Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”


In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.


It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.



When one pitches a campsite, the first thing you don’t think is, “I’ll set up right here next to the porta-potties!” What you want is a not too far, but not to near sort of geography s as to avoid all the joy of being potentially down wind but also within sprinting distance when needed. This instance definitely called for some serious sprinting.

Looking at the throng of tightly packed space junkies anticipating imminent rocket fueled bliss, I realized that there was only one way this was going to happen fast enough if we were to see the launch ourselves and not merely hear it through the thin plastic walls of a pubic toilet. Throwing on our shoes and grabbing my son under my arm, I bolted through the crowd, weaving between the darkened shapes and preying that I wouldn’t slip on the grass. The entire way there, I tried very hard to ride the edge of being encouraging to my son about being quick with his business and explaining in bare terms how bad it would be to miss the Shuttle because he was not focusing. Sort of a carrot AND stick approach. Thankfully, with only a few minutes to go, there was at least no line to contend with! A very few minutes later, we were back at our outpost and waiting like the rest for the rocket science to noisily begin.

The night before, I had received a bit of photographic advice from my playground chatting companion, Tom.

“When the moment comes, don’t take pictures of the shuttle taking off.”

“Really?” The idea seemed sort of… killjoyish.

“Nah. Resist! Any pictures that you take will look just like any pictures that anyone here will take. Plus, it’s hard to keep in frame, especially at night and you’ll spend that great moment looking through your viewfinder rather than looking at the liftoff. Shoot a movie instead and rather than point it at the launch the whole time, point it at your son and you. I’ve seen a lot of these launches since we moved to Florida and I’ll tell you, for me, the best part is the look on everyone’s face. That’s where you see the magic.”

That was some pretty solid reasoning.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try it.”

And so, with things at Launch Control progressing as it should; with the astronauts strapped in and ready for the moment and with uncounted thousands watching and waiting, I set my little camera to movie mode, held it out at arms length and pressed play. It was show time!

Panning the camera around the dark sky, I looked for things that would stand out and would be recognizable before the event. It was hard enough to see with the naked eye and my less than top of the like, point and shoot digital camera was having some serious issues finding anything that it could focus on. Turning clockwise where I stood, I passed over the well lit rocket garden, its inhabitants standing like proud sentinels to the history they beheld. Turning further the horizon went again to blackness and then eventually, to a well lit and very large structure off a little way in the distance. It was something that we hadn’t gone to visit yet and in all honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, at least on this trip: The Space Mirror Memorial. The monument to those who have fallen on their way to the stars.

Right there, in the middle of all the excitement, a cold, damp wave passed through me and I remembered with a void in my stomach, what could go wrong. Now, here I was with Short Stack, ready to watch and hope that he didn’t get to witness anything like the footage that I, first as a child and then later as an adult, had seen over and over again.



There have been many more lost in the pursuit of space than just those fourteen souls, but at the moment, they were on my mind and I consciously worked at pushing the thought away, focusing instead on the moment, our moment, of happiness.

I panned back to the stage and the giant screen with the video feed.

As the thump of circling government helicopters reverberated through the air, the loudspeaker boomed. “The final test of the flight control surfaces is being conducted.” On the screen, massive rudders swung back and forth to check movement followed by the engine cones themselves swiveling on their gimbals. It was all looking good.

“T Minus three minutes, fifteen seconds remaining…”

Short Stack, now lifted to my shoulders and enjoying the best viewing I could personally provide, was uncharacteristically quiet. He may be a lot of things, but the quiet type, he is not. Naturally, I couldn’t see him but I guessed that after all we had been through and with all that was now happening, he might be a tad out of touch with what was about to transpire. To him, I surmised, it might look as though the stage in front of us was the show, and what a horrifying let down THAT would be! I decided to do some explaining while I could.

“The Shuttle is going to take off right over there, Buddy. Right over those trees!”

Silence. His grip on my ears told me that he wasn’t asleep, but probably just overwhelmed.

“But…” He was coming up to speed now, “the Space Shuttle is right over there.” I followed the point of a small pudgy finger to the giant TV that stood next to the stage. He could see the Shuttle there. Where I had indicated was simply a black row of trees. I could understand the confusion.

“That’s a picture. The real Shuttle is over that way.” I pointed again.

“T Minus two minutes, twenty seconds and counting…”

We all watched the video feed avidly, not daring to blink or hope that the countdown would actually get to zero. I could feel my heart actually beating faster and the chatter that had filled the field just a few minutes ago quickly ebbed as if turned down on some unseen stereo. It was just the audio link from Launch Control now and the interjections of quick explanations from our astronaut on stage.

“Ninety seconds away from the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.”


My pocket was talking to me. Well, actually, my cell phone.

Do I look? Do I not?
Don’t? Gah!

It was still pre-dawn. It had to be family. Giving in to curiosity I balanced Short Stack on my shoulders and with my camera-free hand, fumbled out my phone and looked at the waiting text message.

It was my wife.

“Watching too!!!”

I smiled, popped it back in my pocket and looked back to the action.

“T minus one minute, and counting. We are now transferring to orbiter internal power. Discovery is now running on its three onboard fuel cells. T minus thirty-eight seconds and counting. Coming up on a go for auto-sequence start.”

At this point, standing in the face of hundreds of tons and billions of dollars of high technology, I suddenly regressed to a primitive belief… and crossed my fingers. I doubted it would help, but if nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt.

Launch Control: Go for auto-sequence start.

Up front, our astronaut in the spot light was visibly getting excited, obviously reliving his own experience and living it again, vicariously through those seven in their orange flight suits who were strapped in for the ride of their lives. “T minus twenty seconds! GET READY!” Thundering through the sound system, you could actually hear the grin on his face. A handful of seconds later: “We have a go for main engine start!” Sparks lit up the screen and briefly illuminated the heads of those standing with us showing to good effect that the astronaut on stage was not alone at having a smile plastered over his face.

Remembering my possibly bewildered child perched high on my back, I tried to help fill him in, but words started to fail me. As the emotion of the moment started to take control, my own childhood, still living deep inside me, began to reemerge. I was a kid too. I was looking at the Shuttle, about to take off! As I stood there, then, I felt as though I my age could have been measured in the single digits again and I was taken by surprise as I actually began to tear up. “There is goes!” Was all I could muster.

“Main Engine Ignition!”

and a rumbling roar.





“Lift off of Discovery, blazing a trail into…” Ignoring the rest, I swung us around to where a sunrise sized fireball had started to light the horizon. As the source came into view and the thunder began to endlessly roll, I totally lost it.

I yelled, “AND THERE SHE GOES!” at the top of my lungs.

With nothing else to intelligibly add, I simply broke into wild laughter in the pure exuberance of the moment. It was an expression of the purest joy and exhilaration.

I was someplace else.

Six or seven seconds later when the concussive thud of the engines blasted over us, I began to laugh all over again. It was like being submerged by a rolling wave of sound and I, and everyone else there, bared our teeth into the storm and reveled in it.

Being There, Part II

In our little blue hued bubble, my consciousness surfaced and submerged like the bow of a submarine in heavy seas. Below, all was quiet, calm and where I seemed to belong. Above though, no matter what the noise and harshness, was where the action undeniably was. It was the reason we were here and only with caution did I let my mind wander just under the waves. One eye partially opening, I’d check on my boy, then the clock on my cell phone, then drift back off for a few precious minutes. Only perhaps sixty feet away, stood the bandstand and with the guest astronaut, framed by steamer trunk sized speakers on poles carrying, at three-zillion decibels, his explanations of what exactly was happening at that moment. Again, I am stunned at what one can sleep through when your tank is truly empty.

The gigantic part of my brain that loves and lives for minutia dearly wanted me to perk up and listen to his every word our resident expert had to say. He was an actual Shuttle astronaut after all, a commander even, and I’m sure what he was saying was fascinating stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I tuned out the earth shaking voice and snoozed off for another fifteen minute dive into the abyss and recharged as much as I could.


Eyes snapping open, I grabbed by cell phone and looked at the time.

6:00 AM

Liftoff was scheduled for 6:22. Plenty of time to get Short Stack up and functional, I hoped. Unzipping the tent flap, I peered out into a still dark sky. Dawn wasn’t due until after launch time and things looked much as they did when we crawled in less than three hours ago. Except one thing: The energy.

Everywhere I looked, people whom had previously seemed to exist only as lumps under wet blankets or decorative, if not over sized picnic table centerpieces, had come to life and were milling about now. Things had definitely started to move. The hum of it was in the air and the level of chatter had risen audibly. Great things were afoot and we all knew it.

The excitement was building.

“As you might already know,” Our astronaut M.C. was still going strong with his monologue and somehow had managed to speak nearly continuously since two in the morning. “ …the Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and a new module as well. Well, it’s such a beautiful night tonight that if we’re lucky, we MIGHT just get a look at it a few minutes before liftoff. It will be rising just over the rockets in the Rocket Garden and be heading almost directly overhead and then in the direction of the launch pad.”

At my elbow, in all his angelic cuteness, Short Stack snored on. Seeing the Shuttle was a fantastic opportunity but to be able to see the ISS too? That was the proverbial cherry on the cake. I didn’t want him to miss that. It was time to do the unthinkable and wake my sleeping child.

“Hey, Buddy. Time to get up.”

As gently as I could I began to rouse him. Though notoriously hard to get to go to sleep in the evenings… every evening in fact, getting him up is another thing entirely. The kid starts as cold as any fully fledged teen could ever dream. It’s going to be impossible when he has had another ten years or so to perfect his armor of unconsciousness.

“Come on, Short Stack. It’s Shuttle time.”

His eyes pop open like blinds on a window… only to then sink fluidly back down to fully closed.

“Hey… Let’s get up. There’s something special going on here! Hup! Hup! Hup!”

A few tries more and some wounded looks from my son at the indignity of being woken up six or seven times in the span of a couple of minutes and we eventually found ourselves out side in the cool night air once again. The astro-announcer continued on with a decoding of the radio feed that was piped in from launch control and the Shuttle crew. To the right of the stage a massive TV, easily bigger than a king sized bed sheet, had been switched on to give us all the view we so badly wished we could have but was obscured by trees and distance.

“We’re looking good here, folks! So far, we are ‘Go’ for launch!” Another string of codes and system checks cracked by, meaningless to me, but quickly explained away by our resident expert… and then…

A problem.

I didn’t quite catch what it was, but there was a problem.

Somewhere, buried deep inside some obscure part of the literal tons and tons of technology that makes up the Shuttle, one of the tens of thousands of bits of science and engineering failed.

“Hold on folks. There’s an issue here.”

My heart sank. This was EXACTLY what I was afraid of. We had come all this way. We had pushed so hard. It had all been just… PERFECT, and now, now I was going to have to explain to my sleepy little boy why he wasn’t going to get to see the launch. That exact thought seemed to be traveling through everyone’s mind and all around me. No one seemed to breath, let alone, spoke. This group of space fanatics whom surrounded us stood stock still in the wet grass, eyes riveted to the jumbo-tron video feed and ears cocked to listen to a message, any message, from Launch Control.

The radio had gone spookily quiet.

What would they say?!

“This could be a potential launch delay right here.” It was our astronaut breaking in to snap the spell we had collectively been enthralled by. “They need to decide if this will halt things tonight or if they can still fly with this issue.”

A low groan rolled across the field and he immediately tried to save the enthusiasm.

“It’s not a given, though! There are sub-systems that might be able to take up the slack here. What they’re doing right now in Launch is trying to decide what to do. We could still go forward if they think it’s safe.”

I was a good attempt, but I don’t think any of us dared to believe him.

Quietly at first, we could here some unintelligible talking whispering through the loud speakers again. Somewhere, someone had queued a microphone, but hadn’t spoken yet. Far way from that mic, thousands of lips were nervously chewed and fists clenched.

I actually crossed my fingers.

Then the big voice spoke. “ Systems will be rerouted to secondary. Launch will continue as scheduled.”

The woman giving the run down on the radio at Launch, who ever she was, must have heard our collective cheer! There was only one thing that could have been louder, and that was now officially on track to happen in just a few more minutes. The relief was punctuated almost immediately by the yell from the podium.


It was our astronaut again, and in unison, our heads snapped up to scan the sky. Somehow, even with all the light pollution from the surrounding floods and displays, you couldn’t have missed it. Above us in an inky and starless sky hung a fat half moon and toward it rushed a brilliant point of white. It was the Space Station. It was right there for us all to see and with an audible gasp from the group, it passed directly in front of that beautiful, perfect half moon.

It was a magical experience. Within a minute or so, it had passed right on by and disappeared over the horizon to be chased down by our Shuttle crew. That was where they were going. They’d just have to catch it first.

“Did you see that, Buddy? Did you see that speck? That’s the Space Station! The Space Shuttle will dock with in once it gets to space!” I was having difficulty now dividing my attention between my own geeky nature and my duties as a responsible parent. I wanted to make sure that he was getting this, but I was neck deep in my own revelry.

“Yah, Bud. What is it?” I smiled at him with the thrill of the moment.

“I have to pee real bad.”

Oh…. you have GOT to be kidding me!

Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

Sleeping Sickness and Potato Chips

It never ceases to amaze me that how in situations like this, the food choices available to you and the food choices that your mother would want you to pick seem to be pretty much diametrically opposed. It’s the bag of Cheezits that you find and consume, even though you’ve been at the bars and have defiantly had two or three more than you should have. It’s the fast food burger that you gobble down in three bites as you run for that meeting you’re late for and then pay dearly for with ominous belly gurgles for the next hour and a half. It’s food that, even under the best conditions, makes you feel like a huge, oil dipped slug not long after consuming and brings to mind vows of forswearing that sort of diet ever again. Once ingested, it will make you regret ever having ventured out that day at all. This was what we were looking at now, and though the quality looked better then grease burgers and Cheezits. It still had, “Bad Idea” written all over it.

The dining tent had been set up smack dab in between the field of Shuttle watchers, nestled into the damp grass like sleeping geese with blankets and the manicured paths and flowers that surrounded the collection of retired rockets of yore, and though my brain knew better, the smell from the warming trays was dangerously enticing. Whoever the caterers for the Kennedy Space Center are, they know how to lay out a spread. Meats and other sweet smelling dishes burbled over blue, lit Sterno canisters and sugary desserts looked back at us from hopeful piles. Soda, lemonades, potato chips and more stood by just at arms reach, all daring you to ingest them at two in the morning. You… who has barely slept at all in the last twenty-four hours. You, who are physically at the edge of your stamina and you, who has only recently been exposed to the germ rich, recirculated airplane air breathed by one hundred and fifty other individuals. We won’t even discuss that pepperoni pizza you ate last night…

…Or your not-eighteen-year-old-anymore stomach lining.

The place must have been hopping for a while at this point because the “just opened crush” that always seems to occur in the first hour of operations had dispersed, leaving the tent happily quiet except for a few hungry souls making their gastronomic decisions, for better or for ill.

I needed something safe. Something to warn my guts that there was more on the way later on and that they should muster the troops, but not anything that could turn things in an undesirable direction. Something mom would approve of.

Fruit! My savior!

Stuffed in a corner between the steak sandwich fillings and a mound of cream cheese danishes was a modest pile of apples, oranges and bananas. Thank God!

The trick was not only to feed my son and myself, but also to get Short Stack far away enough from the playground so that he might escape its gravitational pull. Though he had been sure that he needed rescuing only a few moments ago, the prospect of leaving the joyful, chaotic embrace of the Space Jungle Gym started to give him doubts and now he was rethinking the notion.

“Maybe…” He started to slowly scuttle sideways back toward the Fun Vortex like a crab. “I’ll just play for a little while longer…”

“Ah, no. We just got out of there, Buddy. Remember? Lets go do something else for a bit. We can come back again, I promise. What we need is something to eat.”


I glanced at the food and immediately started to reassess my plan. Though I was hungry and no doubt, he was too, we would still be in full view of the object of his desire and the battle would only get harder. It was time for some safe nourishment and redirection.

If I have learned anything as a father, it’s that distraction is your friend.

“Hey, we still haven’t gotten to the gift shop! Lets grab a couple of these,” I pointed to the bananas “and go see what they have! I bet they have some really, REALLY amazing stuff!

He paused, mid scuttle. “Oh. Hmmmm.” You could almost see the visions of space toys drifting through his head as he gave this its due consideration.

“Okay.” He straightened up and took my hand. “Let’s go, Dad!” and with our new target acquired, we happily grabbed two of the bright yellow fruit, paid for them on the way out and strolled back across the tiny pedestrian bridge leading back to the shopping area, munching all the way. We had passed though here before when we arrived but I had been pushing him in the stroller and he had been only about one third awake. He was in high gear now and Short Stack wanted to see what wonderful sights there were to see…. and buy. The crowd was a very different one than I had observed a few hours earlier and it was comical in its unorthodox presentation. Here, two very different things were happening, and happening in abundance.

Shopping… and sleeping.

Everywhere you looked, there were space geeks in nirvana, living their dream. Joyful to be physically standing where their hearts live all the time and cramming the massive gift shops and attractions with their bodies and credit cards. For them, like my own son, the excitement was all consuming. Others, like discarded boosters, had run out their fuel, plummeted back to earth and lay where they fell. Even as the hoots and hollers of those still going strong filled the air, I was spotting more and more people whom had given up for the night and were seeking some form of rest, and they were doing it everywhere and anywhere without a hint of shame.

What looked to be a self respecting businessman, asleep on a bench. A fit young man in his twenties, curled up on a tabletop in the fetal position, his arm tucked under his head and his jacket used as a blanket. A whole family, Dad, Mom and two kids, out cold in the grass, all nestled together like a small heard of deer beaded down for the night. It was as if a wave of tsetse flies and gone through the place and half the people had been knocked down with sleeping sickness. Individuals whom you never would expect to crash so publicly seemed to have said, “Aw Hell, this will do” and pulled up any patch of grass or unused, cleanish horizontal area and were sawing off zzzz’s with abandon. The only criteria seemed to be that it was out of the way of foot traffic. The most entertaining display of this we spotted was in an actual display window. As we walked up to the gift shop front doors, my son pointed out what surely wasn’t intended to be there when the employees put out the items that were for sale tonight.

“Look at that, Dad!” He had stopped short and I followed his gaze to what had made him pause in bemusement just a meter or two from the shop door. There, in the front window, nestled beneath the halogen lights and shirt displays was a girl, no more than thirteen or so. Her backpack doubling as pillow, she had found her spot to spend a few hours tonight. All I can guess is that she must have spotted the plush, unwalked on carpeting normally reserved for Space Swag display and thought, “Aw Hell, this will do.” She was out cold and oblivious to the smirks of adults and amazed eyes of young children. There was defiantly a group wide lowering of personal barriers and embarrassment thresholds going on here. The need for sleep will eventually do that to people and though I know this, I had never witnessed it before outside the confines of an airport departure gate before.

The interesting thing, I realized, was that even as I watched adults and teenagers give up the fight and practically fall over where they stood, it was the little kids, the ones whom we force to take naps and go to bed at a decent hour, the ones whom we insist need to get their sleep, THEY were almost universally going strong. As I cast my gaze around at the people stretched out flat here and there, I became more and more sure. Not a little kid asleep to be seen anywhere. They were all up and running.

Mostly, I noted, toward the area where the playground was located.

It was time to do some quick poking about and get back to the food tent followed, hopefully, by some rest. My brain was starting to feel fuzzy and even if Short Stack looked as chipper as a chipmunk, I knew what his batteries wouldn’t, in fact, last forever. I also knew that I was going to need to crash in an hour or so even if he didn’t feel like it and when that time came, I wanted it to be on my terms rather than having his dad unexpectedly keel over into the azaleas and start snoring.

We started to poke around for souvenirs to commemorate our trip together and even though it was past two in the morning, the shop was still surprisingly active. Amazingly active, actually. Enough so that I felt more than a little crowed as we checked out what the Space Center had to offer in the way of posters, toys, patches and shirts. I lost sight of Short Stack more than once as people bustled through the racks looking for their own keepsakes and I started to feel uneasy at the idea of trying to keep track of my son and simultaneously make a wise purchasing decision. It was simply too much for my mushy brain to cope with at this point.

“Hey, Short Stack.” He had gone back to look at the sleeping window girl again for the fourth or fifth time and at my call, came trotting back to me with a look of entertaining puzzlement about his slumbering discovery. “It’s just too crowded in here right now. Let’s go back, get some dinner and then head to our tent. We’ll come back in the morning when it’s not so crazy in here.”

“Ok, Dad.”

He must be getting tired. That was too easy.

Lost to the Playground, Part II

It’s a funny thing about growing up. When we’re kids, we look forward to the birthday-mile stones when special access is granted to us and we revel in our newly acquired abilities; being allowed to use the stove or trusted to walk to a friends house all by your self; things like that. Because we are so focused on looking forward, we almost never notice what we leave behind until confronted with it. It’s especially poignant when you’re obviously too old for some shenanigans and are confronted with looks of startled bewilderment from those who are not. For me, this was one of those moments.

The playground / jungle gym / rocket park had been built with kids in mind, and not overly big kids either. Once inside, anyone over four foot six would be forced to scoot along with a hunch lest they graze their forehead on the rubberized ceiling or brain themselves, (though softly) on the padded, low doorways leading off the main thoroughfares and snaked along to other levels.

It wasn’t hard to come to the notion, “This must be what life must look like to an ant.”

Running through all this were the squealing, squeaking children, whom had been lost to the worried parents out side… plus me, and it was obvious from the startled looks I received that I was most definitely an unexpected guest. I was out of my territory, and they knew it. This was their place.

In the end, it only took perhaps three minutes of crawling and shouting before I found him.

“Hey, Short Stack!” His little red haired head whipped around, an enormous smile comically plastered across it. He immediately started pointing with both hands at a circular opening on the wall to his side.

“Dad! Come try this slide! It goes forever!”

I was already feeling rather out of my element simply by intruding on this space and though I was sincerely touched by his enthusiastic efforts to share in the fun with his Dear Old Dad, I wasn’t sure if joining in on the play equipment wasn’t kind of pushing it too far. That, and the thought that, though I am still a fairly trim individual, this place was most definitely not constructed with grow men in mind. At least I sort of hope not. Instead, I begged off.

“Ehhh… Tell you what! I’ll go to the bottom and you come down it! I’ll be there waiting for you!” I flashed my best reassuring smile.

“Okay! Go, Dad! Go!” And with the go-ahead of my boy, I dashed off back through the rubberized maze and out the same door I had entered. A few seconds later, he popped out a different hole at the base of the playground, two stories lower than where I had just seen him. He was in Heaven.

Now that I knew where he was and he knew that I was within reach, I relaxed a little more, even daring to put my shoes back on and grabbing a seat at one of the benches that ringed the scene. From my new vantage point, the people watching was simply fantastic. New batches of kids would come screaming in from the surrounding area like a swarm of crazed bees, followed briskly by heavily encumbered parents and grandparents. The kids would disappear into the throng while the adults would circle and search upwards until, eventually, one would crack, whip off their shoes and tunnel in after them. This cycle repeated its self about once every ten minutes. It made for some pretty good theater, actually and I eased into a more laid back pose now that I better understood the cycle and I started to look at the other adults who stood awkwardly on the periphery as possible chatting fodder.

I have never been accused of being reserved or bashful and much to my wife’s perennial dismay and embarrassment I happily engage perfect strangers in conversation based solely on the fact that we both are carbon based life forms. When we are out as a couple and I try this, I’ll normally get a hand squeeze or a roughly subtle-ish kick to the foot or leg to let me know that I’m entering potential spousal embarrassment territory. Tonight however, I was on my own and I’m not afraid to admit that I was somewhat reveling in the fact that I knew I could talk to strangers with abandon and that it would be a kick-free affair. At least I hoped so. I fired my opening salvo at the nice looking couple standing like all the other adults at the edges of the playground.

“Hi! How are you this evening?”

They looked to be in their sixties or so, trim and very friendly and happily for me, they turned out to be as nice as they looked. They were also not averse to talking with random people whom might have been looking for some grown-up conversation.


They introduced themselves as Tom and Annette and as it turned out, they we residents of Florida, having retired here some years ago, as seems to be the law. They too were here with a child, their young grandson, whom they wanted to have the chance to see the Space Shuttle launch before it was all over for good. After the initial, “Where are you from?” and “How long are you here for?” sort of inquiries, we started doing what everyone else here was doing: talking rockets. And Tom, a retired engineer, had a lot to say on this topic.

“I just don’t understand why we’re stopping the Shuttle program at this point only to go back to conventional rockets. It makes no sense to me. It doesn’t seem like Constellation is a fair trade at all, but more like a step backwards” On these points I actually agreed. The last days of the Shuttle were in sight now and the notion that all this would be ending very, very soon made just about everyone here uncomfortable and they’d tell you that eagerly if you asked them. It became obvious that this would be a real ending of an era as a technological progress arc goes.

Balloons, gliders, airplanes, jets, space capsules on rockets, Space Shuttles… then, capsules and rockets again. I was afraid that he was spot on in his assessment. It just felt wrong.

Constellation was the new baby for NASA and was mandated during the George W. Bush administration. The idea had been for the U.S. to go back to the moon and see first hand what had been happening there since we last visited in 1972. It had been a long, long time since Jean Cernan had stepped back into the Lunar Lander and blasted his way back to Earth along with the other Apollo 17 crew and it had punctuated the end of not only the Apollo Program but also the cessation of mankind reaching beyond our own little blue-green planet save by robotic proxy. It was the last time any person had seen the whole of the Earth with the naked eye. No one else has been far enough away to do that since. How’s that for a thought? That we had abandoned the moon after all that effort is something that had always rather irked me, but, much to my surprise, when our return was finally announced what bugged me even more was the way we were planning to go back: The exact same way we went the first time.

Well, pretty much, anyway. We were going to use the “astronauts packed in cans and put on the tips of rockets” method. Big, pointy rockets.

Not to talk down all rockets, though!

The iconic Saturn V that had carried our Apollo astronauts to an alien world was a technological marvel of its day. It had been built of hundreds of thousands of individual machines and sub-systems systems that all had to work together without the aid of the powerful computers which we are now accustomed to. No microprocessors hidden on circuit boards buried deep in the depths of its belly. No redundant failsafe systems automatically poised to take over in the event of error. It was mechanical, not digital and it did, if not the impossible, than the very, very improbable. It was then and remains to this day, one of the most deeply amazing pieces of hardware mankind has ever built and still capable of making any engineer or technology wonk speechless in its presence. It was beyond cutting edge for 1969. The problem is, it’s not 1969 anymore and I was having a hard time swallowing the concept that after the radical leap in design brought about by the Shuttle Program, we were headed right back to rockets.

To give credit where credit is due, Constellation has some impressive technological advances over its predecessor. It would use two rockets, named Ares I and Ares V, instead of the single mighty, massive Saturn V of the 60’s and 70’s moon program. Both of those new and very different looking machines would incorporate solid fuel booster technology just like that used on the space shuttle. The Ares I, a slender and fragile looking affair would be used to put the capsule and crew into orbit, while the Ares V, many times larger, would deliver the ALTAIR, the newly updated lunar lander “bug” which would actually bring people back to the surface of our one natural satellite. The two would link up in Earth Orbit and make the journey together. Looking at this new delivery system, you could see the Shuttle’s fingerprints all over it. The Ares I is strangely bulky at the top third, making it look dangerously top heavy. The reason becomes clear if you take a moment to look at the segments, though. The wider, stubby, upper stage rocket is perched on a near duplicate of the Shuttle’s iconic, white, solid rocket booster.

The Ares V is even more startling in its appearance since it pretty much comes across like the Space Shuttle’s external tank and boosters all ready for launch, but with a nose job and without that beautiful orbiter attached. It almost looks as if they simply forgot to put the Shuttle on and then decided to just go with it and launch as-is. It’s longer, modified to accommodate engines at the base of that big, orange tank and a payload bay up top and it’s been given its own class and name but any child can see what they’ve done, and that’s what didn’t sit well with Tom, Annette and most of the rest of the people I talked with. It was as if they had looked around at what was left in the LEGO box after a fit of industrious building and playing and then, finding it mostly empty, had said, “Hey, I bet we can still make another rocket out of this!”

I know that’s unfair. It took a lot of people a long, long time to make it work. It was hard and difficult work, I’m sure and I can imagine the gargantuan cost savings by adopting previously tested and ready to manufacture aspects of the design… but it lacked innovation. It lacked style.

It lacked… “Wow!”

In truth, it’s was still a pointy rocket with astronauts packed into a sardine can and balanced on the tip, just like we had done in ’62. But to make it that much harder to swallow, it was also constructed with the disassembled parts of an icon we loved. To Shuttle lovers, of whom I was surrounded by, it was sort of a knife twist and Tom, Annette and I expounded on this with emotion and what technological expertise we could muster. It was a lively conversation which absorbed us entirely.

“Excuse me, is he yours?” A nice looking woman’s interruption broke me out of our discussion and back into the present.

“Ah, oh! Yes! Thanks!” Short Stack, just visible at the very top of the structure was kneeling down and sobbing. There goes my Dad of the Year award. It was time to mount a rescue. Once I managed to wriggle my way back in and finally to the upper levels of the hive, I discovered that the injury was more to his pride than anything else and the little kid whom he had konked heads with had long since moved on to play in other parts of the Thunder Dome. What the real issue was had more to due with lack of rest and proper food than any actual pain, but when you’re four, you’re in a strange place with strange people and you sustain a good head-butt, what you really want is….


At least he still thought I was Dad of the Year even if I was mentally beating my self up for getting my eye off the ball again.

What he really wanted was for me to carry him out, but since that would have required him to cling to my belly like a possum, instead we talked our way down out of the crying before journeying our way down and out of the play area.

“Let’s get something to eat, Bud. Then we can get some rest in our tent.” This idea seemed to meet with some approval and soon we were at the food tent, looking over the choices for our dining pleasure. Now to find one of the four things that were on my son’s “edible” list…

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