Posts Tagged ‘Cape Canaveral’

'This Week In Space' – June 6, 2010

June 7, 2010

Falcon 9 Launch. June 4, 2010

Hello and Welcome to a special edition of “This Week In Space.”  I am talking about what might very well be the beginning of a new era in space – the door might have opened with the successful inaugural test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket – built by SpaceX.   It happened on Friday at Cape Canaveral.  The nine Merlin engines fired as designed – produced more than a million pounds of thrust – sending Falcon 9 on its way to space. The first stage separated as it was supposed to – and the second stage rocket fired on schedule as well. The only apparent fly in the ointment – second stage – along with mockup up of the Dragon Capsule – began a slow roll. No word on why just yet. SpaceX is leading the charge to open up low earth orbit to private ventures seeking to create a new industry in space. It is a lynch pin of the Obama space vision – and it remains the subject of a lot of controversy – even after this successful first flight. I caught up with SpaceX founder Elon Musk about 24 hours after the launch.

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The Big 'Y'

January 28, 2010

Challenger Y

I was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

The answer is “none of the above.”

With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring manned space exploration to an end.

But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

“Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

“Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.

Falcon 9 Test Fire

January 15, 2010

Source:  SpaceX

Source: SpaceX

Deep in the heart of Texas – a big step on the road to sending privately built spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, ran a full duration test of the second stage motor for its Falcon 9 rocket.  Looks good to me – lots of noise, fire and smoke – and the company confirms the motor did pass the test.

Now they can start packing it up and shipping it off to Cape Canaveral.  SpaceX founder Elon Musk says the test launch will happen there one to two months after the motor is delivered.  The company has a 1.5 billion dollar NASA contract to build a spacecraft that can deliver cargo to the station.  Takes the Fed out of Fed-ex I suppose…

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Some Stories are too Good to Check Out…

June 19, 2009

I wish I had a T-shirt like this (yes, that is a hint).

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — WESH 2 News struck a nerve with an exclusive report as NASA actively works to prevent shuttle sabotage from within its ranks.

While there is no indication that sabotage has ever or will ever happen, officials said it is on the space agency’s radar as the shuttle program winds down.

While the deputy manager of the space shuttle program has said publicly that NASA has had many discussions about the possibility of intentional damage to the shuttle, officials emphasized on Thursday that there is no evidence it has happened.

via NASA: Sabotage Possibility Investigated For Years – Space News Story – WESH Orlando.

It’s getting pretty ugly out there, Space Cadet Nation.

We all know every reporter worth his notebook wants to score a scoop – a big “exclusive” that will make him a newsroom hero – but sometimes the pressure to produce will lead a good scribe down a dark alley.

This item from WESH-TV in Orlando is a good example of how a rumor mixed with a hunch leads to some pointed, loaded questions, which in turn prompts some unclear, easily-misconstrued answers.  Voila – an Action News Sensation! Too bad it is not “sweeps” month…

But sometimes the facts get in the way of a good story. I suppose the “exclusive” has a little truthiness to it: a program in its autumn years, thousands of jobs about to disappear…surely the workers are desperate to do anything to keep the paychecks coming. Surely.


Site of the Hydrogen Leak that has caused three shuttle scrubs.

But I am not talking about the workers who make the shuttle fly (men and women who proudly call themselves “Pad Rats”) – I am referring to the local TV reporters who are facing the imminent demise of their business. Might they be tempted to engage in a little sabotage of the truth to keep their jobs? Perhaps we should ask their managers about this?

Here is what I know to be a fact: The Pad Rats – and all the other shuttle workers at the Kennedy Space Center –  are the most committed, conscientious, diligent people on the planet. They take their risky business very personally – and are constantly focused on the safety of the men and women who strap themselves to the rockets they prepare for launch. It is inconceivable to me that they would do anything that would put them – or their fellow workers – in (greater) harm’s way.

And then there are a few practical things to consider:

First, the shuttle is set to retire at the end of 2010 – no matter how many flights are in the history books. Even if workers were adding delays by busting valves, crossing wires or siccing a woodpecker on the fuel tank foam, they would not be changing the date of that last paycheck one iota.

And no one does anything at or near a space shuttle alone. Ever. It takes a village to tighten a bolt on a booster. Every step is considered and approved by a safety guy. The work is watched by a quality control expert to insure it is done to spec. And the customer is present as well: a NASA civil servant is there to add his/her imprimatur and “buy the paper” documenting the work (remember, the wrench-turners who work on the shuttle are employed by the United Space Alliance and its subcontractors).


Astronaut Susan Still shaking some "Pad Rat" hands after landing in 1997.

And finally, there are the people actually doing the work. They also don’t do much of anything alone. So it is quite a gaggle at the site of every piece of important work aimed at getting a shuttle ready to fly. Might there be an unhappy camper in the bunch? No doubt. These days the mood is pretty sour in the Space Cadet Nation – especially in the Province of Shuttledom. It is never fun when the party is over. But any sabotage campaign would require a fairly large conspiracy by some people who are not wired to think that way at all.

Of course reporters are wired just the opposite way.

'The issue here is monkey'

May 28, 2009

Able and Baker on the cover of Life

Able and Baker on the cover of Life

Gus Grissom: You’ve got it all wrong, the issue here ain’t pussy. The issue here is monkey.
John Glenn: What?
Gus Grissom: Us. We are the monkey.
Deke Slayton: What Gus is saying is that we’re missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they’re gonna send a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is saying is that what they’re trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees!
-The Right Stuff, 1983

Fifty years ago on this day, a multinational crew of astronauts flew a brief harrowing, historic rocket ride from Cape Canaveral. They were strapped into a Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and streaked at 10,000 mph – to an altitude of 360 miles. The crew was weightless for nine minutes, survived re-entry and were recovered 1700 miles downrange. No ticker tape parades for them – just some tasty bananas.

Able, an American rhesus monkey and Miss Baker, a Peruvian squirrel monkey, became the first mammals to survive a round-trip to space and back. They were by no means the first animals in space. The first living creatures of any kind to make it to space were some fruit flies launched on a captured V2 rocket from White Sands, New Mexico, to the edge of space (100 miles) in July 1946.

Baker died in 1984 at the age of 27. Able died four days later from a reaction to anasthesia.

Baker (seen here) lived to be 27. Able died four days after the launch from a reaction to anasthesia.

The first primates to go to space were named Albert – four of them in all flew on a series of V2 rocket launches in 1949.  But they all died when the parachutes failed to open during re-entry. They did survive the trip into space which was the object of the research.



The Soviets, of course, are well known for dispatching a series of dogs on one way trips to space – the most famous of them being Laika – a mostly Siberian Husky mutt who flew to space on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Laika was wired up to determine how she would fare in orbit – and she was fine until the air ran out. You see, the USSR did not build Sputnik 2 to survive re-entry. The craft eventually fell to Earth in April of 1958 and Laika became a space legend. She is enshrined in a statue at the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia. There is a good list of all the early animal space missions here.

Of course the animal flights created a lot of grist for critics of the Mercury 7 astronauts – as Tom Wolfe captured perfectly in The Right Stuff.  The man who first broke the sound barrier – the test pilot’s test pilot – Chuck Yeager trash-talked the first astronauts by telling them the Mercury capsule “doesn’t really require a pilot, and besides, you would have to sweep the monkey shit off the seat before you could sit down.” Ouch.

When the shuttle fades into history at the end of 2010, we will, in a sense, be right back to square one on this debate. Flying the shuttle – which is after all a $2 billion glider that handles like a falling piano – down to a gentle runway landing requires some no-shit piloting skills. The shuttle’s successor – Orion – will splash down in the ocean under parachutes. Do you really need the best test pilots in the world for that? Another reason I will miss the shuttle.