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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NASA Tweetup holdup

CAPE CANAVERAL–I’m back to where I was a month or so ago: I have an invitation to see a space shuttle launch but don’t know when that will happen and, therefore, if it won’t intersect in some infuriating manner with anything else on my calendar.

As you may have read by now, Endeavour will not launch on Monday after all. The Auxiliary Power Unit heater issue that forced a scrub of Friday’s launch less than four hours before liftoff was not the fault of a single malfunctioning thermostat, as we’d all hoped, but lies somewhere in a complicated junction box that has to be removed and replaced.

(It’s remarkable how Endeavour is starting to resemble our 90-year-old house in its maintenance issues. I can only hope the shuttle’s gutters don’t need to be cleaned as often as ours.)

That work, plus a wait to allow the Air Force to launch a satellite next weekend, would push the next launch date to no earlier than May 8. But NASA isn’t ready to project a new date until a meeting set for Monday. You can find more specific reports, in some cases from NASA employees, on Twitter and on various discussion sites (in this sort of obsessive readership, space enthusiasts act very much like tech enthusiasts), but ultimately I can only wait for the official word.

And I can only hope the new timing works out. Unfortunately, my schedule isn’t infinitely flexible; I’ve got a separate trip upcoming at the end of next week.

Best-case scenario, I get even more acquainted with National Airport as I fly in and out of it multiple times in the week (or the launch gets delayed until after my own travel). Worst-case scenario, I will be as mad as I was when a vicious case of the flu kept me sick at home on the day then-President-elect Obama toured the Post newsroom. (I would have told him something like, “The next time your daughters are asking for a new iPod, please check out my column, sir,” but that might have come out closer to “Hi, I’m an iPod, please ask your daughters for my column.”)

I’m not going to lie to you; this delay is upsetting and disappointing. But I’m not out of this thing yet. Please, wish me a little more luck.

In the meantime, I’ve got a day and a half to be a regular tourist at KSC and maybe check out some of the no-tech sights here. And then it’s back to D.C., back to my occupational networking, back to my kitchen and garden and–most important–back to my family.

The weight of the wait

CAPE CANAVERAL–If all goes well, we’ll launch on Monday. If all does not, we might not. I don’t know more than that. And trying to research the issue further won’t provide any more information, since NASA only opened the shuttle’s engine compartment earlier this afternoon.

So instead of letting the weight of the wait build, I’m going to do something I can’t do at home: Close the laptop, leave the phone charging, and walk one block to the beach with a book, a towel and a countdown to a nap.

But even there, the scenery on the horizon may bring to mind the possibility that has us  waiting in joyful hope. [Edit: Or writhing in agony.]

NASA Tweetup, day two: The scrub

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–Today’s KSC experience here started with a jolt of adrenaline as I saw the countdown clock ticking, then ended with a sigh and a shrug as the launch was scrubbed.

The Astrovan heads back.

It happens. In this case, the fault was with malfunctioning heaters for one of Endeavour’s three Auxiliary Power Units–small turbines at the tail of the orbiter that power its hydraulics. NASA thinks it’s a wiring fault, but that’s a crowded part of the shuttle. (If you’ve ever had to pay $1,000 or so to have a compact car’s timing  belt changed, you may be familiar with the basic issue here.) So we’re looking at a minimum of a 72-hour delay, to Monday at 2:33 p.m.

We found out about this in a surprisingly direct manner. We had all gathered by the road leading to Pad 39A (speed limit 35 MPH) to cheer on the “Astrovan” taking Endeavour’s crew there when the van, trailed by a small motorcade, pulled over to the short street leading to the Launch Control Center, stopped for a few minutes as we wondered about the reasons for the detour, and then reversed course.

Moments later, somebody was reading word of the scrub–initially forecast at 48 hours–from a message on their BlackBerry. NASA social-media manager Stephanie Schierholz (who has been absurdly productive and cheerful all week) confirmed the delay, which was then pushed back further. It may change again after NASA’s 4 p.m. press conference on the scrub.

Flags fluttering in a strong breeze early Friday morning

I’d worried about that. Not to be rude, but the shuttle has a lousy record for on-time departures. And on this day in particular, the weather looked questionable too. Although the skies have cleared up, the wind remains strong here, and the forecast had been questionable at the shuttle’s three transatlantic-abort landing sites.

Fortunately, my flight home wasn’t scheduled until Monday afternoon, and I can always reschedule that yet again. (Have I mentioned that my schedule is pretty flexible these days?) Many of the other Tweetup attendees are staying too–although I feel terrible for the ones who can’t. So we’ll work our problem while NASA works theirs.

What else are you going to do? Get mad? If launching six people into orbit on a reusable spacecraft were easy, another country would have done it by now. And if watching a shuttle launch were easy, I would have crossed that off the bucket list already. You have to be able to deal with the possibility of a delay. As somebody once observed of a somewhat-related set of circumstances: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”