Wednesday, July 27, 2011

With the Landing of Atlantis, America is Grounded (long-form version)

What follows is the unedited, long-form version of my story that ran last week in The Colorado Springs Gazette.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Late in the morning of July 8, an estimated three-quarters of a million onlookers scattered throughout Florida’s space coast cast their eyes toward an empty, cloud-saturated sky. They were waiting anxiously for NASA to give the go ahead for the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, the final such event in the history of the shuttle program. The day before, torrential storms had drenched the area and hammered the launch pad with lightening. NASA had put the probability of launch at only 30 percent. But when a hole opened in the clouds, approval was given for the countdown clock to begin its numeric retreat. The crowd gathered on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center bellowed enthusiastically.

The majestic vehicle straining heavenward on the horizon was made up of three primary components: a rust-colored external fuel tank, two solid rocket boosters and the spacecraft itself, roughly the same size as a Boeing 737. Together, those items constitute the Space Transportation System (STS) or “space shuttle.” Deprived of its apparatus, the vehicle is simply known as “the orbiter.”

At T minus 16 seconds, the sound suppression system began drenching Pad 39A with 300,000 gallons of water to protect Atlantis from the acoustic energy generated at liftoff. The shuttle’s main engines, which every minute burn 64,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen—the second coldest liquid on Earth at -423F—combust at 6,000F, hotter than the boiling point of iron. Just one of the three engines generates enough thrust to keep two and a half jumbo jets in the air. The energy released by all three at full power is equivalent to 23 Hoover Dams. If the shuttle main engines pumped water instead of fuel, they would drain an average-size swimming pool in 25 seconds.

At T minus six seconds, those engines roared to life. The gathered water from the sound suppression system flashed instantly into a massive plume of steam. The solid rocket boosters (SRB) ignited at T minus zero seconds, the gases exiting at more than 6,000 mph—five times the speed of sound. The exhaust column itself exited the flame trench at near the speed of sound, causing visible shockwaves to ripple along the ejection plume.

The thrust from the main engines caused the entire launch stack to pitch downward approximately two meters (referred as “the nod”). Six seconds later the boosters flexed back to their original shape and, once vertical, pyrotechnic bolts clamping the shuttle to the pad detonated, releasing the vehicle.

Riding billowing white smoke, Atlantis cleared the tower and climbed in a progressively flattening arc, accelerating as the weight of the SRBs and main tank decreased. The shuttle’s SRBs, which drain five tons of fuel per second from the 15-story external fuel tank—two million times the rate of the average family car—provide almost 85 percent of the thrust at liftoff. Only two feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty (but weighing three times as much), together the SRBs generate a combined thrust of 6.6 million pounds. That’s equivalent to 44 million horsepower or 14,700 six-axle diesel locomotives. If converted, the heat energy produced by the two SRBs during just two minutes’ time could power nearly 90,000 homes for a day. The heat they expel is two-thirds the temperature of the surface of the sun.

Although the space shuttle weighs more than 4.5 million pounds at launch, it breaks the sound barrier in less than a minute, accelerating from zero to nine times the speed of a rifle bullet to attain Earth orbit in just 8.5 minutes. If the space shuttle were flying from New York to London, it could make the trip in less than 12 minutes.

It took more than 10 seconds for the sound of the launch to reach the closest viewers, beginning softly at first, building into a growl and finally transforming into a ravenous, angry crackle. Eagled-eyed viewers noted sound waves rippling visibly across the water. Others remarked about the concussive vibrations that rattled their chests. The intensity of the exhaust was astonishing. The orange luminosity, up to 500 feet long, was nearly too bright to view—like looking at the sun and then finding yourself blinded to everything else around you.

The orbiter zeroed in on the International Space Station, 236 statute miles above the Earth’s surface, visibly altering its trajectory for the impending orbital insertion. Within just a minute and a half, Atlantis had technically reached the boundary of space, traveling in excess of 17,500 mph.

Two minutes after blast-off and at an altitude of 24 miles, the solid rocket boosters separated. Had there not been a low, pervasive cloud ceiling, the gathered viewers would have been able to see the SRBs peel away and fall back to Earth where they splash down in the ocean and are recovered. Six minutes later, explosive bolts separated the external tank from the orbiter and Atlantis settled into orbit on its own power.


Whereas Apollo’s Saturn V rocket was the mechanical embodiment of unmitigated power, the shuttle was something else altogether—graceful, beautiful, elegant. It was the dream of human flight somehow corralled into a sleek shape and bound together within a metallic shell.

The space shuttle began as an idea even before the Apollo program existed. Conceived of as a dependable, low-cost, reusable workhorse—a “space truck”—President Nixon authorized NASA to launch the program in 1972 after the cancellation of the Moon missions. Enterprise, named for the famous starship on the television series “Star Trek,” was the first shuttle, a prototype that never flew in space, but rather was used to test the vehicle’s flight readiness. Each successive shuttle—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour—was named after influential sailing vessels of science and exploration throughout Earth’s history.

The space shuttle has more than 2.5 million parts, making it the most complex machine ever built. Columbia, the first shuttle to launch, did so from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981. The shuttle possessed a 60-foot-long cargo bay and robotic arm capable of carrying several satellites into low Earth orbit on one flight, servicing them and even bringing them back for future use. The shuttle fleet routinely carried whole laboratories into orbit for unique experiments. In its latter years, the shuttle allowed for the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), the largest spacecraft ever built, which was assembled in zero-gravity. The space shuttle and ISS are, in the words of astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium and host of “Nova ScienceNow,” “the largest international collaboration outside of the waging of war that civilizations have ever put forth.”

There have been 135 shuttle missions since Columbia’s first flight (by contrast, humankind stepped foot on the surface of the Moon only 12 times and explored an area not much larger than a soccer pitch nearly each time). The space shuttles have traveled more than 537 million miles (nearly the distance to the planet Jupiter), and made 20,952 orbits. The shortest shuttle mission was just over two days, the longest nearly 18. Since the program began, 355 individual fliers from 16 different countries—306 men and 49 women—have spent 1,346 days in space. The youngest was Tammy Jernigan, 32; the oldest was senator and former Mercury astronaut John Glenn, 77. In 1983, Sally Ride rode the shuttle to become the first American woman in space. The current Atlantis mission, STS-135, is carrying just four crewmembers—the smallest mission since STS-6 in 1983.

However, as extraordinary as the shuttle is, it had limitations its designers never foresaw and was never as reliable as they intended. The shuttle was supposed to make access to space easier for average scientists and engineers, not just NASA astronauts. At one time it was thought the shuttle might make weekly trips into space. Instead, NASA averaged only four or five flights a year. Worst of all, two shuttles and their crews were lost: Challenger at launch in 1986, which killed teacher Christa McAuliffe, and Columbia, during reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.

The shuttle, in some ways a technological step backward from a program that had been regularly landing human beings on another planetoid, is also hopelessly Earth-bound. For the last 30 years, America has not moved beyond low Earth orbit; the shuttle was simply not designed to travel that far out. Most people are surprised to discover that the distance from the planet’s surface to the orbiter’s regular operating altitude is roughly the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (In contrast, most communications satellites orbit at nearly 100 times that distance.)

A few hundred miles. This has been the limit of human ambition for the past three decades.

“Every time we launch the shuttle,” says Tyson, “we are boldly going where many have gone before.”


The final space shuttle mission to ferry nearly 10,000 lbs of supplies to the International Space Station is critical as the next major re-supply mission may not come until as late as 2012. Two private companies, Orbital Sciences Corporation and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are currently constructing unmanned cargo vehicles to take over where the shuttle leaves off. However, with their first flights half a year or more away, Atlantis’ swollen hold is a safeguard against almost certain delays.

Nearly eight years ago, President George Bush instructed NASA to finish the space station and retire the shuttle fleet. The order was in response to the tragic loss of Columbia. The aim was to eliminate the pricey shuttle program—the average cost of launching a shuttle is approximately $775 million; the life of the shuttle program, not adjusted for inflation, has been estimated at $113.7 billion—as well as create a new human-rated vehicle to be perched atop a rocket rather than attached to the side where it is susceptible to falling debris.

The Constellation Program borrowed on the fundamentals established during Apollo but was to be endowed with exponentially advanced technology. Comprised of safer, cheaper rockets, Constellation was going to ferry astronauts back to the Moon where habitable bases would be established, vanguards for later putting human bootprints on the scarlet soil of Mars. However, the Bush Administration never funded the program as promised, ensuring it was over-budget and behind schedule. The Obama Administration, desperate to find high-profile budget cuts in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, deemed the project too expensive and killed it altogether, deciding to swallow the $9.1 billion already spent.

President Obama proposed a controversial new plan that would completely rewrite NASA’s mission—the development of commercial spacecraft. The president apportioned $6 billion over five years to encourage private sector companies to build spacecraft that NASA could rent. While the Obama Administration still speaks of landing humans on asteroids and even Mars, the vision is vague and formless at best, more imprecise dream than tangible plan.

“If you watch NASA backwards,” one Twitter user joked, “it’s about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon.”

The heavy-lift rockets necessary to plow through Earth’s atmosphere and into deep space are still twinkles in their engineers’ eyes. Building and testing such vehicles is still years in the future. As such, the shut down of the shuttle strikes many as ill-timed. Why retire one vehicle before a replacement is ready to take its place? While there was always going to be a gap of several years between the end of the shuttle era and the beginning of Constellation, that gap is now indefinite.

When Atlantis touches down in Florida today, the United States will no longer possess the technology to launch a human being into space, nor will it have any vehicle on the drawing board capable of doing so.

While some at NASA agree that a Moon/Mars push is far too ambitious, others counter that the same could have been said for Kennedy’s now historic call for landing astronauts on the Moon before this country had even built a rocket capable of putting a human being into orbit. Many lawmakers, former astronauts and industry executives opposed the White House’s decision, claiming that American leadership in space would end if Constellation was scrapped.

While NASA’s current administrator, former shuttle commander Charles Bolden, defends the president’s plan as bold and inventive, many more vehemently disagree. In an open letter to President Obama, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan wrote: “For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, a leader known for speaking his mind even when it was not politically expedient, came out against the Obama plan in a CBS News interview. “I was…supportive of and willing to retire the shuttle in favor of a new and better system that would take us back to the moon and even beyond, but I’m not willing to retire the shuttle in favor of nothing,” Griffin said. “To adjust a schedule is an entirely different thing from not having one at all.”

Throughout the history of the U.S.-manned space program, each mission dovetailed into the next. With the cancellation of Constellation, NASA no longer has any large, long-term goals for which the agency can truly reach. The retirement of the space shuttle, a bittersweet event no matter the future, is, for many, now merely bitter.

“Apathy sets quickly when a journey in space does not extend the frontier,” says Tyson. “If you go back to Gemini and Apollo, every next mission was more ambitious than the previous one—the first docking, the first space walk, the first time we left low Earth orbit, the first time we orbited the moon, the first time we landed on the moon. When you extend your vision one mission after the next, you’ve got something to be excited about. We shouldn’t lament the end of the shuttle era. We should lament that there’s not another era to take its place.”

The American public often forgets that humans have been living in space continuously for more than a decade. The International Space Station, the world’s only orbiting research facility, provides the sort of unique microgravity environment that cannot be replicated on the planet’s surface. From the ISS, NASA and its 15 international partners have been conducting a wide variety of scientific experiments and studying how humans can live and work in space for extended periods of time, data intended to pave the way for future long-duration space missions. But the ISS is due to be de-orbited in 2020. Once that occurs, there will be no human presence in space whatsoever.

Flight Director Gene Kranz, best known as the man who got Apollo 13 safely home, was unequivocal in a recent exchange with CBS News, not just about the decision to scrap the shuttle program without any sort of legitimate follow-on, but about the inevitable aftershocks. “The challenge of space is not in building the space systems, it is in building the space team. With the termination of shuttle operations, the NASA and contractor work force that took a decade to build and mature is being destroyed. Now, with inept national and space leadership, we stand with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Our nation has surrendered the high ground.”

Elliot Pulham, CEO of The Space Foundation, a space advocacy non-profit headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO, doesn’t buy into the doom and gloom. “Rumors of the death of the U.S. space program may be just a tad exaggerated,” he said. “There are hundreds of programs—government and commercial, foreign and domestic—that are moving forward, producing results and preparing us for the next level of exploration and advancement. Let’s keep some perspective on what’s ending here: a successful, long-term space program that taught us so, so much about science, about space flight and, unfortunately, about politics. In the end, the impact of the final space shuttle launch is emotional. We’re losing—albeit temporarily—a key component of our leadership position. We’re saying good-bye to something that, to many, epitomizes the American persona. It’s sad. But, it’s not fatal.”

Unlike Pulham, Kranz and his colleagues argue that getting NASA’s human space flight team operational again is akin to pushing a massive boulder up a steep hill from a dead stop. They are not, strictly speaking, against private industry taking on a greater burden in space, but rather feel that it is far too early to make such a transition. Orbital’s Taurus II rocket has not yet had its first test flight and SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have met with limited success thus far, some exploding on the launch pad or failing in mid-flight. Such setbacks are to be expected and are indicative of both the complex nature and steep learning curve of rocket science. Fans of history will recall the catastrophic mechanical mishaps of NASA’s early days. But, argue the president’s dissenters, these are the sorts of bugs that should be ironed out before deciding to turn over the reins of space to private industry. The government, they claim, exists to do those things that are either too dangerous, too expensive or too lacking in profit for the private sector to undertake.

Unless the private sector can move beyond the allure of space tourism—a risky and unfathomably costly expenditure (anyone can now buy a ticket on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for $200,000 for a six-minute weightless ride in low-Earth orbit)—and generate a realistic goal of semi-ballistic sub-orbital flights (allowing for a trip from Europe to North America in less than an hour), many experts say the commercial space program is dead on arrival.

For now, NASA will buy ISS-bound astronauts room on Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of $60 million a seat, a concession with NASA’s former Cold War competitor that rubs many at the agency the wrong way.

Most disturbing to some is that the policy, regardless of its efficacy or probability, is myopic to the countless advantages of a muscular space program. By focusing only on balancing a ledger, they say, leadership in Washington is blind to the sorts of space-derived benefits we take for granted each and every day.


It is often asked, why are we spending so much money on space when we have plenty of problems right here on Earth? The answer, advocates of the space program claim, is two fold: we are actually spending very little on space and nearly every cent benefits us right here on Earth.

NASA’s fortunes have always waxed and waned according to the winds of change in Washington, economic upheaval and unpredictable public support. As such, many through the years have called for draconian cuts in its operating budget. But their arguments are all too often based on hyperbole and misinformation.

Think of the U.S. budget as your average computer hard drive. Should it become necessary to free up room, your first priority would be those items that gobble up the most space—videos and photographs, for instance. You don’t first go in search of Word documents because they take up so little space that you’d have to delete a massive amount just to make a dent. In terms of the U.S. budget, NASA is a Word document.

In some ways, NASA is a victim of its own success. Because its return on investment is so high, public perception of NASA’s budget has always been drastically inflated. A 1997 poll reported that most Americans assumed NASA’s total percentage of the U.S. budget to be 20 percent. The truth is that NASA constitutes just .4 of the total U.S. budget. A half a penny on the dollar. Americans spent as much on pet food, and more on Chapstick every year as they spend on NASA. While a 2011 operating budget of $18.7 billion may sound like and indeed be a lot of money, it is a drop in the bucket compared to that of the Department of Defense ($928.5 billion), health care ($898 billion), pensions ($787.6 billion), welfare ($464.6 billion), education ($140.9 billion) or transportation ($104.2 billion).

With that .4 percent, NASA funds the space shuttle, the International Space Station, deep space probes, Martian rovers, space telescopes like Hubble, all its planetary research, protects us from asteroid impacts and much more. But NASA does far more than just basic science and exploration. It improves our standard of living, makes our lives easier, safer, more convenient, healthier and even more enjoyable.

The 2004 movie, “A Day Without a Mexican,” took a satirical look at the immigration issue by imagining what California’s economy would look like if its 14-million strong Hispanic work force suddenly disappeared. The same sort of scenario can be applied to the space program. Most people are completely unaware of the space-based products they use every day. “Space technology touches and enhances practically every aspect of life on Earth,” says the Space Foundation website. From healthcare and communication to travel and entertainment, countless arenas “benefit directly from technology originally developed for or improved for space exploration. Technologies developed to get us ‘out there’ come home to improve life on Earth.”

Consider the following list of products that had their origin in space: cell phones, GPS, microwaves, satellite television, modern weather forecasting, cordless tools, artificial heart pumps, automatic insulin pumps, water purification systems, Lasik, fire-retardant materials, advanced rescue tools, infrared cameras, highway safety and car braking systems, structural insulation, enhanced prosthetics and literally hundreds of other products.

Isn’t that worth less than half a penny?

As famed astronomer Carl Sagan said in “The Demon Haunted World,” “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements—transportation, communications and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting—profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

The implosion of the space program means the loss of nearly 10,000 jobs. But while the livelihoods of thousands should disturb every citizen, more disturbing is the disintegration of the highly skilled workforce that goes along with it. Thanks primarily to the sheer gravimetric pull of NASA’s wide-ranging and comprehensive research, the United States has maintained a place of scientific, technological and research dominance unmatched since WWII. Apollo 11 was a technological leap forward unparalleled in the history of humankind. It transformed fantasy into reality and, in doing so, created an innovative undertow that sucked all of science and technology right along with it. NASA, by its very nature, created an atmosphere of cross-pollination in which numerous scientific disciplines from engineering, chemistry and biology to physics, astronomy and geology flourished alongside each other. This synergy led to better technologies, which in turn generated countless advances. The vacuum left by the aerospace brain drain will have ramifications this country may not perceive for decades.

“I am deeply concerned that today, a president can promise a program to the American people for which there is no expectation that it finishes under his watch, and which, after leaving office, orphans the political energy that initiated it,” says Tyson. “Space exploration needs to be an initiative of the people and not of the political whims of the White House or Congress. Of course the White House and Congress are supposed to represent us, so there’s a disconnect in there somewhere. It’s likely that the only way the space program can be sustained in spite of prevailing politics or economics is if those in charge learn how effective the space program is in stimulating technological innovation across a generation—innovation that drives the flowering of industries—a potent economic driver. I am otherwise not convinced that the glory of exploration alone is a sufficient enough for the nation to embrace it as a reason to sustain and advance our presence in space.”

While Americans tend to see themselves as leaders across the board, recent data proves otherwise. A 2009 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development ranked the United States 25th among 34 countries in math and science. Just this month, the Science and Engineering Readiness Index revealed that most states are doing a poor job preparing their students for science, technology and engineering—the first stage of an intellectual black hole beginning to be reflected in companies and labs across the country. Historically, NASA has been a beacon of inspiration for schoolchildren. Without its siren call, children and the adults lose one of the most profound drivers of our country’s scientific enterprise.

Pulham, who remains optimistic that space exploration and development will continue, both in the United States and around the world, also recognizes that this country could be doing more. “Much of what initially inspires and motivates young people to study science and to pursue careers in space is the idea that ‘one day, I, too, may get to go there.’ And, we know there’s nothing that can get the heart thumping with pride more than watching a magnificent rocket hurtle into space.”

“What’s more attractive,” asks astrophysicist Tyson, “if I stand in front of a group of students and ask, ‘Who wants to be an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that is 10 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew in?’ or ‘Who wants to be an aerospace engineer because we’re going to Mars!?’ These are two completely different vision statements. One works and one doesn’t if you are trying to attract students in the education pipeline.”

If the success of America’s early space program paved the way for unprecedented wealth and prosperity, then its loss will only exacerbate the rapidity with which America is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world. The very things that drive the engines of our economic growth are being eroded, and with it the standard of living Americans have come to both enjoy and expect.

Clearly, an agency that garners less than 99 cents out of 100 is not a priority. But nor is it a liability. NASA fuels discoveries that make the world smarter, healthier, safer and more prosperous. Science and technology are the greatest catalysts of economic growth in this country—growth we desperately need.


Atlantis undocked from the ISS for the last time on Tuesday to prepare for its return trip home. The physics of space being vastly different than those of atmospheric-bound craft, today the orbiter will begin its decent both upside down and backwards. Later righting itself for the demands of planetary gravity, the spaceplane will plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere.

While the temperature in orbit is around -250F, Atlantis will be subjected to temperatures as extreme as 3,000F during re-entry. The orbiter’s 24,000 individual tiles are incredibly lightweight and dissipate the heat so rapidly, that while visiting NASA’s facilities at the Kennedy Space Center, I was able to hold a white-hot tile with a temperature of 2,300F straight out of the oven in my bare hands without injury.

Traveling at more than 17,000 mph and on a trajectory seven times steeper than that of a commercial jetliner, Atlantis will slow to subsonic speeds as it angles for the Florida spaceport. As it drops below 50,000 feet, the leading wing edges and the vertical stabilizer cause two nearly indistinguishable sonic booms, so loud that they sound as if extremely large firecrackers are detonating in the back pockets of those gathered near the runway to welcome the ship home.

While it is shaped like an airplane, the shuttle’s stubby wings mean it is incapable of traditional flight. More like a glider, the shuttle has often been called a “flying brick.” If anything goes wrong on approach, there is no circling around for a second attempt. Following a fantastically steep glide slope, Atlantis’ landing gear will be lowered just seconds before touchdown. While a typical aircraft lands at about 150 mph, the shuttle touches down at about 250 mph on NASA’s three-mile-long shuttle runway, long enough to stop the shuttle by friction alone should its braking systems fail.

When its wheels roll to a stop just a day after the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11’s Moon landing, Atlantis will be decommissioned and begin its journey to join its sister orbiters—Endeavour and Discovery—as museum pieces. Discovery will be delivered to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center just outside Washington D.C.; Enterprise, the prototype vehicle which currently resides there, will be transferred to New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum; and Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles (each of the orbiters was built in Palmdale, CA, just outside of Los Angeles). Atlantis will travel the shortest distance of all, finding itself just a few miles from its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Currently, there is no hunger, either among the public or its leaders, to do great things in space. While the technology to return to the Moon and push on to Mars is available, the passion to build and use it has evaporated. (At least in America and Russia—China, which became the third country to join the elite group of space-faring nations in 2003 when it launched its first “Taikonaut” into orbit, has announced that it will put a man on the moon by the end of this decade.)

Meanwhile, some of NASA’s most ambitious robotic missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope—Hubble’s effective replacement—is, among many other projects, in danger of cancellation. Unless one of these missions uncovers the Holy Grail of extraterrestrial life—even life at the microbial level—the public, which foots the bill but is woefully uninformed as to its particular details, is likely to continue to lose interest. Only time will tell if America has made the right decision. Perhaps at no time has the future of America’s role in space been more in question and more hotly debated.

Dreams of breaching the final frontier have withered and atrophied. Humanity, it seems, is no longer interested in being an exploratory species. NASA, always a beacon of humankind’s ravenous appetite for new discoveries and species self-improvement, is in danger of death by apathy and neglect.

“The dangers that are ever present on the frontier excite the public,” says Tyson. “Why do people go to the circus to see the high wire act? Because it’s dangerous and you can’t do it. There are special ones among us who have that ability to reach for that dangerous frontier. And I’m happy they are among us, because otherwise, we’d all still be living in the cave.”

Pulham recently concluded a Space Foundation newsletter about the end of the shuttle era with a more hopeful note. Quoting Sir Winston Churchill, he said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday Charles!

Monday, February 09, 2009

If It's Good Enough for Facebook...

25 Random Things About Me

1. My parents nearly named me Alexander.

2. The first thing I ever wanted to be was an ambulance driver. This was before I knew that meant you had to be a paramedic. I just wanted to drive fast and turn on the siren and lights.

3. I am an insane Star Trek fan. Yes, I even go to the conventions.

4. Living in Europe gave me a rabid wanderlust. Most people thought that after 20 plus countries, I'd be satiated, but that merely proved to me how much of the world I've yet to see.

5. I am a cat man.

6. I once saw myself in national politics. The first time I lived in Washington D.C., I interned for Newt Gingrich's Grand Old Party. When I returned, I was a liberal. Thanks for that W.

7. When I was flying in the Navy, my call sign was "Senator." I was given the nickname because, during my training, while all my friends read the Sports and Comics sections of the newspaper, I was always interested to see what was going on in Washington D.C.

8. I can take or leave sports.

9. People have always told me I look like Vince Vaughn.

10. My favorite movie is "Lawrence of Arabia."

11. I second the late John Updike when he said, "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding. "

12. The only thing I have ever stolen in my life was a Belinni shot glass from Harry's Bar in Venice. It was the bar Earnest Hemingway used to frequent.

13. I have no patience whatsoever for technology that does not work as it is designed to.

14. I adore kids but don't know if I'll ever have any.

15. I never go to bed without watching Jon Stewart.

16. I hate the summer. I hate heat. I wish it could be fall year round.

17. I drink my coffee black and my tea with cream and sugar. I've never lived in the South but super sweet is the only way to drink iced tea.

18. I grew up in the mountains but never want to be far from the ocean.

19. My mom was raised in Africa and considers herself more an African than an American.

20. I could eat seafood for every meal.

21. My sister is gay and I love and support her and her wife in every way.

22. Before podcasts, I used to plan my Saturdays around NPR shows. Brunch? No thank you, I have to listen to "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" and "This American Life."

23. I look back on my days in high school and college and I don't recognize myself. I believe so few of the things I believed in then.

24. While I adore making a living (yeah, right!) writing about other people’s films, I hope that someday soon others will be writing about my films.

25. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

It's official. The S-3 Viking, an anti-submarine patrol aircraft, has flown its last. It was time. The airframe is as old as I am. Most people know the S-3 (if they know if at all) as the jet President George W. Bush used to deliver his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech (it was the only naval aircraft to ever be given the designation Navy One). For me, the S-3 is my "old office" when I served in the Navy.

Well done old friend. Welcome to your rest.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Neil's back on The Daily Show

He even got a mention on last night's show too!

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Pictures from Inauguration Week

My pictures of the inauguration follow a wee bit of commentary…

I had an entire entry written and ready to go. It was set to post last Monday, President Bush’s final day in office. It went on for several pages about the abomination that was the Bush presidency.

About how a man propelled into office by the slimmest margin in history immediately began governing as if he had an overwhelming mandate. About how the self-titled uniter divided this country like never before. Abut how the compassionate conservative was neither.

How a $100 billion budget surplus was transformed into a $700 billion deficit. How an administration ignored the warning signs and, in fact, encouraged the lack of oversight that led to the collapse of America’s financial markets, ushering in the most imperiled economy since The Great Depression.

How the Commander in Chief obliterated America’s standing in the world, refusing to acknowledge any responsibility in a war based on false pretences, murdering more than 4,000 Americans and butchering tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. How a leader who was supposed to be an advocate of small, unobtrusive government presided over the most sweeping disintegration of American civil rights in history — declaring that he was within his right to pick and choose which laws he would enforce or ignore, using the threat of terrorism as his rational to set in motion warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, the subversion of the Justice Department, unmonitored military tribunals, indefinite detentions of suspected enemy combatants, and the torture of detainees in legal nether regions.

How Bush abandoned thousands to neglect after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and continues even to this day to insist that the only thing he would have done differently was the photo-op aboard Air Force One. How he actually reveled in crushing scientific dissent, being a world polluter, ignoring climate change and continually undermining saving endangered species.

But when it came time to post this admitted rant, I found myself suffering from a certain feeling of anti-climax. For years I’ve written Bush a “goodbye and good riddance” post in my head, but during its final hours I didn’t feel like writing so much as falling to my knees in political and emotional exhaustion.

Why waste one more word on that man and the repugnance that was the last eight years?

But it wasn’t all fatigue. Note even remotely. Last week was a week of hope, of renewal and of unbridled optimism. It was rebirth. It was chrysalis. It was morning again in America. That is what I chose to focus on instead.

My wife and I were able to secure tickets to the inauguration and, in addition, participated in several events during the week, including the Florida Ball and the “We Are One” Inaugural Celebration.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll stop talking and let the images take over (with a few explanatory paragraphs, naturally). Please click on any of the images to enlarge them.

* * *

We fought the crowds to get a great piece of real estate along the front, left side of the Lincoln Memorial for the “We Are One” Inaugural Celebration concert featuring musical performers like U2, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban,, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor,, and Stevie Wonder. Among those reading historical passages were Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Steve Carrel, Rosario Dawson, Jack Black and Denzel Washington. I went in assuming U2 would bring the house down, but little did I suspect that Garth Brooks would walk away with that honor!

We got tickets to the Florida Ball. This was not one of the “official” balls, meaning the Obamas did not attend. Still, any excuse to wear my tuxedo is a good one. Our dear friends Brett and Cassidy joined us.

On Inauguration Day, we were part of the infamous Purple Gate and as a result, nearly didn’t make it in. After several hours of moving only three or four feet, we broke out of line, found the gate (just one gate for tens of thousands of people), pushed our way through the literal crush of bodies and made it to a spot on the Mall with the other 1.8 million spectators just as the ceremony began. Thousands behind us were not so lucky. Our stories are just like everyone else’s: no organization whatsoever, no police or volunteers directing the human traffic — just a line of people as wide as a city street that ran for block after block without any idea of where it was going or how to get there. Once in place, we quickly forgot about the bitter cold and the hours spent in line and reveled in viewing history with out own eyes as Obama was sworn in and began his awe-inspiring inaugural address.

For an extraordinary satellite image of the Mall that day, click here. This image was taken almost a full hour before Obama was sworn in. Almost all of the open space along the Mall was filled in by then.

For other, professional, extraordinary pictures of the inauguration please click here.

For more of my pictures, please click here: The “We Are One” concert, the Florida Ball, The Swearing-In of Barack Obama.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Giving Up on God

Kathleen Parker, the conservative columnist who raised the ire of many Republicans during the election by eviscerating Sarah Palin in print, publishes a very interesting article today on the Republican Party's lack of church/party divide, claiming that if they want to return to prominence, the G-O-P needs to "dump" G-O-D.

The entire text is below or can be read at its original Washington Post source here.

As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.

Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.

I'm bathing in holy water as I type.

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn't soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth -- as long as we're setting ourselves free -- is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.

The choir has become absurdly off-key, and many Republicans know it.

But they need those votes!

So it has been for the Grand Old Party since the 1980s or so, as it has become increasingly beholden to an element that used to be relegated to wooden crates on street corners.

Short break as writer ties blindfold and smokes her last cigarette.

Which is to say, the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.

Here's the deal, 'pubbies: Howard Dean was right.

It isn't that culture doesn't matter. It does. But preaching to the choir produces no converts. And shifting demographics suggest that the Republican Party -- and conservatism with it -- eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one's heart where it belongs.

Religious conservatives become defensive at any suggestion that they've had something to do with the GOP's erosion. And, though the recent Democratic sweep can be attributed in large part to a referendum on Bush and the failing economy, three long-term trends identified by Emory University's Alan Abramowitz have been devastating to the Republican Party: increasing racial diversity, declining marriage rates and changes in religious beliefs.

Suffice it to say, the Republican Party is largely comprised of white, married Christians. Anyone watching the two conventions last summer can't have missed the stark differences: One party was brimming with energy, youth and diversity; the other felt like an annual Depends sales meeting.

With the exception of Miss Alaska, of course.

Even Sarah Palin has blamed Bush policies for the GOP loss. She's not entirely wrong, but she's also part of the problem. Her recent conjecture about whether to run for president in 2012 (does anyone really doubt she will?) speaks for itself:

"I'm like, okay, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I'm like, don't let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is.... And if there is an open door in (20)12 or four years later, and if it's something that is going to be good for my family, for my state, for my nation, an opportunity for me, then I'll plow through that door."

Let's do pray that God shows Alaska's governor the door.

Meanwhile, it isn't necessary to evict the Creator from the public square, surrender Judeo-Christian values or diminish the value of faith in America. Belief in something greater than oneself has much to recommend it, including most of the world's architectural treasures, our universities and even our founding documents.

But, like it or not, we are a diverse nation, no longer predominantly white and Christian. The change Barack Obama promised has already occurred, which is why he won.

Among Jewish voters, 78 percent went for Obama. Sixty-six percent of under-30 voters did likewise. Forty-five percent of voters ages 18-29 are Democrats compared to just 26 percent Republican; in 2000, party affiliation was split almost evenly.

The young will get older, of course. Most eventually will marry, and some will become their parents. But nonwhites won't get whiter. And the nonreligious won't get religion through external conversion. It doesn't work that way.

Given those facts, the future of the GOP looks dim and dimmer if it stays the present course. Either the Republican Party needs a new base -- or the nation may need a new party.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus