The last couple of weeks have been very busy for me, so pardon my lack of blog posts. I have been on travel for several days and you should have a report on three trips.
MAF – the dirge
The first report is on a trip I did not make. There was a big celebration last week at the Michoud Assembly Facility on the east side of New Orleans as the “last” shuttle external tank was shipped. Of course there is the potential to need a rescue flight and at this writing Congress is debating adding one more flight to the shuttle manifest, so ET-122 will probably be shipped out in a few months. ET-122 was in processing when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and part of the roof of the building – concrete blocks to be exact – fell onto the tank, damaging it. Repairs have been completed and ET-122 is on track to be pronounced “safe for flight” – no small feat. After ET-122, there is only ET-95 left at MAF. ET-95 was the last Light Weight Tank (as opposed to the current Super Light Weight Tanks). We dissected it heavily during all the post-Columbia investigations and it will probably be a museum piece. Anybody want a relic?
You can read all about the MAF celebration on the NASA home page, so I won’t write any more about it. Except I didn’t go. The place is a ghost town. After years of a work force that ran about 2,500 people, it is down to a skeleton crew, most of the construction jigs are mothballed or removed, there is very little to see, just an empty building. Depressing. Maybe someday this will change. But not now. I get to go to enough funerals; I didn’t need to go to MAF. Sorry to be depressing but ‘it is what it is.’
KSC – the children’s hour
Travel to Florida is always good; this time I got to hand over a bunch of work. In particular, the responsibility for the Columbia debris repository will transition from the Space Shuttle Program to NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. If you are a researcher and want to obtain some of the Columbia debris to study the effects of re-entry on materials and structures, you should contact the repository caretaker, Mike Ciannilli at the Kennedy Space Center. Mike works in the NTD office which is located up on the 4th floor of the Launch Control Center building. That building is an architectural award winner as well as on the national register of historic places, and holds the Firing Rooms where all the Saturn and Shuttle launches was controlled.
The 4th floor of the LCC has a wide and spacious hall, and the entire floor was especially quiet the day I visited. It has been a very intense time for the folks who work in shuttle, almost 8 launch flows in just over a year; there is a breather until the next flight so many people have taken a well deserved vacation. As I walked down the echoing hallway, the graphic reminders of shuttle flights past covered the walls. During the shuttle countdowns, the crew families are hosted up there; the Launch Director’s office has a superb view of the pads, and there is roof access for the actual launch. But kids are kids and it is always a challenge to keep them from being bored with the countdown progresses. Some genius of the past told the astronauts children to color one of the white erasable marker boards on one of the walls. After the launch, the firing room crew found the art work so moving that the marker board was carefully removed, covered with plexiglas to preserve the image, and reinstalled in the hallway for all to see. After many shuttle flights, these decorated markerboards line the broad and long hallway of the 4th floor of the LCC. The art is intense, the colors are primary, the style is primitive as most children’s drawings are. And hugely meaningful: renderings of crew patches, visions of launches, lists of relatives in attendance, caricatures of parents embarking on heroic feats, even pictures of family pets can be found on these masterpieces. Although the 4th floor hallway is quite long, after so many shuttle flights, they have run out of room and some of these markerboards are showing up in the first floor lobby of the LCC building. It is a moving experience to walk down the hall and contemplate what these children were thinking, and what the experience meant to them. Each one is a mute testimony to pride and fear, wisdom and innocence. Maybe someday this art will be on public display. For me, it as moving an experience as you can have in any art gallery.
Hemphill, Texas – Columbia memorial groundbreaking
The last census showed the population of Hemphill was 1,100 people. When pieces of Columbia rained down on them, they turned out do to far beyond what duty would normally require in such a situation. Now, with a generous gift from a native son, the people of that small east Texas town is adding a wing to the public library which will be a museum and memorial to the Columbia astronauts. I am reminded of what Roger Mellot told me after visiting there in the spring of 2003: “The people of east Texas love their country, and they love their country’s space program.” It is still true. I was asked by the JSC public affairs office to accompany the official delegation and make some appropriate remarks at the groundbreaking. It was a joy to do so. The speechifying was held in the high school cafeteria where over 125 people were present. That may not sound like a lot, but it was over 10% of the population of the town, in the middle of a work day. So I think that is a lot. Several speeches were made; the best was given by Evelyn Husband-Thompson. I wish I could include her remarks, they were moving. The best I can do is to paste in my not-as-memorable talk:
We are gathered here to do something that is not often done, I think, these days. We are celebrating the work of a group of civic leaders, volunteers, and a generous benefactor. The work that they have accomplished is to start the construction of a facility, a building, a place where our children can learn about the true meaning of what it is to be a real hero.
The future of any people or nation depends on their children and how they live out the values they have learned. That is what is so important about this day, and so uncommon about this event: that here you are teaching your children something very important; because the men and women who sacrificed their lives were heroes of the truest kind.
Nowadays the term hero is most commonly applied to sports figures, or successful entertainers like singers and actors. Our children might think that they should emulate those people and model their lives after those examples. This is not, in fact, what we know that our children should learn.
Now, I love my sports teams, and I love my music and those who make it, and I enjoy entertainment as much as anyone. But success in those endeavors does not make one a hero. And we need to be very clear about that.
We are gathered here today to honor real heroes. We are here to describe why they were heroes in terms so plain that our children, no matter how young, can understand what it means to be a true hero.
Those we honor here showed by the example of their lives what being a real hero means: hard work surely, but not hard work alone; sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, but not sacrifice alone, rather sacrifice in the pursuit of the betterment of all people.
Our heroes were about the business of making our lives better, more prosperous, more free. It has been said that the exploration of space is the noblest activity of our time, and so history may record it. But their lives were devoted to making a better life not just in the distant future but for those of us here and now. Because their efforts made discoveries and advancements that have improved our lives, made our nation more prosperous, and made the world a better place, and increased our awe of creation.
That, then, is the purpose for being here. To commit ourselves to teach our children that they, too, must become heroes, that they must devote themselves to the improvement of life here on earth, and the exploration of the universe, to work hard, and to sacrifice in the service of their community, their nation, and indeed the whole world.
In a very real way, we are the beneficiaries of generations of heroes who have gone before us; who have made our nation strong, prosperous, and free because they were willing to sacrifice themselves to make it so.
So finally, this teaching burden falls on us, those living here today, because, in the words of the biblical injunction ‘To whom much has been given, much will be required.’
I have one more official trip to make. Next week we have the final editorial board meeting for the GPO shuttle history book ‘Wings in Orbit.’ This will be at MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama. I expect to write you a report on that as well.
Finally, the agency has asked me to continue writing my NASA blog in retirement. I plan to do that, but realize that it will mostly be a retrospective – as retirees are wont to do – rather than a commentary on current events. Plenty of other folks keep the internet warm on that!