Tuesday

Happy New Year... yeah, right.

For all of those wishfully thinking that the new year will be better than 2013, here is my little reality check. In the coming year ahead one single thing will squelch your dreamy hope of better things ahead. In the year 2014 it is highly probable that, if it has not happened already, your health insurance WILL be canceled, as will mine. This is because waiting just the other side of the 2014 elections comes the Obamacare Employer Mandate. That portion of the law was intentionally written to cause private companies to drop their employee health insurance benefits and tens of millions of us will find our plans canceled… it is the law.

Now, I have friends who say, “Not me, I’m in a union and we have a waiver.” Yeah… right… and who gave your union that waiver? Obama did… the same guy who stood in front of the American people and LIED by saying that under Obamacare, “If you like your plan you can keep it… if you like your doctor you can keep him… PERIOD!” That was done just to get him elected and the Obamacare waivers were given for the same reasons. He who giveth the waiver, can also taketh away the waiver. Remember, those “waivers” were not passed by the Congress and are not a part of the law. Also remember that in order to work, Obamacare needs lots of healthy people to join in… and right now, they are not.

Hummmm… where can Obama get a huge block of healthy people that he can readily force into Obamacare? Simple… all he has to do is say that his waivers were not in keeping with the law and retract them all. Boom! You waivered union folks are dog meat to be fed into Obamacare. This is especially true for pilots, who are actually CERTIFIED as being healthy by the Federal government.

Didn’t think about that one, now did ya’?

Now if you are thinking that the politicians when faced with the horror of Obamacare and angry voters will flee from the law in droves and do something to save us all- think again. Even if every democrat congressman who is up for re-election loses in November, it will be TOO LATE to stop the Employer Mandate. Plus, even if the Republicans re-take the Senate and retain the House, anything that they do to try and stop Obamacare will simply be vetoed by Obama and the numbers in the congress are not enough to override that veto.

So, will 2014 be better than 2013? I wish I could say it will, but the odds are that unless you are a socialist on Medicaid or a federal employee, the answer is many Americans are gonna be wishing that they had 2013 over again or the 2012 elections to vote over again. But hey, Obama will get at least 20 rounds of golf in during the new year

Sunday

TISSUE! TISSUE!


Sunday morning and I had fixed breakfast for my three beautiful girls. There they sat at our breakfast bar, still in their night clothes, happily eating away; right to left in order- mommy, oldest daughter and youngest daughter.  In the background the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay sparkling outside of the windows, it was a scene of pure beauty and happiness.

I thought to myself that this must be an illusion, a dream and any moment I was going to snap awake and find myself back in the early 1980s, living in a hovel like a hermit trying desperately to work my way through college. That thought often haunts me because surely a slob like me should never have attained this level of happiness- it is simply against the laws of nature. Indeed, I could very likely be having a sweet dream.

Then, suddenly, my six-year-old snorts, sniffs and abruptly reaches up from her breakfast wiggling her tiny fingers and demands, “Tissue! Tissue!”


Nope- this is reality, because an illusion would not have the snot.   

Tuesday

I SMILED FOR THREE MONTHS


In aviation careers we have a saying that there are some people who were born on second and think that they hit a double. In my case I was born in the dugout and expected to be hit with a stray bat.

After a stumbling start at Embry-Riddle I went onto the path of working my way through school- in for one semester and out for two or three or more. In the autumn of 1979 I was “out” of school and had to find a job to earn enough money to get back in. I got very lucky and obtained work at hangar 6, Airflite and Serve-A-Plane at Saginaw’s Tri-City Airport (MBS) which was less than a mile from my house. Most of my job consisted of emptying trash cans, sweeping floors and walking around the hangar with a bucket of Stoddard Solvent and a mop and mopping up little oil blotches from the floor. Indeed I was starting at the bottom of the aviation business, the very cold concrete bottom.

I managed, however, to grab extra bucks by cleaning aircraft and my biggest customer was Dow Corning and their Falcon Jet and King Air 200. Often they had off-hour turn-arounds, so the pilots had my home phone number and they could just call and I would meet them at Hangar 6 at whatever hour they may need me.
Turning around a corporate aircraft was not hard labor. Normally it meant taking a trash bag and gathering a few coffee cups out of the cabin, some napkins and perhaps a candy wrapper or two. Then the seats got whisk-broomed, the seatbelts got crossed and if required a bit of hand-vacuuming was done. All of that was accomplished while the first officer dashed inside and refreshed the coffee pot and the captain called in his flight-plan. On occasion a waiting passenger needed to be greeted, but otherwise it was quite a simple process.
Just prior to punching the clock and heading home one evening, I was told that Dow Corning had requested a turn-around between 11:00 and 11:30 that night and I was supposed to be there to meet the King Air. So, like always, I was there a half hour early and punched in, thus gaining an extra 30 minutes of pay while I waited. In corporate aviation, having services ready early is considered a very good thing, so no one ever complained about me scarfing up an extra half hour of pay on every turn-around. I gathered up my stuff, started a fresh pot of coffee for the pilots and then took a stroll out into the hangar.
The big hangar door was shut tight and the place was packed with aircraft, as usual, so it was a way more fun for me to hang out there than in the lobby. I walked over to Corning’s Falcon 10 and popped open the cabin door. As casually as I would slip into an easy chair I slid into the right seat of the 10. I liked to spend time in there just studying the panel. Even when they did lock the bird it didn’t keep me out because I had the key; so I made pals with N592DC, Dow Corning’s Falcon 10.
I was in the cockpit for just a few minutes when suddenly I heard a voice over my shoulder, “When you get done flying this thing, can you come out and turn us?” It was Don Hebert, Dow Corning’s chief pilot. Apparently sitting in the Falcon 10 I could not hear the King Air pull up on the ramp. I laughed and started to get out of the seat. Looking at Don I asked, “How’d you like to have an extra left nut?” He laughed and exclaimed, “What?” I replied, “I’d give my left nut to fly this thing.” Don laughed again as he gave me a pat on the back as I headed toward the ramp with my trash bag and whisk broom in hand. I added, “That seat is exactly the same shape as my ass.”
It only took me about four minutes to get the King Air in shape and ready to go again. As I climbed out Don met me on the ramp and told me that the Falcon 10 was going in for an “A” inspection the next week and when it was done, they would have to take it for a test flight. He said that if I wanted to, I could ride along in the jumpseat. Of course Don, like everyone else at Hangar 6, knew that I was working my way through Embry-Riddle toward a pilot’s career and I’m sure he knew what a ride in the nose of the 10 would mean to me. I gleefully agreed, as the first officer dashed past and thanked me for starting the coffee for them. I went back into the hangar and those guys blasted off.
Actually I helped do the “A” inspection the following week. It was, as inspections go, a fairly minor task in itself. The only complex part was that Dow Corning had ordered a set of taxi lights to be installed in the aircraft’s nose. When it was over Don walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready to go my friend?” he asked. I excitedly said that I had to go and tell Tim, the hangar ram-rod, that I was going and then punch-out on the time-clock. Sprinting to Tim’s office I told him that the 10 was ready to fly and I was going to punch-out and take the jump-seat. We’d discussed my taking the flight earlier that morning and so he just mumbled, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” then he looked up from his work and asked, “Are you still on the clock for 92DC right now?” I replied that I was and he told me not to bother to punch out. They were gonna pay for my ride. Considering that Airflite and Serve-A-Plane was billing the customer $18 an hour for my services and my cut was $2.50 an hour I’m sure it was not a losing venture for my employer.
By the time I got back to the aircraft, Don and his first officer Gary Dice were already strapped in and Dave, the lead mechanic on the inspection, was waiting for me; it was the fourth day of December, 1979. Gary asked if I knew how to get out the jump seat, but he was too late- I was already setting it up. On the Falcon 10, the jumpseat is also the toilet, or the toilet is also the jump seat; depending on how you wanna look at it. You simply pull out the potty and then unfold the seat over top of it. Don, speaking over his shoulder demonstrated how to start the engines. Being a Cessna pilot I was amazed at how much easier it was to start a Falcon Jet. Gary pulled out a small checklist and ran it quickly. Then flipped down the sun visor where the performance chart was pasted and got the numbers. They set the bugs and we were rolling.
Just as casually as can be we taxied to the end of Runway 5 and blasted off. Gary requested a block altitude between 12,000 and 14,000 feet over Saginaw Bay which was instantly approved by ATC as we rocketed out over the water. The guys checked a few systems, noted a sluggish HSI and I sat there with my eyes the size of pie plates. As they talked to Dave about the HSI it was the first time that I noticed that Dave was out of his seat and kneeling on the cabin floor behind me. Then just out of nowhere, Dave baited the guys by saying, “Hey, you guys never do anything crazy, do ya’?” Don replied, “Naaa, we’re a couple of straight arrows.” And Gary chimed in, “Yeah, we’d never do anything like this!” and he shoved the throttles forward, pointed the nose a few degrees down and then pulled back up and commanded the aircraft into the smoothest aileron roll anyone could want. As we leveled out again the two pilots were giggling like kids and Dave was laughing out loud; I was still sitting there with my eyes as wide as pie plates. Then it struck me that in that roll, at one point, Dave was kneeling on the ceiling.
After a few more items were checked we headed back to the airport. I was amazed at how easily the Falcon 10 flew. It simply cruised along as steady as a can be and as we rolled onto final the guys brought her home in an effortless approach and landing. While we taxied in I made a comment about how stable the 10 seemed to be and Don replied that it was the most stable jet on approach that he had ever flown next to the Saberliner.
Walking across the ramp I found myself smiling. I had just been given a taste of what my future may be like. After months of mopping hangar floors, emptying trash cans, washing airplanes and bashing my brains out against the university, I finally saw the reality of where I could go if I wanted to, if I worked hard enough, if I kept my eye on my primary goal of finishing what I had started at Embry-Riddle and if I just did not give up. It was real and it was within my ability. I smiled for the rest of the day, I smiled for the rest of the week and I smiled for the next three months. A few years later I returned to hangar 6 during a summer out of college to work on Falcon Jets as a mechanic under the shop certificate- I smiled all summer long.
Eighteen years almost to the day after that jumpseat ride in 592DC, I had my degree from Embry-Riddle and all of my ratings as well as two furloughs under my belt and my fill of airline piloting. After a protracted period of being “between pilot jobs” I happened to stumble upon an opportunity to fly for a small fractional outfit. The best part being that they had Falcon Jets! After a brief interview they asked me to come in the following day and fly the Falcon 10 to see if I had what they were looking for. That morning I walked out to the 10 and looked at her like she was an old friend. I smiled that same smile I had back in 1979 and eased into the right seat. I’d never flown a Falcon Jet before, but I felt as if had hundreds of hours in one- the seat was the exact same shape as my ass. It was the most “at home” I had ever been in a new aircraft. I already knew every system, I had already dropped every panel and been up inside every inch of one of these birds when I worked as a mechanic on them back at hangar 6. During the flight I did the requested maneuvers with ease and then did three fine takeoffs and landings- Don and Gary would have been proud of me. That evening they called me and asked me to do the same thing the next day in the Falcon 20 and the day after that I was hired and had my first trip in the 20 and later in the 10. The bumps and turns in the aviation business had put me where I wanted to be and every time I flew one of those Falcon Jets, I smiled… I just couldn’t help myself.

Sunday

The LADEE launch: When everyone's out to get ya', paranoia is just good thinking.



Too often we who were the space-buffs of the 60s and 70s still find ourselves reverting to closet-like behavior. After all, in those days it was not “cool” to watch space stuff and it was worse to live as if you liked space stuff- so you had to be a sort of closet space-buff. Then came the years of the Space Shuttle and we all “came out.” It was okay to be a space-buff, to stay up all night watching EVAs and to stand on the bank of a river and watch a launch. Then came the end of the Shuttle and our nation’s wish to return to the moon was simply canceled by a president who made it un-cool again to look toward space. About the moon he questioned why should we go back to the moon and pointing at Buzz Aldrin, he said, “to be blunt, Buzz has already been there…” In other words America, why bother to go there again, or to go anywhere as far as he was concerned. Our space program appeared to wilt right in front of us.
 
It is hard to pull the plug on the will of the American people who want NASA to go into space. We have a desire to learn about our closest neighbor in the solar system- the moon. So it was that when NASA prepared to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE probe, to the moon, many of us became interested in the mission. The probe is designed to study the “wisps” of the lunar exosphere and was scheduled to launch atop a Minotaur 5 Rocket from NASA’s Wallops Island facility on the Virginia coast.

Minotaur is derived from the Air Force Minuteman ICBM and consists of solid propellant stages. It was once intended to sit in silos around the United Sates and wait for the order to launch and destroy the nation’s enemies, now it has been extensively evolved for peaceful use. The Minotaur 5 has five stages and this would be its first chance to prove itself as a booster to send vehicles beyond earth orbit.

Launch was set for 11:27 PM on the night of September 6th, 2013 and it was said that if the weather was right a lot of people along the central east coast of the United States would be treated to a sight that people in Florida have been seeing for more than half a century. I decided that I would walk across the street to our community pier that stretches into Chesapeake Bay and watch from there. Although the launch site is just over 89 miles to the south I figured I would at least see something. Considering that the Minotaur is a solid propellant launch vehicle and they have a very bright exhaust flame it should be visible as long as the night remained clear.

Monitoring by way of my home computer and my subscription to SpaceflightNow, the countdown was smooth through the evening and the weather simply got better. As launch time neared even the high altitude winds aloft calmed being reported as just 32 knots at 90,000 feet. At T-7 minutes, I grabbed my binoculars and headed for the darkened pier. I felt the urge to “sneak” because if Obama got wind that I was going to watch a moon shot he may revoke my Obamacare or worse yet, have his goons at the IRS audit me. Moon shots are not approved as being politically correct. I was monitoring the countdown on my smart-phone, but as I got to the street, the connection was suddenly broken. Clearly the NSA now knew I was going to watch a moon shot, I may be doomed.

Still I snuck onto the unlit pier and found the spot where I watched the politically-approved Antares launch last spring. The fishing lights were turned off and the usual fishing crowd was strangely absent- perhaps they knew the dangers of watching a forbidden moon shot. As I stood there in the blackness trying to re-connect with my smart-phone, a voice from behind me suddenly said, “Don’t let me scare ya’.” I jumped a foot! For an instant I thought it was John Holdren from the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) who had come personally catch me and take me to the space-buff concentration camp on a charge of moon shot watching, so I could be re-educated. Instead it was an elderly man sitting on a bench in the dark. With his gray beard and prudent eyes he looked a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi. It turned out that he too was there to watch the moon shot. He was a space-buff as well as a former NASA worker back in the old republic, before the dark times, before the empire.

I told the man in the darkness that I had lost the countdown on my smart phone as soon as I stepped from my house. He said that he too had tried to keep it on his iPad, but had lost the connection as soon as he stepped from his house. The NSA was surely onto us- only imperial storm snoopers are that precise.

Soon we were joined by two more moon shot watchers and then another three risked being sent to the re-education camps as our number on the pier grew to a total of seven. Looking toward the horizon the night remained clear with perhaps a touch of haze and a cool breeze that was blowing in off of the brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay. It reminded me a lot of darkened hours spent standing on the NASA causeway waiting to see STS-2 launch- back in the olden days when we had a Shuttle and the ability to launch US astronauts from US soil.

We timed ignition by our watches and at exactly 11:27 pm the horizon illuminated in a deep orange glow that looked as if a tiny sun were rising. The glow grew larger and larger until from its center a brilliant orange comet seemed to appear; the Minotaur was aloft. The collective word was “Wow!” I had thought we would be lucky to see just a streak, but instead the Minotaur was putting on a show. The flame grew longer as the rocket climbed and then began its tilt program. After 56.92 seconds of burn time staging took place. Even from 90 miles away the staging looked violent and abrupt in my binoculars. A reflexive gasp came from all of us watching. Glowing orange particles were briefly seen at separation and then the first stage, with its burning propellant still tailing off could be seen tumbling away for more than 40 seconds. The second stage pressed on and its engine plume grew even larger as the surrounding atmosphere became thinner. For a total of just over 77 seconds the stage pushed the LADEE into space. As the second stage burned out there was a 20 second coast period. Although Wallpos ground cameras show the flame fading, we saw the orange light clearly for all 20 seconds. Third stage ignition was just as spectacular as the previous stage except that the flame was now a yellow color. One odd characteristic of that initial third stage burn was a long visible trail that looked like a contrail, yet could not have been because the booster was simply too high. Soon the stage soon faded into a pinpoint of orange vanishing into the distance among the stars. That strange vapor trail, however, remained visible for several minutes.

We all felt like a bit of our sickness from the lack of spaceflight had faded. I began to wonder just how the LADEE had managed to remain funded in a political environment where anything going to the moon under the NASA meatball is considered politically incorrect. Apparently OSTP had let this one slip past before ordering OMB to defund it in place of some new Gore-sat. After all, these days nothing is considered as being a good enough reason to return to the moon, because, to be blunt, Buzz has already been there. Plus, to be more blunt, there are so many more food stamps to print and so much healthcare to take over that we Americans just cannot afford to go back to the moon. Yet here goes LADEE, doing phasing orbits until it is captured by lunar gravity. Perhaps the powers that be in the empire will see how many people were interested in this mission and defund it before it gets to the moon- like they do everything else.

Friday

DREAM CHASING



After half a century the dream of a lifting body spacecraft is returning

Dateline: August 2, 2013, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the Sierra Nevada Corporation rolled their lifting body spacecraft, the “Dream Chaser,” out of the hangar in preparation for “tow” tests. In the pre-dawn hours this engineering test article was prepared for its first critical workout. What few working on the vehicle probably considered was that they were following in footsteps that had been placed upon the ramp at this same airfield almost exactly 50 years earlier, August 16, 1963; when the chase of the dream of lifting body flight was actually realized.


Lifting body flight had begun as little more than a mental exercise among a few aeronautical engineers.  Yet, the practical application of that concept started with a NASA engineer at the Flight Research Center by the name of Dale Reed and a balsawood model of his lifting body concept aircraft. Reed, an R/C model airplane enthusiast, began by tossing his balsawood lifting body into tall grass in order to cushion the landings as he tinkered with the center of gravity on the model. Once he had a good glide established he moved up to towing the model behind one of his powered R/C airplanes and eventually went on to releasing the lifting body into free-flight from the model tow-plane. On one such occasion Reed enlisted his wife to film the operation with an 8mm camera. He later took that film and showed it to his bosses at the Flight Research
Center (later named the Dryden Flight Research Center). Backed by a team of like-minded lifting body fans, such as Dick Eldredge and Milt Thompson as well as his 8mm film, Reed gained the quick approval of NASA’s Al Eggers and Paul Bikle to move forward. Soon, by use of some discretionary funding and a lot of after-hours handy work by the staff at the airfield, a full size version of the lifting body was constructed. Called the M2-F1, the lifting body was actually made of plywood and used the landing gear of a Cessna 150 aircraft. On March 1, 1963 it was rolled out to do a series of “tow” tests behind a modified Pontiac car. Fifty years, five months and two days later, another lifting body, the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s  Dream Chaser, began its series of tow-tests; only this time the tow vehicle would be a Ford pickup truck.

Along the concrete runway at Dryden the Dream Chaser was systematically towed at speeds of 10, 20, 40 and 60 miles per hour. Data was collected on a wide range of systems including steering, brakes, control surface actuation and landing gear dynamics. Unlike the M2-F1, however, laptop computers and LASER thermometers were among the modern appliances used to evaluate the Dream Chaser on its tow-tests. Additionally, the Dream Chaser was released during its tow-test and allowed to skid to a stop while the vehicle’s aerodynamic speed brakes were tested; as far as the records show the M2-F1 was not released on its first tow-test, but it did fly. Unfortunately, that M2-F1 first flight lasted only a few seconds and only went up a few inches because it was found to be uncontrollable and was quickly landed by test pilot Milt Thompson. Following wind tunnel testing and with its control system re-rigged the M2-F1 was successfully flown on its second tow-test on April 5th, 1963.

Lifting bodies are commonly referred to in terms of being a “shape.” During the development years of the piloted versions there were three basic shapes, the M2, the X-24 and the HL-10. The M2 shape was similar to a half-cone, while the X-24 was similar to an inverted half-cone. The HL-10, however, was more like a rounded arrowhead. All three shapes eventually each flew a protracted series of high altitude super-sonic tests. Over time, the HL-10 shape would be the one to have its name carried into the future. Long after the other lifting-bodies had been placed in museums, the folks at NASA’s Langley Reasearch Center were taking their original HL-10 concept and evolving it into a larger crewed version that they called the HL-20.

First conceived as an emergency crew rescue vehicle and a back-up to the Shuttle, the HL-20 was intended to be used on what was then called Space Station Freedom. The year was 1986 and the HL-20 looked a bit more like a blending of the Soviet BOR-4 test article the X-24A than it did the HL-10. It was conceived to be boosted atop an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, and then glide back to a runway; landing like the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, the HL-20 was born in the shadow of the Space Shuttle and grew up in the shadow of the Constellation Program, thus it never got beyond the mock-up, artwork and number crunching stage.

Enter the Sierra Nevada Corporation and NASA’s request for competitors to participate in the Commercial Crew Development program. Looking at the HL-20 Sierra Nevada Corporation saw a concept with much of the critical design work already done. From that foundation grew the Dream Chaser. When the time came to down-select three finalists to become NASA’s commercial crew carriers, the Dream Chaser made the cut along with capsule spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX.

Although the Dream Chaser’s competitors, Boeing and SpaceX have garnered a lot of publicity, the folks at Sierra Nevada Corporation have been working at a grass-roots level with little glamour. They do not have a cult-like following such as that enjoyed by the SpaceX and their Dragon capsule, but they do have the in-the-hangar hands-on engineering style that gave us the M2-F1 and the lifting bodies that led to the Dream Chaser in the first place. By using a touch of Shuttle heritage and a Dale Reed spirit, they have come a long way toward flying US astronauts from US soil and landing them on a US runway once again.


Dream Chaser itself is a highly refined lifting body that takes what was intended for the HL-20 and literally chases that dream toward its intended goal; a true spaceship that can rocket into space and return to earth by elegantly landing on a runway. If they can succeed in making the Dream Chaser fly and actually getting it into space and then returning it to a runway, the folks at Sierra Nevada Corporation  will have not only chased, but will have caught the dream of Dale Reed, Dick Eldredge, Milt Thompson and a small army of other lifting body champions. It is a dream that began a half century ago. A dream that was solidified when the M2-F1 made its first free flight on August 16, 1963- exactly 50 years ago today. 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm a lifting body "nut" and have been since I was in the 8th grade. From then on I started learning as much as I could about them and messing around with my own "shapes." In high school I developed my own shape and as a part of my 11th grade drafting class project I drew up plans for my lifting body to launch piggyback aboard a sort of  Titan IIIC model rocket. It was complete with a pad and a fixed service structure that had a swinging shelter to cover the lifting body. Just by coincidence, that was remarkably close to the Space Shuttle's RSS, even though I had never seen plans or images or even the concept of the RSS at the time. As I worked on the project, my drafting teacher came by and pointed at my lifting body and asked, "What's that?" I told him it was a lifting body- a wingless aircraft. He just walked away shaking his head. When I got my final grade it was a "C" and there was a note scrolled on the page with the lifting body that said, "I thought you would know that an airplane can't fly without wings." Today, my Dr. Zooch Rockets company sells a rocket that uses that exact same shape- and yes, it does fly. 
A few years before Dale Reed passed away, my former college roommate, Pete Merlin, who works at NASA Dryden, took one of my lifting bodies in and showed it to him. Mr. Reed approved saying that he thought it would make a good hyper-sonic shape as well. Not bad for a kid who had to teach himself about lifting body flight, eh?

Monday

A Well Earned Mistrust


And, just in case any of you out there were wondering how I actually do feel about the president's space policy... here's a piece that I published on ANN back on Sept. 20th, 2011... Oh, and by the way, I am all for SpaceX, the SNC Dream Chaser and the Boeing CTS-100, I'm simply not a Newspace zealot.

When President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 it placed into effect PL111-267. This law mandated that it will be the policy of the United States to have a Federal space launch system and that NASA must develop a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle- it was called the “Space Launch System” or “SLS.” In that law Congress saw fit to specify lifting tonnage, launch date, exploration destinations, use of existing materials and man power and a very clear date for reporting to the Congress on the beginning of development as well as the progress of the program. Although that action caused the Internet critics of human spaceflight to try and malign the proposed system by dubbing it the “Senate Launch System.” The program specifics were not born out of the desire of the Senate or the House to design a launch system. These specifics were instead born out of a well earned mistrust of NASA’s politically appointed upper management to actually follow through with the intent of the Congress.

          Since the beginning of the Constellation program, which was supposed to be the follow-on to the Space Shuttle, the project had wide support. For example, in 2005 the House approved the program by a vote of 385-15 and in 2008 the vote was a 409-15 approval. Thus both Republican and Democrat controlled Congresses approved of the direction in which NASA was headed. Yet in the beginning of 2010, in his Fiscal Year 2011 budget Proposal, President Obama saw fit to simply cancel Constellation and re-direct the funds for NASA’s human spaceflight program to start-up “commercial” operators. There was no goal for NASA that proposal, no schedule, no launch system- it was, in fact, a program to nowhere. This sent a shock wave through the Congress and the aerospace industry.

Prior to his election, candidate Obama had stated that when elected he  “…will expedite the development of the Shuttle's successor systems [Constellation] for carrying Americans to space so we can minimize the gap,” [between the Shuttle and Constellation]. But on February 1, 2010 President Obama did exactly the opposite.  

To say that the Congress was outraged would be somewhat of an understatement. Aside from a hand full in the Congress, the opposition to the Obama space program was quite heated. In the first hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology following the bombshell of the Obama FY2011 Budget Proposal, the normally reserved senior Representative Ralph Hall started to read his opening remarks and then stammered and stopped and said “…I’m so damned mad I can’t even read this.” There were applause in the chamber. In every hearing thereafter, in both houses of Congress, there was great opposition to the Obama space program to nowhere.

The spin quickly began and the script was made official with talking points saying that there was nothing wrong with the Obama proposal, it was simply that NASA had “Rolled it out poorly.” The Obama appointed NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and his ever grinning side-kick Assistant Administrator Lori Garver spouted this talking point many times as did a select few in the Congress such as Bill Nelson. This loyal Democrat who helped Obama win Florida, where the president’s new space program was about to put thousands of skilled workers out of a job while bankrupting much of the Space Coast. In late March of 2010 Nelson, along with KSC Director Bob Cabanna, did a panel discussion at the University of Central Florida. There Nelson assured the crowd that the president was going to “fix” his FY2011 space proposal on April 15 when he was scheduled to visit KSC. When asked, “What if he doesn’t?” Nelson frankly replied, “Then we (the Congress) will fix it for him.” For the next few weeks Nelson repeatedly stated that he had assurances from the White House, that the president would make major changes in his proposal on April 15th and would make a major announcement on a time-table for NASA and an objective- which would be Mars.

On the appointed day the president arrived at KSC as Bill Nelson stood proudly by waiting for the big announcement. Instead, President Obama visited the SpaceX facility, rubbed elbows with Elon Musk, went to designated speaking area and announced that the Orion spacecraft that he had canceled would now serve as a multi-billion dollar rescue pod to be hung on the International Space Station (ISS). He also sneered at returning to the moon with a been there, done that, quip… and other than some standard Obama circle-speak, that was that. He then boarded Air Force One and jetted down to Miami for a campaign fund raiser.

It is said that in Washington D.C. a friend is someone who stabs you in the chest rather than in the back- the president was apparently not being friendly to Senator Nelson.

From that point on the Congress went about “fixing it” for the White House. They invited NASA and aerospace industry engineers to conceive of a launch system that could take the Orion from the Constellation Program and use it to explore beyond low earth orbit and to back-up the Obama blessed “commercial” operators who were supposed to take over shuttling U.S. astronauts to the ISS. They asked the engineers to make, to the greatest extent practical, use Space Shuttle hardware and facilities as well as those that were in development for Constellation. Additionally, the Congress asked that the new program consider current and future budgetary restraints. By mid-summer the Senate had what they needed to mandate a palatable and realistic direction for NASA. Following the Congressional summer recess of 2010 the Senate’s Authorization Act was accepted by the House and went before the President, who signed it into law. You would think that was it- done- let’s get started, but you must remember that this is the Obama Administration we are talking about.

Members of the Senate did indeed remember that they were dealing with the Obama Administration. This president wants things done his way- period. If he cannot get his way past the Congress, he will make an end run around that body and get his way administratively. A good example of this can be seen in “Cap-N-Trade.”  This pet project of the Obama White House could not get past the Congress, so the administration simply went around the Congress and is currently trying to impose it by way of the EPA. In the nine months between the announcement of the FY2011 Budget proposal and the signing of the NASA Authorization Act the Congress developed a well earned mistrust where the President was concerned. Additionally, the members of Congress clearly did not trust the politically appointed “leaders” at NASA to execute the law to any greater degree than they trusted the Obama Administration to follow the law.

For that reason, the members of the Senate who wrote the Authorization Act placed some specifics into the act. These included a 90 day countdown from the day of the Act’s entry into law that required the production of a full report on vehicle specifications must be delivered to the Congress and made public. The Congress did NOT “design the rocket.” That little myth has become a common slur used by those who still want the original Obama program-to-nowhere to return. Another common slur that is used by the fans of the Obamaspace is to say that SLS stands for “Senate Launch System.” When you read a comment posted anywhere in the Internet’s assorted public space “forums,” it should be considered to say nothing more than “I want the Obama plan to nowhere.” It also says that the person posting that message knows nothing about NASA as a whole and cares little about the agency itself.

Of course the opinions of the semi-informed lemmings of the Internet forums are of no matter in this saga- the real struggle is in the political arena. You see, the Congress established NASA and the agency is under their direction. NASA, however, is administered by persons appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the President. That, is the real ball to which we must keep our eye upon.

Likewise, we often hear and read the saying “The Congress writes the checks.” That is not correct- in fact, the Congress only APPROVES the checks. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) actually “writes the checks.” What most people do not realize is that OMB is not required to disburse as much as Congress has approved. They can, and often do, disburse far less and can also delay funds as they wish in order to steer an agency in one direction or another. OMB is under the direction of the President.

For 339 days after the president signed the law that created the SLS, Congress waited for the report that was to be submitted by NASA’s politically appointed “leadership” within 90 days after the President’s signature. Likewise the engineering specifications for the SLS were being held up, not by NASA’s career civil servants, not by engineers, not by contractors- but by…  (you’ll never guess)… OMB! Yes, OMB, which- again- is under the direction of the President, had insisted on an “independent” review of the costs in the SLS plan before it invested billions in the system. This sounds quite responsible until you know that OMB has NOT called for any independent review or accounting of those so-called “commercial” operators that Obamaspace desires to become the exclusive providers of transportation of humans to and from space and who will also be getting billions of dollars to fly rockets.

While announcing the SLS, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden as well as Senator Bill Nelson attempted to spin the administration’s delaying tactics and as being the grand plan of the President all along intended to ensure that the new program would be “sustainable” and “affordable.”

Sorry- NO SALE guys.

This was Obama playing basketball and trying to run out the clock until he could get that last three point shot and win the game for himself. Tell the thousands of honest, hardworking spaceflight workers who lost their jobs, homes and self-worth in the nine months that it took to start this program, all about this study. While you are at it tell the businesses, the restaurants, mom and pop stores, the auto repair shops and so on that depended on those same workers all about the studies and other delays.  No sale.

Tomorrow, September 22, 2011 there will be a House Hearing concerning the question of “NASA Human Spaceflight Past, Present, and Future: Where Do We Go From Here?” Which is still a critical question even though the SLS has finally been announced. That is because when it comes to NASA’s human spaceflight program there is a well earned mistrust so far as the agency’s politically appointed administrators and the Obama Administration are concerned. The games, political tricks and delaying tactics are not over.

What is the SLS? From Sept. 11, 2011


At the request of a space-pal of mine who asked me to do something on the SLS... I already did! Here's a piece from September 11, 2011.

On October 11, 2010 President Obama signed The NASA Authorization Act of 2010. This placed into effect PL111-267 which is the law that mandated that NASA must do specific things by specific dates in order to bring to reality the government-owned launch system that is to be the next step beyond the shuttle. Of course you cannot have any NASA launch system without an acronym that becomes its moniker. In this case the Space Launch System has been dubbed the “SLS.” Although, by law, NASA was supposed to produce a complete plan for the SLS within 90 days of the law’s signing, that release did not come until September 14, 2011- some 339 days after the law was signed.

Birth of the SLS came in the wake of the Obama Administration’s FY2011 Budget Proposal. Within that proposal was placed the proposal for NASA’s budget and with that President Obama canceled the Constellation Program which was the replacement for the Space Shuttle that NASA had already spent a half dozen years and nearly $10 billion working to develop. Additionally, the Obama plan had no defined objective for NASA and no timetable to do anything other than wait for some undefined “Path breaking” and “Game Changing” technologies that were to come from someplace that was equally undefined. It also took all of United States manned spaceflight efforts and simply turned them over to a select few private, start-up companies that were selected for reasons unexplained. That portion of the overall FY2011 Budget Proposal sent shock waves through the aerospace community, through NASA, through NASA contractors and through the Congress where, by the way, Constellation had wide support on both sides of the aisle. This, however, meant nothing to the Obama Administration which had other ideas about NASA. Simply put, they sought to completely gut the Federal human spaceflight program and rebuild NASA as an academic think-tank in one swift stroke. Although that may have worked for Hugo down in Venezuela, it did not go over at all for Barack in the United States.


Within months of the Obama FY2011 budget proposal, the Congress had negated the administration’s “new” direction for NASA and composed a new space act which President Obama, grudgingly, signed into law. In that law the Congress directed NASA to come up with a launch vehicle that could loft 70 tons and later evolve into a vehicle that could loft 130 tons. In an effort to preserve the maximum amount of talent and skill in the spaceflight work force, the law-makers specified that work on the new launch vehicle must begin with a detailed design plan from NASA due 90 days after the law was signed and then press to begin physical construction immediately thereafter. The new vehicle was also to make the maximum use of Shuttle and Constellation hardware and facilities to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the workforce. Under the influence of the White House, NASA finally delivered the SLS plan 249 days behind that imposed schedule.

Now that NASA’s politically appointed administrators have finally released to the public the details of the new vehicle, we can take a good look at the new launcher. Of course, the spaceflight community has known since 2010 what the SLS configuration will likely be. In fact the basic arrangement has been discussed by NASA engineers for several years. The basic arrangement uses a Space Shuttle external tank as the “core” of the vehicle with two Shuttle derived SRBs attached in a manner similar to that of the Shuttle itself. The difference being that the SRBs each have five segments instead of the four segments used on the Shuttle. Additionally, the core tank has a thrust structure built onto its base and attached there will be either three or five Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME). Atop the tank will be placed a second stage that will be powered by a J-2X engine derived from the Saturn rockets that were used in the Apollo program. That stage will be used for boosting cargo or for boosting the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) into missions beyond Earth Orbit (BEO). In early test flights that second stage may be substituted with a Delta IV “kicker” upper stage that can be used to boost the Orion. This overall configuration allows for the launching of crews and the safety of a Launch Abort System (LAS), or escape tower, to cover all phases of boost.

In operation the SLS will lift off by first igniting the SSMEs, followed several seconds later by the SRBs in a manner similar to the Shuttle. The primary difference will be that the five SSMEs will develop a combined thrust of ~2 million pounds while the five segment SRBs will each develop ~3.6 million pounds of thrust giving the vehicle a total thrust at liftoff of ~9.2 million pounds. That is 1.5 million pounds more thrust than the Saturn V moon rocket’s maximum liftoff thrust of 7.7 million pounds and just a bit short of the Soviet N1 rocket which reportedly produced ~10 million pounds of thrust. That will, however, make the SLS the most powerful rocket ever launched by the United States.

At staging the two SRBs will drop away as they have done with the Space Shuttle, however, these new five segment SRBs will have burned significantly longer than the Shuttle SRBs and will stage at a far higher altitude. The decision as to if or not the new SRBs will be recovered for reuse has still not been announced by NASA. (Update, 2013: the SRBs will not be recovered)

After SRB jettison, the core stage will continue to fire to near orbital velocity. At the end of its burn it and its formerly reusable SSMEs will burn up on reentry. In case you are wondering why they are throwing away the “reusable” SSME’s, there is a good reason. It was found that the “cost savings of reusability” attached to the SSMEs turned out to be a myth. Each and every time that an SSME was returned from a Shuttle flight, it was removed from the orbiter, disassembled, inspected, reassembled and reinstalled into the orbiter. The overhead cost it doing that turned out to be more than the cost of building a new, disposable version of the same engine. Although this inspection standard was required to maintain the high degree of safety involved in the Space Shuttle program, it more than negated any cost savings in the concept of “reusability.” Thus, the early SLS vehicles will use up the stock of reusable SSMEs (also known as RS-25D engines) and then transition into a semi-new and disposable version of the SSME, (the RS-25E) all of which will discarded in the launch process. In doing so the SLS program can actually operate with less overhead than the Shuttle.
Ground Support Equipment (GSE) for the SLS will make use of hardware left over from the Constellation program that was canceled by the Obama Administration, as well as facilities from the Shuttle program that was ended by the Bush Administration, plus facilities and equipment left over from the Apollo program that was canceled by the Nixon administration with the help of the Johnson administration. Thus, the facilities of Launch Complex 39 plus the VAB and Launch Control Center will all be pressed into service.

One of the Constellation contracts that was able to be completed before the Obama administration decided we did not need to go to the moon again because, as the President so snidely put it “Buzz (Aldrin) has already been there” was a mobile launcher. This launch platform and umbilical tower also known as an LUT is similar to those that rolled to the pad with the Saturn V. The difference, however, is that this LUT is made to be ultra light weight. The Apollo LUTs were constructed of steel “I” beams and built without weight considerations being a major limiting factor. This could be done because the Saturn V itself, when rolled to the pad, un-fueled, on its LUT weighed just over 502,000 pounds. The LUT itself weighed in at 10.6 million pounds. The result was that the crawler was designed to carry over 17 million pounds of load, including its own weight. A fully stacked Constellation heavy launch vehicle would weigh nearly five times more than the un-fueled Saturn V because the twin SRBs are always “loaded” and each weighs more than 1.4 million pounds. Thus, a new lightweight LUT had to be designed and constructed. Intended for the Ares I, that LUT was fully erected when President Obama canceled Constellation. Some in the media referred to it as “That B.W.M.: big waste of money” but the fact is that the LUT is simply a skeleton and has no vehicle specific workings installed- thus it can be adapted to another vehicle. Enter the SLS and what will be a new use for the Constellation LUT.

So, at this moment in time the SLS is ready and able to move ahead. And after having signed into law a launch system that he does not want, President Obama has used every tactic his administration can imagine to delay and block the actual production of the SLS vehicle and the implementation of the law that created it. The President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has refused to request funds for the vehicle, NASA’s politically appointed administrators have foot-dragged reports and plans required by the Congress while OMB required a protracted “independent” survey of the costs involved. When that survey did not show the inflated costs that the administration wanted to see, the report was tossed into a tar pit of the NASA Administrator’s office. Finally, information was “leaked” to the Wall Street Journal and the Orlando Sentinel stating that the SLS was found to cost about twice as much as planned and the White House had “sticker shock.” For Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill Nelson, that was the last straw. They finally marched into the offices where the delay tactics were originating and applied the needed pressure to get the program made public and get the SLS moving. Exactly what the pressure was and where it was applied is unknown, but the fact is that on September 14, 2011 the United States Congress may have, at least for the moment, rescued NASA’s human spaceflight program from strangulation by the Obama administration.

Sunday

I saw it comin'; August 15, 2009

I wrote this on August 15th, 2009- back when we still had a human spaceflight program, when we still had an operational Space Shuttle, when we still had a clear goal in space- the return to the moon and before tens of thousands of spaceflight workers had been put out of work by Obama when he canceled Constellation- this nation's return to the moon and put in place a plan to go to nowhere. Read this and see that I saw this guy comin' and I knew what he was going to do...


August 15, 2009

A big ol' plate of NASA to cancel


There are so many aspects and dynamics going on right now in the world of the DC vote grubs that no one knows what will be next, or in the future for anything. Frankly I think we'll be lucky if they don't change the flag to green with a red hammer and sickle and then have Obama come on the TV and declare himself president for life- because most of the media would simply go along with that. In reality, the party in power is rapidly ripping itself to shreds while the other party is trying to figure out where all of that ripping noise is coming from. Into all of that, the Augustine commission is about to slide, in front of the most liberal left wing President in American history, a great big platter of NASA all garnished with "Nothing fits any budget" sprinkled all over it... YUM! Sitting there with his knife in one fist, his fork in another and his red hammer and sickle bib covering his nice suit what will the President do with such morsel?

Take a wild freakin' guess. Go ahead- all of you space coast workers who voted for him after his shoot and scoot campaign stop at KSC and all of you aerospace workers who voted for him because the union said you should, and all of you NASA workers who had senator's Bill and Babs present him to ya'... come on... guess!

Anyone think that after quadrupling the national debt in just six months and taking heat for running the fiscal boat of the United States full speed onto the rocks, the President may just take this opportunity to fulfill one of his most chanted campaign slogans and make a "change?"

The media is already on board- as it was said today in the Orlando Slant-enal it is now up to the President "...to decide whether human space exploration is a worthy priority or an unaffordable luxury." OH BOY!... it is a left-wing liberal's dream come true! How better to take the last thing that the USA actually leads in- spaceflight- and gut it, thus bringing us closer to the liberal's goal of finally making us a third world nation!

And even if President Obama does not decide to gut and castrate NASA- there is the congress. The Health Care socialization movement is so damaging to the Democrats that they could lose more than 80 seats across both houses next year. That means that some bedrock NASA supporters may be out, and those who replace them will not be in the mode of increasing budgets of any agency. It is going to be cut, reduce and repeal in an attempt to pull back from the insane spending of our current one-party government.

So- the entire balance of United States human spaceflight now will be cast into the bee hive of indecision and CYA politics that is Washington DC. What will the President do? Lead? or vote "Present?" Perhaps he'll send us on a grand adventure to discover... EARTH! Ya' know- chase the left's global warming myth at the rate of a few billion bucks a year until he's thrown out of office. What will the headless chickens in the congress do? And even more important- what will the next batch of vote grubs who replace the current herd of wafflers do? Will they vote to allow our great garden of technology wilt on the vine- like they did four dechades ago? We can only watch.

Oddly, some at NASA are actually delighted at the prospect that project Constellation may be cancelled- because they feel it has been raiding money from the agency which will somehow find its way back to whatever they are personally working on. I fear they have a shock coming. In that embarrassingly inaccurate movie "The Right Stuff" there was a line that went "No bucks- no Buck Rogers." Of course the writers of that script, along with getting almost every other fact wrong, also got that quip wrong- the way it really works is No Buck Rogers- No Bucks. Without human spaceflight, NASA will fade into the federal background. Be careful what you wish for people- those who wished for the death of the Ares I, those who wished for the cancellation of Constellation, those who wished for an end to the shuttle program, those who wish for the end of the ISS, those who chanted for "Change" and those who wish for the end of NASA itself- you may all get what you want, and all at the same time. 

Thursday

The kind of kid KSC tour bus drivers hate.


Forty years ago today, February 7th, 1973 was THE most exciting day of my 15 years of life to that point. It was the day that I made my first journey to the Mecca of space-buffs; known to me then simply as "The Cape." It was a name that, to me, encompasses all of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Sure, there is a difference between the two places, but to a wide-eyed, space-crazed 15-year-old that place was just “The Cape.”

For nearly a year my folks had been planning and saving as they looked ahead toward a mid-winter vacation in Florida. Thanks to selling a lot of programs at events at the Saginaw Civic Center as well as working there as a Zamboni driver for his second job, plus mom’s employment in the concession stands and a windfall of life insurance from the passing of my paternal grandfather, we were able to buy a brand new 1973 Ford LTD station wagon and take our first family vacation since 1968. Florida was the destination, but to me the only target on the map was The Cape.

To people raised and residing in the north central and Great Lakes states, the word “Florida” invokes a sort of magic and images of basking in the warmth of the bright sunshine- escaping the cold and gray gloom… and that’s in September, it is even more so in the winter. Thus it was that on the fourth day of February, 1973, with our station wagon heavily packed we departed our driveway in Sheridan Park at 10:22 am headed for The Cape… which just happened to also be in Florida.

Following two days on the road and one day in Daytona Beach my parents probably grew tired of me scratching at the window and panting toward the south. At mid-day on February 7th we set out from Daytona for The Cape. I staked out a seat in the tailgate of the car so that I would have windows on three sides… just in case. That was probably a good position for me, because upon seeing the VAB in the distance across the Indian River from the 528 causeway , I was bouncing around like a superball in a paint-shaker. I could not wait to get to The Cape. Of course the rest of the family wanted to do nonsense such as eating and finding a hotel.

By the time that we were finally headed down the 405 toward the KSC visitor’s center I was wound up so tight that the seat cushion was close to becoming a permanent part of my butt. Before crossing the river we approached the building for press credentials and standing there was a full-scale mock up of a Mercury Redstone. My dad decided to pull over and stop. Looking back to tell me to get out and take a look, dad found that it was too late, I had bailed out before the car came to a complete stop. After some photos we were on our way once again and in short order we had parked at the visitor’s center. Again, I bailed out.

The visitor’s center at KSC was a far cry from what it is today. In 1973 the parking lot was fairly small and there were only a couple of small pole-barn sized buildings. There was also no charge for admission. Of course I blew directly into the first building… whoa! There on display sat the Apollo 7 command module and the Gemini 9 spacecraft! I was standing there in a daze when my mom rushed past and nabbed me by the sleeve.

“Come on,” she urged, “the last bus tour’s about to leave!”

We were the last persons on the last bus that Sunday and before I knew it we were wheeling through the security gate and into my version of wonderland. The bus tours in 1973 were not divided up into different tours of different areas of The Cape. Instead, it was a Grand Slam sort of tour that simply went everyplace. We cruised past the O&C building and office buildings. Me, the know-it-all kid informed my mom that “This is where the astronauts stay and then walk out.” A moment later, the bus driver said the same thing over the P.A. Then it was onto the NASA Parkway- and there, across the river, out of my window I could see the ITL! “Ma! There’s the Titan IIIC facility!” I half shouted, rapidly turning into the kind of kid that the tour bus drivers all hate. A second later, the bus driver announced that if everyone looked to their left they would see the Titan IIIC facility… the people seated near me were already looking as I explained how the vehicles were assembled, what they boosted on and that the core was similar to a Titan II, only it was called a Titan IIIA. The bus driver didn’t go into that much detail.

By the time we go onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, I was a bit ahead of the tour and those folks in the back of the bus near me knew that famed Project Mercury Hangar “S” was coming up. Then came the old Mercury Mission Control building and soon our first stop- which would be the place where the Mercury Redstones were fired, or as I put it more simply to my mom; the place where Alan Shepard was launched. Although the bus driver called it Launch Complex 5 and 6, the blockhouse and museum that we toured was actually Complex 26, A and B. In the “rocket garden” associated with the museum were all of the rockets that I knew so well. Mace, Bomarc, Polaris, Corporal, Snark- they were all there and they were real- not just tiny white plastic models. My mind boggled, yet too soon it was time to get back on the tour. Now we proceeded down the famed “ICBM Row.” The launch complexes for all of my favorite missions, Atlas Complex 14, Gemini Titan Complex 19 and finally Launch Complex 34 where all there. Complex 19 had its erector lowered, but its service tower was still standing; I snapped an out of focus photo. (For anyone wondering, the service towers at LC19 were demolished on My 30, 1977, the erector's skeletal remains are still there. The "White Room" was removed to the CCAFS Museum and today has been restored as a display.) Finally we stopped at Complex 34 where we again were allowed off the bus.

I don’t think my mouth had stopped for one second. My mom noticed that the people seated near me in the back of the were no longer listening to the bus driver, they were listening to me, the 15-year-old space geek. Not because I was loud, but because I actually knew what I was talking about. As we walked from the bus into the LC-34 blockhouse, I went from broadcast mode to record mode; because the driver was talking all about the blockhouse, and I did not know much about them. I soaked up every word. Once outside again, the driver talked about the Apollo 1 fire and told everyone that it had happened here. Then as we filed back toward the bus I told everyone about SA-1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as AS-201 and 202, which had also taken place at LC-43 and in my mind were pretty important as well.

Pressing on we headed for Launch Complex 39A. I pointed out the press site and the Mobile Service Structure, which was in its parking place next to the crawler way. Suddenly, I saw something along the roadside that I recognized, but no one else had apparently noticed; lunar rover tracks in the sand! Excitedly I pointed them out to my mom and, of course everyone seated nearby, “Look! Those are rover tracks! That’s where the Apollo 17 astronauts practiced driving the rover!” Mom was suddenly doubtful, “No…” the groaned, “I don’t think so.” I shot back, “I’d know ‘em anywhere, those are rover tracks!” Once again, the bus driver came over the P.A. and confirmed my sighting. Mom never doubted me again when it came to spaceflight.

Our final stop was the legendary VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building. For any space-buff, the VAB is pretty much the monolith that marks the center of the American spaceflight universe.  Now, I was finally going to not only see it, but actually go inside. Getting off the bus we all did what every first-time visitor does; we craned our necks until we nearly fell over backward and looked straight up the side. As we entered the transfer isle through the standard doorway on the north side I found that the VAB is so huge that it plays a trick on your brain. Your mind shrinks it down into proportions that you can handle. As a result, the massive openings into the high bays through which the launch vehicle stages are passed seem big, but not as large as they actually are. When the tour guide told us that those openings were as tall as a football field is wide- it simply boggled my mind. Another unexpected aspect of the inner VAB was the lattice of crossing I-beams and girders. I had always imagined it as being far more open and hangar-like but the only real open space was the transfer isle. The high bays are so filled with platforms and access workings that they completely hide the big launch vehicles until it is time to roll them out. In fact, as we stood in the transfer isle, directly to our right, at the other end of the VAB the fully stacked Skylab 2 Saturn IB was being prepared on its “milk stool” launch pedestal in high bay 1. Across the isle from it, in high bay 2 was the fully stacked Skylab 1 Saturn V on its mobile launcher. Additionally, there were two Saturn V S-II second stages in storage in the other high bays and as many as four S-IVB stages in storage in the low bays. We could not see a hint of any of them.

Leaving the VAB we headed back to the visitor’s center. As we passed the VAB on our way out I saw that they had the lower doors open on high bay 2 and you could see the base of the mobile launcher for Skylab 1! Grabbing my Instamatic camera I snapped a picture. It was one of the only photos that I took that day that actually came out in focus. It was not until decades later that I discovered that my visit to the VAB had come at the worst time. You see, just five days earlier the Skylab 2 vehicle had been rolled back to the VAB after having resided at Pad 39B since the 8th of September. And the vehicle was rolled back to the pad again just 19 days after I left! Additionally, the Skylab 1 Saturn V was rolled out to LC-39A on April 16th. So, over an eight month period, between September of 1972 and May of 1973 there had been a Saturn launch vehicle on one of the pads at LC-39, but I happened to visit there on one of the 24 days where there was nothing on the pads; just my luck.

We got back to the visitor’s center with just five minutes remaining before the gift shop closed. My dad gave me a pat on the shoulder and pointed to all of the space stuff for sale and simply said, “Just go!” This was my part of that two week vacation and now I had a mountain of space goodies and only 300 seconds to figure out what I wanted. My hands were not big enough. I nabbed books, patches, stickers, post cards and a Cashulette Saturn V model with its LUT. That night, in the hotel, I lay on the floor looking over my “stuff” smiling gleefully with my head still spinning. I even took the time to put the decals on my new Saturn V, the rest of the construction would have to wait until I got home and found my glue. The following day, my dad said that I had been cheated a bit in that we got to KSC so late that I did not have the chance to see the rocket garden at the visitor’s center and I had not really had time to “shop” in the gift store. So, before heading out to Disney World, we returned to the KSC visitor’s center once again and I gave my dad the guided tour of the rockets and hit the gift shop once more. My dad warned on the way out, “That’s it- do not expect to buy a lot of souvenirs at Disney.” I frowned and replied, “Like what?” Indeed, I had all I wanted.

Forty years later- almost to the day, I was once again on the KSC tour bus on my way to the VAB. For more than 30 years the VAB had been off-limits to tours because Shuttle SRB segments were being stored there. Now, with the end of the Shuttle program, tours are once again allowed- but only until the SRB segments for the new SLS launch vehicle begin arriving. Thus, on this year’s annual family outing to Disney I requested that we should take our kids and do the VAB tour. Much has changed since 1973, of course. Now the cost of a single ticket on the tour is more than the cost of taking the entire family back then. The cost of just getting through the gate into the visitor’s center is more for one person than I spent in my entire shopping spree on my first visit. Of course gas cost just 32 cents a gallon back then too. The launch vehicle that was being readied to be the Skylab rescue vehicle back in 1973 now rests in the rocket garden, badly in need of a paint job. And the VAB, stands empty- devoid of flight vehicles of any sort and having no firm idea as to when another launch vehicle will be stacked within it. It was somewhat sad to see it that way. As we left I snapped a single photo of the VAB to match the one I had taken four decades earlier.

Oddly, all along the tour, our guide talked about the Space Shuttle in present tense- as if it was still in operation. I showed my little girls where daddy goes to cover launches for the Aero News Network and we talked about the fantastic things that used to happen at KSC. When we got to the visitor’s center gift shop that Sunday night, we had just 10 minutes left before they closed. I thought of my dad, pointed my daughters toward all the stuff and said “Just Go!” So they did, but not nearly with the zeal of their father four decades earlier. My youngest one took me by the hand over to a series of shelves with boxed space toys on it. “I want that daddy,” she said, pointing her tiny finger toward a Saturn V, nearly the same size as my Cashulette model. Looking around at all of the stuffed toys and sparkly doo-dads and gizmos designed and packaged to catch a kid’s attention, I asked skeptically, “You want that?” “Yes,” she replied firmly, “it’s a Saturn V.”

Well I’ll be…

It must be genetic.