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.

So, about that Houston trip….

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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

“Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

Forty years ago today, at 4:55PM Central Time, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lifted off from the lunar surface aboard the ascent stage of their landing craft, Challenger, bringing to a close humanity’s last manned expedition to the Moon.

Indeed, it would be the last time humans travelled beyond Earth orbit. Though Apollo hardware would continue to be used in missions to the Skylab space station as well as for the Apollo-Soyuz project, Apollo 17 marked the “official” end of what arguably is the greatest cumulative technological achievement in human history. So far, anyway.

As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell once said, “It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”

In addition to the lunar missions and everything required to carry them out, the entire effort spanning the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs spawned or spurred advances across a broad spectrum of science, technology and industry. Things we take for granted every day, from vacuum-packed or freeze-dried foods to commercial fuel cells to pretty much every piece of modern electronics and even those “memory foam” mattresses, all owe something to this era of the space program.

Beyond all of that? While I can’t speak for anyone else, I believe there’s just a simple, incomparable splendor to the Apollo program that always will set it apart from every other chapter of space exploration. What began as a challenge issued on May 25th, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy became a turning point in our history; a benchmark for what we as a people can accomplish when we decide it’s time to just gear up and go do something.

When will we do it again?

…as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” – Eugene A. Cernan, Commander, Apollo 17

The Last Pictures: the time capsule to end all time capsules.

The world’s gonna end one day. You know that, right? Most likely…assuming we don’t do anything really stupid between now and then…it will come to a natural death as our sun expands and eats it as one last snack before going nova. Long before then, any descendants of ours will have died out, with only cockroaches, leftover fruit cakes and way too many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey to serve as evidence of anything ever happening on this little pebble.

Prior to any of that going down, author and artist Trevor Paglen has decided that some other, perhaps more interesting record of humanity’s time on planet Earth be made available for future visitors. To that end, he has amassed a selection of 100 photographs providing a digital scrapbook of our modern civilization. Working with scientists at MIT, Paglen developed an archival disc created specifically to survive for millions–perhaps billions–of years, upon which will be etched the images he’s selected. Once sealed in its protective shell, the disc will then be mounted to the Echostar XVI communications satellite that is set to be launched later this year, and assume a geosynchronous orbit along the equator over North America. The idea is that since such satellites can theoretically remain in uninterrupted orbit forever, somebody may well come along at some point in the distant future and find the satellite and the disc. And maybe a fruit cake.

“Hey!” I hear someone saying. “What about the pictures on the disc? I wanna see!”

Paglen’s got your back, yo:

The Last Pictures is a book collecting the 100 photos, and is currently available for those of you who don’t wish to wait for The End to get a sneak peek. From the “curatorial statement” on the project’s website:

“In selecting the one hundred images for the project, Paglen consulted with dozens of scientists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and geologists and formed an in-depth research team that explored the implications of the project along numerous philosophical lines of inquiry. Conversations surrounding The Last Pictures delved into a variety of themes ranging from the problematics of universality to questions surrounding post-colonialism, theoretical mathematics, and the detrimental capacities of human technology. One line of thought that comes across quite clearly in the image selection relates to the finitude of humanity itself: if you could choose an image that explained to people millions of years from now why humans were no longer on the planet, what would it be? Another line of inquiry considers the paradox of communicating over such a vast amount of time: what does it means to show images to future beings that will most likely not comprehend them in anticipated ways?”

So, it was his aim to somehow explain to someone who might show up millions of years from now just who we were and what we were about before we all disappeared…like dust in the wind, dude…and to do so in something resembling a universal means of communication. By crafting a message which might not be examined for billions of years–if ever–we also get a stark reminder as to just how insignificant we are, and how fleeting our existence truly is.

For whatever reason, this fascinates the hell out of me.

The available excerpt on the site offers only a few of the selected images, but I’m so intrigued by this project that I’ve gone and ordered the book. Hey, I’d like to get an idea about what they’ll be talking about and what they might be saying about us in fifty or sixty thousand millenia, all right? Also, it’s a good thing that someone with the intellect, knowledge and artistic expertise such as Dr. Paglen possesses is behind this project. If they’d left it to some bonehead like me, the last picture in the slide show would probably have been this:

Anybody else know about this? Order a copy of the book? For those who may have seen the entire photo collection: any thoughts on the pictures he selected? Any ideas on pics which should’ve made the cut, but didn’t?

“Where’s the kaboom?”

As Asteroid 2005 YU55 made its way through our neighborhood this evening, giving us a pretty close shave as it passed Earth with a cushion of “only” 207,000 miles or so, telescopes around the planet captured some pretty breathtaking views. One in particular that probably won’t be getting much play via the mainstream news outlets is this rather startling image:

“Curses! Foiled again!”

Ah, well. Better luck next time, Marvin.

50 years of manned space flight!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Colonel Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to leave the confines of Earth, when was launchd aboard Vostok 1 on a single orbit of the planet. The mission lasted all of 108 minutes, blazing a trail for others to follow in the months and years to come.

UniverseToday.com has a very cool tribute and online “photo album” with all sorts of rare photographs taken before, during, and after the Vostok 1 mission. Check it out:

Universe Today: Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight

The Huffington Post also has a feature on today’s anniversary, and points readers to a pretty slick movie available on YouTube, First Orbit, which recreates Gagarin’s flight in real time. Sweet!

And in a total “Duh!” moment, I had to be reminded that today also marks the 30th anniversary of STS-1, otherwise known as the first mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981. Astronaut John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo missions, along with “rookie” Robert Crippin, guided the shuttle on its 2-day mission, the first American manned space flight since the Apollo-Soyuz mission six years earlier.

I wonder what we’ll be celebrating 30 or even 50 years from now?

A couple of space exploration milestones today….

Check this out: Two noteworthy achievements in space exploration, courtesy of our friends the Russians.

March 1, 1966 – Venera 3, launched from the USSR on November 16, 1965, crashed into the surface of Venus, becoming the first spacecraft from Earth to land on another planet. However, “crash” is the operative word here, as the probe was damaged during landing and rendered unable to transmit any telemetry back to Earth.

March 1, 1982 – Venera 13, launched October 30, 1981, lands on Venus. This mission is much more successful than prior attempts, and was able to transmit data and images from the surface. Designed to last in the planet’s harsh environment for about 30 minutes, Venera 13 held out for more than two hours before finally going belly up.

All that stuff is still there, for anybody heading that way during summer vacation, or whatever.

Pretty cool, eh?

(There a couple of other “not too shabby at all” Venera-releated milestones scattered throughout the year, as well.)