Guest Blog: Kirsten Beyer Was Awed by NASA
Rocket Big…Space Station Pretty…
By Kirsten Beyer
But sometimes things happen that are so far beyond words, I just…
Take last Friday, for instance.
There’s a small group of folks on the planet who are lucky enough to have been asked to contribute to the universe of Star Trek fiction. Some see each other a few times a year at conventions. A couple of years back we decided it would be nice if once in a while, we could just gather and hang out without the demands of a convention schedule.
I missed the first one. No way in hell was I about to miss the second.
Last Friday, I was part of a group of writers who were given a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. This was all arranged spectacularly by fellow writers Bob Greenberger, Amy Sisson, and her husband, Dr. Paul Abell, who works at JSC, watching the sky for anything that might soon fall from it to Earth. He’s on the front lines of keeping us all safe from stuff we’d rather not think about if sleeping through the night is high on our agenda. I was already a fan, but this weekend launched Dr. Abell into legendary status for me. Yes, I know, Amy…you saw him first.
The writers included myself, Bob Greenberger, David Mack, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, David R. George III, Dave Galanter, Aaron Rosenberg, John Coffren, William Leisner, Amy Sisson, and Peter and Kathleen David. Spouses and a few dear friends came along to make sure we behaved ourselves.
Thankfully, Dayton Ward, Bob Greenberger, and David Mack have already published wonderful and detailed accounts of how we spent that day and who we were privileged to meet. All I’d been able to coax from my brain until now went something like… Friday…. Houston… awesome…blur…did we just?…is that where?…are you effing kidding me?
Me write pretty someday.
But using their much better accounts as a reference, what follows are a few things that occurred to me as I wandered through a day in the life of the people at JSC who are carrying all of us on their coattails into the future.
It began in a parking lot outside something called Rocket Park. I could see rockets in the distance, as well as a massive building. They saved what was inside that building for last, so I will too.
We were greeted by several very warm and welcoming women from the public affairs office who had decided to wear red shirts as they led us on our mission…and I do mean mission. We were scheduled down to the minute from about 8:30am to 6:30pm, taken through the past, present and future of space exploration.
In the land of Star Trek, red shirted crewmen are the expendable ones. I hope our guides know they were anything but. Their enthusiasm could fuel rockets. For all I know, it does.
Mission Control…the first one, anyway…an observation room above the actual control room where the life of the International Space Station is monitored every minute of every day of the year. We were assured that it will be through 2020, and likely 2028, right around the time my daughter graduates from high school. She’s in preschool right now so…you know…I’m assuming a lot is going to happen between now and then. I’m glad somebody is paying attention. This was the first time, but not the last I was gut-punched by the reality that there are people in America right now who think NASA doesn’t have much to do anymore now that the shuttle program is over. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Did you know that the sun “rises” over the ISS sixteen times each day? I didn’t. But now I’m never going to forget it. I got to watch it happen in all of a few blinding seconds while simultaneously forgetting how to breathe.
The second Mission Control room brought tears to my eyes. Okay, full disclosure, I cry pretty much anytime I see anything NASA related on TV. Kleenex stock soars on my account alone when movies like “Apollo 13” or the “From Earth to the Moon” series are released. I was not really prepared to stand in the room where the Gemini and Apollo missions were commanded.
Our patient guides there, Dr. Stanley Love, an astronaut among other impressive things, and flight director Ed “Carbon flight” Van Cise, were both funny and appropriately reverent. To them it was another day at the office. To me, it was a miracle.
A long time ago, a bunch of really smart people decided that humanity needed to reach beyond our atmosphere, to enter space, to touch the moon. Many have sat and stood and smoked and laughed and cried and cheered and mourned in that room. The full range of human experience is uniquely present there. It is a monument to the most we can aspire to as ugly bags of mostly water. It’s also an historical landmark. As well it should be.
The more modern mission control rooms that followed were a visceral reminder of how far we have come in such a short time, and how far we may yet go if we keep our eyes on the ball.
Next came the only part of the day I was secretly dreading. Six of us were asked to represent the group as panelists for a discussion on science fiction and how what we do intersects with what the actual geniuses at NASA do. I figured the best strategy was to nod frequently and accept the microphone only when absolutely necessary. I was certain that somehow my high school and college transcripts and the notable gap in mathematics and science were legible on my forehead. I can manage writing novels where story and character take precedence over calculations and much of the big technology is essentially magic. Discussing the real thing with people smart enough to get hired by NASA…um…uh….sure.
But my fears were quieted after only a few minutes with John Connolly who would otherwise have been spending his valuable time BUILDING ROCKETS. What I realized as I listened to the excellent questions he had prepared and others stepped up to ask was that in some ways, we’re all shooting for the same thing. I’m not as smart as they are, but I want what they want. Humanity needs to develop the tools required to take people beyond the moon and then, beyond our solar system. We need to unlock as many of the mysteries of our galaxy and universe as possible. We must do this. And the people who prioritize spending for our nation’s government need to hear this loud and clear from as many citizens of this country as we can inspire to speak up.
The most surreal part of the day happened as I was leaving the auditorium searching for a bathroom. A terribly nice woman approached me and introduced herself as Cady Coleman. She thanked me for my books and for coming to talk, noting that I was the only woman on the panel. Had my bladder been more forgiving, I would have tried to say more than, “Thanks so much. It was my pleasure.” Still, I managed, “And what do you do here at NASA?”
“Oh, I’m an astronaut,” she smiled.
At which point I lost the power of coherent speech entirely.
Never in my life had I imagined that people who do the work required to LIVE IN SPACE, which Dr. Coleman did for 159 days aboard the ISS after completing two previous shuttle missions, would have reason or opportunity to read my words, let alone find anything of value in them. To stand in her presence was humbling and awe inspiring. What she has already achieved dwarfs what I dream of maybe someday achieving. To think that I’d given her anything at all worth mentioning, let alone crossing a room to shake my hand…yeah…no words beyond thank you. How do you tell someone who thinks well of you that in another life, where I actually grasped math and science, my greatest wish is to be that person?
I didn’t. I wish I had.
The shock of that moment was still wearing off as we entered a large conference room in Building 1 where the Deputy Director of JSC, Stephen J. Altemus wanted a word with us. As he was regaling us with one fantastic revelation after another about some of the current projects at JSC, I kept thinking one thing. If NASA wants everyday Americans to understand the awesome capabilities and passion with which they approach their jobs, they just need to put a camera in front of Mr. Altemus and let him speak. If I wanted to bottle and sell brilliance, enthusiasm and inspiration, I’d tap him first. After five minutes I was looking for the Kool-Aid dispenser, ready to hold my hands under it for a sip. After twenty, I wanted to hit the streets with a megaphone and a sandwich board; whatever it takes to get people to stop what they’re doing and listen to this man’s voice. This is what is best about our country and our species and we underfund it at our peril.
Over lunch, I got to sit and listen to Mr. Van Cise share some of the hard core realities of NASA post shuttle-missions. It was equal parts inspiring and frustrating. I need a money tree, stat. Of course, he was so engaging, it was only after lunch that I was introduced to the other gentleman at our table, a man my husband assures me is going to win a Nobel Prize pretty soon, David Brady. His job? Oh, he’s one of the guys there busy making WARP DRIVE work.
The long afternoon was one mind blowing/altering stop after another.
From Dr. Jon Olansen, the gentleman who explained the Morpheus Project to us, I learned that if a vehicle is trying to land on the surface of somewhere we’ve never landed and needs to adjust anything as it falls to the ground, it has maybe six seconds to correct itself. So, plenty of time, really. I was also reminded that we often learn a lot more when things go wrong than we do when they are going right.
The folks testing the next generation of space suits decided it would be fun to trim them in light green stripes inspired by Buzz Lightyear. Why? Because they can. Not only are they brilliant beyond belief. They also have a firm grasp on the little things that make people happy.
The robotics lab was like walking into the future. I’d already seen the Robonaut working on the space station earlier that morning testing air flow. This is important because it’s a surprisingly hard task…stuff is way harder in space than I realized because I am used to portraying working space as something only slightly more challenging than working at a mall. Anyway, it’s good that Robonaut can do this now, and I got to shake the hand of his little brother.
When the man demonstrating the newest designs in exoskeletons right next to Robonaut’s younger sibling mentioned that Star Trek was one of the things that inspired him to work at NASA, I just wanted to hug him. The exoskeleton made that tough, but I want him to know that if Star Trek had done nothing else but inspire him and many he works with, it was time and effort well spent.
The next thing I knew I was looking at mock-ups for the next space capsule, the Orion, that might be headed for the moon, among other places. After that, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Love joined us again to walk us through several sections of the space station and a Soyuz capsule. They both had me at “hello.” To see and touch and marvel at the physical reality of their lives on the way to and in space was…yeah…words? Anyone?
It was unexpected to hear Dr. Coleman talk about how much joy she takes from weightlessness in space. I asked her if the development of artificial gravity, like we have in Trek, would diminish the experience for her and she agreed that it would. Note to self…maybe being in space shouldn’t be as much as possible like being on Earth. If it weren’t for all of the kooky stuff our bodies do, shedding bone and muscle mass within hours of breaking free of gravity, I’d be tempted to consider weightlessness as a preferred state of being. As it is, I wonder what we might become were we able to transition between these states more easily.
Another jaw dropping moment of honesty came when Dr. Coleman noted that even given as far as we’ve come we still have a long way to go before we can safely consider sending astronauts to Mars. All day long the recurring theme had been, “anything is possible.”
It is. I just might not live long enough to see it, which sucks beyond the telling of it.
The next stop involved a costume change and an air bath. There’s a sentence I could never have imagined writing before last Friday. It was necessary so we could see and hold MOON ROCKS. There are people on the planet who can make ROCKS fascinating. We should give them all of our money because that shouldn’t be possible.
And finally, back to Rocket Park, and a peek inside that building I mentioned.
So, you know how rockets are big?
They’re bigger than that. Anyone in need of perspective just needs to walk in that building. First you wonder how they managed to construct the building so that its far wall ends maybe two inches beyond the tip of the emergency escape rocket that sits on top of the command module. Like I needed another reminder that these people are wicked smart. I GET IT ALREADY. YOU CAN DO MATH. STOP RUBBING OUR NOSES IN IT.
A Saturn V rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty. When fully fueled, it weighs as much as 400 elephants. The thrust it generates when it lifts off is the same amount generated by 85 Hoover Dams.
You are nothing when you stand next to one of these things.
And then you remember that you…okay, not you, if your math skills are on par with mine…but a bunch of other people sort of like you built it. It was an idea in someone’s head, and then it was a sketch on a cocktail napkin, and then folks got seriously busy and a few years later, we built it. And then we used it to send people to the moon.
That’s our past. We did that. We as human beings are capable of that. Can you imagine what else we could do if we just got over ourselves already and refused to settle for anything less than our best?
The people at JSC Houston do that every day. What are the rest of us waiting for?
With gratitude, respect, humility, wonder, and awe…