Posts Tagged ‘John Glenn’

'This Week In Space' – June 27, 2010

June 27, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available – give us a watch.

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome. we begin this week with shuttle manifest destiny…and the movable feast that the last days of STS launching has become.   It now appears the next shuttle flight – Discovery flying the STS-133 mission –  will launch on October 29, and the STS-134 flight of Endeavour moves to February 28 of next year.   An official announcement is expected on July 1st.  The reason for the delay: scientists need some time to put the finishing touches on the final shuttle payload to the station – the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer,  a particle physics experiment. But we use the word final with some caution – as NASA has not ruled out an encore mission for Atlantis.  Look for a decision on that in August.

Of course there are a lot of people out there who would like to see the shuttles fly on…a new and familiar name is now on the list – Senator John Glenn – the first American to orbit the earth, a bonafide hero and a shuttle veteran as well – released a statement on Obama’s plans for NASA this week. He repeated what he has often said – that the shuttle should stay just a little bit longer…he does support keeping the station going past 2015 – and he agrees a moon base is not  in the cards now – as for the “smaller, less experienced companies” vying to fly cargo – and eventually people – to the space station should be said they should only be phased in only “after they demonstrate a high degree of competency and reliability, particularly with regard to safety concerns.”

In Hawthorne California – at SpaceX headquarters they would beg to differ – with all due respect to the Senator. It’s been a few weeks now since their successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket – and they are poring through the data – trying to better understand why they had a late in the count scrub before the launch, why the second stage rolled in orbit – and why they were unable to recover the first stage. Details on all of that and much more are in the full interview I had via Skype with SpaceX’s Ken Bowersox the other day.

Some fire and smoke from an Ariane 5 rocket. It blasted off from Guyana on Saturday. The payload – two satellites.  Arabsat-5A will provide telecom and broadband services to Africa and the Middle East.  The South Korean COMS satellite includes weather observation, ocean surveillance, and telecom payloads.  All eyes will be on Arianespace later this year as they begin launch operations using the Soyuz and new Vega rockets.



To the Moon? I think not, Alice….

February 24, 2010

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The NASA insignia.

Image via Wikipedia

(ed. note: these remarks are part of my testimony to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation hearing “Challenges and Opportunities in the NASA FY 2011 Budget Proposal” on February 24, 2010)

Washington – we have a problem – there is an uproar across the land over NASA’s course change – and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read “NASA cancels its Moon mission”. Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? We really weren’t! The program – packaged as the “Vision for Space Exploration” – never got the promised funding – and its “vision” was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as “Apollo on Steroids” but really it was a ninety-pound weakling – an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the state championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on – and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration – one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. “Thanks, I needed that!” is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing. Change is never easy.

But wait a minute – isn’t NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can’t embrace – no actually invent – change – we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more – because as much as anything else – what we have here is a failure to communicate.


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.

Can You Hear Me, Walter?

July 20, 2009
Walter Conkite and Miles O'Brien covering STS-95 on October 29, 1998

Walter Conkite and Miles O

I am pretty sure I am the only man on the planet who could ever accurately claim Walter Cronkite was his co-anchor. A nice honor to be sure, but I was thrust into this role because of some sad circumstances (see my previous post) and truth be told, it was a wild ride on a high-wire.

Through it all I learned many lessons of humility, diplomacy and perseverance through sheer panic.

Walter (as I eventually got the gumption to call him) and I spent a fair amount of time together in advance of John Glenn’s shuttle mission – mostly, we were talking to other members of the media. There were dozens of them and I mostly just listened in as if I was a “minder” or something. Every now and then, a reporter would take pity upon me and ask me a courtesy question to be polite. But I was most certainly not the reason they were there.

We also had a chance to spend some time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston watching the crew doing some training. Discovery Commander Curt Brown met us at one of the full-motion shuttle landing simulators in Building 5. Walter was helped into the left (commander’s) seat – Curt sat in the right seat – and I was in the back row – unable to see very much.

Walter was of course well known for his love of sailing – but he also had a keen fascination with aviation. He told me he has always had a knack for making machines do his bidding.

During World War Two, he and his colleagues appealed for months to be allowed to fly aboard B-17 “Flying Fortresses” on bombing runs over Europe.
After months of persistent pestering, the Air Force relented. But for the privilege, Cronkite and seven others endured weeks of training as gunners. Geneva Convention notwithstanding, these airborne reporters would have to earn their seat aiming at the enemy.

His first story after one of these sorties began with this lead paragraph: “I have just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 17,000 feet, a hell of bursting flak and screaming fighter planes, of burning Forts and hurtling bombs,” he wrote.

[Later on I would use this example as some “precedent” for allowing a journalist (me) to strap in for a space shuttle ride to the International Space Station.]

But on this day in October of 1998, the old war correspondent was not able to bring the simulated orbiter for a smooth landing. He had a tough time seeing through the Head Up Display – but handled the subsequent crash with great aplomb – and some self-deprecating humor. I just watched and grew more fond of him as I watched him handle the vicissitudes of age.

After the ride was over, it was time for a photo op. We clambered down the ladder of the simulator and stood with some of the technicians who keep those simulators running – as well as the man in charge – Charlie Spencer. I stood “house” left – and put on my best picture face. But just as the NASA photographer was about to squeeze off a frame, he took his camera away from his face, looked right at me – scrunched his brow like a disapproving middle school principal – and then waved his hand to the left – clearly motioning me to get out of his picture. I did – metaphorically coming down a few more ladder rungs than the others.

Even though his age slowed him down – and diminished his senses, Walter still had a lot of anchor swagger in him. He always arrived for our live segments in the bare nick of time – clearly a holdover from his salad days as the Managing Editor of the “The CBS Evening News”.

This didn’t bother me a bit because I knew he would likely be there – and I knew I could cover for him if not.

But on November 2, 1998, five days into the mission at precisely 4:40pm ET, we had our “window” for an interview with the Senator and the Commander as they orbited Earth. NASA in-flight interviews are brief (this one was ten minutes as I recall) and they start on time. When they say 4:40 – they mean 4:40:00 (on the balls in NASA parlance – referring to the zeros).

Couple that fact with the tricky audio set-up required to pull of one of these interviews off – and add in Walter’s difficulty hearing and you will understand why we asked his set producer Sandy Socolow to make sure Walter was on the set a little earlier than usual.

I sat down on our makeshift set inside JSC’s Building 9 sooner than I normally would and ran though some voice checks with the NASA Audio Control Room. Everything checked out fine. Except Walter was nowhere to be found.

Things got tenser as the time ticked away. CNN had been promoting this live interview as if it were the Second Coming and the folks in the control room were anxious it go off without a hitch.

But still no Walter.

Finally, with precious little time to spare, he made his way up the steps onto the scaffolding to the seat on my left. He plugged in his earpiece – and the audio techs began counting in his ear to insure he was able to hear OK. But he heard nothing.

Pots were opened, dials spun and tests repeated – nada.

Time was now slowing down for me – as our heavily touted special report drew near.

At this point, I got a chance to see how many technical people CNN had sent to Houston. They were all crawling on – beside – and under the desk – frantically plugging in new cables, replacing amplifiers and changing out earpiece chords.

“Testing…testing…can you hear, Walter”


At this point, my anxiety level was already pretty high – but then came the panic.

Walter turned to me and said: “whatever you do, do not include me in this segment if I cannot hear. Don’t mention that I am even here on the set. Just do the interview without me.”

Just as he finished that thought, the executive producer in the control room barked into my earpiece.

“Whatever you do, make sure you include Walter in this interview – we have been promoting it like crazy and he needs to be on camera – even if you have to relay the questions and answers.”

Panic. Sheer panic. Career-ending kinda panic. I am sure I was sweating as much Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw one of those newspaper montage scenes from a vintage movie – you know where the front page spins around, stops and reveals a series of banner headlines to keep the narrative going.

The headlines I saw read something like this “Young Cable Correspondent Humiliates National Icon”…”America’s Most Trusted Man Embarrassed by Rude Reporter”…”Space Cadet: Uncle Walter Dissed by TV Dolt.”

The vision passed with the ominous reminder from the control room to “bring Walter in no matter what.”

With less than thirty seconds to air, Walter still could not hear anything in his earpiece. He turned to me and reminded me not to introduce him – and then said he would tap me on my left forearm if the problem rectified itself.

The time came, the theme music played, the red light came on and I cowboyed up -deciding there was no way in hell I was going to do anything that Walter did not want to do. If it was my last day on the job, so be it.

So I started talking – filibustering really. I talked about the mission progress, the science Senator Glenn was conducting, his firs mission in space – even the amazing technology that made the interview possible in the first place.

Actually it is really hard to remember what I said since I could not hear myself think. The producer was screaming in my ear incessantly to “Bring in Walter!! Introduce Walter!!!! Where’s Walter???”

Just as I thought smoke might start billowing out of my ears, I began introducing John Glenn and Curt Brown. I began asking the first question – ready to do an interview wherein I would likely hear nothing else but angry producers in a control room. And then, it happened. One of the dozens of people at my feet…in the control room…at NASA…or maybe my guardian angel…put some audio…some sweet, wonderful, intelligible, live-from-space audio…into Walter Cronkite’s ear canal.

He gently tapped me on the arm…I refrained from giving him a hug and a kiss…and instead shifted gears from my question – to his introduction.
And so, Walter Cronkite interviewed John Glenn – as promised. Viewers knew the story – but not the backstory. And I probably lost a few years on this planet.

Part 1
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Part 2
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Part 3
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Next installment: Walter and CBS. He was not feeling the love.

'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.

Astronaut 'Hurting,' Resting after 'Topping Off' at Everest

May 19, 2009


UPDATE: Videos of Scott’s arrival and descent now available here.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski is now back at Camp 4 – “hurting” and resting – after successfully making it to the summit of Mount Everest at 4 am local time on Wednesday (6:15 pm EDT Tuesday ) – one year after a back injury forced him to turn around as he neared the top of the world’s tallest peak. Carrying moon rocks, a hi-tech satellite tracking device and the dreams of a lifetime, he is the first astronaut to summit Everest.

Scott and his Sherpa Danuru remained on the summit for about thirty minutes and then began the more perilous journey down the mountain. Scott told me in his last Skype chat before making the final push that he was worried about an “Into Thin Air” style conga line at the top of the world, and so apparently got up early to beat “rush hour” on Everest.

Although I have not had a chance to confirm this, his plan was to speak to the crew of the International Space Station as he stood on Everest.everest_route_map

Scott is carrying some tiny moon rock fragments gathered by Neil Armstrong on Jul 20, 1969 in the Sea of Tranquility. You can see my post – with some video and images of the rocks here. They are on loan from NASA.

He is carrying a SPOT satellite messenger device which allows users to leave a trail of electronic breadcrumbs on the web. You can see Scott’s trail to the top of the world at

As Scott pointed out in his last Skype chat with me, the trip down the mountain is considered the most perilous. First, climbers are pretty well spent by the time they make it to the summit (Scott had been climbing non-stop for 10 hours to get there) and second, tripping on crampons going down the steep, icy precipice has potentially fatal consequences.

Scott is being assisted by Keith Cowing who hosts the website – where you can find a blog that details their advenutres. I just got off the Skype with Keith Cowing at Everest Base Camp. He got a little misty when I asked him to put the whole adventure into perspective:

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The five-time shuttle shuttle flier has conducted seven spacewalks (including a perilous trip into the void in 2007 to repair a snarled solar array on the International Space Station) and he flew in 1998 with Senator John Glenn. So what does a guy like that (oh, he is also an M.D.) do after the space thing is over? One word: Everest.

Last year, only a few thousand feet from the summit, he awakened to stabbing pains in his back. He had a ruptured disc and was forced to hobble down the mountain. His only saving grace: on Everest, there is an endless supply of ice to deaden the pain. Since then he has had surgery and stuck to a strict exercise regimen. The back was not a problem this time around.

Scott and I had lunch in New York around the holidays. He was wondering if there was a way that he could get back for a second stab at the summit. I was newly out of a job and agreed to help him find sponsorship  – under the assumption that I would join him at Everest Base Camp to help him get the story out. Everything worked except I turned out to be a pretty busy unemployed guy  – and my obligation to the PBS documentary Blueprint America: The Road to the Future extended into my Everest window. And so I spent the trip talking to Scott in my laundry room. Alas, they also serve who wait and wash…

Here is a photo album from Scott’s two-month trek toward this moment: