Tag Archives: space exploration

Why the U.S. human spaceflight program won’t be over any time soon

When the human spaceflight program began in the U.S. varies depending on who you are and when you were born. For me, it began with the publication of the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Of course, others will say that it began on May 5, 1961 just as others will claim it ended on July 21, 2011. The fact is that the human spaceflight program probably began long before that July 1939 issue of Astounding. But that’s when it began for me because that’s when people began to imagine–in a scientifically reasonable way–that human spaceflight was really possible. The technology might not be there yet, but we would get there. We’d have to be serious about science, serious about engineering, serious in considering all of the ramifications of human spaceflight–but we’d get there.

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Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939

Science fiction, to me, is the literature of the affect of technological change on society. By 1939, science fiction writers had already started to explore the impact of this change on society in the stories they wrote. Isaac Asimov’s story, “Trends” (his third published story) appeared in that 1939 issue of Astounding and that story took a unique view (at the time) of attempts to reach the moon. The story imagined a society in which such attempts might be frowned upon, opposed for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons we’ve seen come to pass. But the fact that we were thinking about these things decades before we ever flew in space illustrates my point.

At the time I was born, ten people had walked on the surface of the moon. Nine months later, the last two men to walk on the moon would take their final steps there. At the time, I imagine, many people thought we’d be back. We haven’t been back but we’ve done quite a bit since. Not all of it seems as dramatic as standing on other worlds, but then again, how dramatic was Lewis and Clark’s journey across the continent in comparison to , say, Columbus or Magellan? There are giant leaps and there are baby steps. Somewhere in between is a walking pace that allows us to move forward at a steady rate.

After the moon came the space stations and Apollo-Soyuz, bordered on both sides by dramatic pauses in spaceflight. Then came the space shuttle and for a period of three decades we hit our “walking” strike. Over the course of 133 missions, we began to learn what it was like to live in space, what it took to survive there. Twice, we learned how to deal with the tragedy that is inevitable in any great endeavor. Leaning how to deal with such tragedy allows us to move forward in spite of it.

Columbia Launch.jpg

I was in second grade when Columbia made its debut on April 12, 1981. I was 17 years out of college with a little boy of my own and a little girl on the way when Altantis made her final return to Earth. During that time, we didn’t take giant leaps. Nor did we take baby steps. We found a stride with which we were comfortable and we learned how to handle the environment around us to a much finer degree than ever before.

When Atlantis returned to Earth, there was an outpouring of nostalgia, as if for some long lost period of exploration. Scientists, science fiction writers, friends and colleagues seemed equally in agreement that the U.S. human spaceflight program was at an end and that this was a sad thing. But I don’t see it that way. The human spaceflight program is not at an end. As far as I can tell, it will never be at an end, not anytime soon, and not while we still call ourselves human. It is inevitable that we will head back out into space. We have to. Barring our self-destruction, we have to, it seems to be ingrained in our nature to explore the unknown, to answer age-old questions, and if nothing else, seek the glory and adventure in the quest to do so.

Science fiction writers haven’t stopped writing about human spaceflight. Pick up the latest issues of Analog and you’ll see: they are writing about them more realistically than ever. They are thinking about the difficulties that will have to be overcome to begin the next wave of human spaceflight. Not all of those difficulties are technical. Some are sociological, others political, others economic. But there are people out there exploring how to handle these challenges, just as there are people out there thinking about how we can overcome the engineering challenges. Will it be Mars next? An asteroid? I don’t know. But that there will be a next, I am certain. And until that “next” comes, I can content myself with our successes so far, and know that any time I like, I can immerse myself into human spaceflight by turning to a science fiction magazine, or reaching for one of the countless science fiction novels available in bookstores, virtual and otherwise.

The U.S. human spaceflight program isn’t over. We are just in one of our periodic pauses. There are more giant leaps for us to take. But more importantly, we have yet to really hit our stride. The space shuttle program was a good start. I expect to see a lot more.

The Space Shuttle and Me

Atlantis is on her way to the International Space Station. And the space shuttle program comes to an end with this mission.

I was in second grade at Cedar Hill Elementary school when the Columbia made it’s first launch on April 12, 1981. I remember our class went to another classroom, across the library, and in that classroom was a television that was tuned to some news station. I think we must have watched a rerun of the launch, since the actual launch took place at 7am and we were not at school that early. I don’t remember much about watching the launch itself. My interest in astronomy had been growing since I discovered it in first grade, and I imagine I must have been pretty excited to see the shuttle launch,  but I didn’t understand the significance back then, as I do today.

I didn’t see the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. I was in eight grade and the launch coincided with some kind of break between classes. But I remember starting to hear the other kids talk about the shuttle blowing up. Pretty soon we were all talking about it, rumors were flying. I was predicting that maybe they could have made it safely to orbit, but of course, that was not the case. I had a science class later that day, and I remember going into the classroom to find our teacher with tears in her eyes, a radio providing continuous bulletins on the tragic events of the day.

In 1998, I decided that I really wanted to be an astronaut and fly on the shuttle. It was silly of me to think this, but even silly thoughts can lead to some positive actions. It was because of this, in part, that I went out and learned to fly, and eventually got my pilot’s license. I also felt as if I devoured every book on the Apollo space program ever written. And of course, there was HBO’s From the Earth To The Moon to help spur along the inspiration. During this time, I would spent all day at work with the shuttle and mission control communications playing in the background. I would listen to each launch with what can only be described of as nervous thrill. And the absolute high point for me came on October 2, 1998 when John Glenn went up in Discovery as part of STS-95. I remember listening to that launch, and it must have been as exciting for me as the moon landing was for my parents.

I recall waking up on February 1, 2003 and going into my home office to check email and news. That’s when I discovered that the Columbia and it’s crew had been lost on reentry. I think I shrieked out loud, I was horrified and I did nothing else that day but watch the news for updates. I read every bit of news on the subject in the Washington Post for the next week.

I missed the launch this morning. I was stuck in meetings. I am sad to see the era of the space shuttle come to an end, but it doesn’t mean that the age of human spaceflight is ending. We are entering a new chapter now. I am a science fiction writer, and I write about spaceships and exploring the solar system, the galaxy and the universe. But what I write is all made up. I wonder what kind of achievements we will have made in human space exploration by the time the Little Man is in first grad… eight grade… when he twenty-six, and by the time he is thirty-one. The moon again? An asteroid? Mars? There’s nothing to do but wait and see.

And hope and dream.

Space, education, and the second half

For those who follow these things, there has been much chatter about s.f. writer Charles Stross‘s blog essay in which argues why he thinks we will never colonize space. He has some good arguments, but I’ve been somewhat disappointed that no one has taken up the other side of the debate. And then I saw today’s Washington Post Parade magazine which contained an essay by Neil deGrasse Tyson called “Why America Needs to Explore Space“. It’s not exactly a rebuttal of Stross’s essay, but it is a good, well-thought argument for why we need to continue exploring space. The most frequently made argument against this is that we have too many problems to solve down here; here is where we should be spending our money. As Tyson points out, we do. 99 cents out of every tax dollar goes to programs other than the space program. Less than a penny goes to space. Even at the height of the Apollo missions, American’s were paying 4 cents of every tax dollar to the space program.

Education columnist Jay Mathews has a novel idea to eliminate homework in grade school in place of an hour of reading each day. Apparently, studies show that prior to junior high school, homework assignments in grade school do little to improve learning or test scores. Attempting to make reading a habit–rather than a chore–during these early years might just lead to other improvements in education down the road. I like the idea, but apparently, there are some parents that would be unhappy with this. I would mean that they would actually have to read to their children.


So much for what I said I was going to do today. I didn’t go downtown, didn’t even do much reading. I sat at home, ordered a pizza (bad idea!), watched a movie, did some quick grocery shopping, and then eventually, watched more TV. Ugh! I feel lazy!

Discovery is on its way!

Space shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station. I watched the launch, the first night time launch in more than 4 years. MECO (main engine cutoff) was nominal with no residual burn required. Nine minutes to orbit. It was pretty cool to watch!

Harbor and Shuttle

Today is, of course, the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It seems to me that a lot of people of my generation don’t realize this, but the date was burned into me by my Grandpa, and from my reading of American history.

On a brighter note, we are just about 13 hours away from the launch of the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the International Space Station. The launch is currently scheduled for 9:35 PM EST. It means I’ll have to stay up past my bedtime, but I try never to miss a shuttle launch. It is one of the most exhilarating things I can think of to watch. And, of course, I always imagine that I am on board when the countdown hits “liftoff!”

STS 121

So the next shuttle launch, STS 121 is still go for this coming Saturday, July 1. Launch time is scheduled for 3:49 PM EDT. Anyone interested in watching the launch can do so from NASA TV, and I’m sure the major networks will be covering it too.

It’s the second shuttle launch in about a year. I get excited about every manned space mission, this one no exception. (It’s the kid in me who wanted to be an astronaut.)

More information is available from NASA’s website.

Twenty years!

This coming Saturday, January 28, 2006, will be twenty years since the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its launch, killing all of the crew onboard.

Twenty years!

While I can’t remember that day as clearly as I used to, I can remember aspects of it pretty clearly. I was in junior high school at the time. I don’t remember exactly how we heard about the disaster, but I recall being able to listen to radio reports in home room and in my biology class. In fact, I can recall my biology teacher crying over the loss.

Before we knew too much detail, I remember talking with friends during a morning recess, telling them that if the shuttle got up high enough, it has the ability to attempt a return-to-earth manuever, which it does, and which I knew about at the time, although I don’t recall where I learned that. I remember we debated the possibility of sending up another space shuttle to rescue the crew of the first, if they’d ended up making it into space.

It’s a little eerie that twenty years have passed. That’s an entire generation. I imagine this is a similar feeling that people of an earlier generation have about they day Kennedy was killed (now 43 years ago) or the day we set foot on the moon (now 37 years ago). I imagine that as one gets older, this phenomenon begins to happen with greater frequency, save for the fact that the details become fuzzier and fuzzier.

I can still, for instance, remember the day of the very first space shuttle launch. I was attending grade school in Warwick, Rhode Island, and we were sent to another classroom, which had a television, so that we could all watch the launch of this new space vehicle. (I learned later that particular mission was piloted by non other than John Young, who ten years earlier had been one of a dozen men to walk on the moon, and who just recently retire from the astronaut corps.)