SATURDAY, August 4, 2007
I live a block away from IPTV videographer Jay Krajic. That's a good thing when you're both trying to get to the airport at 6:15 AM. Early Saturday morning I haul my suitcase and daypack down the alley to his house. While we wait for a taxi, we do a last minute re-arranging of gear and those infamous "liquids" so that we will be charged as little as possible for additional baggage. Print reporters are fortunate they don't have to worry about such things-all they need to carry is a pen, paper and computer!
Nine hours later, after two blessedly uneventful flights, we emerge into hot, sticky Orlando. Man, is it steamy down there! And we arrive during a heat wave even by Florida's standards-108 degrees. But all that high pressure is a great omen for a launch-it means no thunderstorms.
Going to a space shuttle launch is always a risky travel proposition, whether you're a reporter or a spectator. Launches are often delayed, either by weather or by last-minute technical concerns. So it's a gamble deciding which days to fly there and back without incurring too many change fees and hotel nights. You can even end up returning empty-handed. So, hardly any media from Idaho are going. We've been fund-raising for several years for this project, so fortunately we are able to go, but I definitely don't want to rack up too many additional days.
I made our reservations for Saturday, so we'd have a few days to get familiarized with the vast Kennedy Space Center and do some interviews. Fortunately the launch was only delayed by a day, which was actually good, because it gave us time to do a bit more prep work.
And prep work there is-figuring out what pre-launch events are happening, where cameras can and can't go, where the people you want to interview are staying, and where they'll be during and after launch. So that's what I'll be doing Sunday. And Monday. And Tuesday…
SUNDAY, August 5, 2007
The drive from Cape Canaveral to the Media Center is at least 30 minutes. One thing I notice right away is it's not as commercial as the area around the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I was expecting to pass endless tacky shops advertising "shuttle dogs," and people in fake astronaut suits wandering around. But because much of Merritt Island, where the Kennedy Space Center is located, is a protected wildlife refuge, the highway is just lined with trees, which creates a more peaceful entrance.
We stop first at the press credentialing center, passing striking workers from United Space Alliance (USA) outside the parking lot. USA, which employs 10,000 people, handles everything from safety inspections of the shuttle to suiting up astronauts on launch day. 600 of their workers are members of the Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. That union is striking over retirement and health care benefits.
The strikers sit outside under a tent and have a big board on which they write the names of all the "scabs" who have crossed the picket line to work on the Endeavour. They also feature the name of one 'scab of the day" on a separate sign. I notice that no one is honking in support of the strikers. USA and NASA both say the strike is not affecting their ability to launch on time or safely.
The Media Center at Kennedy is a nondescript building on a knoll at the end of a vast parking lot. Inside is a large counter with a line of NASA public affairs officers (PAOs) from every NASA site-Johnson, Kennedy, Marshall and Ames-all typing away on their computers. Behind the PAOs are desks with more employees, and behind them are the fortunate workers who have offices that look out on the shuttle platform three miles away.
There are long rows of desks set up for all the reporters from around the world who are there, and a big screen TV. I am assigned position number 26 in the second row. We are some of the first reporters to arrive, but every seat will eventually be taken, with some reporters having to sit on the floor with their computers or go to an overflow building.
Next to the main center are the offices of the media outlets that cover the space story the most. The largest building belongs to CBS, which I'm sure is a legacy of Walter Cronkite and his love of space. Bill Harwood, who has covered more than 100 shuttle launches, presides over their coverage. NBC also has a large structure.
Other media entities like Reuters have tiny buildings, just big enough to have a reporter, a computer and some air conditioning. I think the main reason they have their own structure is because it gives them a roof to shoot pictures or video from. CBS has a studio on its second floor, and quite a set-up on its roof, with lots of lights and shading equipment.
Down the slope from the buildings is a huge grassy area with the classic countdown clock you see in all the television coverage of the launches. Out in the distance, across a big marsh, you can see the shuttle, or rather, the shuttle enclosure. It's inside a protective cage right now. There's another empty shuttle pad off in the distance as well.
On the side of the grassy area some media entities like CNN have set up their RVs, where their producers and reporters will sleep (CNN has two producers here, as well as one television reporter, and a radio reporter.) Because hotels are so far away, it's more practical for them to just camp out near the media center and their satellite truck.
Indeed, the parking lot is full of satellite trucks, both from Florida stations and also rented trucks for all the reporters from out of town.
I spend part of the morning getting to know the NASA public affairs officers (PAOs). While there are easily 15 different PAOs there, each has their own purview. Sometimes the information they give correlates with what you have heard from another NASA worker; sometimes it doesn't. Then there are another dozen volunteer "escorts," each with their own set of rules and knowledge.
I quickly learn who has the best information, but even then, they're sometimes wrong. It's a good example of what Malcolm Gladwell delineates in his book, "Blink," where more mistakes can actually be made when there's too much information to sort through.
One reporter who has covered NASA for a long time tells me, "Just remember, here you're always wrong." But for the most part I find the NASA employees very accommodating. As thank-yous, I bring Idaho pins and Idaho Public Television chocolate bars to hand out.
Clay Morgan, Barbara's husband, was kind enough to email and say that he'd have some time on Sunday to do an interview. It's nice to see him again. My photographer Jay Krajic and I had dinner with him in Houston in May, but I hadn't formally interviewed him since 2003. He seems a bit tired, but calm, and his usual open and honest self as he talks about how everything was starting to seem very, very real to him.
I had heard that there was a group of former teacher-in-space (TIS) finalists staying at one of the local hotels, so I go down there. I ask a hotel worker if he has a schedule for the group. He doesn't, but points me to a banquet room. When I open the door, there they are!
About 60 of the 114 finalists for the TIS program have come to Florida to support Barb. They are already emotional two days before launch. I even recognize some of them from old footage I had looked at preparing my first documentary piece on Barbara. It's fascinating for me to see them all these years later and I feel a bit like a detective having found them. We take some footage of the group reuniting and arrange for interviews at a later time.
The biggest surprise-as I'm glancing at the photos of all of the finalists, I see that one of them was my high school physics teacher! I would later get a chance to see the teacher, Dr. Barwick, for the first time in almost 30 years.
MONDAY, August 6, 2007
I have a last-minute request of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center. Will they let me in to get footage of a member of the "Mercury 13" who is staying at our hotel?
The Mercury 13 was a group of women who were secretly tested for the astronaut program (although not by NASA itself) in the 1960s. They passed the same tests as John Glenn the Mercury 7 did, but were not allowed to become astronauts because in those days only test pilots were approved, and women couldn't be test pilots.
I knew that one of them, Gene Nora Jessen, had been invited by Barbara Morgan to attend the launch, and was bringing her granddaughter. I thought it would be great to see them in the rocket garden at the visitor's center.
But we have very little time. They are going to be there around noon, and it is already 10:30. The PAO I reach by phone is nice, but says they're too busy to accommodate me. You need an escort, and there isn't one available. I drive to the center anyway and call again. "OK," she says, "But it has to be right now, and we can give you only 30 minutes."
The problem is-Jessen is stuck in traffic! When she finally gets there, we have about 20 minutes. We try to get into the rocket park, but are behind an older man who is also trying to get in. He is having some difficulty convincing the NASA employee that he has a special pass. "Dr. Radding," he says. "It should be down there as Radding." Jay and I look at each other. We know that Radding is Barbara Morgan's maiden name.
At that moment, another man walks up who looks just like Barbara. Sure enough, it's Barbara's brother. And then another two brothers arrive! It's once again one of those small world moments. Jay and my interviewee go into the rocket park, and I stay to chat with Barbara's family.
Our filming crisis narrowly averted, we head back for the long drive to Cocoa Beach to meet with the former Teachers-In-Space. We pick a place outside the hotel that's relatively quiet. But as soon as we start doing interviews, strange birds begin squawking. Jay and another videographer who arrived the night before, Jeff Tucker, throw stones at them. But they keep turning up in the middle of an emotional part of an interview. Then security guards start talking on their radios. Then people start slamming car doors. The hotel door squeaks every time it opens. Cameras are sound magnets. As soon as you turn them on, strange sounds begin.
But the worst part was the heat. I thought I was staying hydrated, but apparently I was not. A dull headache began. My interviews are going well, but I am not.
After two hours, we complete the last of our five interviews, including interviews with three of the 10 finalists from 1985, and the original head of NASA's teacher-in-space program. Despite the noise issues, I think we have some compelling comments. The teachers are still so invested in the program it's remarkable.
We head to a nearby park where Clay Morgan is hosting a picnic for family and friends. I see a woman in a blue astronaut suit and recognize Sunita Williams, who has recently come back from space, having broken the record for the longest amount of time spent there by a woman. She was in Barb's original class of 1998. I'm able to do an interview with her. I must admit to being rather starstruck!
Barbara had asked that the broadcast media keep their distance from the party, so we are on the perimeter. But even still, NASA security people remind us to stay back. It feels a bit strange to be thought of as intrusive when we're trying to document something happy! And the folks from Idaho certainly don't mind us there. But I have to go into the party and ask people if they would mind doing an interview, and then bring them out by the parking lot.
We see Barbara's children there-her two boys are 19 and 18-- but we had been asked not to interview them, so of course we respect that.
I interview a teacher who had made some artwork of the shuttle patch, and was asking people to sign it for Barbara. When I look at it, I notice the signature "June Scobee Rodgers." I know that was the widow of the Challenger commander, Dick Scobee, so I ask if she is there. She is, and she said she would be glad to do an interview (even though her two NASA "handlers" look nervous!)
It is one of the more poignant moments of my trip. Mrs. Rodgers has undoubtedly been asked thousands of times about the Challenger explosion. I'm sure she was very nervous to be at Barbara's launch. But she tells me that she would have crawled to be there, especially since she herself was a former teacher. As she speaks she tears up, and I feel emotional as well. Normally I have more of a barrier between myself and an interviewee.
But I'm still feeling pretty terrible physically. I have a crashing headache, am nauseated and feeling cold. We complete all our interviews at around 7:00 PM and I spend the next few hours trying to recover from what apparently was a case of heat exhaustion, complicated by eye strain from my sunglasses not being the right prescription. I vow to make sure from then on to wear a hat, drink electrolyte replacement fluid and wear sunscreen. And get new sunglasses!
TUESDAY, August 7, 2007
I check my email to find that the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is going to run a truncated version of my piece from the week before on Barbara Morgan. Unfortunately they have cut out almost all of the emotion from the piece-the parts with her former students and her friends-but I am very pleased that they want to air the story.
We start our day at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, where I had heard there was a little shuttle landing simulator. I wanted our Mercury 13 interviewee to try it out, since she was never able to actually fly a real one. It would not be until 1995, almost 35 years after the Mercury 13 tests, that Eileen Collins would become the first woman to pilot a shuttle.
The PR folks allow us in, and our interviewee graciously lets us to film her crashing the shuttle twice!
We head back to the Media Center, where I decide to see if Bill Harwood of CBS would do an interview with us. I knew from talking with him at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that he was so impressed with Barb back in 1985 that he thought she would be chosen as the first teacher-in-space.
I don't always like it when reporters interview other reporters, but when you have someone with the longevity and expertise of a Bill Harwood, I think it makes sense. Very few reporters are covering space issues any more, and I think there is only one other reporter who has been doing it as long as he has, Jay Barbree of NBC, who's been there since 1965. It was an interesting interview and I'm glad that Harwood agreed to do it, with everything he had on his plate.
We have a break and then head back to Cocoa Beach to talk to Barbara's brothers. As it turns out, one can't make it, but two are able to. We struggle a bit to make a small hotel room work for the interview, putting the two men side-by-side on a bed. It was great to talk with them about Barbara when she was younger. They've had a really long day, so I appreciate them doing the interview.
We also talk to one of their daughters. She seems shy, but when she starts talking she's so articulate that all I have to do is ask two questions and she gave wonderful answers. We interview her on the beach, and in the distance could see one of Barbara's children surfing. He looks very happy and calm. Of course, all he's known his whole life is that his mom is an astronaut, and he probably goes to school with children of other astronauts who have had successful experiences.
This is the closest I will get to a beach in 5 days.
Then it's back to the media center 40 minutes away to wait for a bus that will take us for a night unveiling of the shuttle. I lather on the bug repellant, as they're already biting. After an hour of waiting, we're finally at the site. The cage that covers the shuttle moves very slowly, but finally it's open and the shuttle is revealed, lit by floodlights. It's only 1,500 feet away, definitely the closest you can get unless you actually work on the vehicle. I feel very fortunate.
Even from that close distance, though, the shuttle seems quite small to me. I think it's because the rockets next to it are so large.
At the event, it's fun to talk to reporters from other countries and even try out my rusty French with the Canadian reporters who've come to cover astronaut Dave Williams.
We get back to the hotel very late, but not as late as the family members of the astronauts. They are on their way to see the shuttle. Our buses probably crossed paths. NASA keeps the media and the families very separate from each other.
WEDNESDAY, August 8, 2007
Launch day! We are trying to figure out where to interview Gene Nora. We have just found a place by the pool, but all of the sudden an automatic waterfall goes on! So we walk outside the hotel to start, and all of the sudden lawnmowers and weed whackers start up! The "sound magnet" theory is in full force. Finally we go to a hotel room. What was to be a 15-minute proposition turns into an hour.
After that, we have a focused discussion about where videographer Jeff Tucker should be during the launch. We would like him to be on the causeway with the Idaho teachers, but have been told there are no cameras there. So we decide that he should try and get video of the family members loading on the bus to go to the launch, and then go to the beach to get the view from there.
We also have another freelance videographer who will get the Idaho teachers getting on their bus, and then go to the media center. In the event that something happens with the shuttle, he will then be there. Jay and I will go to a different location.
Then it's on to the media center to wait for a bus that will take us to the famous "astronaut walk out." We wait in the sweltering heat, all lined up like criminals with our backs against hot buses and our bags out a few feet away to be sniffed by a dog. Sweat is dripping in my eyes.
Finally we are loaded onto buses. We are taken to a little alleyway in between two NASA buildings. All the photographers who had been on the first bus have already taken the closest positions. And about eight cameras are also clamped onto a rod across from the door, to be remotely triggered. I notice with interest that the center camera is with the Orlando Sentinel. One of their columnists had written a scathing piece the day before about Barbara Morgan and the shuttle program. I guess they know what sells papers, though-they certainly have their camera positioned front and center.
Jay has been to a practice walk out a few weeks ago, and he prefers to be further down the line, so he can get a tight shot of Barbara getting into the AstroVan for the ride to the shuttle. I don't want to stand in the sun, so I wedge myself between two photographers across from the main door. It's not a great vantage point, since the NASA cameraman is right in front of me. But it's fine for me, and it's cooler.
About six minutes before the astronauts are scheduled to walk out, there's a commotion. I look over and one of the elderly NASA volunteers has started to pass out from the heat.
At 2:46 the astronauts walk out, waving. Barbara looks great-happy and rested. Jay is pleased with the shot he gets. We all get back on the bus like happy cows. The still photographers have amazing shots with their rapid-fire shutters. When you put them all together it's just like moving video.
I learn, however, that NASA has told Jeff Tucker, our videographer, to leave the site where the family members are boarding the bus. This doesn't make sense to me. It seems like over-protectiveness in a big way. We're trying to show something positive, not negative. Plus, when you're in a public area, you can't be stopped like that. But we decide not to push it.
Back at the media center I watch, fascinated, as the astronauts get further suited up, enter the shuttle, lie down and have their helmets secured. Barbara's entry is anti-climatic-I don't see her wave or anything-it just appears to me that she crawls in, while someone unfortunately walks in front of the camera shot just then. Tracy Caldwell makes the "love" sign with her hand as she turns around to enter the shuttle.
Inside, Barb is in the worst position for a camera position-center seat of the lower deck. What's worse-they load her last, so she's blocked by Alvin Drew the whole time. He looks a bit nervous, jiggling his foot. It's starting to make me claustrophobic realizing that they have to lie that way for three hours.
I check with our videographer in McCall, Chuck Cathcart. He's sitting by Payette Lake enjoying the cool weather and waiting for everyone to show up at the Elementary School to watch the launch.
Soon it's time for us to leave. Almost all the media is going to stay at the Media Center, because that's where the "money shot" of the launch is-with the big countdown clock, the American flag and the shuttle in the distance. But we don't need the launch, or to see other media. NASA will get us great shots of the launch. What we want is the human emotion surrounding the experience.
We have decided to go to Banana Creek, a short distance away, because that's where the former Teachers-in-Space are sitting, along with other VIPs. However, we have been to the site to scout it, and we know there's no way to get good shots of the audience.
Since the Challenger explosion, when cameras trained on the faces of Christa McAuliffe's parents and the children in the audience, all VIPs have been moved away from the main media site to Banana Creek. But that site is much more narrow so we are off to the side.
But since we know there will likely be a lot of emotion at the site, we are crossing our fingers we can at least get interviews afterwards. That's not always possible, because usually reporters and guests are escorted immediately away from the site.
NASA agrees to let us stay and will take other reporters back with them after the launch. But there aren't that many-just two still photographers. There's only one other video camera, and no other broadcast reporter. After having been cheek-to-jowl at the astronaut walkout, this is great. There's also a breeze!
One thing we notice is that there are no Idaho officials at the launch. This seems like a missed opportunity to support Barbara and also to do some promotion of Idaho with the dozens of reporters here.
We are able to do two interviews beforehand, and arrange for some of the teachers to visit with us afterwards. I'm feeling much more relieved. Because we can't actually see them in the stands, we've left a small camera with one of the teachers so they can film each other.
Now all that's left is the launch. Jay and I talk about what we'd like to do. As much as it would be fun to train our camera on the shuttle itself, we're here to see the people. So we decide to get about 10 seconds of the launch, and then move to the people.
NASA builds in "hold time" before a launch for last minute work. The last hold happens at nine minutes before launch for 45 minutes. That's a long time when you're waiting outside. So once that hold has lifted, you can hear the crowd swell with anticipatory buzzing. As the voice of Rob Navias from Mission Control gets to 10 seconds, the crowd starts chanting the numbers.
And then lift-off.
I've seen many shuttle launches on TV, and the NASA cameras switch back and forth on their views-distant, close-up. When you see it with your own eyes, it's different. It's further away, so the shuttle looks quite diminutive, especially against the rockets. And the "rockets red glare," so to speak is very, very bright. I guess that was the biggest surprise for me. The firepower, and how dangerous it seems for the shuttle to be near all that. I kept thinking about Barbara inside and how it must feel.
Then you hear the crack as the sound of the blast-off gets to you. It wasn't as loud as I expected, or perhaps I'd just been prepared for it. But it is loud, like very loud thunder that kind of ripples. Folks at the media center, who are near the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, get more of the shock waves.
The shuttle, which on NASA close-up views you can see for a long time, actually goes up very, very fast and quickly disappears from view. There was a nice shot of it framed by the two flags in front of us, but by the time we swung the camera around it was almost gone.
Annoyingly, as soon as the shuttle took off, the engines of the 50 or so buses behind the bleachers started up. I learned later that was because in case the toxic smoke from the rockets blew towards the crowd, the buses had to be ready to leave immediately. But it wasn't a great background noise to have.
The other interesting thing was the crowd noise. It was very loud on lift-off, and then quieted down. Then after the famous words, "throttle up" there was an intake of breath, and then once everyone could see the shuttle was OK, another round of screaming. Then quiet again, and then once Main Engine Shut Off (MECO) happened, more hooting and hollering. Folks knew the crew was now in orbit.
We found our Mercury 13 interviewee, and even though she is normally quite unemotional, she was tearing up. The teachers are so emotional that they haven't even made it over. Almost all the buses are gone, and they're still snapping pictures of each other a hundred yards away. We ask if we can go over and do some interviews and are given permission.
The teachers are beside themselves with emotion-crying and laughing at the same time. They even want to take pictures of us. I think their emotion alone gave the Endeavour some extra rocket power. They truly see her as living out their own dreams. I was so glad we had made the choice to go to this location instead of stay with the rest of the media.
We go back to the media center, where a press conference has already started. The administrator of NASA and all the flight managers are there. They are asked some questions about their feelings regarding Barbara Morgan finally going up in space, as well as the "throttle up" moment. All of them except one express little personal feeling about it. To them, at least in public, she is just another member of the crew. Bill Harwood of CBS thinks NASA has missed an important opportunity to do more highlighting of Barbara.
One reporter asks the administrator a pointed question about what the next "PR" event will be to attract attention to the space shuttle program now that Barbara is up in space. I squirm in my seat. Although I dearly love my profession and would defend it at almost any cost, during the past few months covering this story I have heard several questions in press conferences that I think are quite inappropriate and make me embarrassed for the profession. (One reporter in Houston actually asked the commander if he wanted to put an arm about Barbara on liftoff to calm her.)
The administrator answers that he's having a "cognitive disconnect" at the question, because he finds every space launch fascinating. I think it's an appropriate response.
He is then asked for the first time about the reports of drunk astronauts and answers quite firmly that he believes the allegations to be anecdotal and lacking in basis.
It's almost two hours after launch, and the road is looking pretty good, but soon enough we hit traffic. The traffic going back to Orlando looks horrible. We finally make it to one of the hotels at around 9 PM to see an after-party with the Idaho teachers and do some interviews.
I learn from them that even though we were told we couldn't be with them on the causeway, there was a reporter and photographer there. I am stunned and angry. When it comes to working with NASA, you definitely need to know who to ask and when to ask, because they can change their rules. But it's too late. I hope that the video we've arranged for one of the teachers to take on his own camera comes out well.
Then we go to another hotel to say goodbye to the Teachers-in-Space finalists. We have one more interview to do, but it will have to wait, as it is nearly 11 PM.
THURSDAY, August 9, 2007
We don't have to get up quite as early today, but my body still wakes me up around 7. I grab a copy of USA Today and the Orlando Sentinel for posterity. Since I've been a kid, I've collected newspapers from the days of famous events. Darn it-forgot to buy Florida Today.
At around 9:30 we go down the road to interview one of Barb's good friends. In the apartment elevator we meet Commander Scott Kelly's in-laws!
We find the friend and some others watching NASA TV in their condo. Every time they see even a small part of Barb, they cry out, "There's Barb's ear!" or "There's Barb's hair!" It's fun. Of course, that would happen right as we had our camera turned the other way, and then she'd float out of frame right as we set up our shot. Eventually we get her on tape, though.
We all try and determine from small things how Barbara is doing. She looks tired to me, and is wrinkling her forehead in concentration. But she's moving her head from side to side, which is good. I know from talking to Eileen Collins that making any sudden movements those first few days can make you sick, so if she was able to do that, that's a good sign.
Tracy Caldwell is amazing, sitting at a control panel and looking up at switches, then down at her book. Her vestibular system doesn't seem to be very affected by weightlessness.
After the interview, we drive to the media center one last time to say goodbye to folks, and then go to the cafeteria for the first time. We haven't had time before. There I see a woman who I had noticed in the media center before and invite her to join us.
It turns out that she is a NASA physician. We have a very interesting conversation about what happens to the body in space-she's been weightless herself in the "vomit comet" for a total of 90 minutes over the years (that's a lot of parabolas!) She says she loves it even though she gets very sick. She confirms that Tracy Caldwell does look like she's doing very well physically.
Interestingly, she admits she's a bit disappointed that in the rush to build the space center, there isn't room in the payload or the time to do very many pure science experiments, either on humans or on animals. Perhaps once astronauts live aboard the International Space Station for longer periods of time, more experiments will happen.
Jay and I then go to the Visitor Center for the first time as tourists. We walk around a bit, but neither of us is that interested in watching a 3-D movie or going on a simulated shuttle ride. We are just too tired. We go to the gift shop, but unfortunately the only shirt that I want is sold out.
Interestingly, there really aren't that many things for sale specific to STS-118---just a few shirts, a hat, and some pins. My guess is that that NASA doesn't order a lot, because if the flight doesn't happen, or not enough people show up, then they're left with too much stock. But they were silly not to order more of the shirt that I had wanted! Guess I'll have to check E-Bay.
But there are reasons for everything; while in the gift shop we once again bump into Barbara's brothers. I have a wonderful conversation with one of them about the emotions that he and others had as she launched.
We get to our hotel and grab a bite to eat. As I pack, I watch NASA TV on my computer because I know there's a chance that Barbara will talk around 9 PM. And then, there she is! Her face looks a bit swollen from all the fluid moving into it, but she seems very happy. She speaks for only a short time, but it's definitely a "teachable moment" as she describes how dizzy she's been and how you have to be careful not to let objects float away. I'm glad that she's feeling well enough to talk to everyone.
Commander Scott Kelly also sends down the first-ever video of how astronauts look on ascent, taken from a small camera in the flight deck. It's amazing tape, and I call back to Boise to make sure we're recording it back at the station. You can see everything rumbling as the craft starts lifting off, and then the flight deck shaking even more. But the astronauts look so calm, especially Tracy Caldwell. She could be just sitting in a car. The one in the middle, though, Rick Mastracchio, seems to be occasionally moving his head back and forth pretty violently. You can't see the lower deck where Barbara is.
Then when they hit weightlessness, it's pretty sudden-papers that Rick Mastracchio has been holding go flying. And he himself doesn't look too well-at one point he kind of leans over and disappears from view. I wonder if he is getting sick. He's been in space before, but they say you can't predict how someone will feel, just like some people who normally can be at high altitude sometimes get altitude sickness out of the blue.
Tracy Caldwell, though, who is on her first flight, takes off her helmet and immediately starts photographing out the window of the shuttle, as does Dave Williams. He's on his back looking through a camera as the shuttle is spinning. Ugh. I'm just staring at the video thinking how I could not handle any of it-the launch, the claustrophobia, the motion. I'm still thinking about it as I drift off to sleep and hoping that they're doing OK.
FRIDAY, August 10, 2007
We're up at 3 AM Boise time to get back home-via Orlando, Kansas City and Las Vegas. At 3 PM we're finally in the City of Trees.
It was a challenging trip, but a great trip. Seeing the shuttle launch was exciting, but for me, it was mostly about feeling the energy of the people who were there to support Barbara-her family, her friends, even the Teachers-In-Space who barely knew her. We should all be that fortunate to have a team like that behind us.
Barbara's still up there, and so the story continues. Her big day is Tuesday, when she operates a robotic arm and also talks to kids at the Discovery Center.
We will follow her adventure, including talking to her in space! So stay tuned.
TUESDAY, August 14, 2007
It’s a big day for Barbara—she operates a robotic arm in the morning to move a stowage platform, then does interviews with the national television networks, and then answers questions from children at the Discovery Center in Idaho. Joining her are astronauts Dave Williams, Clayton Anderson and Alvin Drew.
The long-anticipated downlink—Christa McAuliffe had hoped to do exactly the same thing from space—is now routine procedure for NASA. But that doesn’t lessen the excitement at the Discovery Center, which organized a whole week of space-related activities around the event.
Barbara and the rest of the crew do well—NASA has given them the questions beforehand so they can be ready with “props”—a stationary bicycle, a baseball and some drinks. Children giggle as a drop of red liquid turns into a big floating blob in space and Dave Williams opens his mouth like a fish to eat/drink it. Barbara is a hit when she shows how weightlessness enables her to lift two grown men up, one with each arm.
Afterwards, I interview a few children whose questions I had liked. Children can be refreshingly honest. When I asked several of them how they came up with their question, they said, “Well, my mom actually wrote it.” One boy said NASA had written his question. His original question was about the importance of different countries working together on the space station, which I thought was a good one. The "replacement" question was also interesting—can the astronauts see global warming from space? I was
The children were quite excited to have been picked to talk to Barbara, and they lucked out. The astronauts had spent so much time answering that the satellite time ended before three children could ask their questions. But NASA added on some time and they got their chance.
To some of the national media, the event was a poignant reminder of what Christa McAuliffe had hoped to do. I didn’t really see it that way, because so many astronauts have already communicated with children via satellite, but I was happy that Barb finally got the chance. She would go on to have similar events with children at the Challenger Center in Virginia, and with students in Canada.
THURSDAY, August 16, 2007
In December, 2006, I sent a request to NASA to interview Barbara from space. I was told that I would not hear until two weeks before launch whether I had gotten a slot, and that I probably wouldn’t. There are very few opportunities to interview astronauts from space, and they go to the networks, which have the broadest reach.
When I was in Houston this spring, I asked again and got the same answer, although there was a slight ray of hope: if the mission was extended to 14 days, there might be a possibility.
When I hadn’t heard anything before launch, I figured it wasn’t going to happen. But just in case, after the launch I asked a
Two days later, I received an email that I would be able to interview Barbara and some crew members. It would mean getting to the office on a Saturday at 5 AM, but everyone here was game for it. It would be perfect timing, a few days before they were scheduled to land, and after a decision would have been made about the tile situation.
By the next Monday, though, NASA changed the date to Thursday. I was still thrilled, but the interview would now be at an awkward time—just a few hours before the announcement was scheduled to be made about the tile repair. So my responses would essentially be old news as soon as they happened. But the PAO in charge said that I was lucky—it could have been cancelled all together.
The PAO told me that in addition to Barbara, I’d be talking to the two spacewalkers, Dave Williams and Rick Mastracchio. Mastracchio would be doing the tile repair if it was going to happen.
On Wednesday, though, the plan changed again. Because Williams and Mastracchio were now being prepped to potentially repair the tiles, they were not available. Alvin Drew would take their place along with Barbara. I went back to the drawing board with my questions.
I would be given about six minutes. There's a five second delay in between each question and response. So you lose some time there. I knew from watching the network interviews that I'd be able to get in about six questions. Believe me, trying to pick those questions was hard. I knew I wanted to ask their opinion of the tile situation, but after that, I was curious about so many things.
The morning of the interview, our crew made sure the phone lines were working well. NASA called to test the line, too. My earpiece, though, was very muffled. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hear well.
Then NASA couldn’t get its video camera in the crew cabin to work. Minutes ticked away. I knew that they didn’t have a lot of satellite time, and 15 minutes had already gone by. I was wondering if the satellite would disappear during my interview, or whether it would even happen.
Finally they fixed the camera and we started. I listened to the first two interviews, with Associated Press and Reuters. During the Reuters interview, you couldn’t hear Alvin Drew on one of his responses. So the reporter had to ask again. I thought for sure it would eat into my time.
When they came to me, I don't remember much, as I was so focused on getting my questions out quickly. By that point, after listening to the Discovery Center event and the network interviews, it seemed almost normal to interview an astronaut, although the concept that you could be talking to someone 200 miles above you is still an amazing one to me.
Barbara said she was not worried about the shuttle tile situation. Later, I would see that response quoted in a lot of papers, so I guess a lot of reporters were listening around the country to NASA TV.
Barbara was very eloquent in her last answer, about what she saw from the Space Station window — so eloquent that she ran over in time! NASA lost the satellite but kept the audio going, which was great. We ended up with a fun interview that we immediately posted to our web site. My only regret — not talking to Colonel Alvin Drew more. There just wasn’t time. And he’s a fellow DC native, so I felt doubly bad.
Thanks to all the crew who worked on the interview. It is posted on this web site.
TUESDAY, August 21, 2007
Who wouldn’t want to see a Space Shuttle landing up close? I know I would, and I even had a press pass to do so. But just as much, I wanted to be with Barbara’s friends when the shuttle landed. To me, just as with the launch, a big part of the story is not just the craft itself, but the human emotion surrounding it.
So Jay Krajic and I went up to McCall, where Barbara used to teach. Barbara’s friend and former colleague, Kathy Phelan, graciously allowed us to watch the landing on her television, which gets NASA TV. We were joined by Sue Anderson, another teacher friend of Barbara’s, and Michelle Harris, one of Barbara’s former students, who is now herself a teacher.
Although I had a very positive feeling about the landing, you just can’t help but get the jitters as the shuttle goes through the atmosphere and you can’t hear from the crew. That’s when the problems with Columbia happened, as the tiles couldn’t sustain the heat.
We were all relieved when we could hear the commander’s voice. But still, there were 30 minutes to go.
When you could finally see the shuttle, almost ghostly, on long range cameras, that’s when I felt better. The sonic boom was amazing—much louder than anything I heard on launch. At first it was startling—had something gone wrong, or was there a shooting nearby?
I can’t imagine what it would be like to hurtle downward like that, decelerating from 14,000 miles an hour to 400 miles an hour, and landing at more than 200 miles an hour. Well, I can. I would pass out.
When the shuttle landed, Kathy, Michelle and Sue all whooped it up, and there were some tears, too. Her dear friends have spent more than two decades vicariously experiencing Barbara’s highs and lows. Also, being teachers, they feel vindicated and empowered that one of their own was finally having a chance to show the world what teachers can do. To talk to Michelle, who is the same age Barbara was when she was chosen, and who was once Barbara’s student, was very moving for me. She says that Barbara’s willpower gives her more confidence to achieve her goal: writing a book.
Jay and I are packing up to leave, because we don’t think the crew will appear. Then all of the sudden, there they are. Without Barb. My stomach gives way a bit. “Barbara Morgan will be going back in the crew transport vehicle” intones the narrator. We’re all wondering what has happened. And I had just sent a congratulatory text message to her husband, Clay.
We wait and watch for the news conference. Finally it happens, but the first five questions have nothing to do with Barb. Finally Bill Harwood, the CBS News reporter, asks about her. "This was Barbara's first flight and she was feeling just a little bit under the weather," said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. "She wasn't able to stand up and walk around out in the Florida heat quite right yet. Having stood up and walked around out there in the Florida heat, I was about ready to join her! So nothing more than that."
That was a relief, but knowing Barb, she’d have to be more than “a little under the weather” to miss being with the crew outside.
Sure enough, at the press conference later, Barbara looks wan. Her hair is covered by a red Nike hat (couldn’t they find a NASA hat?) There are circles under her eyes and her voice sounds raw. But she answered the questions with her wry humor, joking that she was just doing “good science” when she was sick. When asked what she wanted to do next, she said “stop the room from spinning.”
Astronaut Sunita Williams told me that it took days before she could walk a few feet without wobbling. So Barbara’s experience is certainly understandable, given all the G-Forces on her and the pitching and rolling the shuttle does while descending and slowing. The amazing thing to me is that the other astronauts were able to function so quickly at all.
All of them more than deserve a few weeks of rest. Then I anticipate the media rounds will begin, and hopefully Barbara will be able to get to Idaho this fall. Rumor is the crew will be going to Canada to ski. Hey, that’s only a hop, skip and jump from Idaho, especially as fast as they’re used to going. I look forward to visiting with her again and finding out what the experience was like and what it has meant to her. I know that she’s already inspired many people.
I’ve been asked often, “would you go up in space. “ And even as exciting as it’s been to cover this story, my answer is still the same—no, thank you! Although I curse gravity several times a week, I’m quite content to know there are people like Barbara Morgan, with stronger stomachs and calmer nerves, to be the space explorers for the rest of us…