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.

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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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Nerd spring break: NASA Tweetup

I have had this afternoon’s flight on my calendar for 30 years, in one form or another: I’m going to Florida to see a space shuttle launch.

I woke up absurdly early on an April morning in 1981 to watch the TV broadcast of Columbia’s liftoff. Witnessing that in person wasn’t something that a 10-year-old boy would necessarily imagine doing next, but it wasn’t too many years later that one of my best friends in grade school got to see a launch. The idea got set aside during my years of collegiate poverty, but then as other friends made the same trip and returned with photos and stories (I remember one housemate describing the launch as the loudest thing he had ever heard), it kept creeping up my to-do list. 

As the end of the shuttle program became obvious, this to-do became a must-do. But how? A few years of sketching out and then scrubbing plans made me realize that seeing a liftoff isn’t an easy thing. The schedules change, then change again–good luck selling your boss on repeated shifts in your vacation time. Just getting a good viewing spot can be tricky enough to require a 4,000-word explainer.

Fortunately, NASA provided an elegant solution to my problem: Two years ago, it began hosting Tweetups–meetups for people following its Twitter accounts. For the space agency, which has been craftier than most government organizations in telling its story through social media, they’re smart PR. For attendees, they represent a chance to gawk at some nifty, expensive hardware up close and talk to the people who make it work.

(Having attended the Tweetup NASA held at the Goddard Space Flight Center in March, I can attest that this kind of event also serves as a singularly effective nerd trap.)

A launch Tweetup brings something extra: a viewing spot about 3 miles from the pad, on the lawn by the countdown clock you’ve seen on TV. That’s about twice as close as the public can get. So when I met NASA’s social-media manager at CES, mentioned my interest and was encouraged to go to the next launch–hell yes, I needed no further invitation.

Barring a last-minute scrub, Endeavour is scheduled to lift off at 3:47 Friday afternoon. (I’m staying through Monday and could extend the trip further if necessary; as you may have heard, my calendar is a lot more open these days.) Between now and then, NASA has a full agenda for all 150 of us Tweetup attendees. Thursday, we’re spending the day touring KSC, from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Shuttle Landing Facility, seeing a few demos and hearing various NASA types talk about their work. There are more talks Friday morning, and then what I suspect will feel like an endless wait before Endeavour takes to space.

The 10-year-old inside of me could not be much more excited about all of that.

The social-media-observer part of me, meanwhile, is fascinated at how quickly an online community has self-organized around the Tweetup. Within weeks after the confirmation e-mails went out, my fellow Tweeps were introducing themselves and cross-posting blog items on a site set up for the occasion,  sharing e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in a Google Docs spreadsheet, renting group houses together and sending checks in the mail to complete strangers, and chatting on an increasingly busy Facebook group. It’ll be interesting to meet all these people face to face.

But not nearly as interesting as seeing Endeavour fly. Not even close!