Wednesday, August 10, 2005


As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I'm currently at Kennedy Space Center leading a teacher-training workshop in conjuntion with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launch (which was supposed to be today, but has slipped until tomorrow). I'm NASA's primary curriculum writer for the Mars Program, so we are being given the royal treatment here. The KSC folks arranged a tour of the Canaveral Air Force Station (normally closed to the public) so that we could visit some of the historic launch sites, but also took us to the active launch sites on KSC itself.

Canaveral AFS is very impressive in its own right. We had a photo op at the launch site of Explorer 1, the first American satellite. The blockhouse for that launch pad is perhaps 50 yards from the pad itself, mainly because they couldn't carry sufficiently stable electrical current over long wires at that point in history. Amazing! We paid our respects at Launch Complex 34, the site where Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 fire (that pad was also used to launch the first Apollo capsule in space, Apollo 7). We also paid our respects at the silos where the debris from Challenger is buried -- a site that NASA has said will never be open to the general public. Finally, we travelled out to the Delta II launch pads (there is a weather satellite current on a Delta on the pad right now) as well as, of course, the Atlas V pad where the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is being prepared. Because the rockets are fully-fueled, we could only come about 300 yards from the two active pads, but that was still pretty impressive.

After visiting Canaveral, we continued on to Kennedy proper. There were a number of interesting sites here, but most impressive is that we were taken up the launch crawler tracks all the way to to Pad 39B, where Discovery was launched two weeks ago. The public is never allowed into this area (we had to go through a special security screening before we were allowed to pass). We were a bit less than 100 yards from the pad. The shuttle, of course, was not on the pad, but it was still absolutely incredible. The ground near the flame pits is completely scorched from the shuttle engines. We were able to look over the emergency escape slides the crew would use to evacuate the shuttle in the event of a mishap on the pad. We saw the emergency blockhouses where they would hide out in that event. But the sheer scale of the launch pad when seen that close is incredible. You don't realize just how huge that thing is. We got within about 50 feet of the mobile launch pad and its crawler -- again, the scale boggles the mind. I mentioned that I was extremely pleased by the tour to the head of the Mars Public Engagement Program, and she actually seemed a bit relieved: "Oh good, you don't impress easily." And that's really true. I've fought in a war. I've met three presidents, a governor, numerous astronauts (including Alan Shepard, first American in space), and many, many famous scientists (I had tea with Stephen Hawking, and visited with H-bomb designer John Wheeler at his summer cabin in Maine). In some ways, I'm the Forrest Gump of the physics world -- I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. But mostly, it's because I long ago realized that people are just people, and there are very, very few events that will change our world forever. I'm not cynical, I'm just, well, hard to impress. But today... Today, I was impressed.

I think this visit will do a lot for my near-future science fiction stories. As I've mentioned in previous articles, experience in real life provides the drama, insight, and tension writers need to do their job. You may not be able to swing a visit to the shuttle launch pad, but you can certainly find ways to get experiences that will awe and inspire you -- and those experiences, lying waiting in your subconscious, will surface in your writing just when you need them.

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