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Monthly archive January, 2010

New Direction for NASA

(cross posted from Life in the Milky Way)

If the rumors of Obama’s NASA budget request are true, then Obama is asking Congress for what I and several other aerospace leaders have asked for. Unfortunately, not everyone is as thrilled about the rumored budget. I am firmly convinced that the rumored budget request is the best thing for NASA, human spaceflight, and the nation as a whole. This is the best approach to achieving the objectives of the former President’s Vision for Space Exploration, which outlines the objectives to reach the one goal that really matters for spaceflight – spread humanity beyond Earth.

Here is the heart of the Vision for Space Exploration from the Goal and Objectives:

The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.

  • Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
  • Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
  • Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
  • Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.

How do Constellation and the rumored budget proposal stack up? I will take a little risk here and assume that the new direction is the Flexible Path with commercial crew and ISS 2020 option from the Augustine committee report.

Sustained and Affordable

According to the Augustine committee, for Constellation to have any chance of getting to the Moon, we need to terminate all other HSF activities and significantly increase the budget. Even then, this is no sure thing. Constellation has already gutted critical NASA research in other areas. Jeff Greason pointed out during one of the public hearings that if Santa brought us the fully developed Constellation vehicles right now, we could not afford to fly them.

Not only can we not afford Constellation now, but also what happens in say 2030? Constellation is described as Apollo on steroids, so can we expect Congressional cuts on steroids? This seems very likely. What do we do then? Like Apollo, there will be no space faring infrastructure, and the only next step will be too expensive to consider. Constellation is not sustainable or affordable.

Flexible Path combined with new R&D and commercial LEO capability should give us a leg up. Flexible Path encourages and possibly requires the building of space infrastructure. With new (ahem, restored!) R&D money NASA can investigate the use of propellant depots and other on orbit facilities to base beyond LEO capabilities. The ability to do a number of missions to many places and not just the Moon allow NASA to investigate the concerns of long term living beyond the Earth’s influence. The balance of evidence indicates that sustainable and affordable means it must be done by commercial interests expecting to make a profit. With NASA as an anchor tenant, commercial crew providers can expand their offerings to other people, including non-NASA researchers, industry or just tourists. The commercial crew option closes the business case for commercial providers to open up LEO to people beyond NASA astronauts.

Extend Human Presence, Moon by 2020

Constellation, created as the response to this objective, cannot achieve this goal. The Augustine committee determined that by doing nothing else NASA might get back to the moon in the late 2020s. More likely it would be the 2030’s or even later, if ever. Moreover, Constellation does little or nothing for actually extending our reach through the solar system. It can only go to the Moon. Constellation was nominally designed to lead to a Mars system, but it is not clear to this aerospace professional that it does any such thing.

Flexible Path on the other hand explicitly extends our presence throughout the solar system. While it does not return us to the Moon by 2020, Flexible Path gives us the option to land on the Moon and eventually Mars when we are ready to do more than just leave flags and footprints.

Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures

Constellation was according to its lead architect Mike Griffin, not going to do this at all. It was a return to Apollo era capabilities. The only knowledge development was for NASA to regain its ability to design a launch system.

This leads to a little rant – How is Ares I considered the gold standard of safety? Ares I is being designed by a group of people who have not designed and built a launch system. Ares I has no demonstrated reliability or safety. SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital are full of people who have designed, built and successfully flown orbital launch vehicles in the very recent past. ULA’s Atlas V has a better-demonstrated record than the shuttle. The cold, hard facts are that a ULA, SpaceX, or Orbital launcher is going to be safer than Ares I.

In order to do more than just leave flags and footprints on other worlds we need a space faring infrastructure. Depots and stations strategically located in various orbits around Earth, Luna, Mars and the Sun are necessary to long term exploration and eventual settlement. The Flexible Path is more likely to provide these. Commercial crew development adds the benefit that the commercial providers can get industrial concerns off the Earth and possibly into in situ resource extraction.

Promote international and commercial participation

Constellation effectively slams the door shut on international cooperation. The ISS is the basis of international cooperation in space, yet in order to do Constellation we must de-orbit the ISS in 2015, 5 years prior to the desires of international collaborators. De-orbiting ISS in 2015 will sour our partners on any new partnerships. Besides, there is little or no room for international collaboration within the Constellation architecture. Under Constellation, there is no commercial participation beyond highly directed cost-plus contracts.

Under Flexible Path with commercial crew to LEO, commercial participation is a given. With the extension of ISS to 2020 and possibly beyond, we can continue to work with our international partners, and encourage them to help out with future projects. The Flexible Path is as its name implies, flexible. International partners can help out in ways that make the most sense for both them and us.


Constellation not only fails to deliver on every single goal of the VSE, it fails to advance the state of Human Spaceflight. If the rumors of the President’s NASA budget request are true, and the President is willing to fight for it in Congress, then our spaceflight future has a reasonable chance of not only surviving, but also growing and becoming much greater than we can now imagine.

Challenger and the ties that bind

I originally wrote this for my high school class email list, during Barbara Morgan’s flight onboard STS-118 in August, 2007, finally completing the “teacher in space” mission. I thought I might share this here, too, especially this week. This is a true story. 

For my birthday in 1983, my mom got me a space shuttle tie from the Smithsonian. It immediately became a very special part of my wardrobe. I tried to remember to wear it to work for every shuttle launch and landing — my way of reminding anyone who saw it that people were putting their lives on the line for our space program. After a few missions, I began to notice a curious pattern. Days when I forgot to wear it, the shuttle would not launch. If I wore my shuttle tie, occasionally a launch got scrubbed but, more often then not, they’d get off okay. But if I didn’t wear it, they never launched. I still remember forgetting to wear it the day Discovery, on her first mission, 41D, shut down on the pad after main engine start in September, 1984, scaring the daylights out of everyone. The pattern continued for the next dozen shuttle flights after that. 

Then in early January, 1986, the space shuttle Columbia (with then Congressman Bill Nelson on board) had problems launching, with a number of scrubbed attempts. (Atlantis had had a few delays, too, the previous mission.) I began to think my tie was losing it’s magic touch. But, finally, Columbia launched and I had my tie on. Next up was Challenger, 51L, with Christa McAuliffe – the teacher in space. 

Challenger, like Columbia, seemed to be having a hard time getting off the ground. There were a few delays and scrubs, including an infuriating one involving a wrench they couldn’t remove from the hatch, with Challenger all set to go on what looked like a perfect day in Florida. That was (if I recall) a Saturday. It must have been on CSpan, because I was watching it at work. Typically, I dressed casually when I went into work on weekends, but that day I had on my tie. It seemed my tie wasn’t infused with magical powers after all. NASA delayed the next attempt for a few more days, until the following Tuesday, just long enough for me to rethink my silly tie superstition (and for a deep cold front to move tragically south). I decided my tie was trying to tell me it needed a rest. So, for the next attempt, instead, I decided I would wear my Smithsonian constellations tie, in honor of Christa McAuliffe’s urging her students to “reach for the stars.” 

That day, Challenger exploded. I don’t think I’ve ever worn that tie again. I got home later, ashen and feeling like a car windshield slowly cracking from the days events. I found my shuttle tie still draped over the chair. I remember, finally letting my emotions let go for the first time all day, looking at it with tearful eyes and thinking “you knew, didn’t you?” 

In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the astronauts’ families created the Challenger Center to carry on the crew’s mission. A year after the accident, working as a paralegal for NYNEX, my employer at the time (part of what would become Verizon), I made a $100 donation to the newly formed Challenger Center and then submitted it to NYNEX’s matching contribution program for educational organizations. To my great annoyance, it was rejected. I called to find out why and was told there were two reason. First, they weren’t sure the Challenger Center would be a lasting effort, having been formed as a reaction to a tragedy, the emotional impact of which would presumably fade over time (in other words, as emotions diminished, so might donations). I think I convinced them they might wrong on that count. But they had me on their second requirement, that eligible educational organizations had to be four-year colleges. I couldn’t get around that one. But, somehow, I must have said something right. To my surprise, the young woman at the other end of the phone suggested “if you feel that strongly, why don’t you propose them for a grant?” 

“A grant? I can do that (being a low-level paralegal)? Okay.” So I did. A year or so later (the bureaucracy moved slowly), NYNEX presented the Challenger Center with a $25,000 grant. The grant would be used to help pay for a first-ever nationwide teleconference, aired from Washington, D.C., broadcast to (and thereby linking) all the Challenger Centers around the country. On hand would be a few astronauts and members of the Challenger astronauts’ families. And NYNEX let me go, too. 

Finally, the day of the teleconference arrived. That I was even there, playing a part in the aftermath of the Challenger accident itself, was a bit overwhelming. I felt like the proverbial “the world is a tuxedo and I’m a pair of brown shoes.” But that was about to change. 

There was a little time before the program began and I was standing there in the middle of the studio trying to stay out of peoples’ way, when suddenly I made eye contact with June Scobee, widow of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, who was walking past in front of me, some ten feet away. If she hadn’t looked to her right when she did, she would probably have never noticed me. But, without hesitating, she turned and came straight over (she’s coming over to me?) and, to my surprise, we began talking. (Even more surprising was that didn’t stammer. In fact, uncharacteristically, I suddenly felt quite at peace.) What followed was a moment I will never forget. 

I was, naturally, wearing my Smithsonian shuttle tie — the very tie I deliberately did not wear the morning her husband and his crew were lost. The next thing I knew, she looked at my tie and very gently, almost reverentially, took it in her hands. She almost whispered, “You know, Dick used to have a tie just like this one.” “It was his favorite.” I replied, “I know — it’s a very special tie.” She leaned back a bit, stared hard into my eyes, like she was X-raying my soul, turned her head slightly, gave me a soft smile and pointed her finger at me, shaking it slowly a few times up and down, and finally said, “You know, I think I like you.” With that, she kissed me on the cheek and went back to work helping get the program started. 

I had to fight to hold back the tears. 

Today [this was originally written August 16, 2007], Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe’s original backup, finally got to do the lesson from space Christa McAuliffe should have done 21 years ago. And at the other end speaking to her, from the Earth below, just as they did at the NYNEX sponsored teleconference, was June Scobee Rogers (having remarried) and some kids from the Challenger Center in Alexandria, VA. I couldn’t help get a bit misty-eyed thinking back at all this. 

If you’re wondering, yes, I was wearing my shuttle tie when Endeavour launched the second “teacher in space” last week, and for that, I got a bit misty-eyed too. And I’ll be wearing my tie hoping to help make sure Endeavour and her crew come home safely next week, as well. It may still be a silly superstition, but I owe it to June Scobee Rogers and her first husband and his Challenger crew.

NASA’s Future

So much has been written this past week in newspapers, blogs, facebook,
and twitter about the fate of NASA’s human spaceflight program. With
every new American President the forward steps of our exploration into
the Cosmos is up for renewal. That’s reality for NASA being what it is;
a government agency.

The Orlando Sentinel is the newspaper that started everything this week with this initial article
that Obama plans to cancel the Constellation Program and the mission to
return to the moon. Throughout Wednesday and into the evening, those in
the space industry who use twitter found themselves venting about the
“change” and the unknown future. I was one of them. A second article
stated that $6 Billion over 5 years is to be provided to NASA in order
to develop commercial capability of reaching Low Earth Orbit and
providing an astronaut transport service to the International Space

I recommend the book, Who Moved my Cheese
by Spencer Johnson because if you keep looking for where the cheese was
you are going to be absolutely miserable. Those who adapt and are
flexible with change will thrive. For six years we’ve been working
towards a goal, to leave LEO, a dream come true for my generation. This
dream is now threatened due to only knowing part of the story. Every
article that’s been written over the past few months of Obama’s vision
for American Human Spaceflight has been only a piece of the puzzle. Not
one article tells the story and there’s a reason for that. The vision
has yet to be unveiled. That comes Monday. A day we are all anxiously
awaiting whether we work for NASA, a contractor, a private/commercial
spaceflight company or are an NASA enthusiast, student, astronomer,
physicist, #SpaceTweep.

I recommend these two blog posts as @dittmarml provides her thoughts in An Open Letter to the U.S. Human Spaceflight Community and @rikerjoe wrote End of NASA’s Human Spaceflight? Hardly. @BadAstronomer of Discover Magazine wrote Give Space a Chance which by the way is getting quite the response in comments. Take the time to check it out and provide your thoughts.

is that Congress did not fund the Constellation Program to allow
reaching the baselined milestones. Tasks were deferred to the right.
Technical issues that arise in all new programs were resolved as money
was available. The schedule slipped and slipped and slipped. Welcome to
the government. Now we find ourselves in 2010 having digested The
Review of the U.S. Space Flight Plans Committee’s final report
which stated that in order for Constellation to be successful it would
need an infusion of an extra $3 Billion a year each and every year for
the next five years. Anyone whose been paying attention to the U.S.
Economy including the bailouts for the banks and car companies knows
this is just not going to happen. As most #SpaceTweeps know, NASA gets
less than 0.6% of the federal budget, while most people think they get
a quarter of the federal budget. @BadAstronomer provided a great post this past week about NASA’s percentage of the federal budget.

we wait in anticipation for Monday’s announcement of Obama’s
Spaceflight vision I can share with you my thoughts on what needs to
occur. What is important is that the overall vision be sustainable,
continue building on capabilities, uphold safety standards, and be
fully funded.

I do hope for a flexible path type architecture
that allows NASA to use a multitude of launch vehicles, capsules, and
develop new technology and capabilities. But, what are the goals of
flexible path? Where are we to go and what are we to do there?
Remember, we are after sustainability, to maintain a human presence in
space and build our capabilities to go further and further from our
home planet. Well, that’s what I want. I don’t know what Obama wants.

Here’s what I think:

  • The future of human spaceflight is not a one nation venture. It’s an International Partnership.
  • The
    Moon and Mars should be part of our new Vision. I believe we have much
    to learn before we can even think of venturing to Mars; that learning
    takes place on the space station and on the moon. We still need to
    learn how to protect the human body from radiation on long duration
    missions and develop new capabilities in propulsion to reduce the mass
    due to chemical propulsion and minimize the time to travel to the
    destination so more time can be spent exploring at the destination.
  • We
    need to minimize the gap of having a launch capability in order not to
    lose the workforce expertise and knowledge as well as employ our future
    generation of rocket scientists.
  • It doesn’t matter who builds
    the rockets that take us to LEO because if NASA is going to pay for
    launch services of its astronauts they will demand safety standards be
    met. However, the vision must be realistic about the time it will take
    for those capabilities to become available. It won’t happen overnight.

is what I worry about. Obama will unveil his vision which may change
the balance of jobs at various NASA centers thus starting (well, it
already has started) a Congress backlash. Therefore Congress will
battle (drag it on) for years to come keeping NASA’s budget to a
minimum thus stretching out the time it takes to go beyond LEO.

do not have experience going through the Presidential “NASA Change” at
a Program Level. My first job was in 1998 and it was to work on the
International Space Station. 6 months later we launched the first
module, Zarya, or what I still call the FGB. The International Space
Station went through numerous design changes over the past 20+ years.
For me, I arrived at the right time to develop lesson plans to train
astronauts and be part of the systems engineering and integration team
that came up with the engineering solutions to the reality of
congressional budgets.

I leave you with these two thoughts:

Sometimes dreams need course corrections.

What will you do with your passion and excitement of space exploration?

The Future of NASA and WeWantOurFuture.org – 3.04

Rather than Space News we have Space Rumors: what will the future of NASA be under the Obama adminstration?

Speaking of the future, Brad Cheetham of WeWantOurFuture.org is on to discuss this project and how getting our youth interested in science and space can help NASA today.


Valentine from space thanks to JAXA

I read a lot about astronauts tweeting from space, recently. 

But did you know that you could send a Valentine day message from space via the Wideband InterNetworking engineering test and Demonstration satellite “KIZUNA,” which is flying in space about 36,000 Kms away from Earth, courtesy of the  Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency?

You have until February 12th to register.

January 29th is NASA’s Day of Remembrance

January, Winter, long

memories our hearts hold strong

beyond the human limits rising

all the spirits energizing

carrying us on

to another dawn

–Todd Cecilio @negativereturn


As we continue to promote the sciences and human space flight, the inborn desire to reach out and explore is in all of us. We, however, should not proceed towards the future of space exploration without keeping in our minds, and close to our hearts, the memory of those who have given their lives. The casualties suffered in manned space flight have led to the changes that would ensure the safety of the ones who would follow in their very same footsteps. With the understanding and acceptance of the immense risk involved, the dedication of the astronauts who paid the ultimate price cannot be forgotten.


Jan 27th, 1967–Apollo I

The Mission was given the designation Apollo I, in honor of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, pioneers who lost their lives in a fire that ignited in the Command Module mounted on the Saturn 1B, during a routine test. After this tragedy, critical design modifications and safety protocols were implemented that would allow the lofty visions of the Apollo program to become a reality. Despite the loss the Apollo I astronauts, their legacy lived on in the successes of the Apollo missions that were to come. The foundation that would demonstrate the potential of manned space flight was born.

 Apollo I

Jan 28th, 1986—Challenger, STS-51L

 By 1986, the novelty and excitement brought about by NASA’s new transport system had not yet faded among the public and the media, and fifty missions that preceded what would have been STS-51, had suggested that the shuttle design was safe and robust. All eyes were turned to the sky when tragedy struck, and this image has likely been burned into the memories of all those who are old enough to remember. The failure of an o-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters is well known to be the cause for the loss of the shuttle and crew.  Human innovation is not perfect. In this case, the lesson is the same. Trust must be granted in the face of disaster, for design flaws to be corrected, and for the ability to proceed towards the future with confidence in our space program.



The crew of STS-51L:

Francis R. Scobee, Commander

Michael J. Smith, Pilot

Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist

Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist

Ronald E. McNair, Mission Specialist

Gregory B. Jarvis, Payload Specialist

Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist


 Feb 1st, 2003—Columbia, STS-107

The ability to for-see all danger that lies ahead will always remain unattainable. Countless forces beyond our control can act at any time, making a seemingly routine event result in an unimaginable outcome, as was the case with STS-107. The catastrophic loss of Columbia and crew, due to a breach in the shuttles heat shield during reentry, proves how fragile we are in the hands of nature.

 STS-107 Memorial

The crew of STS-107:

Rick D. Husband, Commander

William C. McCool, Pilot

Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander

David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1

Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2

Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 4

Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1


The endurance of the shuttle program has allowed for advances in manned space flight that otherwise would not have been possible. We have set up base camp in low-earth orbit, proving that humans can remain healthy and live comfortably, released from the magnetic confines of our home planet.

Our potential lies in plain view, beyond our beautiful glowing sphere, with a deep gaze into the vast blackness of space. With each new step we make in future space exploration, it is important to remember that the steps have been steep at times. Tribute must be paid to the individuals who have, and still do, put their lives at risk, enabling us to push the envelope and achieve the impossible.


NASA’s Darkest Week or Brightest Moments?

As most of us know, this week marks a week of NASA which the program is not to pround of. On January 27th, 1967, the 3 person crew of Apollo 1 died in a fire without ever leaving the Earth, as it occured on a practice run at the pad. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger went up into a ball of flames after 73 seconds of flight, taking with it its crew of 7 brave men and women, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia, NASA’s oldest shuttle, burned up on re-entry taking its crew of seven with it.

All of these happening within 6 days of each other, although occuring in different years. Regardless, it is sad how we lost 17 brave people who had committed themselves to furthering the exploration of space and showing bravery to help try and better our understanding of us and our place in the universe. But, what have we done to honor these crews?

After Apollo 1, NASA had to completely re-think their design of the Apollo crew capsule and the hazards of a 100% oxygen-rich environment. As many people in America doubted the safety and plausibility of getting to the moon, another fear spread throughout the nation of how the Russians and the USSR would completely defeat us in our space race. NASA saw this differently. They did not let White, Grissom, and Chaffe’s death and rebounded full speed, proving the country wrong, and probably saving many more lives by making the capsule design smarter and safer. These lessons have also been used on every single space mission since.

Challenger was a huge blow to the nation. Space shuttle travel seemed so routine that the public lost interest in the program entirely. They figured they needed a way to gain interest in the program again, which they did by starting the teacher in space program, where over 11,000 teachers applied to be the first teacher in space. The winner was Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher. NASA was right, it did gain public interest, but it might’ve been the wrong time to do so.

After numerous delays for weather, crosswinds, and landing abort sites, engineers had the daunting task of deciding whether or not to launch in the unseasonably cold temperatures of that January day. Going against the recommendation of Morton-Thiakol, who produced the Solid Rocket Boosters, or SRBs, advised against it because of the possibility of an O-ring malfunction which would be deadly. The heads of the company overruled this decision and launched anyway, which indeed proved to be deadly and a national tragedy. Since then, NASA has been stricter on its launch constraints for temerpature, and have tightened the means of communications on whether to go or not go for launch of a mission. The disaster also spawned Challenger Centers, which continue the teaching mission and are now educating our future generation, our children, about space and how great it is and how useful science and math is to all future generations.

Lastly, the space shuttle Columbia, who flew the first shuttle mission of STS-1 back in 1981, launched on what looked like a perfect launch to the naked eye. However, as high speed cameras would later show, a piece of foam fell off of the external fuel tank. Many engineers after reviewing the launch footage felt that it could be a threat and even arranged for satellite images of the leading edge of the wing that was hit to be examined closer. Figuring it would be a waste of money, time, and resources, NASA vetoed that option, and even joked about it with the crew, who were oblivious to the giant hole punctured in their wing.

As they re-entered the atmosphere, the temperatures became so hot, and they seeped through that whole in the wing, causing the vehicle to break up, killing its crew of 7. True, this showed a lapse in management, but at the same time, it showed how dangerous the current shuttle launch design is. It lead to the initative of a new spacecraft (whatever that may be and whenever it may come out) and also designed new examination tools to look at the heat shield of the shuttle, including the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, or the backflip.

Overall, these accidents were all a tragedy and were all horrible, yet had they never happened, we would have most likely had more accidents in the wings just waiting to happen. From each of these came a safety boost, and bettered our space program as a whole, and I think these crews need to be remembered for the contributions they have unknowingly made to the future of the space program.

Remembering the morning of January 28, 1986

On January 28th, 1986 I was 15 years old. I awoke knowing that the Space Shuttle Challenger would be launching around lunch time. It was a school day. At 15 I was enjoying my time in high school. I had every reason to look forward to going to school, seeing my friends. I was one of those kids, who for the most part, liked school. This morning though I wanted very much to stay home. I showered and got dressed and looked my self over in the mirror. I took at deep breath and decided to try something. I walked down stairs to where my mother was pouring herself a cup of coffee. I asked, “Mom, the shuttle is going up later this morning…”. She looked straight into my eyes. I froze. After a second, I continued, “I know they won’t say anything or show it at school…” She interrupted, “I suppose you aren’t feeling well today.” She said it in almost a flat tone and as she spoke the word, “today”, she drew it out, her lips turned to a sly smile. “No, I suppose I don’t”, I said. My smile was far more obvious than hers. I could hardly hold my self back from laughing. The cause of my joy, wasn’t simply because of my mother’s good nature in supporting my interest in all things space. No, she had been doing that since before I was born. I was happy because, I had watched, with great excitement, every shuttle launch until that point. I had cut newspaper articles since before Columbia first flew and put them, carefully more or less, into kind of scrap book. A year before Columbia’s first launch, I had toured Kennedy Space Center and seen the preparations for the launch. I was so hooked on space and had such a supportive family that on that day back in 1986, I was simply over joyed.

Leading up to the launch, I had a frustrating time actually finding any news coverage of the launch itself. I was growing up in a small suburb of Indianapolis, Mooresville.  The local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates weren’t showing or mentioning anything about covering the launch. My mother, always an avid news radio listener, began in parallel to my efforts, of scanning the AM and FM dials for any coverage.  We found it shortly before launch, maybe 10 or 12 minutes before.

I won’t describe what happened to the vehicle or crew after launch. What I remember, what is burned into my memory is this; my mother and I were standing in the kitchen together, smiling at one another. We were sharing some rare teenage son and mother quality time. Our little secret (Mooresville High School, I didn’t have the flu that day), that I wasn’t sick. Both of us, fans of our country’s space program. My mother, who had watched every Apollo launch, the one who had sat me upon her lap at watched the last mission to the Moon, the one who had covered one part of our kitchens wall with clippings from each mission.

I remember her face. I remember as how the words changed her giddy smile and joy from the announcers description of a beautiful launch, that turned so quickly to tragedy. I remember she stared straight into my eyes. We never broke our gaze. As the words began to register in her brain and sudden denial washed over her, her eye brows furrowed. She stared at me as confused as my own child would later when Columbia was destroyed. My mother began to shake visibly. She continued to look me in the eye and ask what the words the announcer was speaking, meant. I translated into half technical terms and half gibberish. I was trying to take it all in, to rationalize it. I tried by offering words of comfort to my now sobbing mother. I tried to think of ways the crew could have survived. My mother added into the conversation, remembering how show had seen a video or photo of astronauts and an ejection system in the Shuttle.. I corrected her. Her lip trembled as I had hastily spoken what I knew was fact. I said it in such a matter of fact way, I was oblivious to how it had the affect of a knife to her gut. She reached out and put a hand on our stove to steady herself. I pulled up some chairs and we say there in our kitchen, huddled close, listening to the tinny AM signal coming through a 30 year old radio perched on a small shelf above our range.

In the living room, the reporters were not turning their attention from a launch, to a national tragedy.  We both watched and listened for the rest of the day. We talked. We yelled. We yelled at the sky, we yelled out for a reason this had happened, for someone to blame. We prayed together for the crew, for their families, NASA and for the country.

I don’t remember the first launch after Challenger. It seems strange to me now. I don’t remember the launch that came three years later. What I do know is that my mother was watching and I remember her smiling again.



Tweets from 220 miles and astro dreams

Last night I was tweeted by NASA Astronaut TJ Creamer (whose praises I have sung on Twitter more than once 😉 ) and I have never been so excited as I was when I saw his responses! It was such a HUGE thrill to get a message from the International Space Station – absolutely amazing! As you can tell 24 hours later and I am still excited!

Its also rather unique as this is the first time that the ISS, or anyone in LEO has ever had real-time internet access – so its amazing to actually be part of history as one of the first people to hear from TJ in a live tweet!

I have finished the design for an ‘@astro_tj fanclub’ tshirt now just need to decided how to get it out to the public who want them! I am thinking Cafepress and having any money made donated to the Spacetweeps society – without them, I might not have ever had this wonderful experience of tweeting to a real astronaut on-board the ISS!

The other thing that happened this morning was getting an email saying I had been selected for a new reality TV show called ‘Starwalker’ – now admittedly when I first heard about the concept I got excited and entered both via SMS and the online entry form. I was also rather excited at the prospect of being 1 of 100 people in the running for a seat on a Soyuz TMA flight as a ‘space tourist’.

I tweeted it.

Then I thought about it.

Ever since I was about 5 years old I have said I want to be an astronaut. All I have ever talked about during my school years was being an astronaut. I used to get ridiculed at school by kids who would argue with me when I said I wanted to be the first woman on the Moon, they all argued that there had already been women on the Moon, or that some Aussie kid will never get to work for NASA. (Dr Andy Thomas has since proven that theory wrong!)

Everything I have ever done – career wise, has been aerospace, Aircraft Maintenance and engineering. I wouldn’t know what else to do either – aviation and aerospace is my entire life. (I have indeed tried my hand at IT at Uni, but alas I cannot quiet get my head into programming!) so in effect I am running my own marathon. I already have a goal I am working towards.

To me this feels like running my marathon, knowing the end is up there for me to get to, and getting there will be one heck of an achievement, but having someone offer you a ride in the back of a car to the finish line and then letting you out to stroll across the line – and that does not bode well with my moral core.

I would rather fail under my own efforts than take the easier option.

I am sorry but I really do not need to a TV media format that I actually despise (so called ‘reality television’) taking MY dreams and goals and turning them into prime time entertainment. Is that really all being an astronaut means to some people these days? Are we that blase about those people that dedicate nearly half their lives in some cases to attaining the goal of flying in space through dedication and education and a lot of effort, now that anyone can claim themselves as an ‘astronaut’ alongside the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong?

Again – I completely fail to see how a TV show winner could even come close to being an astronaut. Many people will argue that its just a term, but to someone like me who has grown up in total awe of those men and women, its not just a job title, its not just something that should be thrown around lightly. A REAL astronaut has worked hard their ENTIRE life, not just for a few months of filming for TV, and then the training they get in Russia. People have also argued with me that they have the right to call themselves astronauts if they do the same training – NO..dedication and training for professional astronauts began long before they were even selected for a flight.

I guess the analogy that we all fly in aircraft today yet we do not call ourselves pilots, aviators or aircrew but passengers should be true for these TV space travellers. The winners may fly on board a Soyuz to the ISS, but they will be passengers, they may have ‘worked hard’ when you see them on the TV, but a lifetime of dedication cannot be shown too well on a 1 hour a week episode for a few months on reality TV. Exactly HOW is it going to be ‘spiced up’ to ensure it retains ratings and its time slot and ensure that it does not fall victim halfway through the series to the might of the ‘axe’ being wielded by TV station executives? In this country unless there is sex, scandal, good looking people reality shows do not tend to far well thanks to a largely teenage audience.

Yes, I am stereotyping.

So needless to say I will not be subjugating myself to the whims of television for a crack at a ride into space. It will not sit well with my conscious. It will not gain me anything other than a ride into space (in itself and amazing thing for sure!) but I want more than just a ride. I want to live, breath eat sleep, everything space. I want to do that for a career, for a living, for more than one time! Greedy? Sure if that’s what it seems, but at the end of the day if my goals fade to dreams when I am older I will still be able to look at my grand kids and tell them honestly that I had a crack and I was proud that I did.

No regrets.

Visit to ESA EAC, DLR and Technik Museum Speyer: technical trip debriefing

Imagine a dream trip to major space facilities, where you meet several astronauts. Add a visit to a geeky aerospace wonderland, and the opportunity to share the fun with your space enthusiast friends. I did such a trip.

From January 14 to 16, 2010, I did a short trip to Germany with Italian ForumAstronautico.it friends and space tweeps Giuseppe Albini (@GiuseppeAlbini), Luca Frigerio (@Spazionauta), Michael Sacchi (@signaleleven), Marco Zambianchi (@marcozambi) and Alberto Zampieron (@albyz85). We visited the ESA European Astronaut Centre (EAC) and a major DLR German aerospace agency facility in Cologne, and Technik Museum in Speyer. Space Tweep Society mascot Meco the Birdonaut was also part of the crew.

The trip was made possible by the kindness and assistance of our friend Samantha Cristoforetti, one of the new ESA ascans, whom we met with her colleagues.

Mission Day 1: ESA EAC and DLR

The first day we visited ESA EAC in Cologne. Samantha greeted us and joked that we were probably going to see more in the next few hours than she was able in past months. She and other ascans are so busy with basic training, that they spend most of the time there locked into classrooms.

Our excellent guide Stuart, a biomed support engineer, introduced EAC and showed us ATV (holy lift, it looks heavy) and ISS module mockups, and the Neutral Buoyancy Facility. We were able to venture inside the Node-2 Harmony and Columbus mockups. We also visited the ISS Medops control room while an EVA was under way.

Samantha later invited us for a coffee break with the ascans. They had an unexpected free moment due to a delayed lesson. After considerable deliberation, in which we mumbled something like “let us see, we are not that busy right now, this might fit in our schedule, sure, yeah, why not?”, we finally accepted. The whole decision process took approximately 0.012 seconds, possibly less.

After the coffee break Samantha and the ascans, um, well, “insisted” that we take group photos, which we did in front of the Node-2 and Columbus mockups another 0.012 seconds later. In the photos we wear sweatshirts with the patch of ISAA (Italian Space and Astronautics Association), our space outreach organization. I guess the ascans filed the experience under “survival training”.

Later that day another guide gave us a tour of the DLR facility. We saw such space treats as the Rosetta Philae lander control room, the ISS payload operations control room, and more. DLR has a scope similar to NASA’s in that it does both aviation and space, but it also deals with energy and transportation.

Mission Day 2: Technik Museum Speyer

The second day we drove over 250 km south to visit Technik Museum in Speyer. The museum is such a geek paradise, chock full of interesting and unique aerospace artifacts, that I don’t know where to start. There are many planes, helicopters and ships on display, most of which are walk-in exhibitions: you can freely enter the vehicles, explore them and take pictures. Kudos to the institution.

The most interesting space vehicle at Speyer is the OK-GLI Buran shuttle for atmospheric test flights, a sort of Soviet equivalent of the NASA Enteprise Shuttle. You can climb to the cargo bay and see the cockpit, or inspect Buran’s bowels by peeking inside the aft compartment through the floor hatch.

The large Buran building is packed with planes, cars, motorbikes, and all sorts of vechicles and machines. There are many more interesting space artifacts and flown items: the Soviet BOR-5 suborbital test vehicle (a Buran 1:8 scale model), Sokol and Orlan suits, Soyuz and Mir parts, you name it. So many things to see…

I almost forgot a minor item. In front of the Buran building there is a whole Lufthansa Boeing 747 arliner, which you can again freely enter and explore from the lower deck to the cockpit. What’s amazing about this sky giant is that it is not on the ground, but perched tens of meters above as if it was still flying. Mighty Jumbo.

Mission Day 3: sightseeing and wrapup

We spent the third and last day visiting downtown Cologne and the Cathedral, which stands taller than VAB. Before reentry we spent some wonderful time at an informal private gathering with ESA people. Thanks again to Samantha and all of them for the unique experience.

Just a few hours after we safely landed at Malpensa MXP airport, Samantha told that we had been lucky: all weather hell broke loose, and Cologne was in a snowstorm. Isn’t Buran the Russian for snowstorm?

Photos and videos

We took so many pictures, videos, panoramas and 3D anaglyphs that we are still downlinking and processing, er, posting them. The material is being collected in a few online places, which you may want to keep visiting to check the latest additions:

Hey? Where’s Meco?

You may recall one day in December when I announced that I had a great idea. Or maybe not, since I tend to say that quite a bit. This idea finally is ready to be officially revealed thanks to the hard work of @scibuff who developed the really cool gallery application, and @foundonmars who worked with him to install and test it out. I’m just the idea person- I don’t know how to do all that complicated stuff!

I would like to introduce a fun activity for Space Tweeps all over. Simply tweet photos of our mascot, Meco the Birdonaut, in various interesting places and include the hash tag #wheresmeco or #whereismeco, whichever is easier for you to remember. You can take photos of Meco on Space Tweep Society patches, on shirts or other gear, or even just add him to a photograph digitally. Be creative! 

The Where’s Meco? Gallery is set up to automatically pull your images from some of the major image posting applications such as Twitpic, yFrog, img.ly, Twitgoo, and Flic.kr as long as one of the hashtags is used. You can even follow a special Twitter account, @WhereisMeco to get tweets when new images are added to the gallery.  

I am hoping that this will be an ongoing thing. Take Meco with you when you go on vacation and tweet photos of him there. Bring him to tweetups and take pictures of him there. Have fun with it- and if people ask what you’re doing, use the opportunity to talk about Meco, the Space Tweep Society, and space in general. Who knows, maybe you’ll enlist some new tweeps along the way?

You can find the Where’s Meco? Gallery here. If you you don’t have Space Tweep Society patches or other gear yet you can find it here or by clicking the link on this site that reads “Gear.”

Have fun!

The Real Trip To Bountiful

Yes, when we consider space exploration there are many bountiful trips awaiting us, but for me and for many others it is: that bountiful trip to Mars.  Yep, I know, there are already tons of arguments in favor of this astro mission and I will try to not repeat them.

There was probably some level of life on Mars, and maybe there still is. What is vital is that we learn the details.  I believe Mars was well along the way in evolutionary development when something happened. We need to fully investigate that and understand what happened.  Why?

First, we need to understand the entire planetary process and threats thereto.  This will help us not only to better understand and protect our home planet, but come to understand what is happening with the increasing number of exoplanets that we are finding.

Secondly, we need to know as much as possible as to what happened to Mars, if anything.  It is highly possible that nothing has happened and good old Mars is just as always.  I doubt this, as many others do. We then need to get onto that planet with astro missions so that we can amplify and expand all that good stuff our faithful roborovers have dug up for us.

In following the second mission above, we begin to build a geological and biological history of Mars that is essential.  We take it back to its beginning as much as we can. This takes the special and personal skills/knowledge of research scientists – on site. This implies the creation of a full fledged Mars station.

Lastly, before we can do any of the above, we need to be sure we can operate safely in an essentially cosmic rad environment. Mars may be very hostile for humankind. NASA’s next Mars rover will be evaluating that.  If the results indicate we can safely operate on Mars, then we must start that trip to bountiful as soon as possible.  The answers we find will both amaze and most probably preserve us.

Oh my, whenever skies are dark and clear I look up, and a skyslide of bountiful explorations descend upon me.  I am enriched with both challenge and inspiration. The constant message is: We are here; are you coming?