Monthly Archives: January 2012

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.



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.