Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.
Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.
When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.
When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.
And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.
Ten years ago today, my friend Doug interrupted a lazy Saturday morning to call with an urgent question: Do you have the TV on?
That’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.
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.
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.
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!”
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.