Exploration: It's a Matter of Timing

As we prepare to say farewell to ET-134 at the dock at Kennedy Space Center, I think back on what an amazing opportunity it was to meet the ships’ crew and two of the most important seafaring vessels that have served the space program. The chance to sail with Pegasus and Liberty Star across some of the most historical waters in the western hemisphere has been something of a personal exploration, like roaming the mountains and forest of the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit a little less physically strenuous.

To hop onboard a ship and sail across bodies of water that have served as the same pathways of exploration to the farthest reaches of North and South America; served explorers for centuries; setting the stage for building a new world; has been nothing short of an honor and special privilege. It makes me giddy to think about what is to follow in the years, decades, and centuries ahead; space journeys to unknown places with immense unknown possibilities.

This artist’s concept illustrates the idea that rocky, terrestrial worlds like the inner
planets in our solar system, may be plentiful and diverse in the universe.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 
View all blog images in this Flickr gallery

The time is coming for an explosion of human exploration across the solar system; a tide of exploration the like of which we have not seen in recent history. New technologies, materials, navigation and communication devices, foods, fuels, operational techniques, SpaceLogistics, SpaceEngineering, strategies and ideas are coalescing to form the dynamo to inspire and drive the next biggest step yet in human history, the human exploration of the solar system and beyond.

Sources of water are abundant, even on our moon, but especially on ice capped moons and the polar regions of planets.
Thanks to NASA’s orbiting “Great Observatories” telescopes — Spitzer in infrared, Hubble in visible light, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra in X-ray — and thanks to many government and university operated ground based observatories, we now know of the existence of almost 300 planets; at least one with tantalizing Earth-like characteristics; 430 light years away.

The Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova seen in 1054 AD. Credit: NASA, ESA,
J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU); Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory)

Unfortunately, timing is not always on the side of the explorer. For instance, by the early 1700s the American frontier had been defined by the Appalachian Mountains; a useful geographical border for a hundred years and defined by policies of the home government in England 2,500 miles away across the Atlantic Ocean. The home government forbade general exploration beyond the Appalachians in order to prevent hostilities with the Native American tribes and thus implemented the most important element of home rule policy; insure fur trading went east to England via American ports.

While American explorers were prevented from a general advance to the west, aggressive and highly motivated Spanish explorers had long since explored the southwestern reaches of America and French trappers and traders had pushed well beyond the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and already knew well the Indians of the Great Plains, particularly the great Sioux nation. 

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that American “Mountain Men” trickled west of St. Louis. But when America finally got going west, it got going with great abandonment and enthusiasm. The 1804-1806 Lewis and Clarke expedition sponsored by President Jefferson finally found the Northwest Passage and set the stage for the great treks west by the millions that would follow the wastage of the Civil War.
In 1838 President Martin Van Buren sent a small, inexpensive but adventurous six-vessel American fleet, known as the Exploring Expedition, to explore the Pacific in relatively tiny ships; learning firsthand the perils of sailing in Polynesia and along the way made a very minor side trip from those warm waters to discover the coast of Antarctica. Of course, English whalers and Spanish galleons had already passed through these waters for over a hundred years.

Antarctica, a frozen desert. Credit: NASA/Carnegie-Mellon University

By 1840 the dream to go west was gaining momentum and the Conestoga wagons were being built, but they wouldn’t be called by that name for many more years. What a great name for a future space ship designed to carry cargo, the Conestoga Maru.

It is now 2009 and the clock of exploration is ticking again. Timing is everything. In the 1960s we went to the moon because the timing of competition on the international scene was right. In 1998 we started building our first big space station, the International Space Station, because the timing for partnering was right. Building the station was hardly an end game, it was costly and hard work — worthwhile as our first long term way station in space; a place to test ourselves and to hone our operational procedures like automated rendezvous and docking; to analyze, to study, to engineer, to use, break and fix things that keep spacefarers healthy like the COLBERT treadmill and to keep them alive; a stepping stone of exploration and simultaneously a place of scientific study for exploration and to better life on Earth.

The pathways and signal lights have been lit; ignited by every human in human experience carrying a torch that ventured to the next valley in search of a better life or simply because another valley might be there, over the mountains; lit by every settler who never made it to across the prairies to Oregon or California and by those that did; lit by every lost explorer smashed on the rocks at La Tierra del Fuego; lit by Magellan and Cook and lit by every astronaut spacefarer who took the risk to fly into space.

The clock is ticking. Humanity has arrived very close to the opening of the new path, a new era of exploration. The pathways of seafarers defined by compass bearings across the oceans, guided by the sun and the stars, will be replaced with computer-generated interplanetary (eventually interstellar) trajectories, some coasting in the gravity field, some using gravity assist from planets to increase their energy, some thrusting during most of the journey, to far distant planets and moons. 

Earthrise, as seen from the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA

Way stations for stock piling fuels, food, water, supplies, and all forms of hardware for spaceflight will be established along the path to sustain these deep space missions. However, settlers coming to stay will have to learn to live off the land using local planetary resources for developing energy sources, building habitats and constructing a support infrastructure. 

It would be fitting if at least some of the way stations be named Detroit, Michilimackinac, Laramie or Oswego. Search and rescue spacecraft will patrol the frontier to bring back exhausted and depleted survivors or damaged space ships; just like U.S. Coast Guard does for us. Perhaps our future life guards will be named the Space Guards. An infrastructure of colonies will grow up around launch pads, landing pads, watering holes, logistics bases, drilling and mining operations, way stations, and science exploration sites — and who knows, maybe even archeology sites. Wouldn’t that be something. How about excavating a giant, shinny, black monolith on Europa!

John F. Ross writes today in his recent book about Robert Rogers, of Rogers Rangers fame. Speaking of the days of early exploration of the American continent, he says, “Certainly British colonists in Boston and Philadelphia could imagine vast stretches of forest, but understanding America was like understanding the solar system before spaceflight. People had a sense of the solar system as an immense place, punctuated by planets and stars, but not until ships blasted off into space and probes raced to its outer edges did humans look at the cosmos in new, revolutionary ways, most notably gaining the insight that the fragile orb of Earth is a finite place. And only when Europeans gained purchase on vast North America — through descriptions and explorations — could their perceptions change from dread to eager embrace of the immense possibilities.”

NASA scientist Peter Curreri of my own Marshall Space Flight Center says it this way: “The first astronauts plant the flag, like Columbus. Then settlers begin to live in the solar system as in early America, permanently (like Jamestown), except now it’s a space station, an asteroid base or a lunar base. They live off the land, and become more independent. They find riches and resources beyond the expectations of robotic surveys. They make use of unlimited energy from space solar power, and begin to develop large habitats on their new home. They develop a solar system economy that would astound us in the same way that the eventual richness of the United States astounded the old world.  Eventually this new rich solar system society has the financial wealth to boldly push into interstellar space to the new solar systems beyond like when America boldly put men on the moon.”

Apollo astronaut on the moon. Credit: NASA

Whatever the immense possibilities are, in the early years it will certainly be rough; like camping without any amenities; tougher than cresting the Appalachians or crossing the Mississippi; journeying into a very unforgiving unknown; a journey for the stoutest, stalwart, creative, innovative, independent, and curious.

I might mention one final note about exploration. When people do venture in large numbers into space, no one in space will have to worry about finding a job because the most sought after person in the solar system will be your neighborhood mechanic.

Good luck to all of us — all 6.8 billion of us.

Remaining Shuttle Missions

As “Sailing with NASA” winds down, I’d like to remind everyone of the remaining space shuttle launches and their respective missions, all headed for International Space Station. Check it out and go see a launch. It’s good for you!

Remaining 2009 Launch

Date: Nov. 16 +
Mission: STS-129
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Atlantis
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Atlantis will deliver components including two spare gyroscopes, two nitrogen tank assemblies, two pump modules, an ammonia tank assembly and a spare latching end effect or for the station’s robotic arm to the International Space Station.

2010 Launches
Date: Feb. 4 +
Mission: STS-130
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Endeavour
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Endeavour will deliver the final connecting node, Node 3, and the Cupola, a robotic control station with six windows around its sides and another in the center that provides a 360-degree view around the International Space Station.

Date: March 18 +
Mission: STS-131
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Discovery will carry a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module filled with science racks that will be transferred to laboratories of the International Space Station.

Date: May 14 +
Mission: STS-132
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Atlantis
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Atlantis mission will carry an integrated cargo carrier to deliver maintenance and assembly hardware, including spare parts for space station systems. In addition, the second in a series of new pressurized components for Russia, a Mini Research Module, will be permanently attached to the bottom port of the Zarya module.

Date: July 29 +
Mission: STS-134
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Endeavour
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Discovery will deliver an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-3 (ELC-3) and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station.

Date: Sept. 16 +
Mission: STS-133
Launch Vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center – Launch Pad 39A
Description: Space shuttle Endeavour will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4), a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MLPM) and critical spare components to the International Space Station.

ET-134 Rolls Off Pegasus on to Kennedy Space Center

2:11 p.m., Eastern, Oct. 24
ET-134 Rolls Off Pegasus on to Kennedy Space Center

Following arrival of Pegasus on dock at Kennedy Space Center, the Pegasus crew leveled the barge with the dock and opened the cargo doors, readying the vessel for an invasion of a small army of Kennedy-based technicians. These teams of United Space Alliance technicians from External Tank and Integration, Launch and Recovery Operations swarmed around ET-134, removing support stanchions, hydraulic lifts, and lowering ET’s transporter on to its four massive wheel assemblies.  

In the images above: ET-134 journeys into the Vehicle Assembly
Facility, where it will be readied for a February flight into space. Credit: NASA

ET-134, looking handsome and ready to fly, rolled on to Kennedy Space Center at exactly 2:11 p.m., continuing on to the distant Vehicle Assembly Building. Pegasus, its day not quite done, was towed back into the turn basin by the Lou Anna Guidry and WP Scott and began its final journey of the day to docks at Port Canaveral. Like Liberty Star, Pegasus will be pressed back into service to sail again very soon.
It’s been an amazing journey for all of us; hard-charging Liberty Star; obedient and protective Pegasus; eager to fly ET-134; and television producer Mick Speer and public affairs blogging Steve Roy, both proud to have served with the crew of Liberty Star and  Pegasus. 

The watch is now reporting … all is well.

Pegasus Arrives on Dock at KSC

12:41 p.m., Eastern Time
Pegasus Arrives on Dock at KSC

After a four hour trip from Port Canaveral to Kennedy Space Center (under observation by numerous alligators, dolphins, manatees and pelicans), Pegasus has arrived on dock at the turn basin in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). ET-134 is being prepared for immediate off load and move to the VAB. More later…

In the meantime, check out this this awesome video that just became available this morning. It shows Liberty Star on Day Two and day Three of the journey, under way in the central Gulf of Mexico after leaving Gulfport, Miss. The seas were rough, swelling to 12 feet, with high northeasterly winds with gusts up to 30 knots.

Meet John C. Fischbeck III,Master Mariner

John C. Fischbeck III, Master Mariner
John Fischbeck III, 59, is a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, a graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in business administration and a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. His entire Navy service, 1965-1971, was spent aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

In 1979, he completed training as a Merchant Marine Officer and today has achieved the highest rank in the commercial maritime industry, Master Mariner. At NASA/USA, he serves as solid rocket booster retrieval operations supervisor.

Let’s ask John what achieving Master Mariner means. John says, “Achieving Master Mariner is one of the most important goals in my life.” The term Master Mariner was introduced in the United States in the mid-19th century; earlier in England. Currently, a U.S. Master Mariner License is reserved for those few who have attained the level of Unlimited Master, as well as Unlimited Chief EngineerSenior. Traditionally, a person holding an unrestricted master’s license is called a Master Mariner.  The term unrestricted indicates that there is no restriction of size, power or geographic location of the vessel on the license.

It is the highest level of professional qualification amongst mariners.

John has served as Master on all three booster recovery ships including the Liberty Star, Freedom Star and Independence. He has served on 125 booster recovery missions, more than any other member USA Marine Operations.
John’s current responsibilities include onboard Marine Operations Manager for the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) Retrieval Operations and External Tank (ET) Ocean Transportation Operations.
What does John like most about the job at sea? In his own words, “supporting America’s spaceflight program, the great team of people I work with, and the ever-changing conditions that confront us everyday. Challenge, Adjustment, Success!”
What does John like to do when not sailing with NASA?  He ships out again…on ocean yacht racing, sail cruising and studying the  guitar/banjo.

Liberty Star Transfers Pegasus and ET-134 to Tug Boats Lou Anne Guidry and WP Scott in Port Canaveral

8:00 a.m. Eastern, Oct. 24
Liberty Star Transfers Pegasus and ET-134 to Tug Boats Lou Anne Guidry and WP Scott in Port Canaveral

Pegasus is now under way in the calm waters of Port Canaveral channel enroute to the Banana River and eventually, the turn basin at the Kennedy Space Center near the Vehicle Assembly Building. Television producer Mick Speer and public affairs blogger Steve Roy negotiated, with excellent help from the crew on the tug boat WP Scott, the transfer to Pegasus without incident and without getting wet. The transit from Port Canaveral to the Vehicle Assembly Building will take approximately four hours. 

In the Port Canaveral channel crews of Pegasus and Liberty Star complete the
break of the tow in preparation for tug boats Lou Anne Guidry and WP Scott to
move into position and begin the final leg of the trip to Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: NASA

As planned, after dropping the tow to the tugs, Liberty Star sailed off ahead of Pegasus, eager to prepare for the next mission.

The weather is beautiful this morning in the Cocoa Beach area as we progress thru the Port Canaveral locks. ET-134 looks sharp and ready to unload, perhaps even chomping at the bit.

The watch reports…all is well.