Tag Archives: NASA

Another NASA celebrity astronaut leaves us

There once was a time when astronauts were celebrities. We knew their names. We followed their careers. We got up early to watch them blast off from the Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad.

Another such astronaut — and please pardon this intended pun — has left this Earth for keeps. Alan Bean died today at age 86.

He was the fourth man to walk on the moon, aboard Apollo 12 in November 1969. He made the flight to the lunar surface with the late Charles “Pete” Conrad.

Alan Bean didn’t achieve the kind of celebrity status of, say, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the seven men selected to fly in the initial Mercury missions, or most of the Gemini astronauts who came along later.

Bean was among those picked for the third group of space pioneers, the Apollo program. He joined NASA in 1963 after serving as a Navy test pilot.

My years in the Texas Panhandle makes me remind you that Bean hailed from that part of the world. He was a native of Wheeler, a tiny town east of Amarillo.

My most glaring memory of Bean’s time on the moon stems from some innovative measures he took to deploy a camera on the lunar surface. The camera wouldn’t start taking images. What did Bean do? He grabbed a hammer and beat on the device! Then it worked.

NASA doesn’t have a manned space program of its own these days. We’re sending our astronauts into space aboard Russian rockets. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would react to that bit of aerospace irony.

Back in the day, though, Alan Bean was among those individuals we prayed for when they rocketed into space. As President Kennedy said about the goal of sending astronauts to the moon and returning them safely, “We don’t do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard.”

Alan Bean and his colleagues just made it look easy. It wasn’t. He needed to beat on a state-of-the-art camera with a hammer to enable the device to record his history-making adventure for the rest of time.

May he now rest eternally.

Recalling a ‘faint-praise’ compliment

NASA has just launched another rocket with a payload bound for Mars. It’ll get there in due course, land and then stick a probe into the Martian dirt to hunt for signs of life.

All of these unmanned missions make me long for a return to the manned events, those with human beings launched into space. Maybe one day we’ll send folks into deep space to explore the way only humans can do.

I hope to live long enough to watch it happen. I plan to clench my fists tightly during the entire mission, just as I did when I would await the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches with my mom during the 1960s.

That brings me to another story I want to retell here.

In the 1980s, NASA had this bold idea to send a journalist into space. The space agency put the word out to all working American journalists — print and broadcast — and asked them to apply.

Being the space junkie I was at the time — and remain, to a lesser degree in my older age — I applied. I filled out the application and submitted what I thought was a brilliantly worded essay explaining why NASA should pick little ol’ me to chronicle space flight in real time to the world sitting 200 miles below the orbiting craft.

I was living and working in Beaumont, Texas, at the time. NASA headquarters is situated just west of Beaumont in Houston. I figured, hey, if they pick me NASA ‘s travel costs would be next to zero!

I waited. And waited some more. I began grousing about not hearing anything from NASA about the status of my request to fly into space. Then a colleague of mine at the Beaumont Enterprise sought to “reassure” me, to “comfort” me against the anxiety I was feeling. I mentioned to my colleague Rosie that NASA was probably going to go with some big hitter, some network news star everyone knew.

“Oh, no they won’t,” Rosie answered. “They’re going to pick a nobody … just like you.”

I took that as a compliment of sorts.

The journalist in space launch never occurred. NASA then sought to launch a teacher into space. A teacher boarded the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 and then died along with her crewmates 73 seconds after liftoff when the ship exploded.

I plan to live forever with the proverbial “what if?” question that will lurk in my noggin. It comes me to every time I hear of a space flight and as I await the day we return human beings to space.

NASA boss lacks scientific credentials?

I am going to hand it to Donald J. Trump.

The president has a knack of selecting the most unusual individuals for key government posts. He told us while running for the office that he would be an “unconventional” president.

Get a load of this: The president’s selection to lead NASA has no science backgound. Jim Bridenstine is a Republican member of Congress. He once flew jets in the Navy and also ran an air and space museum in Tulsa, Okla.

That’s it. He’s a lawmaker and is the first member of Congress to be nominated for this key scientific post.

It’s a bit of a pattern. The next veterans affairs secretary is slated to be Dr. Ronny Jackson, who’s never run a government agency of any size, let alone one as huge as the Department of Veterans Affairs. Trump nominated renowned brain surgeon Dr. Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bridenstine is now going to administer the agency with the mission of space exploration. The NASA administrator post generally has gone to people from inside the agency or those with vast military experience.

Bridenstine is a politician who has stated doubts about climate change, which NASA has researched extensively for decades.

The U.S. Senate will  vote later this week on Bridenstine’s nomination. He’ll likely get confirmed.

As Vox.com has reported: But it was never clear if Bridenstine could clear the 50 Senate votes needed to nab the job. He faced unanimous opposition from Democrats and from a few within his own party. Notably, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was worried about giving the job to a politician.

NASA is “the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics,” Rubio said in September, echoing the same concerns as his Florida colleague Sen. Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee. “I just think it could be devastating for the space program,” Rubio said.

My hope is that he doesn’t run into the ground an agency that is supposed to reach for the stars … and beyond.

2018: the year of memorable commemorations

Fifty years in a marriage is a big deal, I trust you’d agree.

It’s the “golden anniversary” of a couple’s taking vows to stay together “for as long as you both shall live.”

This year marks the 50th year since the occurrence of astonishingly important historical events. I hesitate to call many of these occurrences “anniversaries,” given that very word connotes a happy event. What we’re going to mark as this year progresses too often are much less than that.

For instance:

  • On Saturday, it will be the 50th year since President Lyndon Johnson announced the suspension of bombing in North Vietnam — and then told the nation he “would not seek, nor … accept my party’s nomination for another term as your president.”
  • This coming Wednesday marks the date 50 years ago that James Earl Ray assassinated the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was standing on that motel balcony. I’ll have more to say about that in a few days.
  • Fifty years ago on June 5, 1968, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — my first political hero — won the California Democratic Party presidential primary, only to be gunned down in a hotel kitchen pantry. More on that tragic day will come later as well.
  • The summer of 1968 produced a bloody confrontation in Chicago as Democrats sought to nominate someone to run for the presidency. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, but the story of that event was the bloodshed in the streets.
  • The 1968 presidential election gave us Richard Nixon. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • Finally, that tumultuous year came to a close with a glimmer of hope. Three men took off atop a Saturn V rocket and roared into space, toward the moon. They orbited the moon and on Christmas Eve, Americans heard these men — Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders — read from the Book of Genesis about the creation of our world. Borman, the mission commander, then wished “all the people on the good Earth” a Merry Christmas.

I will look back on that year as a time of tumult, terror and tempest. I also will remember it as a year that ended with the perfect salutation.

Absent a NASA-sponsored effort, this is pretty cool

I normally would look with bemusement at a stunt that occurred today. Instead, though, I am utterly amazed at what I saw.

Elon Musk — a South Africa-born U.S. business tycoon — has this notion of building a colony on Mars. He has developed a rocket that he hopes will ferry human beings to the Red Planet eventually.

Today, he launched the largest rocket built since the Saturn V rocket launched astronauts to the moon from 1969 until 1972. The monstrous SpaceX rocket took off, jettisoned its boosters, which then made a soft landing near the launch pad from which NASA used to launch missions to the moon.

But … here’s the amazing part of the story.

The rocket carried a Tesla hot rod atop it and that vehicle — with a spacesuit-clad mannequin in the driver’s seat — is in Earth orbit. It will take off eventually on a lengthy trip around the sun. Musk plans to keep the car in space for a million years. He said maybe some extraterrestrials will find it. Maybe.

My preference, of course, would be for NASA to launch these missions. I want the federal government to get back into manned space exploration. I’m old-fashioned that way, you know?

Absent a NASA-sponsored and financed operation, though, I welcome Elon Musk’s investment in this kind of exploration.

Hey, a guy with $20 billion in his portfolio can afford the expense — and it provides a heck of a show to boot.

The world shared Amarillo’s grief

When tragedy strikes communities, the world often rallies to those communities’ sides.

It happened 15 years ago to Amarillo, Texas. We awoke one Saturday morning to some horrifying news high above us.

The space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere en route to a landing in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The commander of that seven-member crew happened to be a young Amarillo native, Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband, who died along with his six crew mates.

It had been a flawless mission. Sixteen days in Earth orbit and Husband and his crew were supposed to come home to a heroes’ welcome.

I received a phone call that morning from a colleague. “Did you hear what happened to the shuttle?” he asked. He told me about the Columbia’s destruction on re-entry. I hurried down to the Amarillo Globe-News office, tore up the next morning’s editorial page and wrote a “hot” editorial for the next day’s edition.

The editorial took note of Husband’s favorite passage from Scripture, Proverbs 3: 5-6, which instructs us to put our full “trust in the Lord.”

Amarillo and the rest of the Panhandle sank into a special sort of grief. One of our own had given his life in pursuit of space exploration. In truth, Rick Husband really never left Amarillo. Yes, he went away to college and a career as a test pilot in the Air Force. He joined the astronaut corps in the 1990s and flew aboard an earlier shuttle mission before getting his Columbia command.

Husband always found time to come home. He was a frequent visitor to his hometown. His mother still lived here while he was pursuing his dream of space flight.

I actually got to meet him twice at First Presbyterian Church, where his wife, Evelyn, attended as a girl. During our second meeting, I embarrassed myself by telling Husband I’d give anything to be able to fly with him into space. He gave me a bemused look, as if to say, “Sure thing, buddy.”

But our hearts broke that day as the news gripped us, just as it gripped the rest of the world. Prayers poured in from around the globe to the communities of all the astronauts who lost their lives on that horrible day.

Amarillo no doubt felt the world’s love as we grieved over our terrible loss.

The memory of getting that horrifying news saddens me to this day.

Ice caps are melting, Mr. President! Really, they are!

Donald J. Trump now is expressing an opinion that runs counter to scientific consensus.

The president has declared polar ice caps are at “record levels.” He is trying to buttress his bogus assertion that climate change is a “hoax” cooked up by Chinese conspiracy theorists intent on using the phenomenon as a way to undermine the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

But, but, but …

The evidence suggests something else. The ice caps are diminishing. They are endangering wildlife, such as polar bears that rely on the ice caps for their hunting of prey, such as seals and walruses.

The president isn’t buying it. Has he consulted with anyone? Does he ever consult with anyone on anything? I think we know the answer to that question.

According to The Hill: “I mean, look, it used to not be climate change. It used to be global warming. That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place,” Trump said.

Indeed, spoken like a man with deep scientific knowledge.

I am going to rely on the scientific community and, oh yes, the pictures that NASA is taking from outer space showing precisely what is happening to the world’s Arctic and Antarctic ice caps.

They are shrinking, Mr. President. The pictures don’t lie … unlike a prominent politician who is known to prevaricate with abandon.

Another astronaut-hero leaves us

There once was a time when Americans knew the names of all the astronauts who dared to risk it all for the cause of space exploration.

John Young was one of those men. He died this weekend at age 87. I am saddened to hear this news.

Those of us of a certain age remember waiting with bated breath while space ships launched from Florida and flew into the heavens. Those were exciting times. The nation was engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union. We won the race … eventually.

Young wasn’t among the first seven men picked to fly into space. The Mercury Seven all are gone now. The last member of that original group to pass from the scene was the great John Glenn, the former Ohio U.S. senator who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery 36 years after he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.

John Young was among the Gemini astronauts who followed the Mercury heroes into space. Young flew twice aboard Gemini missions.

Then he got to fly to the moon twice; he orbited the moon aboard Apollo 10 and then walked on its surface as the commander of Apollo 16.

Oh, but Young wasn’t done.

NASA developed the space shuttle, a reusable ship. Young got to command the first shuttle, Columbia, on its maiden flight in 1981. He would command a second shuttle flight later before joining NASA’s administrative team before retiring in 2004.

A reporter asked Young after he flew the Columbia to a safe landing after its first flight whether he landed it manually — or whether he let the computer land it. No pilot worth a damn, Young said, would want to let a computer do something that a pilot could do by himself. That was his way of saying he had his hands “on the stick” when he guided the shuttle Columbia home.

John Young quite clearly was made of the right stuff.

U.S. needs to get back into manned space exploration

I grew up waiting for and watching space launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla. They thrilled me to the max and I still miss waiting for those launches.

Accordingly, I was heartened to hear Donald Trump call for a return to manned space flight. The president’s signature this week on a directive for NASA to develop a return of human explorers to the moon and to launch missions to Mars won’t guarantee it will get done, but my hope springs eternal that the space agency will kick start its effort to return to American-made space travel.

The space shuttle program got grounded before Trump took office nearly a year ago. The three remaining flight-ready spacecraft — Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery — were sent to boneyards around the country under an order signed by President George W. Bush. We’re still sending astronauts into space, where they’re doing important scientific research.

NASA praises Trump

But they’re flying aboard Russian rockets. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would react to knowing that tidbit.

Donald Trump said his directive aims to return the United States to its leadership role in space travel. I do hope it comes to pass.

NASA already is developing a new launch vehicle it hopes will be ready for deployment on missions to the moon and beyond. There’s launch date set yet. Indeed, test flights are still beyond the foreseeable future.

“NASA looks forward to supporting the president’s directive strategically aligning our work to return humans to the moon, travel to Mars and opening the deeper solar system beyond,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Of course it does. It should.

President Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would send humans to the moon “and return (them) safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. “We don’t do these because they are easy,” he said. “We do them because they are hard.”

He energized the nation, which was caught flat-footed when the then-Soviet Union was first to launch a satellite and then was first to send a human into space. JFK was having no part of playing second fiddle to the Soviets.

We aren’t engaged in a Cold War these days, although that’s becoming more debatable in light of the current geopolitical climate.

Still, my hope is that the president’s directive lights a fire under NASA’s engineers and scientists as they continue their work to restore our country to its place as the world’s premier space trailblazer.

Wishing for a return to full-fledged space travel

It was 48 years ago. A giant rocket sat on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla.. Perched atop that beastly Saturn rocket was a space ship carrying three men.

They would make history a few days later on that Apollo 11 mission. But on July 16, 1969, they launched into the sky, took off into orbit, then fired those on-board rockets to propel them to the moon.

The late Neil Armstrong set foot first on the moon. A little while later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin hopped off the ladder onto the sandy lunar soil. Meanwhile, their crewmate Michael Collins circled above, orbiting moon.

The world — the entire planet — held its breath as Armstrong proclaimed he was taking “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” We cheered, cried and prayed for their safe return.

Space travel hadn’t yet become “routine,” as if it ever should have been thought of in that light. The Apollo missions would put several more men on the moon. Then we would have Skylab and then the shuttle program.

They’re all gone now. All those missions are history. Yes, Americans are still flying into space, but they’re doing so aboard Russian rockets. Try to imagine how President Kennedy would feel about that!

I am old enough to remember the old days. I also am young enough at heart to wish for the day we can return yet again to full-fledged space travel — even though it’s never routine.