Meeting the Great Bird of the Galaxy

Long before I came to work at NASA, I was enamored with space travel.  On flickering black and white television we watched the Ranger shots, the Mariner 4 pictures of Mars roll in, Alan Shepard on the skinny Redstone, John Glenn, all the Gemini/Titan launches and even the puppeteers that were the special effects of the day as they mimicked the early space walks.  Science Fiction was the largest component of my reading material, much to my teacher’s dismay, and I avidly watched all the great movies of the time:  Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, the Day the Earth Stood Still, and many more.


Television influenced all our thinking about space travel.  Not only were there the wonderful Disney shows about mounting expeditions to the moon and beyond, but there were dreadful science fiction series like Lost In Space.  But the most important show of all time, at least for us space cadets, was Star Trek.


Gene Roddenberry was the creator and initiator of that famous and influential fictional universe which echoes down to our current time.  As many commentators have noted, the issues that his characters faced were not really issues of aliens and space but the issues facing each of us in America in the 1960.  And there was a basic foundation of hope:  hope that the future would be better, where everyone had a chance at fulfillment, where all sorts of folks had learned to work and live together.  In the 1960’s that did not seem like a certain outcome; over 40 years later we are much closer to that universe than many thought possible.


As any good fan knows, the original Star Trek series was cancelled after only three years and it took nearly a decade before the first Star Trek movie was made and another decade before the series was revived with the “next generation.”  So the early 1970’s was a disappointing era for science fiction fans.  But that “gap” gave me the opportunity to meet Gene Roddenberry in person.


While I was an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, one of my extracurricular activities was as chairman of a committee which was to bring different speakers to the university.  We were able to bring Congresswoman Barbara Jordan to speak; what a moving experience that was!


In those long ago days, different companies that provided speakers would send out picture catalogs of various folks that you could contract to speak at your event for a fee.  While leafing through the catalog, one picture jumped out at me:  Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek was on the speaker’s circuit – and the price was well within our budget. 


With warp speed, we made the arrangements for him to come.  On the fateful day, I drove my roommate and his girlfriend to Houston’s big airport and we met Mr. Roddenberry at the gate.   He turned out to be a really interesting guy with a lot of stories and very gregarious.  It was at lunch we learned how he got his nickname (Great Bird of the Galaxy).  It was a magical afternoon.  We took him to lunch at the nicest place the student associate could afford (at the Galleria) and then to his hotel for some rest.  That evening I had pressed several classmates into service to collect money at the door (we had to pay for it somehow!) and the main auditorium of the student center was packed to capacity.


Roddenberry had brought a film real of outtakes (“bloopers”) from the TV show and we started the program with that film.  After the film ended, applause echoed in the hall and I got to make the introduction.  The next hour and a half was filled with a discussion of his philosophy, the entertainment business, and everything under the sun.  Ending the program I escorted the great man to one of the college professor’s house where a reception was held in his honor. 


At this point, things started going awry.  First of all, my college buddies wanted to know what to do with the cash box filled with over $1,000 in small bills.  I hadn’t thought about that – it was a lot of money to a college kid in 1974!  We hid it in my dorm room since the bursar’s office was closed.  Then the ‘blooper’ reel had disappeared.  I had to hunt all over campus until I found it being projected in another theater on campus.  Confiscating the film, I headed back to the reception where Mr. Roddenberry was ready to leave.  A female student begged me to let her ride with me while I delivered him to the hotel.  That was a mistake.  Let’s just say that she gave every indication that she wanted to be dropped off there as well!  Nevertheless, I got him to his hotel room and her back to campus. 


The following morning I collected Mr. Roddenberry and whisked him to the airport.  Quite a busy 24 hours!  Not one I will forget soon.  Then the long wait until Monday morning and I could turn the money into the campus business office.  Nobody guarded their dorm room more closely than I did until 8:00 Monday morning.  Whew.


So that is my story.  After a couple of weeks, I got an envelope in the mail from Mr. Roddenberry’s secretary.  The note said how much he had enjoyed the trip and there was a certificate:  I was named a Star Fleet Officer with the signature endorsements (which looked strikingly similar) of Captain James T. Kirk and Admiral Eugene Roddenberry.  Needless to say it is one of my most prized possessions!


And that is the story of how I met the Great Bird of the Galaxy and learned how the future would be filled with wonders, optimism, and the exploration of the universe!


And you wonder why I always wanted to work in space.

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”


Myth,Power,and Value

As soon as I read this excerpt, I knew I had to read the whole book: 

“Coronado’s journey was the Apollo expedition of his day and Mexico City was a sixteenth-century mission control, shipping men out to explore the unknown.” 

Tony Horwitz has written a lively, easy to understand, yet profound history of the exploration of North America from Columbus in 1492 to the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth in 1620.  As he says in the introduction “I’d mislaid an entire century”.  The rediscovery of that critical period is found in his new book “A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World”, Henry Holt and Company, 2008, ISBN-13:978-8050-7603-5.

I offer this book for your reading consideration. 

If you are wondering how this applies to space exploration, ponder this passage from Tony’s book — the very first chapter on the Vikings in America before Columbus: 

“Vinland’s brief flicker was even more extraordinary.  When Leif and his siblings set off, Norse Greenland was only fifteen years old, with a population of about five hundred.  Vinland was a satellite of a satellite, its voyagers on the medieval equivalent of a space walk, tethered to a mother ship already at the furthest reach of European society and knowledge. . . What seems most surprising is not that Norse Vinland failed, but that it happened at all.

Nor was the Viking’s fate anomalous.  The Europeans who resettled America after 1492 brought horses, guns, and other advantages unknown to the Norse.  Yet they, too, found it hard to sustain a toehold, even in settings much gentler than subartic Canada.  Dozens of early colonies foundered in mass death or abandonment.  Failure was the norm, not the exception.

According to America’s national saga, English settlers ultimately triumphed because of their superior grit, idealism, and entrepreneurship.  But . . .small incoming populations rarely take root.  The difference between success and failure typically depends on the number of times a new group arrives, and in what strength . . . waves of settlers kept restocking Virginia and Massachusetts.  Sheer weight of numbers and the backing of increasingly powerful mercantile states . . . proved critical to success.”

Wow.  We should contemplate those very real lessons from history.  Read this book and others like it. 

As a native son of the Land of Enchantment (look it up), I was raised on the Conquistadores and Coronado, so some of this was familiar.  As a startling coincidence I find myself back in that country, in a museum, in a conference about how to do exploration in a “mercantile” way!  So pensive thought trying to connect the dots is probably a natural consequence.

In another place on the internet, a commentator has told me that NASA is not (or should not) be in the inspiration business.  I could not disagree more completely.  We have to be in the inspiration business.  We need to inspire our fellow citizens in these difficult days by reminding them that together we have overcome great difficulties in the past and done great things and that we can do so again.  We need to inspire our children to believe that there is a future worth studying for and working toward.  We need to inspire the world that America is still “the last best hope of mankind.”  Inspiration is the very essence of what we do.  The merely mundane advancement of the aeronautical sciences or advances in celestial navigation is scarcely the reason why the Congress and the President set up this peculiar agency some 50 years ago. 

Isn’t it true that you still hear people say “If we can put a man on the moon then we ought to be able to . . . ” fill in the blank with any great challenge facing us. 

NASA and our accomplishments in space is now part of the great national myth.  Wait a minute, I need to explain myself there.  At a foolish moment in my college career, I signed up to take a 3 hour poli sci course that all my friends were excited about.  Doc Culbertson was a fixture on campus and taught a course about state and regional politics.  He had a lively and interesting lecture style, the grading curve was said to be friendly, and I needed another course outside the engineering department to fulfill the university requirements for graduation.  My friends were right; it was a great course.  Doc C taught us that political power and cultural values are all derived from national or regional myths.  Now in his parlance, a myth was not a falsehood, it was an interpretation of history.  Or more correctly a revision of history as morality play setting the foundation of certain values from which the populace organized political power. 

I believe Tony Horwitz must have set through that same class.  In the very very last chapter of his book, he ponders the Pilgrims at Plymouth and wonders why they, and not so many others, have become the leading players in the national origin myth.  A modern citizen of Plymouth spells it out for him:  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

As Doc C would have said; myth and the values it supports give people the power to do impossible things.

Like go to the moon.  And to do the other things.  Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. 

We come from a long line of folk who faced long odds, suffered a lot of failure, and came back to build a great nation.