Trip Reports

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!


NASA and Education


            As the son of an elementary teacher and the father of a secondary school teacher, I have learned a few things about education.  For example, if you were to ask any teacher at any level what is the most important tool to have to facilitate learning and they will give you the same answer.  Sometimes the words are slightly different but it amounts to the same answer:  the interest, inspiration, and enthusiasm of the students for the subject.  With that, you can teach almost anything with minimal, even primitive equipment and facilities.  Without interest, enthusiasm, and inspiration, all the high tech, modern, fancy equipment and facilities are virtually useless.


            The exploration of space has a long history of inspiring students to study science, engineering, mathematics, and other technical subjects.  The exploration of space has inspired poets, artists, and novelists.  Almost the entire spectrum of human activity and interest has at one time or another been sparked by the exploration of space. 


            I recently watched a middle school class on a field trip to a NASA display.  They were totally entranced.  Middle school is a hard age to capture.  These kids were spellbound.  They were ready to sign on:  astronaut, flight director, chief scientist, whatever.  Dinosaurs and space continue to capture the interest of our young people. 


“The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth” – Jules Verne, “From the Earth to the Moon” , 1865.  That was the 19th century view.  In the 21st century, engineering (like music and theology) has become a worldwide theme.  America is not the only nation to provide engineers.



            Education is one of the most important topics to Americans.  As a nation we devote huge resources to educating our children, local school boards and state government last year spent over $800 billion on education.  At the federal level, the Department of Education’s budget last year was just over $57 billion.  This represents substantially more money than the nation spent on national defense in all its aspects including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national intelligence, and the department of homeland security.


            In fact, the national average secondary schooling expenditure per child in the United States is third in the world, behind only Switzerland and Finland and well ahead of Germany, Japan, South Korea, and China. 


Yet, by all objective measures, American students are significantly lagging in almost every area to their foreign counterparts.  Math, Science, even language testing scores lag significantly behind other modern industrialized nations.


Equally troubling is the decline in college graduates in engineering, mathematics, and science.  Over the last decade there has been a steady decay of graduates in these fields so that compared with the previous decade, the United States has 100,000 fewer graduates in these fields.  Compared with other countries we are doing even worse.  When normalized to the population of the country, every industrialized modern nation graduates more science, engineering, and mathematics students than the United States.  Our biggest economic competitors are graduating the most:  China, Japan, India, South Korea.  American innovation and creativity has long been the fire that stoked the engine of our economy.  As we graduate fewer people who have the wherewithal to create new products and services, America can only expect economic decline.


            So what are we to do about this as a nation?  History can provide some relevance.  During the 20th century, there were two significant periods of growth in the training of American engineers, mathematicians, and scientists.  The first was World War II and its immediate aftermath.  Certainly we would rather not expand our capability based on a war, and the circumstances of the GI bill may not be applicable.  The other period of expansion was shortly after Sputnik and the decline started with the end of Apollo.  Is there a lesson here?


            Several prominent writers have argued that the Space Race of the 1960’s provided an alternative to war in the competition between nations.  Certainly there were wars in the 1960’s, most notably in Vietnam.  However, the two super powers of the period were able to compete in the peaceful exploration of space in a way that provided a way to enhance national pride, demonstrate technical and social prowess to the other nations of the world, and in fact inspire young people to pursue careers in technical fields.


            Clearly, today, simply throwing more money at education will not be a panacea.  This is not to say that there are not areas where increased funding could improve some niches.  But overall, we need a different strategy.


            To reiterate:  what is the one most important ingredient in teaching?  Technology such as computers is important.  Facilities are important.  Good teacher preparation is important.  But if you really want students to learn, they must be interested; more than that students must be excited, they must be inspired.


            We need inspiration. 


            NASA is not the Department of Education.  Our charter does not include responsibility for national education.  Nor does our budget provide very much in the way of teacher aids.  NASA’s charter requires us to “inform the nation of our . . . .progress” and a very small division of the public affairs office provides educational material which can be used for classes to explore topics that NASA is directly related to.  In a more significant way, NASA each year spends a significant sum on research grants to universities which in turn provide support for graduate students and researchers.  These grants are funded because there are specific products that NASA needs to carry out our missions.  Research grants have the happy by-product of providing funds for graduate and undergraduate support.  But all of NASA’s education related spending – direct and indirect – is a drop in the bucket of national education spending.


            What NASA has provided in the past, NASA can provide again:  inspiration.


            Many have complained that the International Space Station and Shuttle programs have not been inspirational.  Personally, I would challenge that premise.  But for a moment, lets accept it.  What would be inspirational?  How about the exploration of the solar system?  First, outposts on the moon, then on to Mars, the asteroids, and other habitable places in the solar system.  Initially by robotic explorers, then by human beings:  men and women.  How about that for an inspirational goal?


            Even in these “un-inspirational” days, many young people have been motivated to science and engineering fields by the prospect of becoming an astronaut, or of being a member of a robot exploration of the universe.  Imagine how excited a generation will be if they have the immediate prospect of setting foot on the sandy plains of Mars? 


            It’s not a war.  Its peaceful.  And it is sustainable.  But the vision cannot be delayed, shelved for “a better budget climate” in the distant and hazy future. 


            NASA may once again be the inspiration that America needs to shake off our lethargy, become the greatest nation in the world – maybe even the greatest nation in the world’s history – by continuing to explore the last frontier.  And since it will excite our children as nothing else can, NASA will transform education, and bring back the creative spark that powers our economic engine in ways that we cannot imagine.


            Having a seemingly unattainable goal is the hallmark of what it means to be American.  Our forefathers came here for opportunities that the old world lacked.  Our descendants will look for opportunities that this entire world lacks – but which the universe can provide. 


            And so, once again, American will transform itself and the world.  The old beekeeper from New Zealand had it right.  Ed Hillary lead the first expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.  He summed it up this way: 


“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”


Inspiring our Children

Being at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on opening day was a hoot.  I got to talk to a whole bunch of folks.  In terms of mass media it was probably not that many, but this was two way conversation and I certainly talked to as many as I could in the 5 or so hours the festival went on. 

The most fun is talking to the school children.  Many families are here for vacations and some of these kids seem to be suffering from museum-itis.  Too much to see, too many things to do.  But almost all of them had questions about living and working in space.  I think you can guess the most popular question . . .

My question back to many of them is “Do you want to go to space?”  Some of the shy little ones wouldn’t answer, a few of the more cautious ones said no, but the vast majority got wide eyed and nodded with enthusiasm.  If they said they wanted to go, I passed them a NASA bookmark and told them to read . . . because that is the key.  The parents invariably said ‘My child loves to read’.  or something like that.

Wow, what a response.  Of course, what we really need to do is to reach those kiddos who don’t like to read, or whose parents don’t drag them off to educational trips.  Talking with the education folks at NASA HQ and other centers, the space agency does a tremendous job on a shoe string budget at all levels of the educational world to provide educational opportunities, lessons, teacher resources, and unique experiences for students from pre-school to graduate school.  Over 60,000 students each year get to directly interact with NASA educational opportunities. 

Educating our children starts with capturing their interest and getting them excited.  We have a good track record of inspiring young people to study harder and get the education they need to be productive in science and engineering fields.  That inspiration is worth its weight in gold!

Gotta go — more fun on the mall this afternoon.  If you can get to the Folk Life Festival in Washington in the next two weeks, be sure to stop by the NASA exhibit.




Learning from dissent

            If you listen with an open mind, you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you.  Even questioning the fundamentals from time to time is a good exercise to make sure we are on the right track and not on the proverbial bus trip to Abilene.


            I really resonated with the comment by Joe Fitzgerald of Boston, reading his children the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  When my children were small, we read the whole series at bedtime, one chapter a night.  I particularly liked “Farmer Boy” but all of the books are good because they are true and very well told.  After reading those books, I always wondered if I was tough enough to be a pioneer; probably not. 


            Joe thinks space exploration is a long way from Ma & Pa Ingalls setting out across the Midwest in their covered wagon.  Turns out, I do too. 


Some time back I had a great conversation with Mike Griffin where he pointed out that we are at the earliest stages of space exploration, and likened our times to the era of the Viking longboats. Those crude ships were just barely enough to get across the stormy Atlantic.  Sometimes, not always.  In space exploration we really need to get to the Caravel stage; which is still far short of the Clipper Ship phase, and light years from the jet aircraft stage. 


            In the 1850’s there was a proposal to build dirigibles to transport folks from the east coast to the California gold fields.  At the time ballooning was immensely popular but the technology was immature.  Still, it looked like a better option than taking five months across the mountains, prairies, and deserts on foot or by wagon.  Sadly, the dirigibles never materialized.  In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed and a vastly less capable technology – steam locomotives – was used to cross the country in only seven days!  I wonder how history would have been different if we had invested more in lighter than aircraft than in steam locomotives?  Today everybody travels by air – just not dirigibles – while passenger trains are almost extinct.


Ma & Pa Ingalls will have to wait for a few more improvements in technology before we can get off the planet at anything like regular people prices.  But I don’t think that we should give us seafaring just because all we have is a Viking longboat.  We just have more impetus to build a better boat.


            Point well taken, Joe; your comment certainly made me think.


            Friday I had a “dissenting opinion” from a well respected source.  Bob Thompson who was the first Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1974 to 1981 gave me a call.  Bob is a man of vast talents who was responsible for building the Skylab space station before he was handed the near-impossible job to build the first reusable spacecraft.  He is singularly proud of his accomplishment, as he should be.


            Bob’s treatise was simple; we have got enough to do to master near earth space – low earth orbit to geosync – to keep us busy and learning for the next 30 to 50 years.  His proposal is to keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date.  I cannot do his argument justice here but it was fascinating to hear someone who is so completely counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom.  It always makes me more thoughtful when the fundamentals are examined in a well considered way.


            As a byproduct of this conversation I got a great recounting of the early days of Skylab and how many of the fundamental engineering tradeoffs were made in early Shuttle design.  Extraordinarily educational.  Lots to think about.  I hope Bob and I get to debate this one some more. 


            After a weekend’s worth of thought, I am still, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to Bob’s opinion.  A longer explanation is worthwhile but I am running out of time and space today.  That will be a blog post for a future date.


            Keep thinking and we’ll keep talking; all the while working toward the future.


            Meanwhile, I’ve got to go help bail out the longboat a little bit . . . .

Starting a conversation – June 17,2008

Starting a conversation is hard.  Geting off on the wrong foot can happen so quickly and then any chance of a meaningful encounter is lost.   I am really interested in starting a conversation.  Not a conversation on any subject, but a conversation about space exploration and why that effort is meaningful.  Perhaps you agree, perhaps you disagree, but you certainly know some things I don’t.  And I am really interested in finding out what I don’t know (which is a lot!)

So I’ll try to hammer out some thoughts every day or so –  maybe with pictures if I figure that out –  and you can write me back and tell me how its going..

So for the first post, I’ll start with the reason I came to work late — my grandkids (oh, no, you didn’t want to hear that kind of story did you?!)

Not that my two grandchildren are the smartest and brightest kids ever born (they are),  but what having grandchildren – or children – can mean.  Children make me thoughtful.  (After they are in bed, anyway).  Little children make me think about the future.  What will the world be like when these wee ones inherit what we have done? Will the world be a better or a worse place than it is today?  And the hardest question of all: what can I do to make it better?

 I hold a stubborn and passionate belief that space exploration is important for that future.  Just one example for today: understanding our own planet.  Without satellites to monitor the weather, climate, pollution, crop growth patterns, and many other things we would be blind and deaf to what is happening.  The earth monitoring satellites built by many countries and many US agencies are giving us vital information about our world every day. And that is information that cannot be gained anywhere else but from earth orbit.

Beyond all that, studying other planets have helped understand our own.  In particular, how our complex atmosphere works.  Our weather and climate are influenced by the interaction of air and water, sometimes too complex to understand directly.  Venus and Mars don’t have oceans but they have weather. Studying those planets helps us understand what happens without oceans.   Jupiter and Saturn have planet circling oceans (not water, certainly!) underneath their atmosphere.  By studying them we understand better how gas and liquid interact to affect climate and weather.  The payoff is better weather forecasts, better understanding of climate change, and more impetus to change our own future.  Don’t stop there.  The Sun drives all our weather and climate, everything else is just a tweak around the edges by comparison.  The Ulysses probe is going silent after 17 years of service.  Ulysses, launched on the shuttle Discovery, studied the sun.  Ulysses and the other solar satellites are helping us to understand how changes in our unstable star occur.  Better understanding of the sun is mandatory to understand our future.

All of that to make sure that our children and grandchildren have a better future.  Or, at least better than what would occur if we didn’t know what was going on and therefore couldn’t do anything about it.

So, a first example and discussion topic.  I’ll have more in days to come. 

Let me know what you think!