Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Norman's Tropics

He found himself going for a walk along the grass. Between the grandstand and the lagoon was a field about the size of a Little League baseball park and the photographers had all set themselves up at the edge of the water, their cameras with telephoto lenses set on tripods so that they looked from behind like a whole command of Army surveyors taking a lesson in their instrument. And the object on which they were focused, Apollo-Saturn, looked gray and indistinct across the air waves of heat shimmering off the lagoon.

To the right of the photographers was a small grove of pure jungle. Recollections of his platoon on a jungle trail, hacking with machetes entered his head. A hash of recollections. He had thought he would be concentrating on the activities at the Launch Pad, the Control Center, in the Command Module, he had expected to be picturing the vitals of the rocket, and the entrance of the fuels into it, but he was merely out of sorts with a headache, and waiting for the time to pass.
—Norman Mailer, at the launch of Apollo 11, from Of a Fire on the Moon

I have been struck by this description of the jungle just at the edge of the press viewing area, and now I have seen it for myself (and snapped a picture of it with my phone, as you can see).

One of the things I enjoyed most about getting press credentials for the last launch was getting to explore the press site itself. I realized today that I forgot to step out onto the patio of the CBS building, from which Walter Cronkite sat for many hours keeping Americans apprised of the progress of various missions, and that the CBS building will probably now be torn down, and then I was really sad. It seems there is no end to the fresh little tragedies at the end of American spaceflight.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You Remind Me of Me

This is the title of a book that has nothing to do with spaceflight. But I kept thinking of this phrase the two days I was in Florida to witness the historic last launch of the space shuttle. As always, my visit was fascinating in terms of the space-related wonders I witnessed, and even more gratifying in terms of the people I met there and the deep connections between people and the space program.

As I made my way around the Space Coast Friday and Saturday, both at the actual launch and at events around it, I kept seeing people who looked weirdly familiar to me. Did I go to grad school with that guy? Was that woman in dorm at college? Is that the friend of a friend? I kept finding myself squinting into people's faces, trying to make a connection that was never there. (Okay, in one case it turned out I was squinting at Seth Green, who looked so familiar because I recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its entirety, and in another it turned out to be John Oliver of BOTH The Daily Show and Community. So... that was awesome).

But generally, my TV watching could not account for the strange sense that everyone was someone I already kind of knew. After I while I realized what it was. I had something important in common with just about every person there. We may be different ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds, and we may come at this interest from entirely different directions, but we all care enough about the space shuttle to want to be there to say goodbye.

This time I got press credentials and so was able to see the launch from the press site for the first time, which was a significantly different experience from seeing it from other vantage points. Part of the press site experience included getting to know the #NASATweetup people-- a lucky bunch of 150 so-and-so's chosen by NASA "at random" to get unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Kennedy Space Center and the launch. One of those people chosen "at random" was my friend Stu, and by being sort of vaguely at his elbow I was able to sneak into the #NASATweetup tent (I refuse to call this structure the "Twent," as some of them insisted upon doing). The Tweety People (as I, in turn, annoyed everyone by insisting upon calling them) were simply a solid group of individuals-- smart, friendly and funny, space fans to the core, and honestly exactly the 150 people I would have chosen had NASA asked me to choose 150 people "at random." I'm lucky to have met as many of them as I did.

I will write in more detail about the launch itself, and the exciting saga of how I lost my press badge and got it back thanks to a standup character from the electricians' union-- but for now I will leave you with an image Stu took of me with my mouth hanging open like an idiot.

Godspeed Atlantis!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I'm officially a Huffington Post Blogger!

Check it out.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Space Coast

One thing I will miss when the space shuttles are retired is traveling to the Space Coast for the launches. I've made a total of 6 trips to Brevard County in recent years (3 of them in 2011 alone) and I've gotten to know the area in a strange way-- by writing in the voice of a child who grew up there and knew the terrain like her own skin. Those of you who know the places where *I* grew up know how much I had to fake details like the palmetto trees in the back yard, unrelenting hot weather, lurking alligators, and the background rhythm of shuttle launches and returns.

Since writing the book, I've come across a lot of stuff I wish I'd been able to fit into the book, like the awesome memorabilia at so many restaurants. I've come up with a working theory: the worse the restaurant, the better the space memorabilia and vice versa. A shack that sells beer in cans and deep-fried marine life will be coated inside with signed crew photos, old blaze-orange NASA passes for long-ago launches, and random bits of NASA propaganda. A white tablecloth restaurant with a nice wine list will have nothing at all.

Also, there are beaches. (As gorgeous as this beach looks, it was covered in dead jellyfish, so... don't get too jealous).

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

One could assume that the possible presence of high winds, slow turns, and upgrades would be the reason the crawler travels at less than its full speed, travels rather at turtle speed, half a mile an hour, but since the sight of the open skyscraper and the rocket in nine-armed embrace clanking along the Cape Kennedy moors at a rate somewhat less than one foot a second is a sight no man has ever seen before he has seen it, it is indeed a moment in the symbolic pageantry of legend perhaps not unequal to that hour when Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane: perhaps the exquisite sense of caution in Rocco Petrone which is reflected in the speed of half a mile an hour, instead of the possible rush through at twice that rate is due to some secret pleasure taken in the magnified luxury of treating all the workers at the Space Center to the pleasure of watching their mighty moonship edge along the horizon from morning to dusk, or even more spectacularly at night, with lanterns in the rigging, like a ghost galleon of the Carribean! The beginning of the trip to the moon was as slow as the fall of the fullest flake of snow.
Norman Mailer, Of A Fire on the Moon

On May 31, 2011 I got to witness Atlantis rolling out to the launch pad along with the workers at the Space Center. It was, in fact, a magnified luxury to watch the mighty [moon]ship edge along spectacularly at night. (Norman Mailer, no one can write about space more bombastically than you.)

Look closely: there are people on the crawler.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be President

The first man on the moon, the last man on the moon, and Jim Lovell, who missed his chance to step on the moon on Apollo 13 (think Tom Hanks), get together for some Obama-blaming on the anniversary of the "before this decade is out" speech.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Happy Before This Decade Is Out Day!

As you know, 2011 is a big year for space anniversaries. We celebrated Yuri Gagarin's first flight on April 12 and then a few weeks later Alan Shepard's first flight on May 5. Imagine being Kennedy in the few weeks between May 5 and 25 (keeping in mind he had only been inaugurated in January). He spent those weeks conferring with scientists, the Pentagon, and let's face it probably the CIA. Then on the 25th JFK came out with his daring charge to the nation. Seriously, watch it, it's only a few minutes.

My favorite part of this speech, of course, is the part where he says we're going to the moon. But I am also totally amazed by his humility toward the end where he goes off the page. He admits that "I came to this conclusion with some reluctance," and then closes with this:

You must decide yourselves, as I have decided. And I am confident that whether you finally decide in the way I have decided or not, that your judgment, as my judgment, was reached in the best interest of our country.

That guy was a class act.

Now just for fun, put on your best Hyannis Port accent and sing along: "we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard!"

(Still not quite sure what "the other things" are.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Dawn at Kennedy Space Center

The next-to-last space shuttle launch was Monday (if I was a real English professor I'd use the word "penultimate") and scholars, I was there.

When I went to my first space shuttle launch, STS-102 in March 2001, I was all like, Well, that's it, I've seen a shuttle launch! I was writing a book in which the characters go to many shuttle launches, and I needed to see one to know what it was like. Having crossed that off my list, I never thought I'd make a point of seeing another one again.

But then the program was canceled, and I wanted to write about the end of American human spaceflight. I felt like I should see the last few launches in order to write about it. My second launch was ten years after my first, three months ago, STS-133 in February 2011, and I was surprised by how different it was from 102. 102 was a night launch and 133 was day; I was at a different vantage point, the weather was different, 102 was pre-Columbia and 133 was post-, and the overall spectacle, sound, and experience were totally different.

As of Monday, I've seen three launches, and I'm starting to understand why some people who live in central Florida make it a point to go to every single one. Each one is a little different from the others, they each have a different story behind them and put on a different performance. Realizing this of course makes me incredibly sad that there is only one more to go for all time. And of course I plan to be there no matter what it takes.

This time I had a WAY better vantage point than I ever have, and better than almost anyone else. I mean not to be braggy, but I was closer than the press site, even closer (by a smidgen) than the astronaut's families, where President Obama was for the first attempt. This is all thanks to my friend Omar and his father Frank, both of whom work at the Cape, and they were generous enough to invite me along on their Extra Special Access badges. Here is a great video that Omar shot:

Godspeed Endeavour!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Space History Day!

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. Yuri was awesome and there's pretty much no way around that.

On April 12, 1981, the first space shuttle launched.

Today is April 12, 2011. It's been exactly thirty years since the start of the shuttle era and exactly 50 years since the start of the era of human spaceflight. Is it a bit of a bummer that we celebrate Space History Day (yes I made that up) preparing to say goodbye to the remaining space shuttles? Yeah it is.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Discovery's last flight

Scholars, I'm still knee deep in work on my hugely long essay about the end of the space shuttle era, and as some publications are twitchy about publishing work that has appeared on the internet, I'm not going to take any chances and risk writing some transcendent sentences here that I will then be unable to use in the essay.

For now, suffice it to say: I was at the launch of STS-133, I met some kooky people there, and I'm really glad I went. From the west end of the 528 causeway, it looked something like this. (It gets a little cut off because Blogger and YouTube are not playing nicely together, but you can kind of get the idea).

From a much better vantage point across from the Vehicle Assembly Building, from my friend Omar who works at the Kennedy Space Center, it looked more like this.

Stay tuned!

Friday, January 28, 2011

I'm afraid I don't have anything new for the Challenger anniversary this year, as I'm frantically writing a new piece on the end of the space shuttle era and preparing to go to Florida for the last launch of Discovery. (People keep asking me, when I mention I'm going to a shuttle launch, "Oh, cool! Where?" I try not to sound sarcastic when I answer, "Um, Florida. Have you ever heard of Cape Canaveral?" (The Kennedy Space Center is not actually at Cape Canaveral, but that's what they call it in the movies, and it has a pleasing alliteration.) My point is, space shuttles have only ever been launched from one place).

Anyway. In lieu of a Challenger anniversary post of my own, I want to direct you to a wonderful review of The Time It Takes to Fall by Catherine Howard over at Catherine, Caffeinated. She is the author of a memoir about living in Orlando for a while a a child as a visitor from Ireland-- must have been an odd experience, and I can't wait to read the book. She also has rather addictive blog about writing. She knows a lot about self-publishing in the era of e-books, which is a topic that a lot of people talk about without knowing nearly as much as Catherine seems to. You should check it out.