A shot of space today

ne_198 Long, long ago — far before I found the passion for aviation within our atmosphere, I had a huge passion for space exploration and astronomy.

OK, I am not sure how “huge” a passion can be at the age of seven, but I am sure I was one of the biggest post-toddler fans of NASA way back in the mid-80′s.  I had so many books on the subject that they covered my bedroom floor, and acted as “stepping stones” for my mom to avoid stepping on the strewn particles of my LEGO collection.  I can’t figure out where the interest came from, but I had it bad for space.

Unfortunately, January 1986 negatively impacted my interest in becoming an astronaut.  It’s not easy for a 3rd grader to watch images like the Challenger tragedy and be easily scared at the sudden realization of human mortality and fragility.  As it happened, my teacher was completely enthralled with Christa McAuliffe and the Teacher in Space mission prior to that fateful day.  It was surreal when the passion and enthusiasm he displayed turned to extreme sadness and horror within such a short time.  Needless to say, I drifted away from space over the next few years until I found my calling with warbirds and General Aviation in 1989 at the age of 10.

Other than the occasional news stories I’d catch on TV, I rarely ever followed anything related to space after that time.  My teen years were swallowed up by WWII aircraft and flying on planes of the past; far from the forward-thinking visions of space travel. 

 

I even stayed away from Science Fiction relating to space… I just couldn’t develop the connection anymore.

Unfortunately, the world seemed to stray as well.  With the fall of the Cold War and the US / Soviet space race with it, and the perceived stagnation of the Space Shuttle program, people at large just seemed to not be paying attention to NASA anymore.

Unfortunately the public was pushed away from space even more when Columbia was lost on reentry.  I don’t recall following the disaster that much… it was a bad reminder of 3rd grade for me.

Then came the X-Prize.

I started looking at Spaceship One as it was connected with experimental aircraft visionary Burt Rutan.  The design was so dramatically different than anything I had seen before.  Where NASA and space agencies seemed to still be taking the severe design cues of their military roots, the designs coming from Mojave and the Rutan camp looked like the playful designs derived from the Jetsons and screamed “this here is the future folks!”

The idea of space flight for civilians and people that may not have PhD’s also connected with me.  It just seemed more accessible to me.  Though I am no where near being the millionaire-type that will be able to afford a space jaunt in such a craft, there still is the hope that someday I might make enough money to afford it.  I certainly KNEW that there was no way I’d ever possess the brainpower that could get me into NASA… as Ron White says “you can’t fix stupid!”

I started getting a little bit more excited for space… but still hadn’t crossed the line.

When I was hired by the folks at Aero-News as a weekend writer a few weeks ago, they told me that I’d have the opportunity to learn a lot about all aspects of the industry; from small stuff all the way up to interplanetary missions.  Very quickly I realized this and have been absolutely amazed at how much I am learning and how fun it is.  But up until today, I hadn’t written anything related to space.

Lucky for me, today was the planned landing of the unmanned Mars Phoenix lander on the polar surface of Mars after a nine month journey starting back in August.  I was asked by my editor Rob to cover the landing and write up a piece on the result of the landing. 

With any unmanned mission like this, there is always the risk of a failure that would “86″ all the efforts of the team… I mean, do you realize only five of the eleven International missions to Mars were successful in recent years?  Not very good odds to say the least.

So as a result, the tensions in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in CA were high as the 4:53 PDT projected landing came closer.  As I watched the live streaming video from NASA on the web, I saw a team that was craving a win… craving it with every fabric of their being.

In addition, this was the first mission that, if successful, would be turned over to a team from the University of Phoenix in Tucson, AZ for the research and exploration of Martian water sources.  Much like the kids in my 3rd grade class back in 1986, there was a university classroom in Tucson focused intently on the TV monitors waiting nervously for word.

As the blue-polo-shirted team at JPL announced barely familiar acronyms talking of the status of the lander and the stages it was encountering as it made it’s entry… I started to have this intense respect for that little multi-billion-dollar lander and it’s journey.  Hundreds of people were willing it to work, and now here I was doing the same from my seat safely in my home office.

Then it happened… the voice announced the lander had reached the surface and the room erupted into cheers and jubilation.  I cheered too, though no one other than the dog heard me.  I cheered for the group, I cheered for the future prospects of research, and I cheered for my journey back to renewed interest in space travel.

The seemingly superhuman effort it takes to make such a mission happen is just staggering to me.  So many people of such talent and passion united on the promise of one little piece of machinery… one object made of metal and composites, but seemingly having the personality and spirit of a young child.  The engineers and team members behind it are like the parents; full of unending love and support.  It is alive in their minds, and is the carrier of the hope for future innovation in exploration… perhaps for the entire world.

I sat there and immediately had hope again.  Hope again for the promise of space, the horizons we’ll uncover, and hope again for the spirit of humankind and our tenacity to go above and beyond… to make the superhuman humanly possible.

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