One Reason


On the fourth day of March, 2014 a barge arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Aboard that barge were two of the three Common Booster Cores, or “CBCs” that are to make up a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Unlike other Delta IV Heavy boosters, this one is slated to loft a payload that is very important to the future of United States human spaceflight; it is the first flight version of the Orion spacecraft. The arrival of the CBCs is considered to be a major step toward a mission called the Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 which will qualify the Orion’s space worthiness and reentry capability at lunar return velocity.

For those of you who may not recall, the Orion was supposed to be the replacement vehicle for the Space Shuttle. Additionally, it was supposed to be the manned spacecraft that would take us back to the Moon and then on to Mars under the Constellation Program. Although Constellation enjoyed wide support in the Congress, the Bush administration directed their Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to under-fund Constellation by an annual amount of approximately 3 billion dollars. This resulted in delays and soon a “gap” between the Shuttle and Constellation formed resulting in the United States having to rent seats on the Russian Soyuz until Constellation could get the Orion flying. That gap was projected to be from 2010 to 2017 when Barack Obama was elected as president, one of his campaign promises being that he would “close this gap” and “minimize reliance on foreign space capabilities” and that he would, “…expedite development of the Shuttle’s successor…” which was Orion and the Ares V heavy lift booster. Instead he did the opposite. He canceled all of Constellation, including Orion, and instead gave all of US human spaceflight over to “commercial” operators, most of which were start-up companies. In doing that he protracted the gap indefinitely and along with it he also protracted our reliance on the Russians indefinitely. The Congress, however, saw fit to step in and revive the Orion as well as the heavy lift capability in the form of the Space Launch System (SLS).

Now, in spite of the Obama administration, Orion is being developed to flight readiness. Its test booster will be the Delta IV Heavy and the launch is currently set for mid-December. To me, however, the successful flight of the EFT-1’s Delta IV Heavy booster brings to mind some other considerations.

Looking at EFT-1, I considered that in the United States our only access to space at this moment is aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicles upon which our Russian “partners” have been kind enough to lease us passage at an ever-increasing rate that will soon in a 70 million dollar, per seat rate. I also considered that if any of NASA’s other foreign partners, such as the Canadians, Italians, French, British and so on, want access to space aboard Soyuz, the American tax payers have to foot the bill at that same 70 million dollar per seat rate. Additionally I considered that given current events involving Russia and its expansion toward its former existence as the Soviet Union. What could that mean to our dependence on them to allow us access to the 100 billion dollar space station, about 80 billion of which was paid for by the use of United States tax dollars? Why didn’t we use the EFT-1 mission to man-rate Orion boosted by the Delta IV Heavy and then use that booster to remove the Russians from the American tax dollar gravy train?

Perhaps there is some technical reason why future NASA crews could not be boosted to the International Space Station (ISS) atop the Delta IV Heavy? Perhaps I am just not well enough acquainted with the Delta IV Heavy system to know why that booster cannot become NASA’s standard orbital booster for Orion.

Thus, I decided to contact a few of people working on the Delta IV Heavy and ask them a very simple question, “Is there any reason, technical or otherwise, why the EFT-1 could not have been used to man-rate the Delta IV Heavy as a booster for Orion?”

Each person that I spoke to, in different venues and at different times, gave me one, direct and simple answer as to what was the only reason why the Delta IV Heavy cannot be man-rated for boosting a crewed Orion.


You see, the Obama administration has dictated that all manned flights to the ISS will take place on “commercial” vehicles. In addition they have also set in motion the process of NASA having those “commercial” providers compete with one another to earn the right to do the job of flying NASA and foreign partner nation’s astronauts to the ISS. Currently, those providers have been narrowed down to SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing to provide the spacecraft with SpaceX being the only one with its own booster, the Falcon 9. This “commercial” concept was not invented by the Obama administration. It was a product of the Bush administration that was adopted by current administration. The difference being that the original concept was never intended to be America’s only access to space. That little lose end was quietly trimmed away by the Obama administration. Now, all of NASA’s human spaceflight eggs are in the “commercial” basket- like it or not.

Man-rating the Delta IV Heavy and pressing it into service as a booster for Orion and stepping up Orion’s flight readiness to meet a 2017 operational date, which I have been told is well within the realm of possibility, would not only cut the Russians off, but it would also take the new “commercial” providers out of the game- and the Obama administration would never allow that.

Do not get me wrong, I am not at all opposed to the concept of true commercial spaceflight. I even have my favorites in the running. Yet, “commercial” was supposed to close the gap because they were supposed to be more efficient, more innovative and less expensive. At this moment, they have demonstrated all three of those traits, yet the schedule for again taking US crews to the ISS aboard US vehicles launched from US soil by 2017 is now in doubt as it has moved farther to the right with the gap widening rather than closing. Why is this? The most commonly heard answer to that question is reductions in Federal funds due to shrinking space budgets and Continuing Resolutions. This, however, begs the question- if these providers are that dependant on tax dollars, are they really “commercial” as had been intended, or are they simply Federal contractors? It is a debate that will go on for many years to come as we await those first "commercial" flights with astronauts.

My concern here is what appears to be a possible onset of a new Cold War in which the chess playing Russians could castle the ISS by simply canceling the contracts for our citizens to ride aboard their vehicles. If that happened tomorrow, we would not only have no way to counter the move and send our own vehicles to the ISS, but we would also have no way to get those American astronauts currently aboard the station back to earth!

Think about it.

Even if the Russian do keep renting their Soyuz seats to us, the money spent on flying those astronauts to the ISS is not going to United States companies to be spent in the stores and businesses of America- $70 million per seat is going to Russian companies and businesses. Critics of the US space program have always cackled that we were wasting our tax dollars by sending them into space, when in fact those dollars went to pay American workers and their families and support American businesses- because there are no cash registers “in” space. Today, however, our tax dollars are going to Russia, where there are cash registers. Where are those same critics now?

All efforts should be taken right now to protect our 80 billion dollar asset, the ISS, and our access to it. That means an accelerated program to assure access. By adding a simple Emergency Detection System to the Delta IV Heavy, it will be man-rated. By lofting the Orion on the EFT-1 it could also have proven the system. A Delta IV Heavy could be launched every 120 days if needed. It is time to remove the Russians from the US taxpayer gravy train that we ourselves created. Of course, such would upset the Obama applecart.

Politics- indeed.



Sitting in the press room at the Kennedy Space Center and watching one of the four large flat-screen TV monitors, I found myself intently focused on the view being transmitted from the Orion spacecraft. The date was December 5th, 2014 and the unmanned Orion was coasting up-hill toward its orbital apogee of 3,602 miles above the Earth. Then, into view came an image of the crescent Earth. An unexpected chorus of amazement came from the reporters, “Whoa!”

Looking around the room I saw that the vast majority of reporters had their eyes locked on the TV monitors, as did all of the NASA and contractor personnel who were behind the information desk. Even the two astronauts who were present, Jack Fischer and Rex Walheim had their eyes locked on that image of the Earth. The room was otherwise silent. Looking back at the image it struck me that I had seen it before- on Apollos 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. I grew up with live TV showing the earth from great distances. For a moment I sat back and looking around the room I realized that only a hand full of us in the building had been around during Apollo. In fact I’m sure that of that crowd less than a half dozen had been old enough to follow Gemini and I know that only one person there had covered Mercury. No wonder this crowd was awe-struck.

Just over an hour later we were all watching live TV from the Ikhana drone aircraft as its camera tracked the descending Orion dropping back to Earth over the Pacific Ocean. This time I was also glued to the images and heard myself whispering, “Come on drogues, Come on drogues…” Suddenly the image switched to the Orion’s internal cameras again and through the rendezvous window we saw the two drogue chutes deploy. A cheer went up from the normally reserved press room followed by whistles and applause. It was something that I had never expected from that crowd. I held my exhilaration- the mains still needed to work.

For the longest minute and 23 seconds that I have experienced in recent years the Orion dropped on those drogues. During the descent NASA commentator Rob Navias proudly stated, “…there is your new spacecraft America.” Two seconds later the drogues let go and the main chute deployment began. As the mains un-reefed wild applause and cheering took place in the press room and this time I was included. The three parachutes, each being 116 feet in diameter, slowed the Orion down to a speed of about 20 miles per hour.

As the vehicle was slowly descending toward the water I noticed that, although the hardcore KSC spaceflight reporters were at their desks, a large gaggle of “other” reporters were beginning to gather and surround astronauts Jack Fischer and Rex Walheim who had been watching the descent like the rest of us. As a final cheer broke out when Mission Control called “splashdown!” the crowd set upon the astronauts in a frenzy of questions. Two soundmen with microphones on poles, one standing on the information counter, were holding them inside this doughnut of media as the frenzy went on. For quite a while the two astronauts were held in this circle before the crowd began to break up. About ten minutes later I strolled over to Fischer and Walheim who were still a bit dazed.

“I guess they all thought that was the best splashdown that you guys ever made,” I joked.

“That was weird,” Fischer smiled, “ they just came out of nowhere cameras and everything! I kept asking myself, do I have any food stuck to my chin or any bats in the cave?”

“I never saw that one comin’,” Walheim snickered.

We all had a good laugh as the local “news at six” type media and foreign press were quickly packing up and leaving.

The final event of the day was the post launch press conference. Those of us who were dedicated to getting the full story in detail gathered in the auditorium. As NASA’s William Gerstenmaier; associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Mark Geyer; Orion program manager, Mike Hause; of Lockheed Martin, and Rex Walheim; astronaut walked into the room they were surprised to be met by applause and cheers from the hardcore space press. Everyone on the panel was clearly surprised by the reaction of the press.

For the first time since STS-135, the final flight of the space shuttle, the public flocked in overwhelming number to KSC to watch a space launch. Some people have asked “Why all of the attention?” after all this was just an un-manned space vehicle on a simple two-orbit four and one half hour mission. The answer is that, in spite of what the spaceflight critics and the Obama administration may say, America is a spacefairing nation and we Americans are a spacefaring people; it is generational. We want NASA to launch astronauts, we want our astronauts to launch from American soil and we find it objectionable that our astronauts are forced to rent seats on Russian spacecraft while our own spacecraft are placed into museums. Private companies can do their best and may someday fly crews- an accomplishment that Americans will approve of, yet the American public will still want NASA to push the boundaries of space and launch our explorer astronauts.

Following the cancellation of Apollo just two years passed before the shuttle Enterprise was taken aloft by a Boeing 747 and released on a simple glide flight to the runway at Edwards Air Force Base. Yet throngs of Americans including celebrities and politicians flocked to Edwards just to get a glimpse of what was little more than a hallow engineering test article with working control surfaces and computers glide back to the ground in a five minute flight. Three and a half years after that as many as a million people lined the causeways, beaches and river banks around KSC to see the first real Space Shuttle launch. I was one of them and in spite of critics calling for the cancellation of the program and spreading the myth that using the money spent there would feed “all” of the hungry in America, the shuttle Columbia flew and we Americans cheered. We cheered because we are a spacefairing nation and a spacefaring people- it is a part of our way of life and no president with a pen can take that way from us. This week Orion flew into deep space and spacefairing Americans cheered- even those in the hardcore spaceflight media.

XPrize, ten years ago

Ten years ago this past weekend, SpaceShipOne made its final flight and won the coveted X-Prize; the date was October 4th, 2004. I was there, as a part of a three-man team on the “inside” covering the event for the Aero-News Network.

In mid September of that same year I was contacted by ANN’s editor-in-chief, Jim Campbell and invited to join the news team at Mojave, California for the X-Prize. At first I was torn on whether or not I should go. My daughter was just about ready to take her first steps and as a part of getting out of the cockpit and becoming a stay-at-home daddy, the deal was that I would not have to miss such events as that. When I told my wife about my dilemma, she, (being also an Embry-Riddle alumnus and in the aviation industry), reminded me that the flights for the X-Prize were not only singular in aviation history, but in spaceflight history as well. Then she gave a simple ultimatum, “If you don’t go, I will!” 

As a result I coached our baby girl like Scotty Bowman preparing for a Stanly Cup bid. She took her first steps the evening before I left for Mojave.

When Campbell first offered me the chance to cover X-Prize, he told me we would be “on the inside.” To which I asked myself, “how much on the inside?” To give all of you readers an idea of just how “inside” we were I will cite an event that took place just after the final flight. Every media outlet on the planet had suddenly discovered Mojave before that final flight and they came crowding in. There was a post-flight news conference that was being held in a room that could lawfully fit less than a third of those who wanted to cover the moment. Thus, X-Prize saw fit to limit access by issuing gold stars for those being allowed in, to stick to their badges. As Cambell, Kevin “Hognose” and myself, who were the ANN team, elbowed our way through the throng trying to get into the building, we heard the security lady at the doors saying repeatedly, “Only those with gold stars can get in!” Looking at our badges, we did not have any stinking gold stars. Campbell just said, “Don’t worry about it.” As we pushed through the door we gave a wave to the lady and simply went in. Behind us I heard some shouts of “Hey! Those guys don’t have gold stars!” To which she replied simply, “Those guys don’t need gold stars.” THAT is how “inside” ANN was at X-Prize.

Before the actual X-Prize flights there had been a good deal of publicity concerning the up-coming event. In one article there was a photo of Burt Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne, doing some zero-G flights with a teddy bear that was supposed to ride on the vehicle into space. “Why a teddy bear and not a Klyde Morris doll?” I asked publically. Shortly before I left for Mojave, I got the word, “Bring one.” So I brought three with me.

As the first flight of the two required to officially win the $10 million X-Prize taxied out, we had all left our crowded little “press room” to watch White Knight depart. I was in among the VIPs, Hognose was on the flight line taking pictures and Campbell was in the chase-plane; his was the only camera taking in-flight photos of that event. X-Prize had arranged for a huge jumbotron-like bill board to be set up where everyone in the crowd could watch the on-board and long-range TV images of the two vehicles in flight, so I was pretty occupied just watching.

Just before SpaceShipOne’s release I spotted then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe standing with a group of three pilots from DFRC. I had been lampooning O’Keefe in the cartoon strip fairly frequently in months past, so I just walked over and introduced myself. Of course he had indeed read some of the cartoons and I asked if he had read the latest, and drew his attention to the September 9th cartoon which was about his predecessor Dan Goldin. Mr. O”Keefe said he had not seen that one and motioned to his administrative assistant to bring over her laptop. In just a few minutes he had the cartoon up, read it and gave out a large laugh. His assistant rolled her eyes and sarcastically said, “Thank you, now when we get back he’s gonna be sitting around reading these all the time.” Pointing his finger at me, Mr. O’Keefe, with a touch of satisfaction, said, “You know, we’re getting real close to the shuttle’s return to flight.” I told him that I was closely watching.

Just about then White Knight released SpaceShipOne, the engine ignited and test pilot Mike Mike Melvill pointed her nose toward space. We all kept switching our attention between the billboard TV and the rapidly departing contrail in the morning desert sky above us. Melvill had become the world’s first corporate pilot astronaut back on June 21st and now he was on his way toward reaching space again. But, as SpaceShipOne got into the thinnest of atmospheric layers the vehicle went into an uncommanded roll. I stood there thinking that this was not good and the other pilots around me were thinking the same thing. Then, Mr. O’Keefe asked aloud, “Is it supposed to do that?” In harmony, all of us pilots standing around him barked “NO!”

The ever-cool Melvill realized that this roll, although odd, was not going to damage the airframe. He was high enough that any aerodynamic forces were nearly nill, so he just let the vehicle roll. At engine shutdown he recovered control and entered space for the second time. Upon landing the crowd celebrated and following a full-house press conference the members of the media took the non-answers, answers that Scaled Composites, the makers of SpaceShipOne, had to offer and then the news media simply left. Likewise, the entire staff of X-Prize also simply packed up and split . The three of us from ANN were all who remained behind.

SpaceShipOne was locked away in its hangar and was deemed as “Off Limits.” This was the first time that our ANN crew was kept out as well. Not a word got out as to what had caused the uncommanded roll. It was considered to be proprietary information held by Scaled. It was also a good taste of what private spaceflight would be like compared to NASA spaceflight. When NASA has a problem, they are required to release the details to the public, normally by way of the news media. When a private company has a problem, they can simply lock it away behind the company ‘s gate. It is a message for those of you rooting for all spaceflight to be private.

Following that first flight we dutifully showed up in the press room each day. The building that once was teeming with X-Prize people was ghostly quiet and nearly as empty as the desert surrounding it. Two days after the flight two NASA engineers from DFRC showed up with a box full of VHS tapes and they were looking for someone, anyone, from X-Prize. Eventually they stumbled into our pressroom where Hognoze and I were writing our daily pieces for ANN. We explained that all of the X-Prize people had gone back to L.A. They said that the box contained the video and telemetry that proved that SpaceShipOne had actually crossed the official boundary into space. I could not believe it, here was the proof needed to help win the $10 million X-Prize, and X-Prize had not bothered to leave anyone there to collect it!

Hognoze and I said that we would be happy to take charge of the box, but the guys from DFRC were wise enough to see that we were only kidding. They too were astounded that no one from X-Prize was there to get the evidence. In fact, the only phone number that the engineers had for X-Prize ended up ringing a phone in one of the abandon offices down the hall. It was a good lesson in how X-Prize was being managed. The DFRC team left and we told them that if anyone from X-Prize showed up during the week, we would let them know where the $10 million box went. No one showed up.

During our stay at the Mojave airport, I managed to drop in on some of my cartoon’s fans at Xcor. They too were working on a sub-orbital spaceplane and they happily gave Hognoze and I the grand tour of their facility. Later they had a big hangar party and we were invited back to meet some of their amazing staff and eat some of the best food we had eaten all week.

October 3rd and it was the night before the second flight in SpaceShipOne’s attempt to win the X-Prize. Our ANN team was now joined by other media in the pressroom; we were all working toward the next day’s story. Sometime late in the evening, the lady in charge of X-Prize public relations poked her head into the door and motioned for Campbell to join her in the hallway. He returned a moment later and said to me “Get the doll.” Reaching into my bag I nabbed the Klyde Morris plush doll that I had specially marked for the flight. He handed it to her and she said to me, “This could still get bumped for weight. We won’t know until tomorrow when it taxies out.” That was fine with me!

On the morning of the big flight, I was assigned to be in the control tower. As I was walking out toward the tower in the pre-dawn darkness, my cell phone rang. It was Campbell, “I just go the word,” he said, “Klyde is onboard.” I was delighted and quickly called and passed the good news onto my wife in Washington DC and my folks back in Michigan who were watching the event on TV.

From that point on I could not really lose. If the flight went as planned, I would get Klyde back as a real space artifact. If things went REALLY wrong, however, Pete, a friend of mine from college who lived near Mojve and is the ultimate tin-kicker, promised me that he would at least recover some bits and pieces of Klyde from the crash site. I told him that such was fine with me as long as there wasn’t any of Brian Binnie, who was the pilot of SpaceShipOne on this flight, mixed in.

This time as SpaceShipOne  and White Knight rolled to the runway, their chase plane was absent of Jim Campbell and his camera. He had been bumped from the aircraft to make room for Sir Richard Branson and a couple of his hangers-on. You see now SpaceShipOne had the name “Virgin” scrolled onto its tail. Yes after all of the heavy lifting and development had been done, Sir Richard stepped in bought the show. Now, there would be no historic photographs of that  launch, just because Campbell's seat was demanded by Sir Richard. Along with him, like all of the music industry high rollers, came not only staff, but hangers-on; one of which had bright orange hair. As he, or perhaps I should say “it” walked around the ramp I thought to myself that with hair like that at least no aircraft would accidentally fly into him.

Winning the X-Prize would require a flawless flight of SpaceShipOne, and that is exactly what Brian Binnie gave us. As the TV showed the onboard video of SpaceShipOne’s engine igniting, my Mom shouted at their TV, “Hang on Klyde!” It was a perfect ascent and a precise descent to a $10 million landing. In the press conference that followed the mission there were speeches that pointed toward a bright future. Following SpaceShipOne would come the Branson-sponsored SpaceShipTwo that Sir Richard himself stated would be carrying the rich and famous into sub-orbital space in less than a half dozen years. Out on the field the vendors of space were taking down their displays where they were huckstering orbital hotels, lunar resorts and everything else in space that none of us on the ground at Mojave, aside from Sir Richard and a few Internet billionaires could ever afford. Still, it was a wonderful and upward looking day. The future in space, it would seem, was very bright.

After the presser, the X-Prize folks held a huge hangar party. Of course Sir Richard and his old and new hangers-on were somewhere else sipping champagne from a slipper. Yet we aviation commoners were gathered at folding tables eating great food and deserts from paper plates. The most outstanding exception to this division of the commercial space classes was Anousheh Ansari. She avoided the posh billionaire’s event to be with us aviators and space-buffs. Seated at a table not far from where Pete, Hognose and myself had roosted she was flanked by her female staff. The absolute quintessence of grace and dignity she appeared to actually feel at home there in the hangar. It was an injection of Ansari funding that had pulled the X-Prize foundation from some very hard times just before the first runs of SpaceShipOne. Had it not been for her and her personal vision of spaceflight, we may not have been celebrating.

After we finished eating I noticed that Hognoze was gazing over at Mrs. Ansari’s table.
“What are you lookin’ at?” I half snarled at Hognoze.
“Look at all of those gorgeous Mediterranean women,” he sighed, exhausted with his chin on the table, “I think one of ‘em keeps lookin’ at me.”
Looking over at the Ansari table, I looked back at Hognoze,
“Anousheh Ansari is married buckaroo, and he’s a lot more handsom than you or me,” I told him.
“No, not her,” Hognoze dreamed on, “one of the other ones.”
I just looked into my plate, scooped up the last of my beans and gave Hognoze a dose of reality,
“She just wants to take you home with her and turn you into her big fat eunuch slave so you can stand next to her sofa, feed her grapes and fan her with a giant feather.”
“Ya’ know,” Hognoze rubbed his unshaven chin and pondered, “if it wasn’t for the eunuch part… that might not be so bad.”

Of course now here we are a full decade after that amazing day that was supposed to kick off the era of pure commercial spaceflight, and what have we to show for it so far? Sir Richard’s Virgin Galactic has constructed their passenger version of SpaceShipOne, sold reservations and even constructed a huge carrier aircraft from which to launch. Yet, technical difficulties and delays have kept it from carrying any paying passengers as of this writing. So we now have a SpaceShipNone. SpaceShipOne itself hangs in the Smithsonian as tourists walk past. I recently heard a small boy ask his daddy “What’s that?” as they strolled by it, and the daddy replied, “Some kind of rocketplane,” while they simply walked away. Other commercial space ventures such as the orbital hotels, lunar colonies and earth-bound simulated lunar resorts have so far simply faded into the pay-someone-to-lecture-about-it circuit.

Meanwhile, the dream of “commercial” spaceflight was been twisted into a hand full of up-start and heritage companies reaching out for huge NASA contracts to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station and run supply ships up and down. I recall that after the first time that Mike Melvill returned SpaceShipOne from its venture into space, he stood atop the vehicle facing the welcome home crowd. As they cheered someone ran out of the crowd and handed him a huge sign that Mike raised over his head; it read “SpaceShipOne, Government None.” That was what commercial space was intended to be all about. Now, companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing call themselves “commercial” yet scream if they do not get enough funding from NASA. They say that they simply cannot operate without those millions of tax payer dollars. They are little more than government contractors in a “commercial spaceflight” wrapper. The degradation of the ideal of “commercial spaceflight” makes Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne flights look like little more than a$10 million dollar stunt.

As someone who was there and watched it happen, I ask myself, was the X-Prize the seed for a huge technical jump into pure commercial spaceflight, or was it simply a circus stunt with a highly educated audience? Of course the folks at Scaled Composites got their rightful $10 milliom prize, space-buffs got some hope toward a huckstered bright future. I, personally got to witness a bit of history and I eventually got my Klyde doll back from the folks at X-Prize. Oddly, he was scheduled to be on display at the Daytona campus of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, (of which I am an alumnus) where he would reside in the administration building in a glass case along with a SpaceShipOne model. Just a few weeks before I was supposed to ship the doll off to Daytona, a freak December tornado ripped across the campus and destroyed the building! Klyde now sits safely here in my office.



On May 29th, 2014 Elon Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX called the attention of the spaceflight community to the stage where he was to unveil the Dragon Version 2 spacecraft. It was a show that could hardly be matched by the best James Bond movie-maker; dramatically lit, smoke effects and a dazzling  spacecraft, revealed as the curtain seemed to vanish magically! There was also a computer-animated video depicting a typical mission of Dv2 with special emphasis placed on its propulsive landing system.

“Now that’s the way a 21st Century spaceship should land,” Musk stated firmly.
Later Musk climbed aboard the Dv2 and demonstrated the huge flat-screen control panel, roomy cabin and sports car seating.

This was the unveiling of an innovative, game-changing spacecraft of the future that every space geek in the world dreams about… and it does not get us one step closer, one day sooner to again launching US astronauts from US soil.

Do not get me wrong, I am all for SpaceX, I think that the Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon spacecraft are amazing. I even have a Falcon 9 golf shirt, SpaceX pens, first-flight patch and a Dragon C1 patch as well as Dragon wallet made of recycled material. I truly want to see a Dragon spacecraft flying astronauts to and from space as soon as possible. I even think that Musk is a really cool guy, especially because he flies around in a Falcon Jet aircraft. Still, however, the glitz of the Dv2 unveil gave me some thoughts and concerns outside of waving the “Go SpaceX” pennant.

One of the promises of NASA’s “commercial” crew program, in which SpaceX is a major contender, is that the program will, as soon as possible, relieve United States astronauts from their dependence on the Russian Soyuz in order to get to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Recent political tensions with the Russian government have brought to light a simple aspect of that relationship that some of us considered a half dozen years ago, yet most in the spaceflight community simply did not want to think about; the Russians can now cut off all US access to the ISS at will. This has added an undercurrent of urgency to the “commercial” human spaceflight effort and it is now apparent that we, as a nation, need the three “commercial” spaceflight companies to move ahead at their best speed. Let us all keep in mind that America’s investment in the ISS is in the neighborhood of $80 Billion.

Leading the pack among the “commercial” spaceflight providers has always been SpaceX. Their Falcon 9 booster is rapidly building a reliability record and their Dragon spacecraft is making flights to and from the ISS with ocean splashdowns handled simply and inexpensively. Yet, on March 18th of 2010, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell testified before Senate committee for Assessing Commercial Space Capabilities and stated that SpaceX would reduce the time needed for Dragon to become a man-rated orbital vehicle because the Dragon, (version 1,) had been designed “from the beginning” to be a manned vehicle. Also, knowing full well that the Dragon would initiate its orbital flying in December of 2010, she told the committee, flatly, that SpaceX could fly astronauts to the ISS in “three years after we initiate." This took the other witnesses giving testimony in that same Congressional hearing quite by surprise- because they had just stated it would take them four to seven years to accomplish the same feat. As of this writing it has been four and one half years after SpaceX "initiated" Dragon's orbital flights and they are no where near flying astronauts. The schedule that SpaceX gave to the Congress at that same time showed that their Dragon spacecraft would be making its 14th cargo resupply flight to the ISS in the beginning of 2014. Thus, many in the spaceflight community saw SpaceX as the basket into which NASA should place all of its eggs.

SpaceX has lagged far behind in their projected abilities as testified to the Congress. It has been four years since Shotwell gave that ambitious statement about flying crews and they are nowhere close to actually lofting astronauts. Additionally, the Dragon spacecraft had made just three cargo re-supply flights to the ISS by the beginning of 2014, instead of the projected 14. The only claim that SpaceX made to that session of Congress that seems to have held up is the fact that the version 1 of Dragon was designed from the start to be man-rated, yet we now have a version 2 of Dragon proposed as SpaceX’s manned vehicle.

My main question here would be that since the United States is looking to fly US crews aboard US vehicles as soon as possible and “commercial” providers are supposed to have that as a part of their mission, would it not be better for our nation if SpaceX had unveiled a fully flight capable version 1 Dragon rather than a glitzy prototype of something that has not flown and probably will not fly anytime soon?

The propulsive landing system alone on the Dv2 is going to require extensive flight testing in all sorts of failure modes. Yes, I know that if two go out it can still land safely. What about other modes? If the vehicle is tumbling through the upper atmosphere can the system recover- completely, to the ground. Yes, I know they are retaining the parachute back-up. What about the dead zone, when the vehicle is too low for the chutes to deploy but still high enough to kill the crew on impact? How reliable will the new system of super draco motors be after having been in space for the longest period time that the Dv2 is expected to be on-orbit? How about longer than that? And these are just a very few of the off-the-cuff areas that will need to be flight tested on just the innovative recovery system alone. When you throw in all of the other areas that will need to be flight tested on this new vehicle, and make no mistake- this IS a totally new vehicle even though it carries the moniker of “Dragon” on its side, how many years before it can fly with NASA astronauts and civilian scientists aboard?

My guess would be that if SpaceX is determined to use the Dv2 as its human spaceflight vehicle, it will likely be hung up in testing until 2018 or 2019. Of course I disregard SpaceX’s predictions as to the flight date. As proof I will point to the claims made in front of the Congress. Their “two years” were up more than a year ago, they made their third resupply to the ISS in 2014 rather than their 14th and even their big unveiling show for Dv2 started 22 minutes late. “On-time, on-date” is a question when it comes to SpaceX.

As a fan of SpaceX and as a manned spaceflight historian what I would like to see happen is for them to fly crews to the ISS aboard flight-proven vehicles as soon as possible. Instead what I am seeing is someone’s fanciful mock-up of Fireball XL5. Again I know that Musk has stated that what he unveiled that night is a flight article. But, I ask myself, “flight?” “When?”

Back in 1969 I got a record with the sounds of spaceflight on it. I played it a zillion times. It was narrated by Frank Borman, who had then recently commanded Apollo 8 around the Moon. That recording always ended with Borman asking the rhetorical question, “…from here, where might we not go.” Looking at the Dv2 on the stage the night of the unveiling, I asked myself the same question- with the emphasis on the word “NOT.”



On the first day of June, 2014, Great Lakes maritime history suffered a great loss. Two days later I learned about this sad event by way of the web site. The event was the death of a reclusive collector of all thing Great Lakes vessel-related who tried to wear the disguise of a crotchety, grumpy old man- his name was Ralph K. Roberts and I was privileged to call him my friend.

I first met Ralph at a maritime Festival in Port Huron Michigan back in the mid-1990s. At the time I was busy signing books when one of the other authors leaned over and gave me a nudge.

"You see that guy over there," he said quietly, pointing toward a gray-haired man in the crowd, "he is THE guy when it comes to photos. That's Ralph Roberts."

After visiting a number of the other tables eventually Ralph found his way to my table. He was quiet and relatively standoffish as he thumbed through my books. Eventually we got talking about sources for photos and Ralph opened up a little bit when we discussed working with certain collections and assorted maritime museums. He began educating me on the ins and outs and who to talk to and who not to talk to. Eventually Ralph offered to give me his contact information. I opened up my little black book in which I kept names and addresses of everybody I met who could possibly help me with my writing, found a spot in the middle of the page and wrote in Ralph's address and phone number. Ralph pointed toward the phone number and said, "Make a note there to don't call often." I dutifully penned in exactly that note.

At some point Ralph asked if writing was what I did for a living. I informed him “no” that it was not my primary job as I was an airline pilot by profession. Suddenly Ralph's demeanor changed. He asked if I had ever flown at Tri-City Airport? I replied that my parent’s house was right off the end of runway 5 and I had worked at the airport as a Falcon Jet mechanic under the shop certificate while working my way through college. Ralph's eyes grew big.

"Do you know Russ Purchase?" He asked as if testing me.

"I took my private pilot checkride with Russ," I replied.

Then he asked me if I knew Bill the airframe inspector?

"Bill taught me how to rivet," I replied.

Suddenly Ralph Roberts and I had common ground as it turned out that Ralph held a airframe and powerplant certificate from the FAA and was not only a good mechanic, but was also an expert in fabric covered aircraft. Our entire conversation switched from Great Lakes maritime history to aviation. As it turned out we knew a lot of the same people in the aviation business in the mid-Michigan region. I saw a complete transformation in this person who was the enigma named Ralph Roberts. He smiled, we laughed, and we talked aviation. Pretty soon however it became clear that I had other people standing in line waiting for books to be signed and Ralph decided to move long. Just before he walked away he pointed once again to where I had written his name and address in my black book and the area where it said, "don't call often."

"Never mind that," he said, "you can call me as often as ya’ like."

A few months later I was in the Saginaw area doing some research and I gave Ralph a call. As soon as he heard that I was actually in the area, he asked me to come on over and visit. I asked for was okay if my brother came along?

"Is he a pain in the ass?" Ralph asked.

I replied that my brother was okay.

"Alright," Ralph sighed, "you just keep an eye on him."

That was typical Ralph.

His house was a spotless cozy little place on the west side of Saginaw. The room where Ralph had established his "office" was a small bedroom in the house. On one wall was a series of steel shelves that ran the length of the room from floor to ceiling which were absolutely packed with 4 inch wide black binders. These were Ralph's photos and when he pulled one of those binders out of place it was so packed with pictures that the cover sprang open. It was jaw-dropping and your first impression was to gasp "wow."

I began telling him that I was working on a story about the shipwreck of the OAKLAND and that no photographs of the steamer existed.

"Oh don't go sayin’ that," he said quietly as he reached for one of the binders.

Thumbing through the binder a bit he stopped at one page and there was the single existing photograph of the OAKLAND.

As we went through his photos that day we came upon a picture of the steamer ANDASTE. I commented that was a great shot of the ANDASTE and I had never before seen it from that angle.

"What was her sister ship?" Ralph asked quietly.

"The CHOCTAW," I responded reflexively.

"How can you tell the two apart?" Ralph quickly fired back.

"The ANDASTE had three windows in the front of her pilothouse," I answered again reflexively, "and the CHOCTAW
had four."

Ralph just gave a smirk, closed at book of photos and returned it to the shelf. It took a few seconds for what had just happened to sink in to me. Then I looked over at Ralph, put my hands on my hips and said,

"You just tested me you old fart! Didn’t ya’?”

Ralph simply smiled.

That day I brought Ralph a copy of each of my books and then autograph them for him. They went immediately into his collection and I'm not sure if he ever really read them. That's the way it goes with "collectors" if you want to visit them, see their collection, talk about their collection and be welcome to return you must take something in tribute.

As the years went by Ralph and I often exchange letters, he sent me stacks of photographs and when I was in the Saginaw area I tried to make a point to visit. Those were near magical times when we would sit in that cramped little office with a jewelers loop and study the details of old photographs. Ralph also had a brain full of true stories about people that he knew who had worked Great Lakes. I had occasion to work his stories into my books. He knew captains of vessels and people who had made a career working the lakes.

As time went by we both got older and Ralph even admitted that he was starting to, "slip a bit." On one occasion I was talking to him about my latest book.

"When are you gonna send me the damn thing." Ralph goaded.

Looking over his shoulder I saw that I had sent him the book it was on the shelf right behind him. I stood up took the book off the shelf and said, “here it is!”

"Get the hell otta’ here smart ass." He snarled with a grin.

Along the road of being an author you get the chance to meet a lot of traffic people. Ralph Roberts was someone that I was always proud to boast as being my friend. Now Ralph is gone at the ripe old age of 88 and I cannot help but think that although he assured me, many years ago, that his collection would be very well taken care of, still the Great Lakes maritime community has now lost someone special.

I am also sure that somewhere in the great beyond Ralph is watching as I write this and grumbling that he is going to kick my ass for doing it. To that I reply, "tough rocks ya’ old fart.”


A word about today's cartoon strip...

A word about today’s cartoon strip…

Last night as I was drawing the strip, my little 6-year-old daughter came up the stairs behind me and quietly walked up by my elbow. The kids know not to pester daddy while he’s cartooning, but she came to ask if I would help her get ready for bed.

“Sure,” I replied, “as soon as I finish this one little thing.”

I was editing the text and I saw that she was standing there watching and reading the frame over my shoulder. For a moment she diddled with her tiny fingers and then meekly pointed at the computer screen.

“You see those three dots,” she said softly and indicating the spot where I had just inserted an ellipse at the end of the bubble’s text, “you should put three dots up there too at the end of the word “Well.” That will make it sound better.”

I looked at it for a second and then back into those huge brown eyes and said, “Okay, we’ll do it.”

With that I replaced the comma after the word “Well” with an ellipse.

 Danm if it didn’t read better.

“Ya’ see,” she explained softly, “it’s better.”

“Yer’ right sweetie,” I told her, “It is better. You just helped daddy write his cartoon strip.”

She took a small step back and looking at the monitor her eyes grew wide and sparkled as she smiled with a thrill.

“I never did anything like that before!” she chirped, “Let’s go tell mommy!”

Hand-in-hand we hurried downstairs to give mommy the news.

I’ve drawn cartoons for all sorts of reasons with countless meanings. Sometimes they only crack me up, sometimes I think they suck but other folks like ‘em, sometimes I make a profound point and sometimes I just take what my wife calls “that cartoon enema” and they come out just to meet a deadline. Today’s may not seem too special to most of you out there, but it is a very special cartoon for me, because it has my special helper’s ellipse in it to make it better.


Me and N989B

(January 25, 2014)
Exactly 30 years ago today I did something that was better for my flying skills than any lesson I had ever taken- I took my first flight in N989B.

"So what?" you may ask. The answer to that question can be found in the back-story of me and 989B.

1982 had sucked for me, I was working at the Daytona Kmart and was spinning my wheels financially while I tried to pay off my bill at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and get back into school. Living in a house with roommates who were often short of cash (until it came time to buy their pot, of course- then they had plenty of cash), I often ended up taking what money I should have sent to the university and using it to make-up the difference between our “house” having the power or lights shut off and keeping them on. 1983 was shaping up to suck worse until I moved back to Michigan to live out of my folks basement and work and save and actually pay down my account at school. By January of 84 I was laid-off from my job in Michigan and looking for work in a state ravaged by Jimmy Carter’s recession. To make matters worse, I had not touched an aircraft in two years. Depressed, I contemplated climbing onto an ice-flow on Saginaw Bay and just floating away.

Then my younger brother interrupted my consideration of a short cruise on an ice cake. He worked as a line boy at Tri City airport which was nearly in our back yard and said that there was a guy who flew night cargo in an old Beech 18 and that same guy sometimes took people on his trips as a poor-man’s autopilot. My bro. suggested that it may do me some good to go flying with the guy. Of course I knew that flying night cargo in the Michigan winter was rough and that Beech 18s could be pilot-eaters, so I figured- “Hey, it beats an ice-flow.”

That same evening I went over to Hangar 6 and met Tom, the Beech 18 captain. He said he’d be happy to take me along “once in a while” provided that, “the ice was not too bad.” I asked, “How ‘bout tomorrow?” and he told me what time to show up and to wear something warm.

On the evening of January 25th, 1984 I showed up at Hangar 6 once again, and I was dressed warm. Tom greeted me and we walked around the aircraft and talked as he pre-flighted. He had no idea that I had been training at ERAU and seemed much more comfortable once that information came out. Apparently, unlike some other folks that he had taken along on flights, at least I knew my way around an aircraft. Before long my brother showed up, opened the hangar door and tugged 989B out onto the ramp where the Emery Airfreight van was waiting. We hustled the boxes aboard, stretched a net over them and I had to climb over top of the pile to get to my seat in the cockpit.

If you want to retain a shred of your hearing while flying a Beech 18 you need to stuff foamy ear-plugs into your ears and then clamp a David Clark ear-cup headset. Tom had me read the checklist as he started the Pratt & Whitney R985 radial engines. Then we taxied out and blasted off as Ace Air flight 721. Climbing to altitude the night was so clear that you could see the airport beacons almost all of the way to our destination, Dayton, Ohio. 989B was built in 1962 and started its career flying people rather than boxes. At least one person on the field told me that it had been a corporate aircraft, but now she had cargo doors in her side and worked hauling freight for Ace Air, a Cleveland based cargo feeder for Emery. The route was from Saginaw, Michigan to Dayton, Ohio and back every weeknight.

Tom and I chatted over the intercom and he found out more and more about my flying experience. Then he offered to let me, “fly her” for a while. Considering the aircraft and its load, as well as those big radial engines I expected her to be heavy on the controls- I was wrong. Instead, flying 989B, for me- then a Cessna 172 pilot, was very much like trying to balance a broom horizontally in the palm of your hand… while standing on a bowling ball… on top of a beach ball… while riding an escalator. It was nearly impossible to get it steady, the instruments started swimming, my fancy “instrument scanning pattern” went straight to shit and it seemed as if I had never flown instruments before. My basic attitude instrument training from ERAU simply did not seem to work. Tom just smiled and said, “We’ll work on it.”

Landing at Dayton we taxied to the completely empty expanse that was the Emery freight ramp. Tom explained that he was always the first aircraft to arrive; it was scheduled that way. We were met by the ramp agent and although we were about 60 feet from the terminal door, we had to wait for a bus to take us there. The bus than drove a quarter mile route that ended up taking us right back to the terminal door. I remarked that that was a bit silly and Tom assured me that in a few hours it would all make sense. We adjourned to the crew lounge where there were a score of recliner seats and a couch. Tom flopped on the couch and told me to catch some sleep. Picking a recliner I eased it back, pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes and proceeded to beat myself up for not being able to stabilize that aircraft- it was just after 11:00 pm.

Through the night Emery pilots came in and flopped as each tried to grab some sleep. Outside the constant whine of jet engines beat at the walls making it clear that a lot of aircraft were gathering on the ramp. Then, at about 4:20 am it seemed like everyone’s watch alarm went off at once. Pilots jumped up and headed out, Tom and I included. Walking out of the terminal I was astounded. The ramp was packed with cargo aircraft of every sort, 727s, DC-8s, DC-7s, 580s, 404s, and every inch of the ramp was full of activity moving boxes and containers. Again we had to wait for the bus to drive us that 60 feet to the 989B, but this time it was not silly to me, it made sense because it kept us from being run over by the crews moving the boxes! “Ya’ see.” Tom quipped. Oh yeah, I saw.

Since Tom had me working the radios on the way down, I asked if he wanted me to get the clearance and he said “Okay.” At least I could do that part without looking like a pre-solo student pilot. On the return leg to Saginaw we were Ace Air flight 722 and again Tom let me take the controls and again 989B kicked my ass. After we landed and taxied to the ramp outside of Hangar 6 we were met by the Emery “pick-up” van and its driver. Tom asked how I liked the flight and I remarked that the bird was a handful and really kicked my butt. “Don’t worry about it,” he smiled and then asked if I wanted to go again. I said “SURE!” Tom smirked and said, “You can fly with me anytime, no matter the ice,” then he added, “come on out a half hour earlier tonight and I’ll teach you how to preflight her.”

In the nights ahead I learned how to properly preflight an 18, including a case of oil, WD40 on the bicycle chain that ran from the main gear to tail wheel and all of that stuff. In fact after a few “supervised” pre-flights, Tom started showing up just in time to check the load and depart- trusting the pre-flight and loading to me. I learned how to lean the engines in flight by looking for that stiletto-blue exhaust flame; once you see it, you never forget it. I learned that the brakes have a shuttle valve in the system so if one pilot is on the brakes, the other pilot’s brakes are useless and I learned how to correctly do the weight and balance.

From my second flight on, Tom had me flying nearly all of the time and he stayed right on me every second. He wanted me to get my instrument work nailed and every time I let 989B squiggle out of line I heard about it. He wasn’t bitchy or commanding, he would simply say “watch” this, “watch” that and keep me on my toes. Every night that I flew that machine I told myself, “Tonight I’m gonna get it perfect” and 989B would always dash my hopes. Then came the night that on the way to Dayton I was working my ass off and I finally had 989B totally under constant control. The secret I found was that there was no instrument scan “pattern” that could be used, you simply had to take in the entire panel all at once and watch the whole thing. Nearly an hour went by and Tom said not a word.

“I must really be impressing him.” I thought to myself.

Then I decided to steal a glance over and see how impressed he was. Tom had his head back and was snoring his ass off.

Terrific… I finally mastered the damned aircraft, and he slept through it!

Of course, the Beech 18 will always have one aspect of its operation that I never did master. I could never, I repeat- NEVER, got the hang of doing the taxi. To this day, I can taxi airliners and corporate jets, but I cannot taxi a Beech 18.

Tom and I flew together off and on into the month of March. We loaded a lot of odd stuff and flew it Dayton- the strangest being a giant gear for a draw bridge. We had a lot of fun as well. Once we had boxes stacked nearly to the roof and as I was pinning down the net Tom slammed the side door shut and shouted, “See ya’ in Dayton!” I spent a good deal of time clawing my way forward to the cockpit that night. Eventually Tom got hired by a corporate operation on the field flying Falcon Jets and that ended my days as his poor-man’s autopilot. I was gratified, however, to have the fellow who owned Ace Air tell me that if I had my commercial certificate he would have trained and hired me to replace Tom. Unfortunately, I had a lot of ERAU ahead of me before I could do that. Instead I settled for a new job in a local hardware store and managed to pay off the university and get back in just five months later.

What I did not realize until years after my nights fighting with 989B was that what it and Tom had done for me was to sharpen and highly smooth my skills in flying. When I entered the advanced multi-engine flight phase at Embry-Riddle, the Cessna T-303 Crusader was a kitten compared to the 18. My instructor for two of my three courses in the T-303 was a former Beech 18 instructor and so we got along well, in fact it was like being in an exclusive club. When I interviewed for my first airline job, the Director of Operations saw that I had 18 time in my logbook and quickly forgot about asking me any technical questions about instrument procedures and the like. Instead he asked me questions that only a real Beech 18 pilot could answer. After I answered correctly, he grinned and told me he was an old 18 pilot too. I was his first interview for the new class, and I was the first one hired for it as well. Out of all of those lessons that I paid big money to receive and all of the check rides and hours built as an instructor, it turned out that those hours as a poor-man’s autopilot were some of the most important for me. One day, while in the university library and thumbing through a book about Beechcraft, I found a terrific picture of 989B when she was new. I had it copied and framed.

Somewhere toward the end of my nights of flying 989B in the winter of 1984, I pulled my dad’s car into a local gas station to take on a little fuel. Then the Emery Airfreight van pulled up at the next pump and the kid who loaded us every night hopped out. He had a helper riding with him and as that guy went to grab the pump, the driver stepped to the window washing bucket. We saw each other and exchanged a simultaneous, “Hi! How’s it goin’” and he asked if I was on tonight. I told him “Nope” but I’d be there tomorrow night. He smiled and turned to his helper and said, “He’s one of our pilots.”

That statement, although mistakenly only half true, meant a lot to me. I’d been working, literally, for a lot of years to be able to fit into that role and I still had a long road ahead. So there was something very sweet about me being referred to in that context. As I drove away from the gas station, I was feeling pretty good, until 989B reached out with its wing, tapped me on the back and said, “Yeah, but ya’ still can’t taxi me asshole.”

Departure airport:

Cincinnati, OH (CIN)

Destination airport:




 Author's note: The pilot was not known to me. I heard about this accident in the summer of 1988 while I was flying DNR flights out of MBS. "Somebody cartwheeled it across a ramp in Kansas." was what I was told.