I didn’t realize how much I missed the United States space program until this morning.
I’ve been a space geek from long back. I was always interested in astronomy; in fact, it was probably my love of astronomy that led to my love of Isaac Asimov. My first introduction to Asimov was when a friend, knowing of my interest in astronomy, recommended the Good Doctor’s book The Collapsing Universe, a nonfiction book explaining black holes. I even “wrote” a book about the planets when I was about 11. I wrote it long-hand, on wide-ruled paper, and accompanied each chapter with an illustration of the planet in question.
I can remember very well sitting with my dad watching John Young and Robert Crippen blast off on STS-1, a mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It’s burned into my brain, dad saying “Go baby go!” as the white-painted rocket ship left the pad. I remember a television being wheeled into our lunch room at school so we could watch the same space craft land in the California desert at the end of the mission. John Young now tops my list of “The People I’d Most Like To Be” – he flew in space 6 times, including the very first manned Gemini mission and the very first Space Shuttle mission. He also flew on Apollo 10, which skimmed so close to the moon’s surface that the astronauts must have been tempted to beat Neil Armstrong to the punch. He later got to walk on the moon’s surface during the Apollo 16 mission. According to the Wikipedia article, Young was also the first astronaut to carry into space a corned beef sandwich. I’d have chosen tuna.
While I was a graduate student at the University of Florida, I had a unique opportunity to join the research team of developmental psychobiologist Jeffrey Alberts. Alberts, who had earlier done some work with the Soviet space program, was part of a group sending pregnant rats on board STS-66, a mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis. One of their goals was to assess the effect of microgravity on the development of the nervous system, particularly the vestibular system. He sought out our help because, given the unpredictability of the shuttle launch schedule, he wanted local scientists-in-training, rather than relying on students at his home school (Indiana University). It was just a stroke of great fortune that I was at a campus relatively close to the Cape at the right time, and that our Department had a colleague of Alberts’ (Dr. Phil Teitelbaum).
Our job was to basically serve as night nurses after the shuttle landed. The team didn’t know what effect microgravity would have on the moms either, and the flight was timed so that the rats would be in space during the last half of the gestational period, with birth happening on the ground as soon after the landing as possible. (Fortunately, rat gestational periods are far less variable than human ones.) Our job – I’m not kidding – was to call in the caesarian section team if necessary.
Alas, it never happened. A tropical storm hit Florida and the shuttle landed in California, where another team was stationed. We did monitor the control group, however. (These were rats that were housed in the same kind of boxes that were loaded into the shuttle.) On both that occasion and a training run that we did about three months earlier, we were inside Hanger L in Cape Canaveral. (Hanger L is a working facility of the space complex; in fact, it was where pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger were reassembled after the horrible 1986 accident.) I was given an official badge and spent a couple of nights working on the property. It was one of the great experiences of my life.
After graduate school, I got married and moved first to Maryland and then to Oregon. Later, we moved to central Florida. We now live close enough to the Cape to easily see launches from our house. We pretty faithfully kept tabs on the shuttle launches, including one spectacular night launch that briefly gave us a daytime sky in what had been the dark of night. We would go outside and listen for the sonic booms during landing approaches. And as many times as we could, we drove out to Cocoa Beach to watch the launches from a few miles away. It was just a few years ago that the shuttle program finally ended, and although I hated to see it end, it is rather astonishing to think that a program begun in 1981 lasted until 2011. That’s 30 years! I watched the first one as a little kid on TV with my dad; I worked (tangentially) as part of a scientific project on a shuttle while I was in graduate school, and I monitored the final mission as a home owner, husband, and father of 2 daughters. In contrast, Mercury lasted 3 years of flying, Gemini 3 years, and Apollo 4 years.
This morning we went out to watch the first test flight of Orion. Unfortunately the clouds obscured our view, but thanks to the NASA TV app (running on my iPad whose computing power dwarfs the computing power of anything John Young ever flew on) we were able to keep tabs on the mission. I was born during the Apollo years, but was too young to have seen any of the missions on TV, so Orion’s launch this morning is the highest I’ve ever watched any rocket climb. Orion will head for an altitude of 3,600 miles; well above the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, or the Hubble Space Telescope. It is unmanned, but there’s a capsule going along for the ride, a capsule that may some day take astronauts to the moon, or an asteroid, or Mars.
When the shuttle program ended, I was pretty pessimistic. It was hard to stay enthusiastic about the ISS. I’m all for international cooperation, but having our astronauts riding home on Russian vehicles just didn’t sit right. I took some pleasure in recent accomplishments of the European Space Agency (the comet landing) and the Chinese and Indian space programs, and I am very excited about private launch companies entering the game. But for many reasons, Kennedy Space Center is my home too, and I didn’t realize until this morning how much I wanted to see a ship launching from that familiar spaceport, carrying the NASA logo, that, even though unmanned, is part of a new manned spaceflight program.
Probably the Orion launch will make little to change the news this week. And I suppose we’ll still hear the familiar complaints that we shouldn’t be spending billions on outer space when we have so many problems here at home. But at this stage in my life, I ever-more agree with Asimov’s point of view on the space program. That one of its great contributions is in lifting the sights of mankind, bringing us together to dream big, to do big things. Bravo NASA. We’re back.