Okay, okay. It’s time to spill all the gory details about our recently concluded adventure.
WARNING: This is a long-assed post. Here’s your chance to take the emergency exit. Give me the “TLDR” bit and I will travel to your home and kick you in the taint. Okay, not really, but be advised that this will, indeed, be a post of long-assed length.
Still here? All righty, then. Here we go:
This past weekend originally was intended to be the second annual informal gathering of friends who just happen also to be Star Trek writers. A couple of years ago at a convention, a few of us got to talking that while we only seemed to reconnect at such cons, we never really had a chance to spend any time together, with all the demands on our various schedules during the weekend. It was decided that we needed — essentially — to have the con “without the con.” No panels or other schedules; just the small group. Add alcohol, hilarity ensues, etc.
The first such gathering was held last year right here in Kansas City, selected because it was a reasonably central location for people traveling from either coast as well as the upper Midwest. During the weekend, we relaxed, saw a few local sites, and generally just enjoyed each other’s company without the hustle and bustle of a convention. When we decided to do it again this year, we instituted a plan that the location would rotate from year to year, giving everyone in the group a break from having to travel and also the chance to “play host.” For the 2013 gathering, Houston, Texas was selected…home of our friend and fellow word-slinger Amy Sisson. At the time, it was anticipated the weekend would play out in similar fashion to the 2012 edition.
Yeah. Not so much.
Owing to the fact that Amy’s husband is a rather well-regarded employee of NASA and works at the Johnson Space Center right there in Houston-town, the idea of touring that renowned facility began to take shape. That in itself was pretty dang exciting to contemplate, I have to tell you. I’d always wanted to visit JSC, and a tour of such famous locales as Mission Control? Yeah, I could dig that.
As it happened, we did end up visiting Mission Control….for starters. From what I was told, once word got out that “a bunch of Star Trek writers were coming to Houston for a visit,” the folks at JSC started plotting and scheming, and before we knew it, anything resembling the idea of a quiet, informal gathering between friends was out the window and we were plunging headlong into what I now describe as the “ZOMG! I CAN’T FREAKING BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING!” day.
After spending a couple of days early last week in Tampa with my family and leaving our daughters in the capable hands of my mother, Michi and I hopped across the Gulf of Mexico to Houston last Thursday, where the gathering already was underway. We enjoyed a nice dinner that evening followed by our descending on a local watering hole near our hotel, each of us excited by the day to come on Friday.
Well, Friday didn’t disappoint.
We started at 8am, convoying to JSC with Amy and her husband, Dr. Paul Abell, taking point. We arrived at the center and left our cars in the lot adjacent to the famous “Rocket Park,” which is home to, among a few other choice artifacts from the early space age, one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets originally constructed for the Apollo program. Having been restored to pristine glory in the early 2000s, the rocket now resides within its own temperature-controlled building rather than being left exposed to the elements as we’ve all seen in pictures and films. We didn’t actually go into the building at that point, as we were on a schedule. Don’t worry…none of us forgot that baby. No way, no how.
With a team of enthusiastic ladies (all wearing red shirts, I might add) acting as our chaperones and after receiving our initial “This is what you’re in for” briefing, we set off in a tour bus for what was to be AN EPIC DAY. Our first stop? Mission Control!
That’s right, folks: the nerve center of the facility, as viewed from the VIP gallery. We got to watch personnel interacting with astronauts on the International Space Station, and received an overview of the center by Ed Van Cise, one of the flight directors charged with overseeing such operations. Oh, and he was accompanied by Dr. Stanley Love, who lists “Astronaut: Been There, Done That” among the various occupations on his resume. As it happened, Dr. Love would hang with us for a sizable portion of the day, pretty much answering whatever stupid questions any of us could shape into something approaching coherent speech.
In addition to the MCC overseeing the current ISS mission, we also toured other similar areas where new/revamped technologies were being tested in order to make the oversight of flight operations even more efficient, from a technical as well as a financial standpoint. Lots of stuff you and I have in our homes and offices was being brought to bear, modernizing the whole effort. The days of those clunky consoles with rotary dial phones and big push-buttons and vacuum tubes to send messages back and forth are long gone.
But that didn’t mean we didn’t get to see the old digs.
Yes, the original Mission Control Center, the one used for the Gemini and Apollo missions, also was on our tour. Now designated as a National Historic Landmark, this esteemed chamber has been returned to its configuration from the Apollo 11 mission. And yet, we were allowed to wander about, studying all of the consoles and doo-dads and thingamajigs. For me, this place is hallowed ground, and I could feel the history just oozing from the walls, the ceiling tiles, and even the carpet, all of which is as it was on that momentous day in 1969.
I’d have been happy to have a cigarette right here and call it a day, but we’d only been here an hour or so, and things were just getting going.
Next up? We were taken to the Teague Auditorium where some of us had been tapped to participate in a roundtable Q&A discussion hosted by John Connolly, Deputy Manager for the Exploration Mission and Systems Office. Among other things, he designs space ships for a living. Actual space ships, that real people use, and stuff. He’s also a big Trekkie, as were a whole bunch of people we encountered during the day (Yes, they were asking us for our autographs. Some brought their books from home. That happened.).
The conversation and questions were tremendous fun, and I think we did okay in our efforts to entertain people who do various things necessary to send people and things into space. So, hey! No pressure.
Our panel originally was slated to run ninety minutes, but things were cut short because, apparently, the Deputy Director of the Whole Freakin’ Space Center heard we were wandering about his facility and wanted some time for himself to rap with us. You can do that when you’re the Deputy Director of the Whole Freakin’ Space Center. We spent twenty minutes with him, during which he regaled us with tales of how he and the men and women who toil there at JSC continue to dream, brainstorm, innovate and create all sorts of crazy things designed to keep us heading outward from our little blue/brown pebble. Robots to walk around on the Moon or Mars? Got ’em. The next generation of lunar landing craft? Stay tuned.
Next up? Lunch, which was an event all by itself. They divided us up at the cafeteria among several tables, where we were joined by a collection of people who occupy various positions all across JSC. At our table was one of the technicians responsible for updating all the hardware and software for use in the different Mission Control rooms (yes, there’s more than one), joined by one of the center’s public affairs officials as well as the aforementioned John Connolly. We had a spirited conversation about all sorts of topics ranging from NASA and social media to what might be needed to get the public behind a renewed, focused national effort at expanding the space program. These people are raring to go, folks. All they need is the funding and the support. It’s too bad we have no money for that; we need the cash to go start another war, I suppose.
Refueled and refreshed, we proceeded in our trusty tour bus to our next destination: Project Morpheus, “a vertical test bed demonstrating new green propellant propulsion systems and autonomous landing and hazard detection technology. Designed, developed, manufactured and operated in-house by engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Morpheus Project represents not only a vehicle to advance technologies, but also an opportunity to try out “lean development” engineering practices.”
Basically, they’re building a ship which can land itself on another planet, and figure out on its own how to avoid coming down in a crater or on top of a debris or boulder field. That could be handy to have, millions of miles from home and without the benefit of real-time communication with engineers here on the ground. The project’s manager, Dr. Jon Olansen, gave us the run down on his team and their work to date and how they’ve got their feet on the gas so far as developing and refining these new systems. I swear, these folks look like as though — in a pinch — they could be ready to rock tomorrow.
Though Astronaut Love had to leave us for a bit, he left us in the capable hands of fellow star voyager Dr. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who accompanied us to our next stop: a tour of the labs where the first new real revolutions in space suit design since the Apollo era are underway. According to our guide, Raul Bianco, the suits used during the Space Shuttle era really were just improvements and enhancements to designs created for the Moon missions, and the good folk at NASA have decided we need to go back to the drawing board. I’m thinking even I could survive space travel if I was sporting one of these outfits.
If that wasn’t enough, we also got to see the robotics lab. Folks who are dialed into the current goings-on with NASA know the space station currently is home to “Robonaut,” who helps out with various tasks and whatnot aboard the ISS. We saw him doing his thing earlier in the day during our tour of Mission Control, and now we were meeting the “2.0” version which still was being developed. One odd moment came when we passed a display case with a robotic hand, all Cyberdyne-like. Putting aside thoughts of global annihilation at the hands of the machines, we continued to wander about the lab under the guidance of Robonaut’s Deputy Project Manager, Casey Joyce, where we got to see how engineers were working on advancements with the robot as well as prosthetics and other aids intended not just for astronauts on long-duration space flights with no gravity but also right here on Earth. The possibilities for paralysis patients or those who’ve lost limbs are astounding.
(NOTE: It’s worth mentioning here that many of the areas we traversed during the day were working labs or other facilities, with men and women going about their jobs all around us. Though they endure such tours and other interruptions on a frequent basis, everyone was welcoming and enthusiastic to talk to us. Meanwhile, my IDEA GENERATOR was working overtime. I’m pretty sure my brain snapped off its roller a couple of times.)
From there, we made our way to the center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, or as I like to call it, “DISNEYLAND!” It was here that we were introduced to prototypes for the Orion spacecraft which one day (hopefully) will take astronauts back to the Moon. We also learned about emerging propulsion technologies (yes, they’re working on warp drive!) as well as commercial crew programs like SpaceX, and got up close looks at the next level of rover vehicles for the Moon and beyond. Astronaut Love rejoined us and showed us how crazy you have to be to want to travel to and/or from the ISS via a Soyuz space capsule, a model of spacecraft which has been in near-continuous use for going on fifty years now. Astronaut Coleman led us on a walking tour through full-scale simulators for several modules comprising the International Space Station, and we spoke at length with the people trying to solve the issues of humans surviving and thriving through long-duration space missions of the sort needed to reach other planets. Many thanks to our guides through this area: Astronauts Coleman and Love, Orion Cockpit Development Lead Jeff Fox, David Brady of Eagleworks Labs, Dr. James Peters of the Quasar Data Center, and ISS Associate Program Scientist Dr. Tara Ruttley.
I’m pretty sure it was somewhere in this area that my brain exploded, BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
Leaving the SVMF, we were taken to the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate. Translation? This is where they keep the Moon rocks. In addition to the lion’s share of all the lunar samples returned during the six Apollo landings, this facility also houses meteorites and other materials retrieved from space or those objects which make their way to Earth. ARES Director Dr. Eileen Stansbery, Apollo Sample Curator Dr. Ryan Ziegler, and Antarctic Meteorite Curator Kevin Righter welcomed us into this most astounding of realms, in which I’m fairly certain I left my jaw. The care with which these materials are handled is mind-boggling. Most of this stuff has never even been exposed to our atmosphere. Everything is handled in special rooms and with equipment designed to protect the samples from contamination, preserving them in a condition as close as possible to when they were found on the Moon. Yes, I got to hold a piece of Moon rock collected during the Apollo 11 mission. And the Apollo 15 mission. And the Apollo 17 mission. They were encased in Lucite to protect them from our grubby paws, of course, but STILL! I HELD MOON ROCKS!
And with that, our day was done.
Upon returning to where we had left our cars ten hours earlier, there remained one last, tantalizing prize to behold: The Saturn V. We ventured into the building housing this beast, and of course whatever remained of our jaws and brain cells went :: Poof! :: at this point. This isn’t my first time seeing one, of course, but I still got that special tingle I experienced when I first saw the one on display at the Kennedy Space Center. The Saturn V, to me, is a thing of utter beauty; the culmination of a decade’s worth of dreams, sweat, sacrifice and unwavering determination willed into solid reality by thousands of people who stood as one and said, essentially, “Let’s do this thing.”
The perfect capper to an incredible day.
We cannot possibly extend sufficient thanks to Dr. Abell and Amy for the effort they expended to bring all of this together. Along with them, we are in debt to the numerous people at JSC who took time from their busy schedules to talk with us, walk with us, hang with us at lunch, and let us bend their ears. All day long, the constant message we kept receiving was that everyone was thrilled we were there, wanting to visit with them. Are you kidding? The term “once in a lifetime” gets thrown about a lot, but for me this was Exactly That. It’s three days later, and the enormity of what we were given hasn’t faded the slightest bit.
(Photo Credit: NASA)
Making the experience all the more enjoyable was being able to share it with my wife as well as several friends, including fellow writers Kevin Dilmore, Kirsten Beyer, John Coffren, Peter and Kathleen David, Dave Galanter, Bob Greenberger, Bill Leisner, David Mack, David R. George III, Aaron Rosenberg, Amy Sisson and – in most cases – their spouses and friends. Yes, we’re planning a third outing for next year, and as there’s no way we’re ever liable to top what happened this past weekend, we all seem content to go very much in the opposite direction for the next get-together. We’re also hoping the choice of gathering place will allow us to be joined by still more writer friends who’ve not yet had a chance to get in on this action.
But, that’s next year. For now? I’m gonna go day-dream about being an astronaut.
You know, again.