Following the loss of Columbia, it would be two-and-a-half years before another Space Shuttle would fly. NASA needed an attitude and cultural adjustment, and the agency also needed a fix for the problem of foam falling off a Shuttle’s external fuel tank. Ignoring the foam hazard for twenty-two years and 113 Space Shuttle flights had killed seven astronauts and destroyed a $2 billion space machine.
At 10:39 A.M. Eastern time on July 26, 2005, the Space Shuttle Discovery roared into orbit. It was the first return-to-flight mission following Columbia, and at the controls was a gutsy shuttle commander named Eileen Collins. She was about to show the boys how it was done.
With her years of well-honed skills, Colonel Collins flew a textbook flight. Her rendezvous was perfect, and she flew Discovery through a smooth 360-degree backflip so inspection cameras could photograph the Shuttle’s thermal protection system—the system with the hole that brought Columbia down. She docked, unloaded supplies, and sent two astronauts outside on space-station repair assignments. When Discovery’s stay at the station was over, Collins ended the two-week mission with a predawn landing at California’s Edwards Air Force Base.
Later at the Cape, Colonel Collins looked at me and whispered, “I landed a little short, but it was black out there.”
I smiled at her and nodded. “No one noticed.”
Her command had been superb but there was one problem, not of Eileen Collins’s making. During her climb into orbit, more potentially damaging foam dropped off her Shuttle’s external fuel tank. The foam debris did no harm, but it could have, and it was back to the drawing boards.
Another year of fix-it work dominated the space centers across the country. Little by little, NASA convinced itself the foam shedding had been reduced to an acceptable minimum. The shuttle Discovery lifted off once again, this time on Fourth of July 2006. Colonel Steve Lindsey took his crew to the space station on another textbook flight. The mission set the stage for the Space Shuttle trips needed to complete the construction of the international outpost—an orbiting complex that would grow to the size of a small city block.
Once again, America’s spaceports were humming with happy workers. The Space Station Processing Facility at the Cape was packed with complex pieces of the orbiting international outpost. One by one, the Space Shuttle fleet hauled each part that would form the final station upstairs. The challenge was to complete the “city in the sky” before the Space Shuttles were to be retired by presidential order September 30, 2010. NASA took a deep breath and went to work.
Chris Jansing and Jay Barbree report live on Discovery’s Return to Flight for MSNBC. (Shepherd Collection).
NBC’s Cape Canaveral crew. Seated, left to right: Specials’ producer Brian Cavanaugh, Atlanta bureau chief Frieda Morris, producer Martha Caskey, and producer Dan Shepherd. Standing, left to right: correspondent Jay Barbree, cameraman Dan Beckmann, production coordinator David Molko, and senior Today Show producer Javier Morgado. (Barbree Collection).
All the while, America’s spaceport was getting ready for the future. A new fleet of Ares rockets and Orion spaceships were coming off the drawing boards for return trips to the moon. I smiled. Damn, it felt good. The visionaries had return to the sands of Cape Canaveral.
The International Space Station grew and grew, and as the 50th anniversary of Sputnik approached, we learned that Pluto was no longer a planet, that the universe was bigger than we’d thought, and that we were probably not alone. Because I was the only reporter on the job for all of its fifty years, I was often asked what I considered the most important event in space. My answer startled and confused the questioners. I didn’t say the Apollo moon landings. But for the sake of clarity, permit me to qualify my judgment. I’m hard put to set anything above the achievement of sending twelve astronauts to walk on the moon. I’m all for sending astronauts back to build a lasting lunar base. But when it comes to the salvation of the human species, the achievement of the Strategic Defense Initiative was unequaled. Only providence knows the millions, possibly billions, of lives it most likely saved.
Yep! I’m talking about “Star Wars,” that project many academics and members of the media mocked and ridiculed at a time when earthly foes had some thirty thousand nuclear warheads aimed at each other—enough destructive fire and shock waves to destroy civilization.
My trusted friend Dr. Gene McCall was in the thick of it. He was a senior scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory working on nuclear missile defense and a senior advisor to the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. He recently wrote me: “There are still a few learned people who attempt to deny the importance of the United States Missile Defense Program to the ending of the Cold War. Those who have analyzed the history in detail, though, generally agree that the Strategic Defense Initiative was intimately connected to the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Dr. Michael Griffin, presently NASA’s administrator, who was then the deputy for technology of the Strategic Defense Initiative, echoed what Dr. McCall said. Dr. Griffin added, “Many feel the technological successes of SDI to stop nuclear strikes against the United States overwhelmed the Soviets’ ability to compete.”
As Dr. McCall, Dr. Griffin, and others have explained, operating SDI was something like trying to keep up with your neighbor. First you both build the best house and pool and garden and deck your money can buy, and then, suddenly, you decide to build an elaborate guesthouse. Your neighbor has had a series of failed economic setbacks and poor leadership. In other words, the Soviet Union was fresh out of rubles and could no longer match America weapon for weapon financially or technically.
Dr. McCall went on to write: “If we ask whether SDI were the cause of the fall of the Soviet Union, we can only answer that it was an important factor in all the events of the 1980s. While there were serious doubts about the chances of success of SDI expressed in the West—even in the U.S. Congress—the Soviets appear to have had no doubt that it would eventually work. The beginning of the development of SDI was surely the beginning of the end for the Soviet system. Given the intransigence of Ronald Reagan and his willingness to pursue missile defense—even in spite of objections from allies—SDI, or The Strategic Defense Initiative, finally caused the Soviet rulers to throw up their hands and surrender.”
Referring to the money spent on weapons during the four-decade standoff, Soviet chairman Mikhail Gorbachev said, “We all lost the Cold War.”
But the United States was still standing when the Soviet Union collapsed on President George H. Bush’s watch, and the weapons of the West had performed well. None had been fired. No one had been killed by nuclear strike. From America’s point of view, given the outcome, the price of the Cold War was priceless—monies well spent for a war we never fought.
As a father of four and a grandfather of six, it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling to see the size of our nuclear arsenal reduced to a logical level of threat. I have tried explaining this to my grandchildren. Bryce, Michelle, Bethanie, Brian, and Nicole are more rooted to the ground with logic while Jake, the five-year-old, is still easily taken in. Often while I’m trying to explain something, or giving the grandkids history, Nicole simply reassures her younger brother by telling him, “Don’t worry, Jake, Papa Jay is just telling another one of his whoppers!”
I was laughing and driving home from another day of covering the construction of the space station. Telling whoppers, I suppose, is fuel for writers and, once again, I reminded myself there was nothing more important than family. Family is simply the continuation of life, and we inhabit a stirring, surging, moving, living planet. It is our spaceship Earth, where we see the beginning of life, its present, and its end. But more important, we recognize that our spaceship’s bounty is finite. Its supply of energy, foodstuffs, clean atmosphere, and pristine waters will be depleted.
Astronomers have already identified more than 150 planets within reach of future rockets. These new Earths will be needed desperately when our planet’s wells run dry, its fields turn to dust, and our agitated sun turns it to a cinder.
Those entrusted with power should heed the words written more than a century ago by a Russian teacher of science, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, who was the first known human to envision and draw up concepts for the use of rockets in space travel. In a simple but wonderfully elegant turn of words, Tsiolkovsky surveyed the future and saw what the human race must do and where it must go.
“Earth is the cradle,” wrote the self-taught man reaching for tomorrow, “but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”
I was suddenly aware of the cradle around me as I drove. A cold front had passed through earlier in the morning and left behind a sky of rare clarity. There were the whitest of puffy clouds floating against a rich, clean blue, and beneath this portrait of a perfect day were stands of pine and palm lost in a mass of green.
I followed sun reflections leaping along the surface of marsh ponds—familiar landscape to me. I had first driven this same land many years ago when I moved to Cape Canaveral, where I would meet my wife Jo, raise a family, and build a life and a career with NBC.
Where do you find such a wife and such a place to work?
I’m convinced you don’t unless you are blessed.
Somebody up there definitely likes me!
I was feeling the same renewal as the morning rains had brought the flora surging to life along my drive. Azalea and bougainvillea and oleander blossoms and palms and saw grass created a never-ending savanna, and I suddenly realized, after fifty years reporting from this place, I did not want it to end.
I laughed at the impossible and thought about the future—a future where the fog was beginning to clear on NASA’s next generation of rockets and crafts to replace the Space Shuttle. First, the International Space Station’s construction was to be completed to give Earth an orbiting outpost for habitation by humans. This truly could be the first step out of Tsiolkovsky’s cradle, where humans could, if they chose, use the station as the cornerstone for an orbiting city. Where families could work and grow and prepare for deeper journeys into the solar system.
The plans had long been on NASA’s drawing boards.
Many had been approved, and in the coming months, the building and testing of the rockets named Ares and the spaceship named Orion that will replace the Space Shuttles will be underway—sleek rockets and a reliable spaceship that are scheduled to carry astronauts back to where they last walked on lunar soil in 1972.
Four are to go in the space capsule Orion that is in fact a larger, modern version of Apollo. They will not be going for national prestige, as Americans had gone before. This time, they will be going for science and survival and, most important, to stay. They will build outposts and pave the way for eventual journeys to Mars and possibly beyond.
And once that lunar outpost is built, humans will remain on our only natural satellite. Planners are already looking at the moon’s south pole for a colony candidate, where NASA expects to find large concentrations of hydrogen in the form of water ice and an abundance of sunlight to provide power.
These plans give NASA a head start on getting to Mars. A lunar outpost just three days away from Earth will give space travelers needed practice of “living off the land” before starting out on the long road to the fourth planet from the sun.
Arguably the best mind on our planet today, famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking believes “Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as global warming, a genetically-engineered virus or other dangers.” Hawking says flatly, “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”
The good news is NASA has a devoted and strong man at its helm in Dr. Michael Griffin. He told my NBC colleague Tom Costello, “The space station is on the footpath towards becoming a space-faring nation. If we’re going to go to Mars, if we’re going to go beyond to live on other planetary surfaces and use what we find there and bend it to our will just as the pilgrims did, we must take all these steps to become a space-faring nation. I want that for the American people—I want that for my grandchildren.”
I find myself chomping at the bit to go. It’s the excitement of Columbus’s voyage, of the wagon trains west. The crossing of the space ocean to younger, more promising planets is the future of humankind if our species is to survive. The only foundation that will not sink beneath our feet is knowledge.
After fifty years on the job, I find myself satisfied and grateful and pleased with a life well spent. Life is indeed good, and we should all cherish it. Knowing that my days are numbered, I find myself missing all those good friends and loved ones that have gone on before. You have found their stories in these pages and in a way, I’m looking forward to following, meeting up with them again. But I am sad that I won’t be shouting into an NBC microphone about the building of a lunar colony or the start of a months-long journey to Mars.
God, what exciting times they will be!
What a future for those who will live it—those who will be going and those who will be staying as the flotilla sails for the fourth planet. How I would like to be there!
And don’t count me out just yet! Astronauts are to return to the moon in this century’s second decade. If my flesh makes it, I will be in my eighties. If not, my spirit won’t be far away.