Not long ago, NASA announced the “winners,” you could say, out of a record number of applicants in the thousands, all vying for what may be the most sought-after profession in the world. Continue Reading
A couple of days ago, engineer, naval aviator, Apollo astronaut and “the last man on the moon” Eugene “Gene” Cernan passed away at the age of 82. We know… there’s been a lot of obituaries flooding your social feeds of late, and we won’t drag it out, but this man is worth a few words.
Born and raised in suburban Illinois, Cernan received a degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue before going on to serve in the United States Navy as an aviator. His career included over 5,000 hours at the stick, and over 200 landings on aircraft carriers.
He was among the third group selected by NASA for the Astronaut Corps. Cernan flew Gemini 9A and Apollo 10, and in the process became the second American spacewalker, pioneering techniques for extravehicular activity and orbital rendezvous that later crews would use.
What history knows him best for, though, was as commander of Apollo 17, the final expedition to the lunar surface, and the bittersweet honor of being the last man to walk on the moon. Cernan and his crew made the best of their time, gathering invaluable surveying data and samples that gave scientists important clues as to the moon’s early history (and he also managed to set the lunar land speed record in the rover while he was at it).
Before climbing the ladder to the lander and turning his back on the “magnificent desolation” of Earth’s moon, he paused and spoke these words to the people of Earth:
“…As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come … I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
That’s what history remembers him for. I, however, remember him as a man of indomitable passion, more Browncoat than the Browncoats themselves. Heck, he responded to the “moon landing deniers” in the amazing documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (seriously, stream it the next chance you get, it’s one of the best ever made on the space race with beautiful, never-before-seen HD footage) with words that will sound familiar to any fan of Firefly: “Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me.”
I was fortunate enough to meet this brave man when he came to speak at the University of Central Florida. The way that I will remember him will be as a fierce, tireless defender and advocate for getting us back out there in the black. Think about it– how horrible would it feel to be known as the last man to walk on the moon? As the years pass, I can imagine how it could turn from an honor into a terrible burden. Cernan may well have felt the same, because he continuously testified before Congress, spoke before audiences and anyone who would listen to him that he should NOT be the last.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I look at his life and how he spent it after returning to Earth, I can’t avoid looking at myself in the mirror in comparison and asking, “Well, what have you done for that cause?” Indeed, what have each of us done who professes to care and believe in the exploration and colonization of the heavens (which, you’d think, would include any fan of science-fiction franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly/Serenity, etc.)? Not to try to guilt anyone (aside from maybe myself) into it, but I really think there is more we could be doing– not “we” as in “trust everyone else to vote,” but as in you and me, no matter what your background may be.
It’s given me pause to think about how we’ve been going about this little campaign of ours at Take Back the Sky, and it may well inspire a change or two. I’m still thinking it all over in my mind, and I’ll keep you posted of any epiphanies that come to me.
But for now, Godspeed, Captain Cernan. It is our hope that mankind will, in the not-too-distant future, once again follow in your footsteps.
On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced the names of four American astronauts whom the agency has selected to crew the first Commercial Crew Program flights to the International Space Station aboard spacecraft built by the private sector–two of these four will be the crew of the first manned flight of the Dragon v2 spaceship. They are:
Douglas “Chunky” Hurley, two-time shuttle pilot, former NASA Director of Operations at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, and first Marine to fly the F/A-18 Hornet.
Sunita Williams, naval aviator, test pilot, avid windsurfer and snowboarder, former commander of the International Space Station, and current record holder for the most spacewalks and total time spacewalking for a woman.
Robert Behnken, Air Force flight test engineer, veteran of two shuttle missions, former Chief of the Astronaut Office, and “aquanaut” aboard the Aquarius underwater research station.
Eric Boe, Air Force colonel, test pilot, two-time shuttle pilot, veteran of 55 combat missions over the Persian Gulf, and former Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office.
Each of them boasts an impressive resume, even by astronaut standards. To call them “Big Damn Heroes,” the term of endearment favored by Browncoats and fans of Firefly, only begins to do them justice, with their track record of bravery, academic achievement, heroism, and even selfless humanitarian service.
Under the NASA Commercial Crew Services contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX, the first manned test flights of their craft–the CST-100 and the Dragon v2, respectively–will take place in 2017 with at least one NASA astronaut on board, with the other seats available for any number of “their people.” SpaceX have publicly stated that they intend to bring two NASA astronauts from this group.
Public statements by the astronauts themselves indicate that NASA’s current plan is to cross-train all four on both spacecraft to start, then eventually assign them to one craft or the other later on. This would be in keeping with NASA’s historic modus operandi of specialization of crew roles that formed in the days of Apollo and continued through the Shuttle era.
Interestingly, people are already referring to these men and women as “the Dragon Four” or “the Commercial Four” (I guess “CST-100” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well), drawing comparisons to the original Mercury 7, America’s first astronauts. Upon reflection, the comparison is quite apt. Space, by definition, is a realm of “firsts”–first to walk on the moon, first to perform a spacewalk, heck, Williams is the first to run the Boston Marathon while in orbit! For all you know when you’re out in the Black, the most seemingly insignificant of acts could be a “first,” like “first to scratch one’s nose while reading email in space.” That’s what’s so wonderful about space, though: no matter how many folk we send to live out there and colonize it, each of them is entitled to a a degree of glory.
Even then, it is among the rarest, most momentous of occasions in the history of space exploration to be the first to fly a brand new class of vessel–which is exactly what the Dragon and CST-100 represent. Even more exciting is the prospect that ordinary people from the general public are picking up on this without having to be told or have it explained to them.
This announcement marks an important milestone in Take Back the Sky’s campaign to have the first manned Dragon named after Serenity, from the cult sci-fi Firefly franchise. NASA’s typical routine has always been to select and announce the crew of a mission roughly one year ahead of when they anticipate it will actually lift off the pad in order to give them time to train and rehearse. This means that we’re now entering the final phase before the engines ignite, and our remaining time to write letters and collect petition signatures is definitely limited.
If you missed out on last week’s public unveiling of the Dragon v2 spaceship, you really missed out. It had all of the “cool” factor of an Apple product debut–but when was the last time your smartphone shot a 30-foot flame behind it? Tens of thousands of viewers watched online when the sheets were pulled off of it, revealing what will in all likelihood be the first 21st-century spacecraft to take adventurous souls out into the ‘Verse. The media and the general public were blown away by the touted features of powered-descent landings “with the accuracy of a helicopter,” and especially the sleek, futuristic control panel.
The smooth, streamlined touchscreen interfaces made so much of an impression, in fact, that it may have overshadowed some of the other salient details revealed during the event. We thought that, now that the press has had a moment to catch its breath, we’d help read between the lines for you about what was said–and what wasn’t said, but can be deduced.