Category: Science

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “The Longest Day in the World”

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “The Longest Day in the World”

Three years ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice, I initially posted a piece that I’ve re-posted here every year since. Today, June 20, 2020, it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially occurs at 5:44 p.m. EDT/21:44 UTC this evening. This year I decided to post the piece on my fiction blog, . You can see it there, and I hope you enjoy it.


Back to the Future

Back to the Future

It had been 3,249 days – nearly nine years – since Americans went to space aboard an American launch vehicle and from American soil, when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, bearing the Crew Dragon capsule with two astronauts aboard, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30. The launch broke a hiatus that existed since the last U.S. manned launch, that of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011, and during which only Russian vehicles, launched from the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, brought Americans to space.

The occasion was so momentous I decided I needed to be there, near the launch site, to see America’s return to manned spaceflight. For several years, in the 1980s, I covered the space program as a journalist and saw many launches, manned and unmanned, from KSC and adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the intervening 35 years my interest in space and America’s place in it drifted, as it did for much of the country. All that changed Saturday.

Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken
Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken during a dress rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center on May 23. Photo by NASA/Kim Shiflett.

As impressive as the launch was, the tens of thousands of people who had come from all over the state of Florida, from all over the country, and even from abroad, to see the launch, was incredibly gratifying. To me, that was a big part of the story Saturday, just as it was three days earlier when similar crowds turned out, only to suffer disappointment when weather caused the launch to be scrubbed about 15 minutes before the planned liftoff.

Despite nine years during which no manned launches originated on American soil, people clearly are still interested in space exploration, and that interest is now passing to new generations of young people and children, generations which are likely to see people again set foot on the moon, and then going on to other planets, maybe even doing those things themselves.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Photo by the author.

As I’ve said before, to me perhaps the biggest tragedy of the cut-backs to the space program that happened after the last moon voyage occurred in the 1970s was that there were generations, billions of people, billions of children who were born and lived on this planet, but who were not alive as humans walked on the moon. All they could do was what people did for eons before American astronauts set foot on our nearest natural satellite, which was look toward the heavens, toward the moon, toward the planets and stars, and wonder what it would be like to go there, to dream about doing so. And now that dream once more is coming close to becoming a reality.

It could be as early as 2024 when we go back to the moon. And not many years after that when we send a manned mission to Mars, departing from the moon, which would serve as a stepping stone to reduce the cost and difficulty of breaking free from earth’s gravity.

Saturday’s launch marked another first: It was the first time that a launch vehicle and capsule built by a private company, SpaceX, carried astronauts into orbit. This is the new direction of spaceflight, a partnership between NASA and private enterprise, not just for private contractors to assemble parts and systems designed by NASA, but to design, build, and operate complete launch systems. Hot on SpaceX’s contrail is another private space venture, United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two aerospace giants, which also is hoping to carry astronauts into orbit.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Apollo and Shuttle-era Vehicle Assembly Building visible at right. Photo by the author.

We clearly have come a long way since the early days of the space program. Tuesday marked 55 years since, on June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White made the first American spacewalk, remaining outside the Gemini 4 capsule, which he shared with Command Pilot James McDivitt, for 23 minutes. More recently, we have come up from what was probably the absolute nadir for the country’s space program when, 10 years ago, then-NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with the “perhaps foremost” task for the agency: “ . . . to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit over the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral. Photo by the author.

There was no thought of that Saturday as the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule rose from Pad 39A into the blue Florida sky, carrying Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS), 263 statute miles above the earth’s surface. Even as riots and violence was tearing apart cities across the country, and the nation was still reeling under months of lock-downs occasioned by an invading virus, the feeling of pride and happiness among those gathered along the shores of the Indian River or on the beaches and bridges and in the parks of Brevard County – people of all races, genders, nationalities, and ages – was evident.

Perhaps reflective of the feeling of those present would be the words of SpaceX founder and its self-styled Chief Technology Officer, Elon Musk. Himself born in South Africa and a citizen of three countries, including this one, Musk has described the U.S. as “[inarguably] the greatest country that has ever existed on Earth,” calling it “the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever been.” I think few present Saturday would have argued with those words.

Second Lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump
From left to right, Second Lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump, watch as Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon lifts off from Kenneday Space Center on Saturday. To the right out of the image is First Lady Melania Trump. The last time a president came to KSC to witness a launch was in October 1998 when President Bill Clinton came to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The Ride Up and Docking

The next crucial part of the mission came Sunday morning, 19 hours after launch, when the Crew Dragon capsule docked with the ISS. The docking went flawlessly, too, almost eerily smoothly, and it was enthralling watching it unfold on C-Span back in the confines of my living room. One wishes that terrestrial television transmission of sports and other events went as smoothly as the video being beamed down from space.

Behnken and Hurley, both Air Force test pilots, even got to pilot the capsule manually for awhile as they sped around the earth at 17,500 MPH in pursuit of the ISS, catching up with it at 10:16 a.m. EDT Sunday. The only apparent mishap was when Behnken bumped his head on the hatchway, causing some bleeding he mopped up with a handkerchief, as the astronauts came across from the Crew Dragon into the vestibule of the space station.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit over the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral. Photo by the author.

Welcoming Hurley and Behnken aboard the ISS were American astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Antoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Vagner on Saturday had captured a rare image of the launch of the Falcon 9 as the ISS passed east of Cape Canaveral.

Cassidy later told reporters that the Crew Dragon emitted a new car smell.

“In fact, there was a little bit of space smell in the vestibule, Cassidy said. “When we got that hatch open, you could tell it was a brand new vehicle, with smiley faces on the other side, [a] smiley face on mine — just as if you had bought a new car, the same kind of reaction. Wonderful to see my friends and wonderful to see a brand new vehicle.”

Comparing the ride up with his previous ascent on the Space Shuttle, Behnken said the liftoff was smoother, largely due to the Shuttle’s twin and powerful solid rocket boosters, though other parts of the ascent were rougher.

“But Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit, and we were definitely driving or riding a dragon all the way up,” he said. “It was not quite the same ride, the smooth ride, as the Space Shuttle was up to MECO [main engine cutoff] — a little bit less g’s but a little bit more alive is probably the best way I would describe it.”

The next manned SpaceX launch is projected to be around Aug. 30. But even given the successes of the SpaceX launch system, there will be at least one more American astronaut, Kate Rubins, to be launched on a Russian rocket in October. The U.S. pays the Russians $90 million per seat for those launches, but that probably will soon turn around and the Russians will begin paying the U.S. to launch their cosmonauts on our vehicles, at a more economical cost of $55 million per seat. A big part of the cost saving results from SpaceX’s use of recoverable and refurbishable first-stage boosters, unlike the Russians’ non-recoverable launch system.

After Saturday’s successful launch, Musk couldn’t help but get in a dig at the Russians during the post-launch news conference. In a jab at Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin who, in 2014, had said the U.S. might as well “deliver its astronauts to the ISS by using a trampoline,” Musk, sitting in a panel chaired by NASA Administrator James Bridenstine, quipped, “The trampoline is working.” Musk quickly added, “It’s an inside joke,” as he and Bridenstine both laughed.

While Rogozin’s spokesman was less than gracious, saying what happened Saturday should have happened a long time ago, Rogozin himself took Musk’s comment in stride.

Tweeted the Russian space chief to his American counterpart, “Please convey my sincere greetings to @elonmusk (I loved his joke) and @SpaceX team. Looking forward to further cooperation!”

A rivalry that has gone on for more than six decades isn’t likely to abate any time soon, cooperation aboard the ISS or not. For now, Americans have a lot to be proud about, and they showed it at the Cape on Saturday.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Photo by the author.

BONUS: Polaroid images from the moon contributed by reader Gary Green. See them here.

Featured Image: SpaceX Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center Saturday. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Fragging the Commander in Chief

Fragging the Commander in Chief

If you’re old enough to remember the Vietnam War, or if you’ve done some research on it, you probably know the term ‶fragging.″ While the practice predates the Vietnam War, it became an all-too-common practice during that conflict, and the word ‶fragging″ came into the vernacular during the Vietnam War years.

The term comes from the fragmentary grenades that often were used by American soldiers to kill their own platoon and company commanders who were deemed (rightly or wrongly) to be incompetent or abusive, or who ordered their commands (often acting on orders from above) into situations considered especially dangerous. Estimates of successful and attempted fraggings during the war run from 800 to more than 1,000.

If you’ve been watching or listening to what much of the national media has had to say about Donald Trump during the ongoing coronavirus drama, things amplified by the rank-and-file never-Trumpers in the country and so-called ‶leaders″ of the Democractic Party, you might agree that it is not an exaggeration to call what is going on ‶fragging.″ The President could leave the Rose Garden and walk across the surface of the Potomac River, or declare a cure for cancer, and the media would still pillory him. And it’s not just the President who is being hit by the virtual fragmentary grenades being hurled (and who, to his credit, has generally shrugged them off), but the general U.S. populace and, of graver concern, our very democracy.

At the more mundane level, as a former journalist I am embarrassed by the moronic nature of some of the questions members of the media ask at the daily White House coronavirus news conferences. Many of these alleged reporters are simply uninformed and unprepared, while others are clearly out to pose ‶got’cha″ questions that neither illuminate nor add to public knowledge. These questions clearly are part of a larger campaign to discredit the President who, again to his credit, is quick to bat them back and call out their not-so-hidden agenda.

No accident

With the 2020 elections approaching, this campaign is no accident. It’s the last-ditch attempt by the Democratic Party and its supporters in the anti-Trump media (which, in all fairness, is most of the media) to block the reelection of Donald Trump. To them, this is less a health crisis then a political opportunity, as dodgy as it might be. In the aftermath of one failed attempt after another at undoing the results of the 2016 election, this is their last shot.

As I’ve recounted on this blog, they watched their Russia hoax and the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine non-event, and their crown jewel, the impeachment fiasco, blow up in their faces. Along the way there were the Kavanagh confirmation and border stonewalling sideshows. The closest they’ve come to stymieing the President’s program, if not actually unseating him, was tipping the House of Representatives blue in 2018. But without gaining the Senate, it wasn’t enough for them to accomplish their goals, which was to unseat a duly elected President – just one they didn’t like.

Now picture their dilemma. Faced with the unnerving prospect of nominating a Socialist as their party’s candidate to stand off against Trump – architect of the best economy in anyone’s memory – in November, the party nomenklatura huddled, called in every chit in sight and some that hadn’t yet materialized, threatened, cajoled, and bought off every other candidate in the race, threw their compliant media machinery into high gear, and voila!, engineered the primary victories of the only logical choice they had left: A doddering soon-to-be-78-year-old (17 days after election day, to be precise) former vice president who thinks kids still listen to record players and who has a hard time remembering what state he’s in or what day of the week it is. Or, for that matter, even what office he’s running for.

Jill Biden jumps to defend husband Joe Biden from animal rights activist at Biden campaign rally in Los Angeles, March 3

In pushing Joe Biden to the forefront of the race, the party poobahs were counting on the power of reminiscence for a guy who, despite his paucity of any real accomplishments and being tinged with corruption throughout his career, was enough of a milquetoast that he could provide contrast with the brash Trump. What they probably weren’t counting on was how quickly Biden’s mental acuity was fading and how the man was virtually evaporating right before our eyes. Or that their chosen ‶pro woman″ candidate would be accused of rape.

Meanwhile, as the coronavirus drama accelerated, putting Trump front and center before the nation on a daily basis, Biden has retreated to his basement in Wilmington, issuing intermittent, sputtering, semi-coherent blasts, generating doubts (including by this writer) that he will make it to the convention, much less the election.

Even the usual useful idiots in the media have shown, through their facial expressions, their doubts about Biden as he babbles his way through on-air interviews. Don’t believe me. Listen yourself to the clip on that page. Be sure not to miss the part that begins at minute 1:00. It’s hard to decide whether it’s more amusing or frightening. If nothing else, it might make you feel sorry for this guy and question why his handlers are pushing him (often under the protective shield of his wife, Jill Biden) to make these appearances. Listening to these rambles, can you picture him leading a Scout outing, much less a national response to the coronavirus? The phrase that comes to my mind is, ‶We’re all going to die.″

Setting the record straight

It would be an impossible task to address every lie and every distortion put out daily by the media, but let’s look at just some of the biggies.

Myth: Trump didn’t listen to his medical advisers early on which allowed the virus to spread.

Truth: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has led the country’s medical response to every viral epidemic since the early 1980s, said on multiple occasions in January and February that no one needed to be concerned about this virus. On at least two occasions, on Jan. 21 and Jan. 26, he told media interviewers that the risk to the U.S. was low.

On Jan. 21 Fauci told Newsmax interviewer Greg Kelly, “Obviously, you need to take it seriously, and do the kinds of things that the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security are doing. But, this not a major threat for the people of the United States, and this is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.” Then on Jan. 26 he told radio show host John Catsimatidis, ‶It’s a very, very low risk to the United States,″ adding, ‶It isn’t something the American public needs to worry about or be frightened about. Because we have ways of preparing and screening of people coming in [from China].″ Further, CDC Director Robert Redfield has said he agreed with Fauci’s statements at the time.

Fauci continued to make similar statements all the way until late February, including saying on Feb. 29 that Americans didn’t have to make any lifestyle changes due to the virus. Meanwhile, Trump announced the travel ban from China on Jan. 31 and it went into effect on Feb. 2, credited with avoiding many cases and attendant deaths being brought into the country from China. The kudos the media gave him for that? They called the travel ban ‶racist″ and ‶xenophobic.″ and Biden, without specifically referring to the travel ban, also called the President ‶xenophobic.″ On March 11 Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe, and on March 20 the EU, Canada, and other countries finally got around to announcing their own travel bans. By then Italy and Spain were on countrywide lockdowns as deaths already were piling up in those countries.

Myth: Trump was in denial about the danger the virus posed.

Truth: On Feb. 24, Nancy Pelosi, one of the President’s biggest critics, was urging people to attend Chinese New Year festivities in San Francisco’s China Town. “It’s exciting to be here, especially at this time to be able to be unified with our community,” Pelosi gushed at the time. “We want to be vigilant about what is out there in other places. We want to be careful about how we deal with it, but we do want to say to people ‘Come to Chinatown. Here we are, careful, safe, and come join us.’” On the other coast, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, another Trump critic, and New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot were urging city residents to go about their normal lives. Now who, exactly, was more in denial?

Myth: Trump has gutted the CDC and NIH and eliminated the pandemic task force that was attached to the National Security Council.

Truth: There is so much to be said about all his and the truth is so convoluted I’m not even going to try to detail it, except to say that funding for both CDC and NIH actually increased in recent years, mostly because Congress increased their funding against Administration requests to cut unnecessary positions. There has been no gutting. Read the details here.

Myth: Trump has muzzled Fauci and the other medical people on the coronavirus task force.

Truth: You’d have to be totally gullible and listening only to the media distortions rather than watching the actual daily White House news conferences (which the major networks and some cable networks have stopped carrying, either in full or in part) to believe this one. As in any major crisis-control environment, there is an attempt to coordinate public statements, which is just good management, but Fauci has made it clear that he has never been muzzled. In response to New York Times claims that he had been, Fauci responded, ‶I’ve never been muzzled and I’ve been doing this since Reagan.That was a real misrepresentation of what happened.”

Myth: The Democrats in Congress want to help working people and small business and it’s the Republicans who don’t care about them.

Nancy “Let Them Eat Ice Cream” Pelosi fat and happy while America suffers. What passes for “leadership” in today’s Democratic Party.

Truth: With Democrats claiming, under media cover, that it was Republican desire to turn the multi-trillion dollar stimulus package into a corporate slush fund, the main reason why Congress couldn’t quickly agree to get aid to millions of laid off American workers and closing small businesses was very different. It was because House Speaker and Democratic leader Nancy ‶Let Them Eat Ice Cream″ Pelosi drew up a competing 1,119-page bill stuffed with a Democrat wish-list that had nothing to do with the coronavirus or assistance to people, businesses, or hospitals. On the list were provisions to mandate ‶diversity″ on the boards of companies receiving stumulus funds, same-day voter registration and early voting requirements, collective bargaining for federal employees, carbon-offset requirements for airlines receiving assistance, a bail out of the U.S. Postal Service, paying off student debt, resurrecting the Obamaphone program and, of course, funding for the Kennedy Center in Washington. As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (the same Jim Clyburn who was single-handedly responsible for putting Joe Biden back on the political map) put it in a conference call with his Dem colleagues, This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Never mind that people across the country were unable to pay their rent or feed their families. This was politics at its abysmal worse (which is really saying something).

Now that the funds earmarked for small business have already been depleted, Pelosi is again holed up in her San Francisco mansion gloating about her chocolates and $13 a pint ice cream stashed in her $24,000 refrigerator, holding up adding more funds to the program while Americans suffer through the biggest financial crisis to strike the country in 90 years. If there was ever more proof of her true priorities, this is it.

The misinformation spills over to hatred

Have no doubt: This campaign of misinformation by the media and the Dems is spilling over to generate further division and outright hatred among what is already a polarized country. You don’t have to look far to see it. To illustrate this consequence, intended or not, here is a random sampling of just a few of the hateful postings I’ve seen online in the past few days (never mind the factual lapses, these quotes weren’t selected for their credibility):

Trump is a mass murderer, period, and any person even considering voting for him should lose their voting rights forever.″

Trump’s response to the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster, his press briefings are all about him telling lies about how great he is. His approval ratings have dropped. He will only help states get vital supplies if they suck up to him, while they compete against each other for protective clothing, ventilators, etc. He knew from the 20th of January about the risks, yet he did nothing until near the end of March in terms of social distancing. Even his own party wish he would STFU.″

The only political turds in this country are WR0NGIST G0P/C0NS. And only WR0NGIST G0P/C0N turds refuse to see it. You know almost nothing about politics, bro.

the choice is between evil and the Devil Incarnate. the choice is between a lousy crook who has NO vision whatsoever and a racist criminal who is set on destroying our entire way of government, our entire way of economy and our entire planetary environment. I will vote for Biden because not voting or voting for a 3rd party candidate is to give a vote to the Rump in the White House…″

Nice stuff, huh?

Finally, on a personal note, I myself, your not-so-humble correspondent, have been the target of some of this hate in the past two weeks, in what might be the unlikeliest (but isn’t) of places. We have this neighborhood online thing, part of the nationwide NextDoor network, ostensibly to promote neighborliness among, well, neighbors. Along with the usual lost-dog postings and pictures of Bambi in peoples’ yards, some in the neighborhood have had the temerity to post things about the coronavirus, understandingly being a subject for conversation, and within a short time the Trump haters have jumped on and do their best to take over the threads and shut down everyone else. Not to exclusively defend the other side, since both sides put up their fair share of misinformation, but in a couple of cases, when I couldn’t stand the verbal fisticuffs any more, I’ve posted something intended to stop the politicization of what should, I think, be considered a national crisis and suggesting that people consider pulling together instead of apart

Some positive comments were posted in response to my postings, and then the anti-Trump haters jumped back on to spew their venom. They just can’t let anyone who disagrees with them or even has another view of things have the last word. In one case the whole thread shortly thereafter disappeared. But in another case one of my efforts was rewarded by having my post, intended to be conciliatory, deleted and my account disabled. Questioning NextDoor why this occurred garnered the fairly predictable blather about ‶neighborliness,″ blah, blah, blah (and, while it wasn’t applicable to my posting, there was boilerplate blather about not referring to the virus as a ‶Chinese virus″ even though we all know where it originated).

While I was being lectured about ‶neighborliness,″ what about its lack in those who got me blocked? I have little doubt but that the haters are probably still there. I haven’t bothered to go back even though my NextDoor-imposed exile has lapsed. I lived perfectly well before discovering NextDoor and I imagine I can live perfectly well without it going forward. And I don’t need more hatred and venom in my life.

I can survive without NextDoor, but can the country and our democracy survive this continual wave of hatred and misinformation? That remains to be seen.

Photo credits: Featured image: Peter Linford/Pixabay, used with permission; Jill defends Joe, Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images, used under Fair Use; Nancy tells the people to eat ice cream, CBS, used under Fair Use

Redux: The Hurricane Next Time

Redux: The Hurricane Next Time

I originally posted the piece that appears below on Sept. 21, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. There have been more hurricanes since, most notably in this part of the world Hurricane Michael, which destroyed a good part of the Florida Panhandle last year, and now Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas in the past week. What I said in 2017 still applies today: There will always be another storm, and such storms create winners and losers — mostly losers.

With Dorian, Florida was mostly a winner, while the Bahamas, not far offshore, took the brunt of the storm. When a Category 5 storm not just hits but sits for a couple days right over your location there isn’t going to be much left. And that is the case with the Bahamas. It will be days, weeks, maybe even months before the full damage done and casualties sustained are tallied. In the coming days I hope to post some legitimate ways in which people can provide assistance to the people of the Bahamas. Watch this space.

In the original piece I laid out a plan that could enable this country, and possibly others in the paths of these devastating storms, to be better prepared for them and more able to deal with their aftermath. To my knowledge, in the intervening two years, nothing along the lines of what I proposed or any other effective comprehensive preparation or recovery plan has been implemented. While lessons continue to be learned — Florida’s response under its new governor, Ron DeSantis was even more orderly and effectively implemented than the response to Irma described in the original piece — and our ability to track and, more importantly, predict great storms continues to grow, we’re still dealing with a very imprecise science and art in facing some of the earth’s greatest challenges.

Perhaps most discouraging, virtually none of the steps I and others proposed for protecting the most vulnerable — the infirm and the elderly — in storms have actually been implemented, other than some on paper. Meanwhile, 12 of the 14 deaths my initial piece mentioned in the nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., have been ruled homicides and three nurses and a facility administrator have been charged with manslaughter. But their attorneys say they are being scapegoated for the failures of local and state officials, including then-Gov. RIck Scott, in failing to respond to calls for help. One also wonders why the owners of that nursing home have not been charged for their negligence in not properly equipping the facility or having an effective EAP in place.

“The decision to charge these people is completely outrageous,” Lawrence Hashish, an attorney for one of the charged nurses, told USA TODAY. “They are scapegoats, low-hanging fruit for the Hollywood police.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for things done wrong after many of these storms. One doesn’t have to expect perfection, which is a remote possibility in any event, to look and push for improvement, action on lessons learned, an upward learning curve. Doing things the same way over the years, in storm after storm, and expecting different results is the stereotyped definition of insanity. So I once more posit my proposals, which I think have merit and could be of use in that next storm, or the ones after it. Your thoughts are welcomed. Here is what I said in 2017:

  *     *    *

Another week, another hurricane. There was Harvey. And then Irma. Jose is heading north. Maria has worked its devastation. Hurricane Season being what it is, the storms line up across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whatever the next time is, there will be a next time. And another hurricane.

I’m back aboard my boat after evacuating to Destin in the Florida Panhandle to get out of the way of Irma. Part of my excuse for the delay in posting to this blog. Irma, it turned out, was accommodating and jogged northeast just before it hit the Tampa Bay area. Good news for me and my neighbors. Bad news, very bad news, for people in the interior of the state and further to the northeast. Storms create winners, and losers. Mostly losers.

Ask the people of Houston and elsewhere in Southeast Texas. Ask the people of the Florida Keys, or Southwest Florida, and lots of other places in the state. Ask the people of Barbuda and St. Thomas, of Sint Maarten and Saint-Martin and Puerto Rico. And before them, ask the people of the Philippines, of Mississippi and Louisiana, of Mexico and Honduras and South Carolina and New Jersey and even New Hampshire and numerous other places.

Hurricanes aren’t picky and they don’t discriminate. They’re equal opportunity destroyers and, given enough time, they spread their devastation around. Of course, the planet would have worse problems were it not for the big storms that redistribute the earth’s heat energy, but try telling that to someone who can’t get out of their house without a boat, or no longer has a house at all, or who has no water, food, or electricity. Or lost a loved one. It’s a tough sell.

I’ve been around hurricanes almost my whole life, in their projected path several times but, if you ignore passing through two of them during one sea transit of the North Atlantic as a kid, I’ve never been in the middle of one. I guess that’s my hurricane karma. But I’ve seen the aftermath of them, spent weeks that turned into months that turned into years living with the after effects of Katrina, and I’ve had a chance to observe both close-up and at a distance the preparations for their arrival and dealing with what they leave behind.

It’s those two elements – advance preparations and dealing with hurricane aftermaths – that I want to focus on here. Some of what I have to say is based on observation of those two things in several storms, and some is based on a plan I developed while living with the protracted recovery from Katrina.

Based on the events of recent weeks, at least in the U.S., I think some lessons have been learned. Some are partly learned. But we still have a continuing learning curve to go up and more work to be done.

The debacle that was the overland evacuation in Texas from the approach of Hurricane Rita in 2005 taught us some things about evacuations. Rita, the Atlantic’s fourth most intense hurricane ever recorded, the most intense storm ever seen in the Gulf of Mexico, and coming just three week’s after Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught, prompted fears the storm would devastate the Texas Coast. This led to an uncoordinated series of evacuations that poured between 2.5 million and 3.7 million people onto the state’s highways, leading to total gridlock. While the concept of contraflow, to reverse all inbound lanes on the Interstates to outbound, was already known, the order to implement it came too late and it took more than eight hours to make the change-over. Of the seven people in the U.S. who died directly as a result of Rita, only one was in Texas. But an estimated 113 people died in the botched Texas evacuation, including 23 nursing home residents who were killed when the charter bus they were on caught fire on the Interstate.

In advance of Hurricane Harvey this year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner decided not to issue any evacuation order for the city. Not mandatory, not voluntary. Turner, looking back at Rita, reasoned that you can’t put 6.5 million people on the highways without creating mayhem. But virtually the entire city wound up inundated, with many left homeless, or stranded in flood-damaged houses from record rainfall. Some were electrocuted when, for reasons that are not apparent, the power was not cut off as a precaution as is normally done. It seemed the city was far from prepared for the storm to come.

As for evacuations, the answer, of course, is not to evacuate an entire city the size of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest, but to evacuate the most vulnerable areas. To provide local shelters. To move some people in buses and not everyone in private vehicles. And to do the necessary to avoid ancillary deaths, to the extent possible. It wasn’t a mystery that Houston was going to be pummeled with massive rainfall. The path and potential of the storm was known, as was Houston’s topography and propensity to flood. And yet, there was no evacuation order.

Contrast that response with the response of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state, county, and local officials in Florida. With Irma on its way and a high likelihood it would hit the state in some place or other, Scott went on what was almost a personal campaign to get people to evacuate the most vulnerable areas, and made it as easy as possible for them to do so. Tolls were removed from the state’s toll roads – they are about to be reinstated at this writing – hotels were ordered to accept pets, the Florida National Guard was partially mobilized, and state troopers were used to escort fuel trucks.

The first priority was evacuating the Florida Keys, which are tethered at the bottom of the state by 90 miles of the Overseas Highway, the sole land access to the Keys. Other areas deemed most vulnerable, the low areas of Southeast and Southwest Florida, were the next priority. And then other vulnerable areas came after that. Scott’s campaign launched a week before Irma’s arrival, and kept up throughout the storm and in its aftermath, and continues even well after the storm. Florida’s evacuation was not perfect – there were serious fuel outages, long delays at times on the state’s Interstates and other highways, and Irma’s vagaries wound up unexpectedly sparing some areas while hitting others, hard – but overall it went pretty well, given the enormous number of people affected.

Not everyone followed the evac. orders, and authorities said they would not arrest anyone for not complying. While a major reason for an evacuation is so first responders don’t have to risk their lives searching for stragglers in trouble, authorities also said that after a certain point no one should count on a rescue. Whatever the factors involved – in part, at least, the euphoria and excessive confidence that pervades many Keys residents – those who stayed behind in the islands came to find out the devastation a Category 4 hurricane can bring. It’s not yet known what the death toll is in the state as teams go through the destroyed housing of the Keys looking for survivors and casualties.

Of the points where preparations for the storm failed, perhaps the most telling and disturbing was the lack of back-up plans, power, and action by some nursing homes, both in Texas and Florida. The incident that has gotten the most attention was a nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., where so far 14 elderly residents have died. With a hospital just across the street, it’s hard not to assign negligence to the managers and owners of this facility. The state has opened an investigation and alleged criminal negligence, but meanwhile the horse – 14 of them so far – has left the proverbial barn and can’t be brought back.

A spokesperson for the nursing home association said that nursing homes are not required to have generators, only a back-up power supply. Whatever the hell that means. From my perspective, based on what happened in these and other storms and the personal experience of my own mother when she was alive, there is entirely too little oversight of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. This paucity of oversight applies in other times, too, not just when there are storms. But certainly things need to be beefed-up to deal with natural disasters. Every nursing home and assisted-living facility should be required to have an emergency action plan (EAP), which should be reviewed by regulators, and also to conduct drills practicing the EAP, to the extent practical. There also has to be more attention paid to those “back-up power supplies” and sufficient generation capability should be required to not just keep the lights on, but also run the air conditioning in hot areas and heat in cold ones.

As I mentioned, I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast through most of the recovery from Katrina. The very slow pace of recovery in both Mississippi and Louisiana was a source of frequent frustration to me, but it was a true bane to those who had to suffer through it. In some cases, people have never recovered. Burdened with too much bureaucracy and red tape and some truly bone-headed decisions, FEMA proved to be largely inefficient and, for many, ineffective in its response. In the end, someone calculated that for all the money spent on FEMA and other agency responses, the government could have built a new house and put two new cars in the driveway for each affected family. That is a scandal of the first order.

What I have seen, and experience has borne out, is that a multi-pronged approach is needed to respond to any natural disaster of this magnitude. In the plan I previously developed, this approach would be more forward looking than backward looking. At the head of the effort would be a disaster council combining federal government agencies, non-profit relief organizations, faith-based groups (which often provide a major portion of recovery efforts), and the profit sector. All these groups have a stake, and a contribution to make, both in preparing for natural disasters and in recovery. And this applies not just to hurricanes, but to other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and major fires.

Similar councils should be established at the state level in the most affected states, with coordination between the state and national councils. And under my plan, Congress and state governments should consider establishing a disaster fund into which both public and private funds would be deposited in advance of disasters, not leaving things to allocations after the fact, which often come too late to deal with the worst immediate effects of a major storm or other disaster. This approach makes the response both prospective – looking ahead to future disasters – and retrospective – looking back in the aftermath of those that have already occurred. The cost will be there in any event, but by having funds already allocated they can be assigned quicker and will offer the most and most efficient benefit to those affected.

We tend to avoid thinking about what might happen tomorrow, even less about paying for it. But just as our learning curve in preparation and recovery has continued to go up with each major storm, I see this as a logical next step in our approach to dealing with hurricanes and other natural disasters, which are not just going to go away.

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” – Words on the plaque left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

There have and will be many words written and numerous commemorations broadcast this week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the moon. For that reason, and others of a more personal nature, this will be an account of my own journey leading up to that momentous event, and since, and not any kind of historic or scientific record of the flight of Apollo 11 or the first moon landing. Yes, it’s long. But it’s been a long trip.

What happened on July 20 and 21, 1969, to me was the culmination not just of my own interest in space and space exploration that I had pursued since I was a child, but the result of many centuries of human scientific development and evolution, and also the climax of the eons that preceded them when primitive humans looked up at the moon with wonder, yearning, and maybe even fear. That phrase on the Apollo 11 plaque, “We came in peace for all mankind,” best summed up my feelings on that historic night.

The Early Years

I can’t say specifically what triggered my early interest in space, except perhaps a general interest in science, but I do know that by the age of 9 I was writing novellas about future space explorers engaged in both dramatic and mundane tasks in the far reaches of the solar system. Starring protagonist Fairleigh Starr and his intrepid crew aboard the space freighter Euphrates, I still have those little string-bound books and their illustrative covers, hand-drawn in crayon on cardboard, somewhere in my archives. I also still have some of my early astronomy books.

I don’t remember the exact year or my age, but at some point my father got me an actual, real, reflecting telescope, and this opened up new vistas beyond our planet to me. Many were the nights he and I would brave the cold out in our driveway pointing the telescope toward the moon and beyond. Under the red skies of Northeastern New Jersey, illuminated as they were by the myriad lights of the New York Metro area, it was hard, if not impossible, to see much beyond the biggest and brightest celestial objects, the moon being paramount among them. All these decades later I can still picture in my mind’s eye the distinct craters and the bright silvery surface of earth’s sole natural satellite as seen vividly through that telescope.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady times for anyone interested in space exploration. In fact, they were heady times even for those not so interested. As the United States faltered through one failed launch after another, the Soviets – known more generally to us as the Russians – were succeeding in their advance into space. The thing that got our attention more than anything was the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. More than attention, it struck fear into the hearts of many, including my own mother, who tucked her 7-year-old son, being me, into bed one post-Sputnik night, saying as she did, “I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.” Thanks for that, Mom.

As it turned out, we did survive to see that Christmas, and many since. But again it was the Russians who were first to send a man not just into space, but into orbit, when cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin circled the earth one time on April 15, 1961. Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the U.S. finally succeeded in launching the first American into space, astronaut Alan Shephard, on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral. Watching the launch and recovery of the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule on TV still remains in my memory, as do the other Mercury launches and recoveries to follow. And then, nine months later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, three times, aboard the capsule Friendship 7, and the U.S. took the lead in what was clearly a space race. By then I was hooked on space, and there was no looking back.

What led us on the path to the moon was a speech President John Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he said that the U.S. “. . . should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy repeated the same objective in a now-famous speech he delivered to 40,000 people in the stadium at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The course was set to the moon, and despite a chorus of naysayers, the objective was reached, Kennedy’s challenge fulfilled, on July 20, 1969.

The mission of Apollo 11 had lifted off four days earlier, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT (13:32 UTC), from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral – known at the time as Cape Kennedy in JFK’s honor – carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins toward the moon. A product of the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers brought to the U.S. following World War II, the Saturn V rocket that bore them aloft was, and remains, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, so loud on launch its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 12 miles away. Armstrong later described the initial ascent as a very bumpy ride, at least until first-stage separation, when he said things became smooth and totally silent. At that point, the world waited, and watched.

“The Eagle Has Landed”

July 1969, exactly a half century ago, was a personally tumultuous time for me. At 19 ½, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers University, I was in the midst of my first real affair, and that in itself was proving more challenging than I had bargained for (Sheila was an artist, she didn’t look back – thank you Bob Dylan for summing things up so well). I had a summer job mowing grass and picking up litter on the New Jersey Turnpike, out of the Secaucus yard in the most congested and polluted sector of the Pike in its final miles between Newark Airport and Exit 18, the northern terminus and gateway to the George Washington Bridge. I was living back at home for the summer and in a state of ongoing conflict with both my parents. Worse was how I sensed my father often didn’t have the heart for the conflict, but my mother goaded him into it and to appease or please her, he’d rise to the occasion.

It also was perhaps the most creative time of my life. On the many and prolonged breaks my maintenance team on the Turnpike would take, once Moe, our supervisor, had driven off and left us to our own devices, we would drop our mowers and tools and retreat to the shade under an overpass, or occasionally wander off the Pike to some nearby diner for a late breakfast. While the other guys sat around and shot the shit for hours, I would sequester myself to write and draw in my own imagined, but productive, world. Along with my writing, I was able to draw in ways I had never before, nor since, been capable of. If you can imagine completely changing the gears in your head, that was what it was like that summer.

I don’t remember all the details or reasons, but the small group of friends of which Sheila and I were a part could not be together the night of the moon landing. It was a Sunday night, July 20, and I had work the next morning, moon landing or no moon landing. As I recall, my high school friend John Horohan was with his girlfriend Jane, who had introduced me to Sheila, and I don’t remember whether Sheila was with them or somewhere else. She wasn’t with me, though, nor I with her, which was the main thing.

The lunar lander had touched down on the moon’s surface earlier that afternoon, almost out of fuel and in a different location – the Sea of Tranquility – than initially planned, at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 UTC). As it turned out, Armstrong had to take over the controls of the lander following a computer overload and finding too many bus-sized boulders at the initial West Crater landing site. It was with relief when Mission Control, along with the rest of the world, heard Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The actual moon walk was planned for later that night, and that to us was the big event. I had been sleeping out on our enclosed back porch, as I was wont to do in the summers spent at home, and that night I was watching there in the dark, on the small TV we kept on the porch, the events unfolding 240,000 miles away on the moon. On the moon! My parents were upstairs in their room also watching on their TV, and we could have been on separate planets for the divide between us on that historic night. Other than some forays my mother would make down to check on me – mostly to harass me for staying up past my alleged bedtime, as I recall – we had little or no contact that night.

The telephone provided the link between me and my friends, a kind of lifeline as it were, and we stayed in touch intermittently via it as the time approached for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of the lunar lander and descend the craft’s ladder to the surface of the moon. As we and 600 million other people around the globe watched, that came at 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21), when Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (controversy has dogged those words ever since, and it’s pretty well believed that a blip in the radio transmission changed the intended and spoken “one small step for a man” to what is commonly attributed to Armstrong). Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and together, as we watched in fascination and through bleary eyes and blurry black and white video images, the pair bounced around on the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks as they did, for the next two and a quarter hours. Meanwhile, Collins, in the command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, keeping an eye on things from 69 miles above the lunar surface.

Little did I realize at the time what connections I would have with Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, and other men who set foot on the moon, a decade and a half later.

The Aftermath

What I saw in the lunar mission and the success of Apollo 11 was not just a victory and amazing achievement for America, but the culmination of centuries of discoveries and achievements of many people of many nationalities. There was Copernicus, a Pole, who in the Sixteenth Century, postulated a universe with the sun, not the earth, at its center. He was preceded in the heliocentric theory by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek, eighteen centuries earlier, and followed in the next century by Galileo, an Italian, who was declared a heretic for his beliefs by the Catholic Church in 1633. It took the Church three more centuries to finally concede that it’s supposedly infallible belief was, well, wrong. Galileo’s theories of gravity also proved to be correct, not bad for a heretic.

There was Newton, an Englishman, and his discoveries of the laws of physics. And Lippershey, a Dutchman, who invented the telescope. And da Vinci, another Italian, who had invented an actual flying machine – the helicopter – and the parachute, and who also had postulated a heliocentric universe. The Chinese in the Ninth Century invented the rocket, but Goddard, an American, invented the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And von Braun and the other German rocket engineers brought it all together, with American support and funding, with the Saturn V. I don’t mean this list to be inclusive, but simply illustrative of the worldwide, global contributions over the centuries that finally resulted in Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Indeed, as the plaque said, “We came in peace for all mankind.” And at the moment of mankind’s first steps on the moon and the days that followed, the world was largely united in hailing a feat that previously existed only in the realm of dreams and the imagination. Of course, there are still those on the fringe who continue to imagine that the whole moon landing was staged, that the astronauts descended to some hidden chamber under the launch pad or went to Hollywood, where there was a set made to look like a moonscape and the whole thing was an elaborate deception. And when I was posted as a diplomat to Albania in the 1990s, people there said they had been told by the previous Communist regime that it was the Russians, not the Americans, who had landed men on the moon.

A week after the lunar landing and walk, on July 27, 1969, my father died, unexpectedly, in front of me, in the midst of one more of our low-level conflicts. He had gotten to witness people walking on the moon, something almost unimaginable at the time of his birth in 1913, and then he was gone. And thus, with his death, began the rest of my life, the half century that followed.

After Apollo 11, there were just six more lunar missions – five lunar landings, one short of what was planned when Apollo 13 ran into serious problems en route to the moon and had to return to earth without reaching its destination. Later, as a journalist covering the space program, I lost count of the number of times when engineers and managers who had been involved with the Apollo program told me that getting men to the moon was not the big challenge of the Apollo program. It was getting the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. In any event, with the splashdown of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972, the moon program was over, less than three and a half years after the launch of Apollo 11. The country, embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided, was withdrawing into itself, and Congress cut NASA’s funding. What was left of funding for manned space flight was directed toward the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union and three missions of Skylab, the world’s first space station. After all the years of striving to reach the moon, and meeting the challenge President Kennedy laid down, we reverted to missions in low earth orbit. To this day, that is where we have remained.

What struck me then, and continues to trouble me, is how for eons people looked to the heavens and wondered and dreamed of what it would be like to walk on the moon. And now billions of people, billions of children, and adults, were born and lived since the last human left the moon, and again are left to look toward the heavens, toward the moon, and wonder and dream, just as primitive humans did millennia ago.

As America and the space program drifted through the 1970s, I looked inward, too, and essentially cut myself off from what was going on in the world, and what remained of the space program. I had this peculiar idea that if I cut off the news of the world and its problems those problems would go away and leave me alone. It didn’t take more than several years to realize that’s not how things work.

A Return to Space

My return to space came in 1982. After detours through Woodstock and Key West and grad school at the University of Florida, I wound up taking up a reporting job in Cocoa, Fla., at the doorstep to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. While I was with the weekly paper, The Tribune, I struck up a friendship with the lead reporter, Peter Adams, at our sister daily, TODAY (now FLORIDA TODAY). Perhaps it could only happen in Brevard County, Fla., but the lead reporter was the Science Writer, formerly known as the Aerospace Writer, whose primary duty entailed covering the space program.

The Space Shuttle program was under way, with the launch of the orbiter Columbia and STS-1 in April of 1981. Peter invited me to accompany him to witness a launch of the Shuttle at KSC, the launch of Columbia and STS-5 on November 11, 1982. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed, and again, I was hooked. I later finagled my first assignment actually covering a space launch, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, reporting on the launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying a Canadian satellite that subsequently failed to go into orbit and was lost. Peter and I continued to remain in close contact, and when he left the paper to go to The Orlando Sentinel, our main competition, he recommended me for the choice position of Science Writer. I not only moved to my first position on a daily, but to the premier reporting position, with the charge to report daily on the space program and other science topics.

The first launch I was to cover as primary reporter was the maiden launch of the new orbiter, Challenger. But before it could launch I received a phone call from a confidential informant late one night in the newsroom. The word was that a problem with the Shuttle’s main engines had been discovered and the launch would be delayed, possibly for months. I was able to chase down other sources to confirm the report, and we were first to break the story of Challenger’s impending lengthy delay, which turned out to be totally correct. I had already managed to win the confidence of those closest to the Shuttle program and to break my first big story.

Challenger finally did launch on April 4, 1983, carrying a tracking and relay satellite into orbit. The flight, the first of many Space Shuttle missions I would cover, also featured the first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, or space walk – of the Shuttle program. In my time as Science Writer, I got to cover many other firsts: The first flight of Spacelab. The first American woman in space. The first flight of two women in space, and the first space walk by an American woman. The first African-American in space. The first Shuttle night launch. The first launch of the orbiter Discovery. The first Shuttle landing at KSC. The first recovery and return to earth of orbiting satellites. The first classified Department of Defense Shuttle mission. The first in-space repair of an orbiting satellite. The first flight of a politician in space. Many of my stories got national play via the Gannett News Service and appearance in USA TODAY, for which TODAY served as the model.

I approached my work as a Science Writer the same way I approached other reporting positions I had filled, which was to build in as much diversity and have as much fun with it as I could, all while doing a competent and credible job of reporting. I felt my specialty was taking highly complex scientific and technical details and issues and translating them in a way that just about any reader could understand, without dumbing them down. In the course of my term, I managed to score a wonderful stint at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., got to visit the WET-F – the huge water tank where astronauts practice doing EVAs in simulated weightlessness – in Houston, launched my own weather rocket, the Yacenda-1, from Cape Canaveral, flew aboard a NOAA hurricane tracker plane through a tropical storm, rode on the huge transporter that carried the Shuttle to the launch pad, and sat at desks of scientists with actual moon rocks on them. I came up with the term “astroworker” – a word my editors hated and took out at every chance they could, which is why you’ve never seen it – to encapsulate the kind of manual activity many astronauts and mission specialists engage in while in space.

More than anything was the thrill of meeting, interviewing, and in some cases spending time with people who had helped establish America’s place in space, people that had just been names bordering on mythological to me, and now I had the opportunity to be face-to-face with them. I got to interview and know half the men who had walked on the moon. It was said even then that Neil Armstrong rarely granted interviews. I had a telephone interview with him while he was a professor in Ohio, and he was indeed the humble, quiet, non-self-aggrandizing person I had been told he was. And I got to pal around for several days with Buzz Aldrin, who was and is every bit the character he was ascribed to being, though also knowledgeable and serious about America’s space pursuits. He told me of what was to be his next mission, setting up a space science program at the University of North Dakota. I love that the President featured Aldrin at the most recent State of the Union address.

I got to visit Edgar Mitchell and meet his family aboard Mitchell’s yacht when it was docked in Brevard County. I had the opportunity to interview Alan Bean about his art and Alan Shephard about his beer business. I had a number of encounters with Fred Haise, of Apollo 13 fame, both as a reporter and later as someone bidding for business from the company with which he became an executive, Grumman Aerospace. As then chief of the astronaut corps, John Young was someone I got to see and quote in numerous news conferences. I was able to meet Tom Stafford at an evening event. Though he wasn’t an astronaut, I got to interview Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it. And, a high point, I got to hang out with Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 fame during some very entertaining days at Cape Canaveral when I had invited him to speak at a conference I helped organize, and then some time later have lunch with him at Brennan’s in Houston. I still remember the moment when we were waiting to board a tour bus at KSC and Cunningham was sitting on top of a waste basket, just as a place to rest. The bus driver informed us we needed to get tickets to take the tour, and then, realizing who the unassuming guy sitting on the trash can was, came bounding back off the bus, practically giddy and shaking, blurting out, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cunningham! I didn’t recognize you at first! Of course you don’t need a ticket! Anything you want, Mr. Cunningham!”

Along with all the other names and personalities, I got to interview Judy Resnik, one of my most memorable interviews. I still have the tape of that interview in which Resnik said she didn’t fear going up on the Shuttle since NASA took such care looking after the astronauts’ safety. When Challenger blew up on the bitterly cold morning of January 28, 1986, taking the lives of Resnik and her six crew mates with it, NASA wasn’t looking out for the astronauts’ safety, and neither was it when Columbia disintegrated on reentry on February 1, 2003. Both were avoidable disasters.

Looking Forward

I was no longer covering the space program at the time of the Challenger disaster — in fact, earlier the very morning it occurred I had looked toward the space center and said to myself, “One day that thing is going to blow up and I won’t be there when it does” — but I still was involved with space through my public relations firm, ITech International, which specialized in aerospace and high technology, among other areas. To me, the Challenger disaster was personal, both on account of the needless death of Judy Resnik and the other astronauts and specialists and the civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard, all of whom I had seen in news conferences and reported on, but because I helped bring Challenger into the world, covering its first launch, and the issues that had delayed that launch.

Following the Challenger disaster my old paper, TODAY, invited me to write an op-ed piece about the disaster and my views on where the country should go in its wake. In it I wrote how the Space Shuttle was equivalent to the early iterations of airliners that eventually led up to the DC-3, the first commercially successful airliner, and rather than expending money on another Shuttle orbiter, the nation should dedicate itself to new iterations of space transportation systems and go on to further space exploration. Obviously, Congress and NASA felt otherwise, and the space agency went on to build the orbiter Endeavour, which launched for the first time on May 7, 1992. And then, with the landing at KSC of the orbiter Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end.

And now, 50 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, we remain confined to low earth orbit. The International Space Station, development of which began when I was still involved with the space program, is the sole embodiment of humans in space. Since the end of the Shuttle program, the U.S. doesn’t even have the means of bringing our own astronauts to and from the ISS, depending on Russian rockets to do so. There are commercial rockets in the late development stage that are expected to be able to carry people to and from the ISS, but they’re not certified for this purpose yet. In fact, much of what holds promise for the future of space exploration rests with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing and several others.

I’m sure there is a lot of important work that goes on aboard the ISS, but I would venture that few people outside the program can name even one or two projects, specifically, that the ISS crews are working on. There is even credible argument that space is an expensive and not terribly great place for doing science. Regardless, whatever they are doing, it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement and global attention that deep-space exploration, most notably the Apollo lunar voyages, provided, and can provide. I am not denigrating the tremendously exciting and important and truly amazing unmanned space missions we’ve conducted. Our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond has been expanded enormously by these missions, and they should be continued. But somehow they lack the appeal and drama of manned missions of exploration to new destinations.

NASA and the space program reached its nadir in 2010 when its then-Adminstrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with three primary tasks: Encourage children to learn about math and science, improve relations with foreign nations, and, Bolden said, “perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Compare that with President Kennedy’s challenge, that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In the intervening decades, it seems we have come down not just from the moon, but from rising to the kind of challenge the nation responded to in the 1960s.

Now there is talk of going to Mars. I’m happy to see that. While recognizing the costs and dangers involved in such missions, I think it is inevitable that the human spirit is always going to drive us on to bigger and more daring ventures, whether on earth or in space. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to go back first to the moon, and establish a base there. It takes a whole lot less energy to launch a rocket from a place where the gravity is one-sixth what it is on earth. There may be other justifications for a base on the moon, but that one alone provides justification if, in fact, we are intent on going to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

Most of my space interest these days is constrained to looking at the full moon, when it appears and the skies are clear, and watching for night launches from Cape Canaveral. I’m living 120 miles from the launch site, but in the dark of night I can get pretty clear views of the launches, which continue to excite me. Recently, during the latest SpaceX launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket from Pad 39A on June 25, the same launch pad from which Apollo 11 launched, I actually got to see the return to earth of the two first-stage boosters that came back to land at KSC. I think that was even more exciting than the launch, all the more so since I wasn’t expecting to be able to see that, just as watching the first Shuttle landing at KSC from the grandstand beside the runway was so exciting 35 years ago. I’m sure that one of these days I’m going to need to go back down to the space center and watch a launch from closer up.

And now, fifty years after that first footstep on the moon, I and the other 7.7-whatever billion people on this planet can only look up at the moon, and wonder: Will mankind ever again set foot on that celestial body? Will my children get to go there? Some might even wonder if they, themselves, will get a chance to go to the moon.

It is of such wonderment that giant leaps are born.

Watch the actual ignition and liftoff of Apollo 11 shot by a NASA camera at the launch pad

All images by NASA except the last image which is by SpaceX

This is a joint posting with my fiction site. It also appears on Medium.