Monday, April 5, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond.....

The Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off this morning with seven astronauts aboard.

As a life-long space junkie, I was watching for the story and barely found it mentioned on NPR. However, the BBC carried a video of the blast-off with a story alongside that Soyuz had lifted off from Kazakhstan on Friday. Both stories.  Hmmm, must be space envy.

Discovery is hauling equipment and supplies to the International Space Station in one of its last missions before the program is shut down at the end of the year. In a rare and wonderful sight, the space station passed over the launch site about 15 minutes before launch and was easily visible as a bright star passing by the moon.  I am so sorry that I wasn't there to see that.  David and I have observed several shuttle launches from our balcony in St Petersburg all the way on the other side of the state from the Space Center.  It is is a chilling experience every time.

Soyuz docked with the ISS yesterday and apparently three astronauts, including one American, have transferred to the station for several months where among other things they are working on experiments left there by the Japanese.  Apparently, two of Japans three astronauts are in space at this time.
I find it interesting how we can cooperate on the exploration of space and yet seem to have so much difficulty working together on the problems of earth.

There are no plans for what to do after the shuttles are parked for the last time - no proposals, no budget, not even much discussion.  POTUS is planning a trip to Florida while the shuttle is still in orbit to look things over and discuss options, but he is pretty much already on record that this is waaaay down on his priority list.  His trip is most likely related to addressing the 6000 jobs that will be lost when the program is ended.

Too bad no one has considered expanding the program and inviting say, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan to participate.  Maybe if we were all working on the space program together we could start a dialogue that would teach us how to talk to one another about other things.  I mean if it worked with the Russians, who knows? And hasn't anyone in charge of all this ever watched Star Trek?

For the first time ever there are three women on this shuttle flight that will rendezvous with a fourth woman on the ISS  That is quite a change from the days of Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldren or even Sally Ride, and the sad loss of Christa McAuliffe and the astronauts on Challenger and Columbia.

A few nights ago I watched a documentary about the wives of the Apollo astronauts.  I had forgotten that the disaster that took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee was the first planned three man mission in a series designed to take man to the moon.

The fire occurred during a pre-flight test.  Subsequent investigations indicated that the accident was likely preventable but much was learned that allowed NASA to meet JFK‘s call for putting a man on the moon within the decade of the 1960‘s. If you are interested in how truly screwed up all the planning and processes around space flight have been and continue to be I recommend reading The Challenger Disaster.  If Obama is putting off further funding until the problems with the system are fixed then he is correct and I hope we can re-instate a well planned and expertly run program soon.

Did I tell you that I have always been a space flight junkie? 

I remember watching breathlessly as John Glenn circled the globe for the first time and cheering when it was announced that he was going up again in his 70s. I wish I had grown up even 10 years later when someone might have encouraged my math and science capabilities and suggested that I could strive to be an astronaut rather than just an astronaut’s wife (although the latter was never on my wish list either). Or at least a flight controller or meteorologist who helped plan the launches.  Yeah, that is what I should have been - a way to combine my fascinations with weather and space.

Roger Chaffee’s widow was one of the women interviewed for the documentary (her first name was never shown)  She was amazingly supportive of the other wives and space travel in general considering that her husband had been turned into toast in the capsule before his mission even got off the ground.
This was all that was left after the 100% oxygen environment ignited .  The remains of the capsule have never been displayed and are warehoused near the launch site at the Cape.  The  launchpad itself still stands, deserted, as a grim reminder of the terrible events of that day. There is some discussion of burying the capsule there.
As I watched and listened to the film of these strong women I kept thinking how much the success of the space program had depended on their commitment to the program and to their husbands.  Before the end of the Apollo program more than 75% of the astronauts’ marriages had ended in divorce, generally with the men leaving their wives for younger women.

Those were heady times for the space cowboys and many chose to take advantage of the women and even men who offered up themselves for the cause - if you know what I mean.  Apparently the high oxygen filled atmosphere around all the training centers fueled lives of partying , fast cars, sex, and high risk.  And through it all the wives stayed home, raised the children and kept themselves looking just right for the many TV interviews that they were expected to perform. They were even given instructions on just how they should appear at all times.  No running out for milk and eggs unless your hair was done and you were wearing makeup and nice shoes.

The Apollo wives lived at a time when men could be men because the women were women in a defined, accepted and expected way.  I can’t even imagine standing six miles away and watching as my husband sat atop a bomb and was blasted to god knows where while I held the hands of our children - children who by the way were afforded only standard military pay, benefits and pensions regardless of consequence.  But the wives knew they had each other and that the American people were behind the extraordinary efforts that they and their husbands were making.

Those early space wives stuck by each other, providing support during the long months of training and the anguishing days when the men were in space.  Americans held ticker tape parades and greeted the men as heroes and applauded the sacrifices of the wives.  And today I can’t even tell you the names of the seven astronauts that are hurling through space much less whether they are married, single, gay, or divorced.  In the early days knowing all of that and more was always a part of the package and after what I can only assume was space insanity that drove what’s-her-name-the-astronaut-in-diapers to drive all night to hunt down her husband’s lover, it continues to fascinate. It points out how truly stressful preparing for going into space is for both the women and men whether you are the one training to be shot into the darkness of space while strapped aside a fuel-filled rocket in an airplane covered with faulty heat- resistant tiles that are as likely to fly off as to do the job for which they were intended -  or you are the one staying home to help re-pack the suitcase upon your partner’s return.

Too much has been invested and sacrificed for the space program to just S.T.O.P.

It has filled the imaginations of millions. led to amazing discoveries and holds promise for so much more.  We need to go back to the moon, and beyond, and if our recently-proved- to-be-totally-stupid-Congress can’t understand it from that perspective, perhaps they could be persuaded to fund NASA out of the inflated Defense Department budget with the idea of promoting peaceful cooperation among partners on earth toward a mutual goal in space.  Maybe it is time that Obama proposed a “Prime Directive"

In words similar to those of the mission director this morning,

"It is time for [us] to rise to orbit.  Good luck and Godspeed."


  1. The main problem with the manned space program is the lack of identifiable and meaningful goals. We hear, let's go back to the moon but with no clear reason why. What will we get from going back to the moon? How much more can we do by using that money on unmanned programs?

    I know that we will hear about all the wonderful side benefits that the manned space program provided, but as the late Carl Sagan once said, "We don't have to go to Mars to cure cancer."

  2. Tom - You are absolutely correct in posting Sagan's comment and perhaps I should have been clearer in my mourning for the end of the manned program that, like you, what I desire is well-thought out properly functioning continued exploration of space with identified goals in whatever way is deemed most effective. If that means unmanned probes, great, but I am skeptical of the privatization of shuttle flights. There are way too many unsolved issues to turn this over to unregulated commercial interests. And there is too much to be gained from continuing exploration - maybe eve a cure for cancer. Unfortuantely I dont think we will see reallocation of the budget dollars in any way that we can identify, like al the other found monies that just disappear into hyperspace, this too will be gone with no glimmer of a launch.