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"At times reaching for the stars means you need the will of a nation, at times you need a large rocket, and sometimes you just need open eyes."

4 October 2007

We love milestones with round numbers. Some simply look nice as an image on a page; others bound something so memorable and profound, it's difficult to capture what they meant to our species. That's where I'm at, looking back at an era which spans most of my life, and nearly all of my dreams. Leaving home, whether a house or planet, is a classic story told over and over through legend - and in the last half century, as the documented living history of human culture. Many of us were fortunate to witness much of the uproar between the major social-cultural camps that followed the launch of Sputnik I. The technological and military implications of a satellite were known well before 1957, but no one really grapsed the cultural shake-up which surrounded the first successful Earth orbiter. A simple show of lifting capability, mostly a prideful boast from an industrial nation with a philosophy to sell, became a defining event for our planet. The threat of an adversary gaining the highest of high ground... a fear of inferiority in more fields than rocketry... the audacity of a foreign government, all generated strong emotional reactions across the world. Sputnik kicked my country in the gut, and left us feeling second best. We an arrogant and proud bunch, and don't take one-upsmanship very well. Yet by the time we raised up to take a breath,our ideas began churning and our spirtits began to rise to the task.

The resulting government and industry push brought attention, funding - and leapfrog gains in research and education. The U.S. and the West responded strongly and rapidly to what became a true landmark event, and set out to really make up for lost time. Fortunately, the West often responds well to challenges, especially those with deadlines. The contest ultimately became the utterly famous race to the nearest reachable planet - a series of events like nothing else before or since. The goal was visible in the sky, and everyone knew what it was and why it was important. Even in the great anti-climax of low Earth orbit operations that characterize the latter part of Act 1, Sputnik's robot successors have travelled farther than anything built by humans. Deep space probes have brought us wonderous images and head-scratchable new data for cosmologists. The latter half of the first 50 hasn't offered the same level of first-hand wonder - we've been left to ponder from a standoff distance. But significantly, we are still taking outward steps, even though they aren't made by astronaut's boots. In Act 2, the plans and hopes are there - yet the mandatory political support remains a question. Does the latter half of the Space Age Centenniary look to be a golden era, or another long pause?

But we didn't stop completely, and the voyage out of Tsiolkovsky's cradle is a slow and measured journey. So how were these early decades? How do we mark this phase? Astronaut Michael Collins explained the first years of the Space Age succinctly and eloquently: What was it all about? It was about leaving!

-- JW


6 September 2007: "Space Academy"

I’m looking right at a ghost. A giant white spectre.  Really, he’s easy to spot, being the biggest thing on the horizon for a dozen miles.  The visage inspires awe and wonder, but is also an insubstantial representation of a great mythical creature that thundered across the American south three and one half decades ago.  Nostalgia, you’re called Saturn.  A monolith in black stripes and tiny winking red beacons, tapering to an impossibly sharp point at the tip of his 363 foot spire.  Certainly he’s not made from the over-engineered steel so common in these parts of northern Alabama; he’s just a fiberglass replica of the most powerful machine which ever flew.  Though a shadow without mechanisms, the Moon Rocket still towers over his smaller brother.  The earlier version was an impressive show during the first test flights on the way to the Moon, but few folks alive could tell you the difference between them, apart from height.  Yet everyone of every age seems happy to see these giants.  Of course, there’s one of only three genuine Saturn V’s nearby, but this superbooster is under renovation, and behind the construction fence.  I’ll have to wait until after January 2008 to see this one.  But for now, I slide the pillow just a bit, and from a beautiful and comfy Marriott hotel room, sitting just astride the US Space & Rocket Center, this is a wonderful falling-asleep vision. 

Awakening to the same inspiring tableau, under bright hazy northern Alabama skies, means another day exploring the home of American rocketry.  Most importantly, it means seeing our brilliant young teenaged friend Cassi, beaming as if every light in her soul is switched on, graduate from US Space Academy! Her family sits, slowly perspiring onto the broad plaza, while a full-sized Space Shuttle stack – the Pathfinder - provides our shaded pavilion.  Former NASA astronaut and retired Marine Colonel Bob Springer’s remarks are brief and spirited – he knows just how much to say in the warm Alabama sun, before turning things over to the Space Camp flight leaders.  With so many programs under the Space Camp banner, now in its 25th anniversary year, it takes a little while to see our young star join her crewmates on stage. She is clad in the familiar sky blue flightsuit, her wings inverted on the front. Around her are kids her same age in varying states of dress and attitude – teens who have just been through a common bonding of spaceflight training. Names and hometowns are read alongside mission crew designations, certificates presented, and wings proudly turned rightside up in recognition.  Even better, her Deimos Flight team receives the coveted ‘best group’ award. 

For a space enthusiast, if there is anything better than a young, brilliant, and enthused young aerospace student walking proudly across a graduation stage, I have no idea what it might be.  Those who will lead the future efforts in the solar system are right here with us. -- JW


30 January 2007: "Missing the Great Comet & Not Much of a Blog"

The diary effect, so called for a flurry of early activity followed by a gradual drop off and final abandonment, describes my blogging eforts quite well. This isn't even a true blog, but we low budget webmasters simply have to have one. The desire to share something of mild interest, to even a small number of fellow space enthisiasts, seems like adequate justifcation for writing. Yet, editing the written word for a living makes me less excited about more writing when I arrive home. Guess I didn't anticipate how a new job would affect a glorious hobby. I check the stats here once in a great while, and share in the huge selection of real space & astronomy blogs, but find my contributions funneling out to my organization rather than this glorious hobby. Every hour a space-related thought enters my mind, so I'll just have to work a bit more to capture the rare good brain voltage.

The winter night skies over south Texas have been a disaster... well, relatively anyway. Sleet and ice and rare visitors to our climate, and coincidently took place when the American Meteorological Society (AMS) was having its national convention in San Antonio! These events sure gave the forecasters something to discuss. But the imapct of all thiis, is how it wrecked our views of the most colossal comet of the past 30 years! Superbright comet C2006/P1 McNaught is a raging beauty, with a glorious great tail arching across a quarter of the sky. The rare celestial event passed through our horizon a few weeks ago, but the rare winter storm - the type we experience only every 50 years or so - rolled through just loud enough to trample a spectacular sight. Perhaps this is nature's way of reminding south Texans to be thankful for good skies most of the time. No matter, perhaps gravity will toss another shining example near our own orbit from somewhere out in the soalr system boonies. Keep searching comet hunters... --JW


"The Lighter Side of Going to the Moon"