From Insanity to History

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My whole life I have been endlessly fascinated with space and space travel along with the men and women who build the history and science behind space travel.

Call it a side effect of growing up in New Mexico.

As a fairly young kid I read the book “The Right Stuff” and ate up every word. So I read it again.

Just recently, I read the book yet again and I still loved every bit of it.

I’ve always been an especially huge fan of the early pilots like Chuck Yeager who were willing (on their small military pay) to strap into experimental machines just to see what they could do.

Can you imagine how insane people thought Chuck Yeager was when he was trying to break the sound barrier in a fast plane?

And he was, just a little. But his willingness to put his life on the line meant that scientists understood what body and machine went through at the speed of sound so that they could make better machines and better safety equipment.

Despite the enormous success of the US Space program, I’ve often wished that the military and NASA didn’t give up on developing pilot controlled airplanes to facilitate space travel. They were making good progress when the space race intervened and something had to be done quickly.

Instead of highly experimental planes, it was easier to strap an astronaut to a rocket and blast off. Hell, the solid rocket booster technology that fueled the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011 dates back to the 1960’s. And it still works. More or less.

Today with the sad decline of NASA and the growth of private space development, we may be getting back to the realm of real fast piloted planes as a way to get people up into space. As we start thinking about space tourism, the thoughts of safety become more important.

Enter the latest in a long line of courageous (and a little bit crazy) men. Yesterday an Austrian gentleman named Felix Baumgartner piloted a helium balloon to some 127,000 feet over the New Mexico desert (a record for a piloted balloon flight), and then he jumped out.

You know, just to see what his experimental spacesuit would do.

It was, first and foremost, a publicity stunt for Red Bull energy drinks. But there’s more to it than that. Mr. Baumgartner was testing a new pressure suit that not only protected his body but allowed maneuverability. Traditional pressure suits used in space flight don’t allow the astronaut to move around much which means in the event of danger it is damn near impossible for astronauts to eject and to survive.

So in his fairly thin space suit, Mr Baumgartner broke the sound barrier. With his body. On the same day, October 14, that Chuck Yeager first hit Mach 1 back in 1947.

Sixty-five years ago breaking the sound barrier seemed far fetched. To break the sound barrier with little more than a space suit on seemed nigh on impossible.

And yet.

When I first heard about this proposed jump from space, I thought it was pure insanity. As time went on I became more and more fascinated by the possibility of it.

Yesterday when I saw they were live streaming the event, I was all over it.

I have to be honest, I didn’t think Mr. Baumgartner was going to survive the jump. I worried that I was spectating a man’s death.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment when he was standing there on the step of his capsule.

And then he wasn’t.

As his body tumbled and cartwheeled I was absolutely terrified. Well made airplanes have broken apart at those speeds. I thought that was it. I thought there was no way.

Then somehow he got control. His body righted itself and he was in perfect form and he was really doing this thing!

Then at just the right time his parachute deployed and he sailed down to mother earth. Feet touched ground and he took a couple steps and boop, he was home.

That crazy bastard. What an accomplishment.

And what a step forward for commercial space travel.








Image found on SFGate.com with photography credit to Red Bull Stratos.



Goodbye Old Friend

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This morning I had a doctors appointment at 9:30, which was the same time the Space Shuttle Endeavor was due to fly over the Bay Area.

This made me very cranky. It’s so hard to get in to see this specialist, so I simply accepted my fate.

Today is one of the few days I’ve been grateful for the Bay Area’s marine layer. The fog delayed the takeoff and am I ever glad it did.

After finishing my appointment, I climbed up in the Jeep and listened close to the radio. I chose a course on southbound 101 hoping to catch a glimpse.

I turned off at the exit for my mid-peninsula place of employment, and on the radio they said “Endeavor has just left Oakland and is making it’s way to the Golden Gate.”

That meant I had maybe 15 minutes. I saw a few people milling around in a grassy public space so I turned quick into the parking lot, tugged the parking brake, and joined them.

“Do you think it will come by here?” I asked the older couple already there, setting up their camera gear.

The man who so profoundly resembled my dad talked me through his reasoning as to why where we were standing would be a good viewing spot. His logic was spot on.

I teared up a little. How cool it would have been to share this with my dad. He used to take me to all the air shows at Kirtland Air Force base as I grew up. It’s probably his fault I’ve always been fascinated by fighter jets and the Space Shuttle. He would have dug this flyby a lot.

As the time passed, more people started showing up, all asking the same thing “do you think this will be a good spot?”

Then suddenly, “There it is!!”

And there it was.

The plane carrying the shuttle moved so slow, seemingly impossible to stay aloft moving that slow, and at a pretty low flight deck too.

I tried to take photos but the haze was no photographer’s friend. So instead I put my camera down and just watched. As I said to a friend on FB, it was like a slow funeral procession for a much beloved icon.

I teared up a lot. I’m not even embarrassed to say it.

The shuttle was a big part of my growing up and for me its retirement is met with sadness and a bit of frustration at how, over time, NASA mishandled the program.

Onward to the next adventures, old friend!

Hey, you know what? The next step in space travel may just hit a little close to where I come from.

Here’s a few photos of today’s flyover from the local paper:



Two icons together, Endeavor and the Golden Gate Bridge




Endeavor and its fighter jet escort near one tower of the Bay Bridge





Images from SFGate.com



It’s an 80’s Kind of Thing

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Last week the world witnessed what has now become something of a commonplace event, the launching of another Space Shuttle.

Despite the rather aging and ailing technology used to get the shuttle off the ground, it’s sort of amazing how well that ship has flown over the years. Yes, really well, even considering the two terrible tragedies of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

As the shuttle Atlantis lifted off on July 7, I couldn’t help but be both proud and sad. Proud that another shuttle successfully made it to orbit. Sad that it’s the last shuttle to fly.

As a kid from the 80’s, the Space Shuttle program was something of magic and dreams and technology and good ol’ American pride. I loved to watch each and every launch and applauded as that little dot disappeared into the endless blue. Then several days later it would appear again and our astronauts would come home and by god, we did it again!

Remember when the shuttle landed in New Mexico’s own White Sands in 1982? I sure do. That was a good day, seeing my home state on the big stage. We got the shuttle and got ‘er home safe too!

Sadly, over time and two tragedies and budget cuts and over-administration, the proud NASA tradition has faltered, yielding way to private space programs and astronauts hitching rides with other countries who have the time and money to keep a space program running.

It’s the end of an era which makes me more than a little wistful.

Here’s wishing the crew of the final Atlantis flight an easy, uneventful flight home.



The first shuttle launch, a ship called Columbia, in 1981.




Reuters/NASA photo from The Atlantic Monthly.