Starship: Banquet Tent

It’s funny the stuff you learn if you go poking your nose into big, unmarked tents at Kennedy Space Center.

For our official Touristy Moment during a little camping trip over to the Space Coast, we decided to pay a visit to KSC yesterday. The weather was horrible, but it would be our last chance ever to see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad. So off we went.

Florida summer squalls never last very long, right? Or so we figured. I dropped the family off at the entrance in a thundering downpour, parked the truck, snugged into my big poncho and waded off across the flooded parking lot.

It rained pretty much all day, although the downpour slackened to a drizzle after 30 minutes or so.

Truthfully, the gray skies and morose drizzle sort of seemed to fit the occasion. Nine days until the end of the space shuttle program. Nine days until the end of America’s manned space program, with nothing much else on the horizon. For a space geek like me, that’s pretty depressing.

We rode a tour bus out to Launch Complex 39 and climbed the observation gantry. A few miles away, on Pad 39B, sat Endeavour — the “full stack” as they call it. Ready for STS-135, the mission being billed as “The Grand Finale.” Later, in the Space Shop, I eyed a couple of different t-shirts with “The Grand Finale” logo on them, but the idea of celebrating the end of the manned space flight progam just seemed too depressing to me. Instead, I bought a more defiant shirt with “I NEED MY SPACE!” splashed across the back.

“I hope we’re not about to enter another run like we had in the late 70s, after Apollo ended,” I said to my wife. We were sitting under cover at the Visitor Center playground, while Junior Crazy Boy bounced around and whooped it up.

“What’s that?” the Missus asked.

“You know, where we stick our heads up our butts because we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. We stop exploring. Stop wondering. Science goes into neutral.”

“No,” she pointed past my shoulder. “What’s THAT?”

I turned around. There, just behind the playground, sat a big tent. It was one of those extra-large tents with fancy windows, like caterers put up at outdoor wedding receptions and charity auctions.

“I dunno,” I said. “Looks like there’s something in there, though. A truck or something.”

“Go see what it is,” came my orders from HQ.

So I walked over and stuck my head in. Inside stood a couple of “prime contractor” engineering-types, wearing “prime contractor” polo shirts. They were standing beside a large-ish cradle truck that supported a big damned space capsule. It looked something like the recently scuttled Orion capsule, but a bit different. More angular.

“Come on in,” one of them said.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that the capsule was accompanied by a bunch of stand-up banners — you know, the type of promotional stuff Prime Contractors like to put up at trade shows. It was a prototype MPCV. If you haven’t been keeping up with current events, that’s this thing:

The MPCV. (NASA image)

The MPCV. (NASA image)

http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-164_MPCV_Decision.html

This particular capsule had one of the hull sections replaced with plexiglass. Inside, the thing was packed with gadgets — computers, sensors, wires, connectors.

“It’s actually flown,” one of the engineers informed me. “We used this one for the first live test of the new launch abort system last month.”

OK. That would be this test:

 

“I was lucky enough to be in the control room for the test,” the engineer continued. “We’re a little late getting the capsule here because we recovered it in good enough shape that we thought about re-using it.”

I told him that I thought it was too bad they didn’t have a new booster lined up for the system.

“Well, we’ve got a full test flight scheduled next year on a Delta IV Heavy,” he replied. “The new booster we’re developing for it is scheduled to fly in 2013. It’s a lot more powerful than Ares, which could only reach low earth orbit. We want to go a lot higher than that.”

“The program is funded?” I asked, more than a little surprised.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “The new flight schedule for the MPCV is being announced July 8, after we launch Endeavour.”

So there it was after all, sitting in an unmarked banquet tent behind the playground. The future of manned spaceflight.

And, no. They don’t have t-shirts for it yet. But they do have little paper cut-out models, thoughtfully produced by Lockheed Martin. My kid snagged three of them.

All I can say is that I hope the real MPCV goes together easier than the paper model.

Meet the Jetsons

My son Juan Carlos encounters a Mayan shaman in Chichicastenango.

My son Juan Carlos encounters a Mayan shaman in Chichicastenango.

Here in These United States of the 21st century we’re pretty proud of our technological progress, our online connected-ness and our tweet-every-time-we-fart social media.  We invented the Internet, dammit, and look how cool it’s making us. Or so the theory goes.

But I’m working on a little theory of my own here, so bear with me. I’m thinking that, contrary to current cultural myth, the Internet is an abject failure in communications. Rather than taking advantage of our new digital tools to expand the horizons of our knowledge and improve our understanding of the world, we’re instead using them to draw inward on ourselves and create self-centered villages of pseudo-information and half-truths.

It’s not a big surprise. Television — another revolutionary medium pioneered here in the USA — was also a failure. TV placed in our hands the ability to both see and hear the world as experienced by others, but instead we used it primarily to recycle bathroom humor and watch Monday Night Football.

I got to thinking about this the other day after showing around my workplace some photos from my family’s just-completed vacation to Guatemala. The general theme of my co-workers’ comments was basically “Wow, that’s so strange. I can’t imagine living in a place like that. It looks like another planet.”

Well, no. It’s OUR planet. In fact, more of our planet “looks” like Chichicastenango than it “looks” like the suburban US. How is it possible, in this era of lightspeed social networking, that so many people can have such a narrow worldview?

Simple, really. Just consider for a moment the typical, modern-day social media experience. Who do you interact with most frequently on services like Facebook and Twitter? Are they strangers, foreigners, people who see the world differently and who challenge your understandings and beliefs? Or are they people you know, like-thinkers who share similar worldviews and who generally serve to confirm the beliefs you choose to hold? Do you use social media to reach out curiously to the wide-wide world, or to create a tribal ‘orbit’ that circles inward upon itself?

Obviously, I’ve got a strong opinion on the topic. Let me be clear: I despise incuriosity.

[Note: I don't use the word "despise" frequently, and I intend it here with all of its old-fashioned vitriol and malice.]

The way I see it, curiosity is THE driving force in the development of humankind.  The incurious stunt our progress, crush our capacity for growth, diminish our acquistion of new knowledge, destroy creativity and just generally screw things up. What saddens me most is the historical example — repeated frequently — that demonstrates each time we create new tools which carry the promise of exponential human growth, we instead use them to turn more tightly in upon ourselves and erase from our view everything that isn’t us.

So how did a short vacation to Guatemala turn into a rant against vapid anti-intellectualism? That’s easy. A properly-executed vacation is a big pull on the flush handle of my mental toilet. All of the crap goes glug-glug-glug down the drain, to be replaced by a new bowl full of sparkling, fresh thoughts.

Now, back on topic. Since I’m taking a dim view of collective curiosity today, I’ll further theorize that our Internet use has grown so quickly — and the formerly ‘traditional’ media have collapsed so rapidly — primarily because media like television and newspapers didn’t fail fast enough to suit us.

What the explosive growth of blogs and agenda-driven ‘news’ websites tells me is that we like our information sources fragmented and unregulated, enabling us to pick and choose those sources that most closely fit our comfort zones. With first cable, and then satellite, television tried to fragment into this same sort of universe of tightly self-centered information galaxies — but compared to the costs of running a website, TV production is vastly more expensive so the effort produced only half-assed results.

But now with the Internet we can quickly and easily get the whole ass. People who get their news from parroted headlines on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter can get just about any version of the ‘truth’ that they want: Obama started the war in Iraq, trickle-down economic theory really works, the Earth is flat.

Take your pick. And why not? Just about everybody else does.

Once we were giants

We took the kid off to Kennedy Space Center for the weekend and it reminded me of something: I really have a love-hate relationship with Florida’s Space Coast.

I love visiting KSC and environs because I grew up during the Great Space Race and it reminds me of all the amazing things our country did when I was a youngster. I hate visiting KSC and environs because it hits me in the face with the fact that we’re not doing those amazing things anymore.

One of the places my wife wanted us to visit was Space View Park in downtown Titusville. She stumbled onto the place by accident on the morning of the last Atlantis launch when she took Juan Carlos over to see the thing go up. Even devoid of the thousands of people who jammed the place on launch day it’s an interesting little slice of history.

I’d never been to the park before. It’s a lot smaller than I thought from watching the video she shot during the launch. It’s a long, thin strip of land that runs from the north side of town out to the coast. Viewed from the town side, it points directly at the distant Launch Complex 39 and the VAB. The neatly-kept walkway is populated with various memorials to America’s astronauts and space missions, including a very nice memorial to the Gemini program just yards from the sea shore.

On the day of Atlantis’ launch, it was packed with thousands of people who had come down to the coast to watch one of America’s final shuttle launches. Last Saturday, there were six people at the park: Four members of my family and two drunks trying to bum lights for their smokes from the shade of a picnic shelter. Three more drunks were fishing from the far end of the pier at nearby Veterans Park (which includes the Project Mercury memorial) until one of them toppled into the ocean.

That sort of sums up America’s interest in space exploration and science very neatly, doesn’t it? When something ‘big’ is happening, tens of thousands turn up. The rest of the time it’s a neatly-kept facade that looks a little run down but still gets a lot of respect from a few Average Joes who remember better days — even though the people really in charge are basically a bunch of drunks lolling around cussing and falling into the smelly, mucky coastal flats.

Of course, we are the Nation of Short Attention Spans. Hundreds of millions watched Apollo 11. Hundreds of thousands watched Apollo 12. The TV networks cancelled the prime-time broadcast from Apollo 13.

If you paid attention to the Great Space Race back in the 60s and 70s, then you remember the vision promoted by all of the Big Corporate Space Vendors. There were books, fliers, pamphlets, film shorts and major motion pictures stuffed with space stations, moon shuttles, hydroponic domes and moon bases. Thousands of Average Joes living and working in space and on the moon, using science and technology to build a better world.

‘They’ promised us moonbases and what we got instead was a flock of dithering political hacks who can’t even pronouce “ineptitude”, let alone spell it.

But I digress.

Even when it wasn’t beat to crap by major road construction, downtown Titusville was getting a bit dusty and seedy. Saturday afternoon downtown was very quiet — no foot traffic, only a few optimistic businesses open and most of the place looking like it had just received a fresh blast from the sugar sand cannon. So much for Spaceport America.

Across the bridge and on into the space center, things are only a little better. The Visitors Center has some great ‘content’ — don’t get me wrong — but a bunch of it isn’t quite up on current events. There’s a lot of ‘flying Constellation back to the moon” action going on. Understandable, to an extent, but even that’s a bit aggravating because I was never a big fan of the space program reaching for something it’s already grasped.

The Astronaut Hall of Fame is an interesting mix of Space Memorial and Science Museum. Or at least it used to be. On this visit I couldn’t help but notice that more than half the ‘simulators’ had fallen into disrepair and no longer worked and that one of the main theaters was suffering an air conditioning failure. Most of the visitors in the place were foreign tourists, so I  wondered what they thought about the current state of America’s space program.

It also didn’t escape my notice that the indoor gun range at the Police Hall of Fame across the street had about three times as many ‘customers’ as the Astronaut Hall of Fame. It has a cool armored car parked out front, though.

Ad astra per bozo

The boys at NASA may be struggling a bit to figure out where their little space program is going next, but the boys here in the Swamp have no such problem. As I may have mentioned before,  my kid (who just turned 5 in March) is a “rocket guy” in a serious way.

Stomp rockets were an unsuccessful delaying tactic.

Stomp rockets were an unsuccessful delaying tactic.

Our experiments with stomp rockets (which arrived Christmas day) went well. But foamy flying rockets that could reach a lofty altitude around 150 feet only served to fuel Juan Carlos’ desire to shoot some ‘real’ rockets even higher into the sky. That meant sooner or later some flying model rockets would have to put in an appearance.

My original plan was to hold off on an introduction to model rocketry for a couple more years. I was around 7 or 8 when my Dad and I flew our first model rockets — and I managed to have a lot of fun without blowing myself up. So that seemed like a good age for a start.

But kids these days have to get a head start on just about everything, don’t they? I came home from work one day last month to find Juan Carlos out on the back deck building what he called a “bottle rocket”. He was taking pieces of his various toy rocket rigs and duct-taping them to plastic water bottles.  While I was gratified to see that he’s absorbed the appropriate manly duct-taping skill, I knew his plan to ‘light the rocket fuel’ would lead to nothing but disappointment.

So I explained to him that water by itself won’t work as a rocket fuel. He countered that was OK: He would just drain off the water, put some matches in the bottle and then light them.

Holy crap. I’m raising a pyromaniac.

Well, maybe not a pyromaniac — but he can be very stubborn when he gets something in his head. I realized right then and there that it was time to improvise, adapt and overcome. I would either have to roll out a flying model rocket, or lock down everything flammable in the house and keep a constant watch on my inventive young man for the next six weeks.

The starter kit - some assembly required.

The starter kit - some assembly required.

So. Our swamp Bunker gets the addition of a spaceport a couple years ahead of schedule. Haven’t I written somewhere before that I’m really not in charge of planning around here?

The one thing that concerned me was that Juan Carlos had put his personal space program on something of a ‘rush’ timeline. He wanted to send a rocket into the swamposphere by the weekend, which gave me about 4 more days to get it going.

Now, I remember my first model rocket. My Dad was a science teacher so it wasn’t one of those dead-simple starter rockets from Estes like the Alpha. Nooooo.  We had to build a Saturn V. It was the ‘small’ Saturn V from Estes — maybe a foot tall? — and not the gigantic three-stage monster that they produced. Still, complicated enough.

It took maybe a week or 10 days to get it built and then, just for that special esthetic, Dad spray-painted it flourescent orange before putting on the ‘scale’ finishing touches. I guess he REALLY didn’t want to lose it.

Fortunately, in these modern times some of the ‘beginner’ rockets can be bought pre-assembled. So the next day I popped into Hobby Lobby and bought a starter kit (which includes the launch rig), a pre-built ‘Puma’ model rocket and a package of the small-sized 1/2-A engines the Puma uses.

In one of my finer moments of impersonating a rocket scientist I decided it would be OK for us to launch the Puma from the road in front of the Bunker. The rocket uses a streamer for recovery (which reduces drift), the wind seemed predictable and the little information card in the package informed me that the 1/2-A3-2T engines would only shoot the Puma about 150 feet high. At least that’s what I think I read. I could need reading glasses. Maybe. Anyway, I figured with the launcher in the right spot, I could make sure the little sucker would land on the driveway.

After all, I recalled, Dad and I had launched our first rocket from the driveway of our house in Shelbyville without a problem. Of course, it didn’t quite occur to me that our house there bordered on the Shelby County fairgrounds and on a big field around some old farmer’s tobacco barn.

Well, the streamer DID reduce drift. At least I got something right. The rocket sailed about 450 feet up. When it blasted off with an unexpectedly loud “SWISH!” I figured my plan was in trouble. I was counting on something more like a rocket-fart and a little lob up to tree-top height. Instead, I got half a friggin’ moonshot. I thought a 1/2-A motor was supposed to produce something like 1.5 Newtons of thrust? Crap.

Oh, and the wind was not entirely predictable.

The Puma survived to fly again.

The Puma survived to fly again.

My wife did not particularly enjoy going up on the roof of the Swamp Bunker to retrieve the thing. I chivalrously offered to climb up there myself, but she balked at the idea of my 230-pound butt clomping around on top of the house. Especially considering that the last time I was crawling around up in the attic I skillfully managed to poke a very nice hole through the sheet rock in our garage ceiling. I think she imagined a similar fate for the roof. I am not the Amazing Spider-Man.

Of course, the launch itself was one of the most exciting events EVER (at least on that particular Saturday) for Junior Rocket Boy. The whooshing, smoking, flaming rocket stuff was a very big hit indeed. The Puma survived, by the way, and will fly again someday soon.

But I think we’ll find a bigger field for the next launch. One roof hit is enough.

Game on

This is it. The time is at hand. As foretold by the prophets, a great event is about to transpire that will signal the end of a Great Evil. The season for celebration is within our grasp. The glory is ours to seize.

Pitchers and catchers report.

A baseball, in case you need a reminder.

A baseball, in case you need a reminder.

In the entire, vast universe of sports there are few moments so heavy with anticipation as the beginning of Spring Training. Maybe the opening of an Olympic games comes close (even when one of the Giant Flaming Doobies fails its hydraulics check). But that’s about the only thing I can think of. Nothing else, really, is in the same class with baseball’s hallowed First Workout.

From the depths of winter, Spring Training salvages a renewal of hope. Every team is a contender. Every ballcap-topped face is a potential phenom, a Career Year waiting to happen, a World Series MVP in waiting. Every cleated foot that claws the infield dirt or shreds the outfield grass portends the demise of that hated season of cold despair and gives life to the promise of summer’s sun-drenched embrace.

Spring Training is the sporting world’s physical manifestation of one of humanity’s most enduring and admirable qualities: Hope. At least until the 25-man roster is finalized, every baseball fan can – at least in some fashion – find a way to maintain hope for the season to come. This year, the expensive free agent won’t totally fizzle, last year’s biggest flop will redeem himself, the pennant race will stay interesting at least through August and the team’s Radio Color Guy won’t get busted at the airport with a ziploc full of snop.

Soon enough, Spring Training games will begin. It’s time for me to plan the pilgrimmage. There’s a ballpark out there with a real, live, green outfield. It’s just waiting for me to sit as close to the field as physically possible and breathe in the moist, heady aroma of freshly-cut ballfield grass: Grass that isn’t frost-bitten grey or brown, sun-soaked grass perfumed with the memories of a thousand ballgames, a hundred golf courses and 20 years traipsing the now-distant athletic fields of my youth.

Time for cold and rain and aching joints to pass. Summer beckons.

$178,900.00

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a bit of a magnet for all sorts of downloadable gaming junque. I’m not a total addict (at least not to the point of needing an external hard drive to keep up with stuff), but I’m always curious to see how creative minds approach any number of gaming-related topics. So, yeah, I’ve downloaded more than my fair share of PDF rulebooks, supplements, terrain tiles, counter sets and figure cutouts.

It did not escape my notice last month when the DriveThruStuff.com family of websites made their pitch for donations to their Haitian Relief Fund. As you may imagine, I was particularly attracted to the “Haitian Relief Bundle”,  which offered a large number of downloadable products – all digitally donated by their publishers – as an incentive for the rather small donation amount of $20.

OK. So I took the deal. But more on that in a minute. Right now, I’d like to give props to the krewe. Here’s the REAL deal: The gamer-powered donation drive for Haitian relief collected $178,900.

That’s extraordinary. That’s not chump change, boys and girls. Here’s a little perspective. In late January the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pledged $750,000 for Haitian relief. $250,000 was immediate relief from existing funds and the remainder was pledged from anticipated future donations to a relief fund.

Now, the ELCA isn’t some televangelist who can rake in millions in a few days with warnings about lightning bolts from God – but neither is it a small organization (about 4.6 million members as of 2008).  Even if you figure that’s a little over 1 million households, that’s still anticipating far less than $1 from each potential ‘donating budget’.

I’m not privvy to the customer records at the DriveThruStuff web sites, but I’d be really surprised if they had over 1 million customers. The donation total was more likely generated from the giving of 10,000 – 12,000 people – which is a pretty generous response, if you ask me.

Of course, some folks are probably wondering about the goodies that were included in the downloadable bundle. A lot of publishers participated. The ‘order’ appears in my account the same way as a ‘standard’ bundled product would – links to individual downloads for each product. That means I don’t have to waste bandwidth downloading product that I don’t want.

To be sure, the bundle includes some products that aren’t exactly world-beaters. If you’re not familiar with the state of the downloadable gaming press, then I’ll clue you in that it includes its fair share of less than impressive products. However, the relief bundle also includes a fair number of top-quality downloads – some of which ‘retail’ for more than $20 on their own. I was even nicely surprised to find several products in the bundle that were on my ‘wish list’ for the site.

Kudos to all involved – the web sites involved in the donations, the publishers who offered their wares and the gamers who ponied up. Great job, folks.