Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Right Place, Right Time

This entry was written as a guest blog for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, after my attendance at the SpaceX launch in May.  Over there, it's called "No bucks, no Buck Rogers"--a reference to the requirements for investment in spaceflight (and education).  Conveniently and coincidentally, that quote is attributed to Gus Grissom--whose legacy we continue to celebrate later in June in Jasper.  Watch this space.  --BC


Even in retrospect, it sounds unlikely… but it worked out this way.  When I was first invited to the SpaceX Falcon / Dragon launch attempt on April 30, I was thrilled and excited.  This was the third launch I’ve been invited to as the Director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.  However, the Lake County, IN SSEP experiments have been responsible for two of them: the Avicenna Academy experiment on STS-135, and now a larger community collaboration for this first commercial launch to the ISS.  I quickly booked my tickets… and then watched the series of emails and news reports as SpaceX scrubbed that launch date.  How about May 7?  No, I couldn’t attend—my first job is as a Purdue Industrial Engineering professor, and grades were due the next day.  That date slips by, as well.  We’re now looking at early in the morning on May 19.  Well, almost, but still not quite: I had already booked a ticket for Orlando, for my attendance at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference.  That ticket was for Saturday morning, and expensive to change.  I admitted defeat and put the NASA TV on my smartphone waiting for the countdown.  3..2..1.. Liftoff?  Not this time.  Gwynne Shotwell’s press conference was a marvel of poise and calm, and I was impressed.  But there was a secret bit of guilty thrill.  The next opportunity would be on May 22, and I would be there anyway! 

Jeff was great to respond to me when I explained, first thing Monday morning, that I could attend the launch, after all—if he still wanted to add me.  I could understand that multiple launch attempts can either reduce or enhance the desire to have visitors, and so I gladly escaped the technical session to take his call.  I found a car, took a nap, and found myself leaving the hotel at midnight, as other conference goers are finishing their evening at the banquet.  I was surprised to see very little traffic anywhere along the highways.  Of course, for the Shuttle launches, leaving Orlando only 3-4 hours before the launch could be a recipe for watching the fiery tower from somewhere on State Road 528.  Better safe than sorry, though, and I was relieved to pull into the KSC Visitor Center parking lot an hour earlier than expected.  That’s where I first met the student from Houston’s SSEP, and a few of the resilient folks from Highland Christian School who had managed to hang on and have a semblance of alertness at 2:00AM. These were the real stars of the launch for me, and in fact, some of the people I spent the most time talking to during this historic event.  (There were, of course some other folks in the NASA / SpaceX invite group viewing area, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, and commercial space habitation company founder Robert Bigelow.  Not bad company for me, who studied space systems engineering and design of damping mechanisms for space structures as an undergrad, and mission operations task coordination as a faculty member.)  Watching the launch from the balcony across from the Vehicle Assembly building on a clear, moonless night was a glorious sight—a bright Falcon stretching her wings and leaving the Earth. 

As I spoke to the student experimenters, and the parents, I was stunned.  Here are 12 and 13 year olds, learning about bioreactors and microgravity-based growth of livers, or the challenges of flight operations and project and team management.  When I was 12, I was no less excited about spaceflight, and was eagerly involved in watching and learning about the space station experiments going on at the time (that was Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz program).  What would it have been like if I had actually been able to design, build, and fly one of those experiments?  These kids are certainly in the right place, at the right time.  I had a secret lament that I couldn’t benefit from this experience in the ways that they were actively participating. 

I was, eventually, convinced that my participation was valuable too.  INSGC did underwrite the Lake County collaboration at a critical time in their project.  As a line from the Right Stuff points out (via Indiana astronaut, Gus Grissom), “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”   Inspiration for these young scientists, engineers, inventors and project leaders is essential.  But so is investment.  Elon Musk has made a lot of money, and has decided to use much of it to create and support SpaceX.  Robert Bigelow has made a lot of money, and is committed to using much of it to create and support space habitation at Bigelow Aerospace.  No, most of us don’t have a few hundred million dollars lying around.  But each of us makes choices with the funds we do have.  You don’t just wake up one morning and drive to Cocoa Beach and happen to see a rocket launch.  Sometimes you get a little lucky… but most of is planning and investment and dedication and belief and commitment spanning months and years and even decades.  That commitment is essential, or else success remains a thing of wish and hope and dream.  I want to thank all of those at NCESSE and SSEP who allowed me to be at the right place at the right time.  I’m glad I could be in attendance as a Space Grant partner.  I am hoping, most of all, that others see what commitment and investment in our capabilities can do… and choose accordingly to help us and ours be where we need to be, and do what we need to do—now, not just someday.