lunch after STS-134’s launch had closed.) Editorial cartoons have proclaimed that manned space flight has reached the end of its road and now amounts to a museum piece.

But like many people of a certain age, I know the difference between today and the last extended interregnum in American spaceflight. One of my first memories of television was watching a rocket launch that must have been the U.S. half of 1975’s sole Apollo-Soyuz Test Program mission. I had to wait almost six years to see another liftoff live on TV. No American got close to orbit until the Sunday morning in 1981 when I woke up early and excitedly to watch Columbia take us back.

We are not witnessing a re-run of that era. If you want to see an American spacecraft, you don’t need to go to a museum. Step outside on a clear night, when the timing lines up, and you can’t miss a light brighter than any star gliding in front of all of them–the International Space Station, occupied nonstop by U.S. astronauts since November of 2000.

Back on the ground, NASA is designing the biggest rocket the U.S. has flown since the ’70s–although the Space Launch System’s projected expense and limited utility alarms me.

But unlike the ’70s, we don’t have to hope that the government does everything right. In Florida and Virginia, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are getting ready to run cargo to the ISS in privately-developed spacecraft. SpaceX and three other firms are also competing to bring up crew next and free us from having to pay Russia for transportation to the station. (Note to Congress: Reducing the funding for this project is one of the most foolish and shortsighted things you’ve done lately.) In a year or two, the rich should be taking their own suborbital flights, no NASA contract needed. (Note to Virgin Galactic PR: call me.) And in Seattle, some well-heeled tech entrepreneurs think they can make a business out of mining asteroids.

The dream is alive.

Damnit, I hope I’m right about that.

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Post-Labor Day reflections

The calendar says summer runs through Sept. 23, but in the working world it ends on the Tuesday after Labor Day, when kids go back to school and most adults either return to their work or return their full attention to their work.

Things have been a little different for me this year. I started this summer by exiting the working world, and I have not quite rushed to return to it. I needed time off, more than I realized in April.

It took a good month after my departure from the Post for me to realize the absence of the accumulated stress I’d been working under. It wasn’t just the volume of work, it wasn’t just the pressure to write up tech rumors of dubious long-term relevance, it wasn’t just the increasing anxiety of hearing each new crack in the ice under my position–it was the combination of all that.

Having that weight lifted from my back was a blessing. So was the chance to catch up on many of the things I’d been missing. Among them: growing enough lettuce and cucumbers to be able to stop buying either for two months (please don’t ask about the tomatoes and green beans); trying a round of new recipes to use up those crops; brewing beer at home; turning a few unproductive patches of lawn into beds of perennials more compatible with my erratic groundskeeping; witnessing the space shuttle launch in May and again in July; swimming in the Atlantic and the Pacific; exploring my expanded freedom to speak more directly on Twitter; arriving somewhat on time for weeknight events instead of showing up 90 minutes late.

Best of all, I’ve watched my daughter taking her first steps.

(I should also note things I’ve left undone: reading Ulysses, or even finishing the books I got two Christmases ago; resuming my fitful attempts to learn Spanish; getting rid of most of the junk in the basement.)

But now it’s back-to-work time for me as well. Blogging twice a week for Discovery News has left room in my schedule, but I’m about to start a second weekly gig and am looking at one or two other possible regular arrangements. I’ve also been picking up one-time assignments–within the next few weeks, I owe various third parties two magazine articles and at least one blog post. Under these circumstances, I don’t mind being busy again.

Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

As a student of the English language, I appreciate the challenge of trying to describe something that readers haven’t experienced. It’s an honor to have your words serve as your audience’s senses, and you don’t want to let them down.

Over the last week, I’ve been observing many writers tackle a particularly difficult task of description: conveying what it’s like to hear the space shuttle lift off.

Having been privileged to witness that twice, I can assure you that no recording does it justice. (I saw Endeavour lift off in May as an attendee of the Tweetup NASA organized for that STS-134 mission, then returned this month with a press pass to write about the STS-135 Tweetup experience at Atlantis’s final launch for Discovery News and, in an article I need to finish writing, for ReadWriteWeb.)

The microphones on a lot of consumer-level gadgets are woefully inadequate to capture the finer points of nearly 7 million pounds of thrust erupting from only three miles away. But even the best audio gear available can’t recreate the feel of the shock waves blasted through the air by that energy, rushing up at spectators and thumping them in the chest. You’d have to set off explosives; pending the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater acquiring an ordnance budget and a long series of regulatory waivers, words will have to do.

Which words, though? Although the immediate reaction of many Tweetup attendees was that none would suffice, they found their own in the days after the launch.

Sarah Boots:

It feels like soundwaves hitting you, more than it feels like hearing something. It was completely mad.

Travis Senor:

THE SOUND! It came at us like a wave, which you could almost see coming, and hit with enough force to act on us as though we were trees bowing in the wind.

Jason Snell (you may also know him as Macworld’s editorial director):

a loud crackling sound as the air was shattered by the forces of the shuttle’s three main engines and its two solid rocket boosters.

A friend on Facebook tried this:

an intense crackling, like someone shaking a metal sheet.

Jason Major:

a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear.

Among the assembled press, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin may have had the most creative description:

The first analogy I could think of was a washing machine full of rocks mixed over the sound of tearing giant sheets of canvas.

And me? Here’s how I described it in May:

a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts

But when I wrote an e-mail to my wife the day after the liftoff of Atlantis, I reached for a metaphor:

like fireworks erupting closer and closer and faster and faster until they’re pounding you in the chest.

I’m sad that nobody else will be able to experience this. But how we reached that point is a subject for another post.

Until then: If you’ve had the tremendous fortune to witness a launch from up close, how would you describe that sound?

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NASA Tweetup tips

If your inbox has an e-mail from a nasa.gov address with the subject line “STS-135 Tweetup CONFIRMATION”–congratulations! You won one of 150 invitations to see the last space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site, about 3 miles from pad 39A.

Tweetup badges

You’re in for an amazing experience, as I found when I attended NASA’s Tweetup for the final launch of Endeavour in May. But it can also be intimidating to prepare for. Here are some tips I picked up that may help you get ready for your Tweetup.

(If you didn’t get that e-mail, don’t lose heart. People do get called up off the waitlist.)

Travel: As you may have read here before, the shuttle is not the most reliable vehicle ever, making the odds of an on-time launch for Atlantis on July 8 rather poor. Paying change fees or buying a refundable fare gets expensive quickly. Instead, fly Southwest or check fares between your city and Orlando a week from now; if they’re not much cheaper than tickets a month out, wait to book until NASA sets the official launch date at the Flight Readiness Review June 28.

Check alternate airports too. Melbourne is closer than Orlando; Tampa may be on the other coast of Florida, but the generous speed limits allow you to clock that distance in about two hours if you don’t hit traffic.

Hotels can be trickier. At the STS-134 Tweetup, many of us wound up staying together in rented houses or apartments for the first launch attempt–yes, despite the fact that most of had not met each other face to face until then. On the second attempt, with fewer people around, hotels weren’t a problem.

I usually Priceline rental cars but did not in this case: I wanted to be able to return them early or extend the rental if necessary.

Tweetup, day one: This is when NASA gives you a tour around the Kennedy Space Center–the highlight being the chance to walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building and gawk at a roof more than 500 feet overhead. As it gets damn hot in Florida, bring water and wear sunscreen. We were told to bring food as well, but that proved unnecessary when they invited us to hit the employee cafeteria. (The food is nothing special, but how many other cafeterias are across the street from a building tall enough to stack a Saturn V?)

The Tweetup will also feature talks and demonstrations by various NASA types. My favorites were astronauts recounting their experiences going up, staying there and coming back. The day should conclude with a ride out to the pad to see the Rotating Service Structure (the large structure on the pad that covers the shuttle until a day before launch) roll back to reveal Atlantis. But it may not: weather prevented our viewing RSS retraction on the first try, and I couldn’t get back to KSC in time to see it on the second launch attempt.

Tweetup, day two: This involves long stretches of waiting, punctuated by stabs of adrenaline when the countdown comes out of a hold, you look at the shuttle on the pad or you hear somebody speak the words “shuttle,” “liftoff” or “launch.” Aside from further talks by NASA folks, the only major event we had on the schedule before the launch was the chance to wave to the astronauts on their ride to the pad in NASA’s “Astrovan”–which, on the first try, came to an untimely halt when a wiring problem emerged and the Astrovan made a U-turn away from the pad.

It will be tempting to freak out over the weather. But although NASA’s Launch Commit Criteria look absurdly strict, they only apply to conditions at launch, not four hours before.

The press site–basically, an open lawn–affords a ridiculous amount of space to roam around. The closest possible view will put you on the other side of the countdown clock, but that was the only place I could park my tripod for an unobstructed view.

Many people don’t recommend trying to photograph a shuttle launch at all–you don’t want to watch it through a viewfinder. To avoid that issue, lock the camera on a tripod, oriented vertically, so it has the shuttle no higher than the lower third of the frame. (Don’t worry too much about getting the enormous zoom lenses you’ll see recommended for more distant spots; I took my photos with maybe a 20x zoom, using automatic focus and exposure.) When you get to a few seconds before liftoff, mash the shutter button repeatedly; 5 seconds after liftoff, zoom all the way out and keep pressing the shutter.

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to live-tweet the launch. But after the shuttle has departed from view, jot down your impressions while they’re still fresh.

Don’t plan on going anywhere for at least two hours after launch–it will take a while for the roads to clear.

With STS-135 currently set to launch in the late morning, I suggest getting a pre-launch breakfast at Baker’s Bagels, on State Route 3 a few miles south of the south entrance to KSC. When I stopped there in April, I was amused to a) see a kegerator with a “free beer” sign taped to its side and b) have missed Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley checking in there 20 minutes earlier. For a late lunch or dinner, Shuttle’s Dugout Sports Bar & Grill, a bit farther south on 3, could be any other sports bar–except for the shuttle and Saturn V models out front, the NASA photos inside and the KSC employees who show up.

What if it scrubs? Don’t panic, and don’t make plans based on initial estimates of the new launch time–especially if it’s a mechanical issue at fault. Use your extra free time to tour the KSC visitors’ center (we got free admission), and make time in particular for the hokey but enjoyable Shuttle Launch Experience ride. There are also non-space attractions nearby, such as beaches or the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And take time to hang out with your fellow Tweetup attendees–having a beer with them while discussing when the launch might happen is all part of this weird bonding experience.

NASA Tweetup: T-0 arrives

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–I’d said I’d be back, and here I was after a day and night of travel that had included three airports, two flights, one border crossing and 120 miles of Florida highways.

But those nine hours aren’t important. What happened next is.

Launch day had begun with my waking up after maybe 45 minutes of fitful, futile sleep, then showering, getting dressed and heading over to the Kennedy Space Center.

Even at the dead hour of 3:30 in the morning, KSC showed no signs of slumber, with the pad and Endeavour bathed in floodlights, countdown announcements echoing off the pavement and the Vehicle Assembly Building and helicopters flying overhead.

Unlike the first attempt at launch, there was no comfortable tent for myself and the other attendees of the Tweetup NASA organized for the launch. Instead, we shivered on a set of increasingly damp metal bleachers with occasional breaks to share snacks and position tripods.

A few minutes after 5, our vigil was punctuated by the arrival of the “Astrovan” carrying the crew to the pad. This time, there was no U-turn signaling a scrub (gratifying the Tweetup attendees who brought handmade signs advising against going anywhere but the pad). After a retreat to a nearby press auditorium for a presentation about a planned test of an automated docking system–a somewhat difficult thing to focus on with the monitors next to the podium showing Endeavour’s crew getting strapped into the cabin–the sky lightened.

Layers of clouds moved in and out over the next two hours, giving the anxious among us–meaning all of us–reasons to worry about yet another scrub. But the decision from NASA at each time was the same: Go.

The last scheduled hold ended with nine minutes left, the countdown clock resumed ticking, and my heart promptly leapt higher in my throat than I would have thought possible. I walked over to my tripod and verified for the 20th time that I had the shuttle in frame and in focus.

That spot, on the nearest edge of the KSC press site to Pad 39A–only about three miles away–provided the closest view. But it also offered the least context. I could no longer see the countdown clock (though the photographer to my right had a countdown app on his phone) or hear the announcements.

With less than two minutes left, I observed through binoculars that NASA had retracted the “beanie cap” vent hood that covers the top of the external tank. But it wasn’t until the last 20 seconds were ticking away that everyone nearby began counting down aloud, and it all became even more gut-churningly real.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… somebody yelled “main engine start!”, and we knew the shuttle’s three engines had lit from the cloud of steam that erupted at the pad… five… four… three… two… one… an intense white light, bright as the hazy sun, shot through from the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and Endeavour sprang off the pad.

For the first few seconds, the soundtrack was all human: cheers, whoops, applause. I did my part by shouting my fool head off–“Go, Endeavour!”–as I mashed the camera’s shutter button.

Then the noise of Endeavour’s launch assaulted us–a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts–while that white-hot glow from her boosters shot her upward, faster and faster.

On television, where the camera pans to follow the shuttle, this machine may appear to be soaring. From the ground, it looked more like it was getting thrown straight into the sky. There is a primal, visceral immediacy to its escape from gravity: The shuttle wants to fly, now.

It took no more than 20 seconds for Endeavour to punch a hole through a thin layer of clouds, leaving only the continuing racket of her ascent and a pillar of orange-tinged smoke. And an enormous grin welded to my face.

(Edits, 6/3: Gave this a slight rewrite and added a gallery of my photos after the jump. 6/27: Looked up some of my original tweets and embedded them in the post for a bit of a Storify treatment.)

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