March 09, 2002


I'm back home after a fortnight getting deep into the manned space flight program with NASA. More on that later, but first a couple of observations about air travel post 9-11. I flew out of Baltimore's BWI airport on February 23rd en route to Florida. If you haven't flown in the past 6 months, the new security posture is a little intimidating: guards go through your tickets and demand a photo ID, you have to remove laptops from their cases to have them scanned separately, National Guard troops patrol the terminal security area with M16 rifles at the ready, and signs posted along the lines forming outside the metal detectors state that no knives of any kind are allowed on aircraft. These all seem like good ideas, but I managed to defeat this system without even trying. For years I have carried a blue Swiss Army knife on my keychain. It was a gift from a teenager I once taught in Sunday School, and I've kept it because it's very useful and to remind me of some of the better memories I carry with me from my days as a youth director of a church in Japan. It's very small, with its longest blade measuring less than 2 inches, but it has triggered metal detectors in airports around the country many times. On February 23rd, I'd not thought to take it off my keychain and put it in my luggage. I walked right through security with it in my pocket, and realized the next time I fished around for change what I'd done. I also noticed that the guard at my terminal didn't have a magazine in his rifle, so if a situation developed that required him to fire, he'd take a couple of extra seconds before he'd be ready. Terrorists will notice such things, and plan for them.

I also saw the new Vietnam war movie, We Were Soldiers, while I was in Houston. It's a somewhat conrtoversial movie, because it depicts the North Vietnames troops as humans and apparently because it depicts our soldiers as heroic family men and glorifies the war. All I can say about this movie is that it's a fine film. Mel Gibson is great as the main character, the entire cast is believable and the battle action is intense and realistic. We Were Soldiers isn't quite as intense as Saving Private Ryan, mostly because the sound design in the latter film is so much better, but it's gripping nonetheless. As for the controversy, I think people are looking for an excuse to dislike the film. The North Vietnamese troops are never depicted as good guys, just skillful fighters, and their actions help the viewer make sense of what's happening and anticipate what's to come. And our soldiers in Vietnam were heroes--they never lost a battle, were never routed, and never surrendered. Many, especially early in the war, were family men and were doing their duty to their country. That they were later treated as monsters and called terrible names such as "baby killers" was not their fault, and the lack of will to win on the part of their political leadership wasn't their fault either. We Were Soldiers is a film that's long overdue, and is a proper antidote to films like Platoon. It doesn't glorifiy the war, and doesn't preach any particular point of view, and while there are some minor plot points that are worth picking apart, it stands up.

And finally, my recent trip. I went to the Kennedy Space Center to watch space shuttle Columbia lift-off to take a crew up to upgrade and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, with a follow-on to Houston to document mission control activies during the spacewalks, or extra-vehicular activities as NASA calls them. Launch was spectacular and the Hubble mission was a complete success--Hubble is practically a new telescope now. This trip was probably the most interesting and unique experience of my life, because I'd never seen a shuttle launch before and because I saw so many things that I'm not likely to see again. Columbia lifted off at sunrise on Friday, March 1. After launch, its contrail caught the rising sunlight, reflecting colors that defy description. The week at Houston introduced me to the historic Johnson Space Center and Mission Control, the building that has kept tabs on astronaut activities since the agency's early days. A Saturn V rocket of the type that put men on moon, separated into its booster sections, lies on its side just within JSC's fences, with honest-to-goodness Texas longhorn cattle grazing in the field nearby. One of the most remarkable aspects of the visit were the overflights that I witnessed--Columbia with Hubble attached passed overhead each morning, and my compatriots and I would drop our montoring of the spacewalks on live video feeds to head out into the dark courtyards of JSC. The shuttle and telescope, with two astronauts conducting spacewalks, glided across the sky at 17, 500 mph, shining brighter than the brightest star. Once we lost sight of them, we'd head back in and resume watching the live feed from space. It's magical, that you can actually see the shuttle pass overhead, then watch the video it sends back to earth.

Having been totally immersed in NASA lore for several days now, the PGA phrase "These guys are good" keeps coming to mind. NASA takes a lot of flack for being boring these days, but in the case of manned space flight, boring is good. Putting men and women into space is not a trivial thing, and is still dangerous. As I watched Columbia go from a dead stop to escape velocity of more than 25,000 mph atop an angry fireball, I feared a little for the safety of the crew. From the viewing point of about 3.5 miles from the pad, I could physically feel the power of the engines. The solid rocket boosters that initially take shuttles into orbit are little more than controlled explosions--once they light up there's no turning back and no way to shut them off. As astronaut Story Musgrave has said, once they turn on you know you're going somewhere, even if it's not where the engineers intended.

I think that the manned space flight program of today is haunted by two ghosts--Apollo and Challenger. Apollo was the achievment of a child prodigy, and nearly impossible to top. The only thing that NASA can do to surpass Apollo is to go to Mars, a feat that is several orders of magnitude more dificult and more expensive. Without a Soviet challenge, the trip to Mars keeps getting pushed futher and further down the priority list. The Challenger disaster not only killed the crew, but almost killed the agency itself. No shuttles launched for about three years after, as NASA investigated the cause of the disaster. Challenger was the reason that this most recent mission launched a day late--February 28, its original date, saw morning temperatures of 35 degrees at the pad, and when someone figured out that this would represent the coldest launch since January 28, 1986, launch was postponed. January 28, 1986 was the coldest shuttle launch ever, and Challenger's last.

I'll resume normal posting Monday or thereabouts. In the mean time, Mark Butterworth has a new blog that he says is aimed at taking on The Sacramento Bee and similar lefty loopiness in California. You live in a place that will never fail to supply you with silliness, Mark. Have fun. I've also received another entry into the Speciation Challenge, from Alan Carroll. Once I've distilled his comments, I'll post them and my reply over on the science page.
Posted by B. Preston at 11:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack