KIRCHER | Five things I learned from the launch of Orion - WDRB 41 Louisville News

KIRCHER | Five things I learned from the launch of Orion

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The writer, Travis K. Kircher, posed in front of the Delta IV Heavy rocket -- along with the Orion capsule -- two days before it launched. The writer, Travis K. Kircher, posed in front of the Delta IV Heavy rocket -- along with the Orion capsule -- two days before it launched.
The Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the morning of the launch. The Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the morning of the launch.
The Orion capsule sitting atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on Pad SLC-37B two days before launch. The Orion capsule sitting atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on Pad SLC-37B two days before launch.
We quickly discovered that, when she wore her new NASA mitts, the countdown clock would resume, but when she took them off, it would stop. We made her wear them for the rest of the countdown. We quickly discovered that, when she wore her new NASA mitts, the countdown clock would resume, but when she took them off, it would stop. We made her wear them for the rest of the countdown.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I always know it's winter when Orion appears.

The constellation, which is generally most visible in the Louisville skies from January to March, depicts Orion the Hunter, a figure of Greek mythology, seen by the three main stars that make up his belt, the star that forms his dagger, and additional stars that make up his arms, which hang outstretched as he drifts across the heavens, eternally seeking a prey he will never catch.

But this winter, I, along with the rest of the world, was watching as a different Orion took to the sky: the Orion crew capsule, which lifted off aboard a powerful Delta IV Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center as part of Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) Friday morning.

For the second day in a row, I and hundreds of others in the media – including mainstream journalists, as well as social media bloggers involved in the space agency's #NASASocial campaign – boarded buses at 5 a.m. and were whisked to the NASA Causeway: a lengthy strip of gorgeous grassy land, with water on both sides, where reporters, photographers and VIPs were treated to a direct, unhindered view of the launch – albeit a view from roughly two miles away, due to safety constraints.

(Incidentally, we weren't the only ones in attendance. Our bus driver warned us that alligators, snakes and fire ants also liked to hang out on the Causeway, so we were told to “stomp your feet a lot.” Even now, days later, I'm still trying to figure out what that would accomplish, seeing that if I was an alligator, the sight of a half-asleep tourist overburdened with camera gear stomping his feet like a madman would probably send me into laughing hysterics AND make my stomach growl at the same time.)

Many in the crowd were hardened veteran journos who had reported on, shot or photographed dozens of space shuttle launches. I, on the other hand, was a first-timer. The largest launch I had ever personally witnessed was of a model rocket from my brother's back yard in Shelbyville – an event that posed its own safety hazards, to be sure (I recall that a car battery and jumper cables came into play at one point), but at least it didn't involve over 3,000 kilonewtons of thrust and a liquid hydrogen tank.

Now, as I write this days later, back home in Louisville, I thought I would share five things I learned during my trip, as well as some random thoughts, in no particular order.


1) Launch dates are a crapshoot.

As we learned on Thursday, launches don't always take place on schedule, no matter how optimistic NASA might be. Orion was originally scheduled to launch on Thursday, Dec. 4, and NASA was all but sure it was going to take place. The weather forecast from Patrick Air Force Base put the odds of launch at 70 percent, and as we pulled up to the Causeway just after 5 a.m., there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

But it wasn't long before problems began piling up. First the launch was delayed because someone reported that a boat had drifted into the restricted area near the launch pad. All kinds of maledictions were thrown up against the boat and its occupants by those in the crowd. Many fantasized publicly shaming the boat captain by putting his name and face on television. (As we learned at a press conference hours later, it was eventually determined the boat never committed any safety violations.)

Then the wind came into play. The launch was put on hold twice because an automatic alarm triggered every time the wind reached a certain velocity. The alarm was disabled, so the launch could continue unhindered, but by that time, problems developed with a fuel valve that wouldn't close.

As the minutes wore on, and the end of the launch window loomed closer, the crowd became increasingly desperate. Many had to board flights home that afternoon, and hadn't factored in the possibility that the rocket might not launch today.

One chipper Asian woman who was standing next to me was eager to show off the new "NASA mitts" she had bought at a nearby souvenir stand. We quickly discovered that, when she wore the mitts, the countdown clock would resume, but when she took them off, it would stop. We made her wear them the rest of the morning.

It didn't work. Shortly before the launch window closed, the mission was scrubbed for the day. It was later announced that they would try again tomorrow – Friday – but for some, that was too late. Many who had traveled long distances to Florida and had paid their own way – as I had – went home broken hearted because they didn't give themselves enough leeway in their schedules to factor in delays.

And for some, it wasn't the first time. I spoke with one photographer who said that this was the third launch date he had attended over the years, and he had yet to see a rocket fly. I recoiled in horror.

On the other hand, many of the veteran journalists – locals I'm sure – seemed content that the launch was delayed, as though they didn't think it was right that newbies like us should get lucky and see a launch on our first day out. It was almost like they felt we deserved to suffer through a few scrubs, as they had, like it would "put some grit in us" or something.

For my part, I was bitterly disappointed. I had one more day – one more shot – left. I had to go home Friday afternoon, so for me, it was Friday morning or bust.

In retrospect, I got the impression that the powers that be at NASA felt that the decision to scrub Thursday was unjustified. I can tell you that the crowd that showed up for the second attempt on Friday morning was slightly smaller than the one the previous day. That said, when you're dealing with a 1.6 million-pound rocket, discretion is the better part of valor.

(Full disclosure: This is of course coming from a guy who – in his childhood – insisted on re-launching model rockets even after all of their fins fell off, resulting in one of them almost taking out a family member. Oh, and you know that eerie whistling sound you heard in cartoons when a missile is hurting straight down towards the Earth? For a long time, I thought that sound was artistic license, like something cartoonists made up. Trust me: It's not.)


2) Launches are emotional roller coasters.

When you know that, at any moment, a launch can be halted by "Abort" – that dreaded two-syllable word that launch controllers utter in that maddeningly stoic way – you're grateful for every second that ticks by without a stop in the countdown. Every time a minute ticks by, the crowd cheers.

But near the end of the countdown, the crowd gets utterly silent. Moments earlier, I wondered aloud whether everyone would begin counting down from 10 when the time came. When I asked the question, a guy standing near to me almost winced and declared that they wouldn't, because, in his words, "that would be annoying."

He was right. You could hear a pin drop. It's as though everyone on the Causeway – even the alligators, snakes and fire ants – were holding their breath. There was only a female voice on the loud speakers impassively counting down from 10. When she reached five, a male voice joined hers in the count, and together – almost as a chorus – they reached "one."

But we didn't hear it, because by then the rocket was already firing.

I've been told that I violated one of the first rules of rocket viewing: If it's your first launch, you're not supposed to watch it through a viewfinder. That's probably sound advice, but I somehow managed to operate two cameras while stealing glances with my own eyes at the same time. I can tell you that peering at the engine nozzles at the bottom of the rocket is like looking at an active welding torch. I can tell you that the bright orange flame coming out of the rocket doesn't just burn – it occasionally flashes white hot, like a camera flash, or like lighting. I can tell you that the crowd cheers, that the announcer excitedly announces updates that no one can hear over the rocket roar -- and continues even after the rocket has vanished. I can tell you that the rocket leaves a giant mushroom cloud of exhaust for several minutes after it's gone, and several in the crowd – including myself – take pictures of themselves with the cloud drifting behind them in the foreground.

And I can tell you that – as with practically every launch you've seen on TV – a flock of geese flies across the water in front of the launch pad the moment the spacecraft leaves the ground. (I'm starting to think NASA Public Affairs intentionally keeps a bunch of geese caged until right before the rocket fires, and then turns them loose. Just kidding, of course.)

Then, just minutes after it is over, everyone is hustled back onto the buses to be driven back to the NASA News Office.


3) The NASA Public Affairs Office gets a lot of things right.

As someone who is often critical of government agencies and how they are handled, I have nothing but positive things to say about the public affairs team at Kennedy Space Center, as well as the teams from the other space centers that were represented last week. They showed remarkable openness, even taking the unprecedented action of credentialing 150 social media enthusiasts and bloggers in addition to members of the mainstream media. Less than 24 hours before launch, several of us were taken to the base of the launch pad itself, albeit kept at a safe distance. Experts, ranging from astronauts to engineers, to scientists, to administrators, were made available to us, and whenever any of us had a question ("How high will the Orion capsule travel? How high does the International Space Station orbit? What time does the bus leave for the NASA Causeway tomorrow? Is there a signup sheet for Elmo interviews?") there was always someone there to answer it.

So from this journalist: kudos.


4) The U.S. is getting back into the business of manned spaceflight – but slower than we'd like.

Many believe the U.S. manned space program has been drifting aimlessly for recent years.

For columnist Charles Krauthammer, that began the day the space shuttle program was mothballed, and space shuttle Discovery was placed in a museum in 2012. He mourned then that America had ceded superiority in space exploration to the Russians and the Chinese, adding that the shuttle's final resting place was more like a tomb than an exhibit, and arguing that, "It was being sent for interment. Above ground, to be sure. But just as surely embalmed as Lenin in Red Square."

For columnist Peggy Noonan, the wordsmith who crafted President Ronald Reagan's "Touch the Face of God" speech on the day of the Challenger disaster, the entire space shuttle program was a mistake – a deviation from the outward trajectory man was taking into the solar system with the Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s.

"Once, we saw ourselves as a breakthrough people, a nation with a mission to push beyond ourselves," Noonan wrote in 2009. "Now, in the age of soft narcissism, we just circle ourselves. Which is what the shuttle does: It is on an endless loop, going 'round and 'round and looking down at: us. We should take our eyes off ourselves. We should go someplace again. It would remind us who we've been, which would remind us who we are."

Friday's launch of Orion takes a huge step to correct that. But there's only one problem: Its next flight isn't until 2017.

Even that flight – a seven-day venture into lunar orbit – won't be manned. The first manned expedition on the Orion isn't scheduled until 2021.

Why the wait? One word: money.

Put bluntly, the men and women at NASA aren't getting the support they deserve. Public interest in space exploration has waned. It's a sad fact, but as someone who often covers space-related topics, I can tell from experience that it's highly unlikely this story will get nearly the traction on the Web that – say – the shallow, "low-hanging fruit" stories about the local criminal who stole a carton of cigarettes, or the update on Miley Cirus' latest bizarre antics.

That's unfortunate. Not because this story is anything to write home about, but because space exploration – and other ambitious science and technology ventures – is what stretches our country. Contrary to popular belief, our country didn't become great by doing hard things. We became great by doing foolish impossible things. Years after his historic flight, Neil Armstrong admitted that when he stepped aboard his Apollo 11 capsule, he did so convinced that he might not make it back. Not because he had a death wish, but because he realized what NASA was attempting was so ridiculous, so impossible, so lame-brained that the odds of it working were laughable.

But it did.

Man was created with an innate desire for exploration and discovery. He was given natural laws – things like Newton's Laws of Motion – for a reason. We are meant to discover the universe, to wonder at it, and to give glory to our Creator. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." That's true for the spiritual application he was speaking of. I would argue (although he wouldn't) that it's also true of our space program.

Aim for Mars. Granted, we might fall short. But we'll discover so many new things along the way, it will be worth our while.


5) There's a right way to go to Mars -- and a wrong way. 

First: the wrong way.

The wrong way to pursue a manned Mars landing would be to go the route taken by Mars One, the Netherlands-based non-profit company. Mars One is planning what some have termed a one-way "suicide mission" to Mars, sending pre-selected candidates to the red planet with no means -- or even intention -- of returning them to Earth. Setting aside the financial feasibility of the non-profit's business plan, as well as the odds of its being able to successfully pull off the mission in the first place, the idea of sending colonists to their deaths for the sake of merely obtaining knowledge would be demoralizing to the country to say the least.

Granted, when we sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon, we knew there was a chance they would be stranded. (President Nixon even had prepared remarks for such an event, explaining to the country that, "the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.") But we sent them with a decent crew return system that had a decent chance of working (and it did -- numerous times). We never intended to leave them there.

Even now, when we send crews to the International Space Station, we see to it that there are enough Soyuz capsules on hand to return each crew member to Earth in the event of a sudden evacuation. 

What the non-profit Mars One organization does is its own business, but when it comes to the taxpayer-funded NASA, we should remember this rule: No one gets left behind.

There is another "wrong way" to pursue a Mars landing: the "Big-Brother / Survivor / Dancing-with-the-Stars" reality-TV approach, with cameras live-streaming around-the-clock to shallow viewers demanding to know who's dating whom, which astronauts threw up after launch, what clothing line the astronauts are wearing and which crew member is going to bite-the-dust first. ("Be sure to watch tonight's episode of '120 Days to Mars,' sponsored by ACME Sunglasses! The only sunglasses worn by astronaut Bob Smith -- the one who didn't throw up after orbital insertion!")

That's an exaggeration, to be sure, but we should remember the dignity and comportment of the aforementioned late Neil Armstrong when he returned from the Moon. Armstrong frustrated many journalists with his refusal to do interviews in the years following his historic Moon-walk. He wasn't the type to guest star on the latest sitcom or act as a shill for the next corporate venture. Instead, he vanished into private life, living in relative obscurity and speaking only rarely to those outlets that wanted to talk about the science and engineering causes he loved.

That may leave some angry journalists gnawing their notebooks. But if Orion one day deposits the first human ambassadors on Martian soil, I hope they remember that it is one "giant step for mankind," not one "jaunt brought to you by ACME Sneaker Company."

Let's hope Friday's launch brought that moment one day closer.

Travis K. Kircher is a Web Producer for WDRB News. Views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of WDRB, its staff, management or parent company.

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