20 years ago today: Columbia

On the morning of February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day mission when it broke apart during re-entry and disintegrated, killing its seven-member crew.

I spent the rest of that afternoon and the ensuing days watching the news coverage as new information came to light, and possible explanations and causes for the disaster began to emerge. To this day, it’s hard to believe something so seemingly simple as a few damaged heat tiles could wreak such unchecked destruction.

On the other hand, the tragedy served to reinforce the harsh reality of the incredible dangers inherent in crewed space flight, and nothing about it is “simple” or “routine.” I did and still believe our exploration of space is a worthy and necessary endeavor, and I hope the sacrifices made by men and women such as Columbia‘s crew will always be heeded when taking our next small steps and giant leaps.

Generations from now, when the reach of human civilization is extended throughout the solar system, people will still come to this place to learn about and pay their respects to our heroic Columbia astronauts. They will look at the astronauts’ memorial and then they will turn their gaze to the skies, their hearts filled with gratitude for these seven brave explorers who helped blaze our trail to the stars.

– Sean O’Keefe, NASA Administrator
Arlington National Cemetery, February 2nd, 2004

(l-r, blue shirts): David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson
(l-r, red shirts): Kalpana Chawla, Rick D. Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Ilan Ramon

Where never lark or even eagle flew….

73 seconds after launch on a particularly cold Florida morning 37 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

On March 21st, 1987, a permanent marker paying tribute to the crew was placed at Arlington National Cemetery. The marker’s face features likenesses of the crew and the following dedication:

In Grateful
and Loving Tribute
To the Brave Crew
of the United States
Space Shuttle Challenger
28 January 1986

Inscribed on the back of the marker is this poem:

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
and danced the skies on laughter silvered wings,
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
high in the sunlit silence hov’ring there.
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew
and while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space
put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

– John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

L-R: Ellison S. Onizuka, Michael J. Smith, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Francis R. Scobee, Gregory B. Jarvis, Ronald E. McNair, Judith A. Resnik

God speed to the crew of Apollo 1.

Each year, January 27th marks the beginning of a somber week of remembrance for NASA.

On the evening of this date in 1967 while conducting a routine test of their spacecraft’s power systems, astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chafee were killed when a fire broke out inside the Apollo 1 capsule.

Grissom had been with NASA almost from the beginning, flying missions for both the Mercury and Gemini programs, and White also was a Gemini veteran. The Apollo 1 flight was to be Chaffee’s first space mission.

Though tragic, their sacrifice ultimately played a monumental role in NASA’s effort toward bettering the machines which soon would fly to the Moon, and ensuring the safety of the men they carried there.

(L-R: Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee)




We’re going back to Neosho to talk writing and stuff!

Some of you may recall that Kevin and I traveled from KC down to Neosho, Missouri earlier in the year to participate as guests to the first ever ArtCon. Sponsored by the Neosho Arts Council, this comic and pop culture convention featured several comics and art guests, along with Kevin and myself. For a first con, it was pretty well attended and the people hosting it and working as volunteers were on point all day. They treated us very well and invited us to come back at some point.

Then, they doubled down on that last bit a month or so ago, by asking Kevin and me if we’d be up for a return visit not for a con, but instead to “talk shop.”


“That’s great, Dayton,” I can hear some of you saying. “Um, whatcha gonna talk about for an hour or so?”

Good question!

In addition to talking about the challenges and fun to be had while writing in our chosen realms, it’s also been suggested that, with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission looming on our calendars, maybe Kevin and I could also devote a bit of time to talking about the symbiotic relationship that NASA and science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular have enjoyed over the years. As we’ve both been able to talk with various folks who actually work at NASA (including, he says totally without shame, a couple of actual astronauts who’ve “been up there”) and even discussed this very thing, we can definitely speak a bit to this topic.

Our little author talk will be held at the Neosho Chamber of Commerce at 2pm on Saturday, June 22nd. Once we’re done, we’ll have a table set up where we’ll be happy to sign books (and maybe even sell a few).

Thanks very much to Sarah Serio and the Neosho Arts Council for inviting us back to hang with them for a bit!

April 9th, 1959: The Mercury Seven.

Ladies and gentlemen: Today we are introducing to you and to the world these seven men who have been selected to begin training for orbital space flight.

These men, the nation’s Project Mercury astronauts, are here after a long and perhaps unprecedented series of evaluations which told our medical consultants and scientists of their superb adaptability to their coming flight.”

April 9th, 1959 – 60 years ago today: America officially gets into the space race with Project Mercury.


(L-R: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom,
Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton)

They were to be America’s first guides to the stars. The right stuff, indeed.

April 9th, 1959: The Right Stuff, yo.

Ladies and gentlemen, today we are introducing to you and to the world these seven men who have been selected to begin training for orbital space flight. These men, the nation’s Project Mercury astronauts, are here after a long and perhaps unprecedented series of evaluations which told our medical consultants and scientists of their superb adaptability to their coming flight.

“Which of these men will be the first to orbit the earth, I cannot tell you. He won’t know himself until the day of the flight.”

April 9th, 1959: Sure, the Russians had a head start, but now it was a real race.

mercury7-introL-R: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., Leroy G. “Gordo” Cooper, Malcolm S. Carpenter

“Earthrise” at 45.

Christmas Eve, 1968: 45 years ago today, Apollo 8, carrying astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, is the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon.

While working with his companions inside the cramped capsule during their time in lunar orbit, Astronaut Anders takes one of the most awe-inspiring, enduring photographs of the Space Age. Years later, Life magazine will select it as one of its “hundred photos of the 20th century.” The picture was officially designated as NASA image AS08-14-2383, but would quickly come to be known by another name: “Earthrise.”

For those wondering, this is the image’s “proper” orientation. According to Anders, this is what he saw when he took the photograph, and it’s how he displays it in his home.

Good enough for me.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck,
and a Merry Christmas to all of you…all of you on the good Earth
— Frank Borman, Commander, Apollo 8, December 24, 1968

Guest Blogger Kirsten Beyer: “Rockets Big…Space Station Pretty…”

Okay, folks…now you’re in for a treat.

After enduring my long-winded recounting of our trip to Houston and the Johnson Space Center, now you get to enjoy the more stylish recollections of someone who was able to bring an air of dignity (and, dare I say it…maturity) to the proceedings. Readers of Star Trek fiction — particularly the recent run of Star Trek: Voyager novels — know Kirsten Beyer. Not only is she a kick-ass writer, but she’s also one of my very favorite people to hang out with on those rare occasions when our paths cross. Our tastes in humor run along parallel lines, and as we’re both parents of similarly-aged children, we get to share, appreciate, and laugh at each other’s stories of balancing parenthood with “day job work” and writing. Her husband, David, also is a good guy and a great daddy, and we’ve had our share of entertaining conversations, as well.

Like David Mack, Bob Greenberger, and a few others before her, Kirsten also has written a review of our Houston trip. However, being far smarter than most of the rest of us, she has no blog or website and neither does she Facebook nor do the Twitters. But, she wanted to have something “out there” with the rest of our JSC-inspired babblings, and asked if I’d play host. Heck, yeah. Easy can-do.

Without further ado, here’s Kirsten’s account of our joint “ZOMG! I CAN’T FREAKIN’ BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING TO ME!” day:

Sometimes, words fail me. This is tough to admit. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be reasonably proficient at this.

But sometimes things happen that are so far beyond words, I just…

Take last Friday, for instance.

There’s a small group of folks on the planet who are lucky enough to have been asked to contribute to the universe of Star Trek fiction. Some see each other a few times a year at conventions. A couple of years back we decided it would be nice if once in a while, we could just gather and hang out without the demands of a convention schedule.

I missed the first one. No way in hell was I about to miss the second.

Last Friday, I was part of a group of writers who were given a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. This was all arranged spectacularly by fellow writers Bob Greenberger, Amy Sisson, and her husband, Dr. Paul Abell, who works at JSC, watching the sky for anything that might soon fall from it to Earth. He’s on the front lines of keeping us all safe from stuff we’d rather not think about if sleeping through the night is high on our agenda. I was already a fan, but this weekend launched Dr. Abell into legendary status for me.

Yes, I know, Amy…you saw him first.

The writers included myself, Bob Greenberger, David Mack, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, David R. George III, Dave Galanter, Aaron Rosenberg, John Coffren, William Leisner, Amy Sisson, and Peter and Kathleen David. Spouses and a few dear friends came along to make sure we behaved ourselves.

Thankfully, Dayton Ward, Bob Greenberger, and David Mack have already published wonderful and detailed accounts of how we spent that day and who we were privileged to meet. All I’d been able to coax from my brain until now went something like… Friday…. Houston… awesome…blur…did we just?…is that where?…are you effing kidding me?

Me write pretty someday.

But using their much better accounts as a reference, what follows are a few things that occurred to me as I wandered through a day in the life of the people at JSC who are carrying all of us on their coattails into the future.

It began in a parking lot outside something called Rocket Park. I could see rockets in the distance, as well as a massive building. They saved what was inside that building for last, so I will too.

We were greeted by several very warm and welcoming women from the public affairs office who had decided to wear red shirts as they led us on our mission…and I do mean mission. We were scheduled down to the minute from about 8:30am to 6:30pm, taken through the past, present and future of space exploration.

In the land of Star Trek, red shirted crewmen are the expendable ones. I hope our guides know they were anything but. Their enthusiasm could fuel rockets. For all I know, it does.

Mission Control…the first one, anyway…an observation room above the actual control room where the life of the International Space Station is monitored every minute of every day of the year. We were assured that it will be through 2020, and likely 2028, right around the time my daughter graduates from high school. She’s in preschool right now so…you know…I’m assuming a lot is going to happen between now and then. I’m glad somebody is paying attention. This was the first time, but not the last I was gut-punched by the reality that there are people in America right now who think NASA doesn’t have much to do anymore now that the shuttle program is over. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Did you know that the sun “rises” over the ISS sixteen times each day? I didn’t. But now I’m never going to forget it. I got to watch it happen in all of a few blinding seconds while simultaneously forgetting how to breathe.

The second Mission Control room brought tears to my eyes. Okay, full disclosure, I cry pretty much anytime I see anything NASA related on TV. Kleenex stock soars on my account alone when movies like Apollo 13 or the From Earth to the Moon series are released. I was not really prepared to stand in the room where the Gemini and Apollo missions were commanded.

Our patient guides there, Dr. Stanley Love, an astronaut among other impressive things, and flight director Ed “Carbon flight” Van Cise, were both funny and appropriately reverent. To them it was another day at the office. To me, it was a miracle.

A long time ago, a bunch of really smart people decided that humanity needed to reach beyond our atmosphere, to enter space, to touch the moon. Many have sat and stood and smoked and laughed and cried and cheered and mourned in that room. The full range of human experience is uniquely present there. It is a monument to the most we can aspire to as ugly bags of mostly water. It’s also an historical landmark. As well it should be.

The more modern mission control rooms that followed were a visceral reminder of how far we have come in such a short time, and how far we may yet go if we keep our eyes on the ball.

Next came the only part of the day I was secretly dreading. Six of us were asked to represent the group as panelists for a discussion on science fiction and how what we do intersects with what the actual geniuses at NASA do. I figured the best strategy was to nod frequently and accept the microphone only when absolutely necessary. I was certain that somehow my high school and college transcripts and the notable gap in mathematics and science were legible on my forehead. I can manage writing novels where story and character take precedence over calculations and much of the big technology is essentially magic. Discussing the real thing with people smart enough to get hired by NASA…um…uh….sure.

But my fears were quieted after only a few minutes with John Connolly who would otherwise have been spending his valuable time BUILDING ROCKETS. What I realized as I listened to the excellent questions he had prepared and others stepped up to ask was that in some ways, we’re all shooting for the same thing. I’m not as smart as they are, but I want what they want. Humanity needs to develop the tools required to take people beyond the moon and then, beyond our solar system. We need to unlock as many of the mysteries of our galaxy and universe as possible. We must do this. And the people who prioritize spending for our nation’s government need to hear this loud and clear from as many citizens of this country as we can inspire to speak up.

The most surreal part of the day happened as I was leaving the auditorium searching for a bathroom. A terribly nice woman approached me and introduced herself as Cady Coleman. She thanked me for my books and for coming to talk, noting that I was the only woman on the panel. Had my bladder been more forgiving, I would have tried to say more than, “Thanks so much. It was my pleasure.” Still, I managed, “And what do you do here at NASA?”

“Oh, I’m an astronaut,” she smiled.

At which point I lost the power of coherent speech entirely.

Never in my life had I imagined that people who do the work required to LIVE IN SPACE, which Dr. Coleman did for 159 days aboard the ISS after completing two previous shuttle missions, would have reason or opportunity to read my words, let alone find anything of value in them. To stand in her presence was humbling and awe inspiring. What she has already achieved dwarfs what I dream of maybe someday achieving. To think that I’d given her anything at all worth mentioning, let alone crossing a room to shake my hand…yeah…no words beyond thank you. How do you tell someone who thinks well of you that in another life, where I actually grasped math and science, my greatest wish is to be that person?

I didn’t. I wish I had.

The shock of that moment was still wearing off as we entered a large conference room in Building 1 where the Deputy Director of JSC, Stephen J. Altemus wanted a word with us. As he was regaling us with one fantastic revelation after another about some of the current projects at JSC, I kept thinking one thing. If NASA wants everyday Americans to understand the awesome capabilities and passion with which they approach their jobs, they just need to put a camera in front of Mr. Altemus and let him speak. If I wanted to bottle and sell brilliance, enthusiasm and inspiration, I’d tap him first. After five minutes I was looking for the Kool-Aid dispenser, ready to hold my hands under it for a sip. After twenty, I wanted to hit the streets with a megaphone and a sandwich board; whatever it takes to get people to stop what they’re doing and listen to this man’s voice. This is what is best about our country and our species and we underfund it at our peril.

Over lunch, I got to sit and listen to Mr. Van Cise share some of the hard core realities of NASA post shuttle-missions. It was equal parts inspiring and frustrating. I need a money tree, stat. Of course, he was so engaging, it was only after lunch that I was introduced to the other gentleman at our table, a man my husband assures me is going to win a Nobel Prize pretty soon, David Brady. His job? Oh, he’s one of the guys there busy making WARP DRIVE work.


The long afternoon was one mind blowing/altering stop after another.

From Dr. Jon Olansen, the gentleman who explained the Morpheus Project to us, I learned that if a vehicle is trying to land on the surface of somewhere we’ve never landed and needs to adjust anything as it falls to the ground, it has maybe six seconds to correct itself. So, plenty of time, really. I was also reminded that we often learn a lot more when things go wrong than we do when they are going right.

The folks testing the next generation of space suits decided it would be fun to trim them in light green stripes inspired by Buzz Lightyear. Why? Because they can. Not only are they brilliant beyond belief. They also have a firm grasp on the little things that make people happy.

The robotics lab was like walking into the future. I’d already seen the Robonaut working on the space station earlier that morning testing air flow. This is important because it’s a surprisingly hard task…stuff is way harder in space than I realized because I am used to portraying working space as something only slightly more challenging than working at a mall. Anyway, it’s good that Robonaut can do this now, and I got to shake the hand of his little brother.

When the man demonstrating the newest designs in exoskeletons right next to Robonaut’s younger sibling mentioned that Star Trek was one of the things that inspired him to work at NASA, I just wanted to hug him. The exoskeleton made that tough, but I want him to know that if Star Trek had done nothing else but inspire him and many he works with, it was time and effort well spent.

The next thing I knew I was looking at mock-ups for the next space capsule, the Orion, that might be headed for the moon, among other places. After that, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Love joined us again to walk us through several sections of the space station and a Soyuz capsule. They both had me at “hello.” To see and touch and marvel at the physical reality of their lives on the way to and in space was…yeah…words? Anyone?

It was unexpected to hear Dr. Coleman talk about how much joy she takes from weightlessness in space. I asked her if the development of artificial gravity, like we have in Trek, would diminish the experience for her and she agreed that it would. Note to self…maybe being in space shouldn’t be as much as possible like being on Earth. If it weren’t for all of the kooky stuff our bodies do, shedding bone and muscle mass within hours of breaking free of gravity, I’d be tempted to consider weightlessness as a preferred state of being. As it is, I wonder what we might become were we able to transition between these states more easily.

Another jaw dropping moment of honesty came when Dr. Coleman noted that even given as far as we’ve come we still have a long way to go before we can safely consider sending astronauts to Mars. All day long the recurring theme had been, “anything is possible.”

It is. I just might not live long enough to see it, which sucks beyond the telling of it.

The next stop involved a costume change and an air bath. There’s a sentence I could never have imagined writing before last Friday. It was necessary so we could see and hold MOON ROCKS. There are people on the planet who can make ROCKS fascinating. We should give them all of our money because that shouldn’t be possible.

And finally, back to Rocket Park, and a peek inside that building I mentioned.

So, you know how rockets are big?

They’re bigger than that. Anyone in need of perspective just needs to walk in that building. First you wonder how they managed to construct the building so that its far wall ends maybe two inches beyond the tip of the emergency escape rocket that sits on top of the command module. Like I needed another reminder that these people are wicked smart. I GET IT ALREADY. YOU CAN DO MATH. STOP RUBBING OUR NOSES IN IT.

A Saturn V rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty. When fully fueled, it weighs as much as 400 elephants. The thrust it generates when it lifts off is the same amount generated by 85 Hoover Dams.

You are nothing when you stand next to one of these things.

And then you remember that you…okay, not you, if your math skills are on par with mine…but a bunch of other people sort of like you built it. It was an idea in someone’s head, and then it was a sketch on a cocktail napkin, and then folks got seriously busy and a few years later, we built it. And then we used it to send people to the moon.

That’s our past. We did that. We as human beings are capable of that. Can you imagine what else we could do if we just got over ourselves already and refused to settle for anything less than our best?

The people at JSC Houston do that every day. What are the rest of us waiting for?

With gratitude, respect, humility, wonder, and awe…

Kirsten Beyer

More on that Houston trip!

In the event you’re not totally exhausted after reading my rather wordy treatise recounting our trip to Houston and the Johnson Space Center, friend and fellow word pusher David Mack has done us a great service by providing his own thoughts on the subject. He also comes to my rescue by providing a key element which was sorely lacking in my own entry: PICTURES!

Yep, Mr. Mack’s blog post is chock full of photos chronicling the day, featuring him (and most of the rest of us) trying not to act like giddy kids looking for any excuse to go running off to play with this or that. Despite our most devilish impulses, we behaved ourselves, and saved our chaperones from having to outfit any of us with those weird kid harness/leash things you see on toddlers at Disney World.

Go forth and enjoy Dave’s illustrated musings:

David Mack: The Analog Blog – “Houston, we’ve had a blast…”

 (Graphic courtesy of NASA; JPG courtesy of David Mack)

The above graphic was created by the JSC’s Public Affairs Office to “announce” our visit and our panel at the Teague Auditorium. Flyers with this graphic were plastered EVERYWHERE as we wandered about, to the point where I seriously considered stealing a few from various doors or bulletin boards. Thankfully, Amy’s husband made sure we all had nice crisp copies of our own, suitable for framing.

That’s right: this bad bear is going up on a wall somewhere.