Saying Goodbye to Space Shuttle Endeavour

Yesterday, the baby of the Space Shuttle Fleet stopped in Houston to say good-bye to the men and women of the Space Program who not only designed her, but planned and operated her missions, and of course flew her.  Luckily my office has a view of Ellington Field and I was able to watch her flybys and landing.  A few of those pictures are on my Flickr page, however they were shot through a window and didn’t turn out great even with my zoom lens.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be the photographer riding backseat in the T-28 to photograph her around Houston?  Talk about a thrill!  Here is Endeavour over Johnson Space Center (photo credit: NASA).

I’d love to say visiting Endeavour was an emotional and moving experience.  But, it wasn’t.  It was a nightmare traffic wise just to get there.  A trip that shouldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes in normal traffic flow took over an hour.  I was really disappointed in the police’s lack of ability to set up a system of directing the flow of traffic.  And, I know people who tried to get to Ellington and simply couldn’t because of the traffic or because by the time they arrived there in the evening they weren’t letting people on anymore.  Something this monumental and significant should have been better planned.

Regardless, the short time I was able to stay at Ellington (because after all it was a work day) I managed to take some great pictures of my baby (well, I did dream of flying her one day when she became operational when I was in high school).  I photographed her similar to how I photographed Discovery for her arrival at NASM.  Up close and personal.

To see my full set of pictures from Endeavour’s stop over in Houston please visit Flickr.

This morning as I was headed to a doctor’s appointment I looked up in the sky to be surprised to see her flying one last time over JSC.   That’s when the emotion hit.  I cried “what a moving gesture” and well cried.  Because?  She’s the last of these phenomenal flying machines to fly across the country.  If it wasn’t hard enough seeing the last Shuttle Launch last year, this surely hit home seeing one of these girls in the air for the last time.

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How did Sally Ride inspire you?

A week ago we were shocked to learn that Sally Ride died from pancreatic cancer.  We quickly shared memories with one another – whether they were of her first spaceflight, getting her autograph, or participating in a Sally Ride Science event.

Not only was Sally Ride just 25 when she was selected as a member of the first Shuttle class of Astronauts, she was also one of a handful of women chosen for the first time to be a NASA Astronaut. When she was the first American woman to fly in space in 1983 she became broke down barriers that people today don’t even question.

I “discovered” human spaceflight in late 1985 as a fifth grader.  Sally Ride being the first woman to fly in space was a reality that I didn’t examine.  It simply was what it was.  The thought that I couldn’t become an astronaut because I was a girl never crossed my mind.  And honestly, until her death I didn’t realize that it was only a period of two years between her first flight and the birth of my dream to become an astronaut.  What if I discovered spaceflight three years earlier?  Would society have taught me it was something not for girls?  What if I was born in the 60s?  Would I not be an aerospace engineer today?  I am who I am because of how history was shaped.  What if  just one of the Mercury 13 members had been chosen by NASA? Who would they have inspired to reach for the stars?

While I never attributed Sally Ride for directly inspiring me, without a doubt she was part of the NASA that did inspire me to follow my dreams.

Now the question is how did Sally Ride inspire you?

Houston, we have a shuttle!

June 1st marked quite a treat for Houston.  After the disappointment of not being selected to receive one of the space shuttle orbiters we were given a mock shuttle from the KSC Visitor’s Center.   I couldn’t help but participate in the festivities, appropriately called Shuttlebration. NASA and Space Center Houston put on a great party June 1st to celebrate the Shuttle’s arrival with MaxQ (the Astronaut Band, the Space Exploration Vehicle, an Orion Booth, and more).


I joke that this is our wooden shuttle, and it is a wooden shuttle.  But, I really do think the potential for greatness comes with our wooden shuttle.  Why?  Because people get to go INSIDE this wooden shuttle.  Unlike the real orbiters which are  national treasures and are closed up.  While this shuttle allows people to walk inside and see what the Payload Bay looks like and get the feel for the size (a school bus can fit inside) imagine if they took it one step further and held small classes inside the payload bay?  Or offered a session in the flight deck where you can sit in the pilot or commander seat and work with an instructor to flip the switches to simulate a launch or a docking?  Lots of potential to excite people of all ages.  What would you suggest Houston do with their new wooden shuttle?

Welcome Discovery!

Last week I visited Washington D.C, Virgina, and Maryland to help welcome the Space Shuttle Discovery to the National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport.  While I only worked on the Space Shuttle Program for six months during my career, I did work in the Space Station Engineering Back Room for many many years in which we worked all of the Space Shuttle missions visiting the Space Station.  My love of the Space Shuttle comes from my childhood.  She inspired me to greatness.  To become an astronautical engineer, to work at NASA, to make a difference in the world.  Of course, as a child I had dreamed of flying her.

I had a wonderful experience seeing the two sisters (Enterprise and Discovery) meet for the very first time.  Enterprise gleaming white and Discovery showing the stuff she is made of after 39 flights into Low Earth Orbit.

As I met up with friends throughout the day and we snapped pictures as if we would never see her (Discovery) outside again.  This is one of my personal favorites.

I was impressed with the crowd, everyone taking pictures and wanting to get as close to her as possible.  But, I was disappointed.  I thought there would be more people.  It was a Thursday.  And a school day.  Maybe that kept people away.  In reality, it meant we all got to spend a little more time with our girl before she settled in for her first night in the museum.

And all of us took our pictures, oohed and aawed, and thought about the next generation of dreams to come true.

To see my full set of pictures please visit Flickr.

A Smile As Big As the Moon

Last night I had the wonderful opportunity to watch the Houston Premiere of “A Smile As Big As the Moon” at Space Center Houston.  The movie will be shown January 29th, 2012 on ABC and is a Hallmark Hall of Fame feature. There will be a virtual tweetup on twitter during the Eastern/Central viewing time of the movie on January 29th.  You can follow along and join in the fun using the hashtag #smilemovie.  Also, Space Camp (@spacecampusa) will be tweeting differences between the book and the movie.

The movie is based on a true story (and book) about a special education teacher who takes the first group of special needs students to Space Camp.  Book Description (from Amazon):

“Mike Kersjes always believed that his students could do anything—even attend the prestigious Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where some of America’s best and brightest high school students compete in a variety of activities similar to those experienced by NASA astronauts training for space shuttle missions. The challenge was convincing everyone else that the kids in his special education class, with disabilities including Tourette’s syndrome, Down’s syndrome, dyslexia, eating disorders, and a variety of emotional problems, would benefit from the experience and succeed. With remarkable persistence, Kersjes broke down one barrier after another, from his own principal’s office to the inner sanctum of NASA, until Space Camp finally opened its doors. After nine months of rigorous preparation, Kersjes’s class arrived at Space Camp, where they turned in a performance beyond everyone’s expectations.”

I wanted to share this movie with you because it gets to the core of inspiration, motivation, and dreams.  I’ve always been a believer that anyone can do anything if provided the opportunity.  While over the years I’ve become less of a believer in this statement, this movie brought a smile to my face and reminded me of my own space dreams and ambitions.  I was very lucky to have gotten the chance to attend Space Academy Level II when I was a sophomore in High School.  It was (at that time) 8 days of non-stop learning, teamwork, fun, and it all culminated in a 24 hour space mission involving the shuttle, a space station, and of course included EVAs.

For years I had wanted to attend Space Camp and my parents simply could not afford such an expensive venture.  I had never been to any camp whatsoever in fact.  Back in the days before we had this thing called the world wide web you used what still exists today – a library.  I used the library to get contact information for NASA and for Space Camp so I could learn all that I could about how to become an astronaut.  Somewhere along the way I learned that you could apply for a scholarship to Space Camp by writing an essay that was on one of their featured topics for the year.  I applied three times for a scholarship.  And on that third try I still remember being the one to get the mail as soon as it arrived and a thick envelope was addressed to me from Space Camp.  I do believe I screamed out various sentiments of joy that day.

After Thanksgiving in 1991, I went off to Space Camp and a dream came true.  What I did not realize before going was that the experience was more than just a week at camp or learning that I could do anything.  I walked away from Space Camp feeling for the first time in my life that I belonged.  And that meant the world to me.  I learned there were others like me passionate about space exploration with the desire to learn all they could.  Those who dreamed about being scientists, engineers, or even astronauts.  Those who wanted to make a difference in the world.  It wasn’t until I attended Purdue for my B.S. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering that I again felt this sense of belonging.  After graduation I continued to belong when I moved to Houston to work at NASA Johnson Space Center and that belonging hasn’t left me ever since.  I returned to Space Camp in 1996 as a counselor.  It was my turn to give back.

That’s what Space Camp gave me.  A family.  I still keep in touch with friends I made during my space camp experiences including one of my counselors from 1991, friends from 1991, and fellow counselors from 1996.

I hope you’ll tune into the movie because it truly is inspiring.

Catch-22

Here we are just a few weeks away from the release of the 2013 President’s Budget Request (PBR) and I can’t help but ponder the future.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t get the feeling that Congress is dedicated to making sure the path NASA is on will succeed.  And my fear is with the transition to the next President (assuming the current one doesn’t win re-election) the current plan will be scrapped once again and a re-direction of NASA will take place.  Is the current path sustainable?  Is a re-direction needed?

For those who have followed me on twitter the past few years and are readers of this blog, you know that I’m focused on manned space exploration and that’s what I pour my heart into.  So, we have three aspects to consider regarding manned exploration; commercial crew, Orion/SLS, and exploration infrastructure to enable missions to moons, asteroids, and Mars.

Regarding Commercial Crew, if the purpose is to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle Program and first flight of Commercial Crew then why does Congress keep cutting the Commercial Crew Budget?  The 2012 PBR asked for $850M to allow at least two companies continue developing their spacecraft and launch vehicle to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016.  Now, with the cut to $406M the date is pushing back to 2017 or even 2018 for first flight.  Does Congress lack the trust in the aerospace companies who either have been doing this for decades or have hired experts in the field who have been doing this for decades?  It can be done.  And safely.  The only thing missing is the money to do it because as of today there simply is no market for Low Earth Orbit.  But, once these companies succeed (thus proving the capability) then I foresee a great change in what happens in Low Earth Orbit.  I’m not saying anything anyone doesn’t already know or think.  But, the more we pull back from Commercial Crew the less chances of seeing a market develop.

I have to admit that Orion getting $375M more to do a test flight in 2014 amazes me from a process perspective.  Here we are with a Commercial Crew Program that is responsible for funding at least two companies if not three on a yearly budget of $406M and Orion gets an additional $375M for a test flight on top of the $1.2B for 2012.  I don’t doubt that most of the $375M will go to pay for the Delta IV and integration, but with a yearly budget of approximately $1B I think about what all we could do with that money.  But, the bottom line is when NASA is responsible for running a program (like Constellation, Shuttle, ISS, etc) you are embedded in the processes that exist at NASA which runs the cost up.  It would be great to see NASA go through Lean and streamline their processes to be more effective and timely.  I think in the long run they would save a significant amount of money thus allowing it to be spent on additional capabilities and programs taking us to the stars.  But, as with any government program when you mention streamlining or leaning out processes that means the elimination of people’s jobs because you have made things more effective.  And, in this economy that is the last thing people (those working the jobs) want to hear or experience.  I don’t blame them.  In the end, it’s all a Catch-22.

If we did streamline processes what would that extra money be used for?  I personally would want to put it towards exploration architecture.  Once you have SLS (the rocket) and Orion (the spacecraft) you still need more to go Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).  Perhaps a Lunar Lander to visit the moon.  A Habitation Module to go deeper into space to visit the Moons of Mars or Mars itself.  There is still so much to be developed and so little money.

But then again I think I should be grateful we have the 2012 budget we do given the realities of the economy.  It’s our job, the engineers to do our best and give the taxpayers the best value of every dollar.

Beware of passion

Is there such a thing as having too much passion?  For wanting to change the world, one space vehicle at a time?

We are engineers.  We work at NASA or for a NASA contractor.  The programs we slave away on are given unrealistic budgets and schedules and we are the ones who think outside of the box to try and make all of the jigsaw pieces fit together.  Technically, we can do anything we set our minds too.  All of us have that mindset.  Anything is possible.

What does stop us in our tracks?  Or at least slow us down to a slow crawl? Politics.

In my first blog post for this site back in January 2010, I wrote that sometimes dreams need course corrections and that was written about NASA changing directions from the Constellation Program to some unknown future.  Here we are 21 months later and not a whole lot further down the road.  NASA is saying 2017 instead of 2015 for first flight of the Commercial Crew vehicle to the International Space Station (based on funding forecasts), the heavy-life launch vehicle has only recently come to life as a reincarnation of Saturn V (at least in paint colors), and I’m trying my best to stay positive and believe in a future  in the Aerospace Industry.

But I keep coming back to my naive dreamer post from October 2010.   It’s now 13 months later and I’m still a naive dreamer and keep getting hurt.  Why do I keep letting the government and thus NASA dim the lights on my passion?  NASA will never get the funding to do what we as children were told was going to happen in our adult lives.  At least they won’t in our lifetimes.  So why are we still here?  Why are we holding on?  Is it for the paycheck?  Do we think we can really make a difference so our children or grandchildren can experience what we dreamed of?

Why am I here?  What good am I providing?  How am I making a difference in the world?  Do I have too much passion for this field and thus destined to be disappointed? These are questions I’m currently exploring and I simply don’t know how to answer them right now.  Another phase of the naive dreamer coming to an end.