Reflections: 15 Years On

columbia1Fifteen years ago today, I was driving south on US 29 in southern Virginia when I spied a bright light moving across the sky.  There were no blinking lights associated with, just a smooth steady motion, very bright, across the sky from West to East.

I knew what it likely was.  No, not a UFO.  I figured it was either the space station or the shuttle Columbia.  I also knew how to verify it, once I could get to a computer.  I had long been a space station watcher, and I knew a website where one could check for possible viewing opportunities.  It included other satellites, but nothing shows up quite like the space station or the shuttle.

I checked the website and found out it was indeed Columbia, well into its second week of a long mission.  It gave me a good feeling to know I had seen it pass because I had a special personal association with the shuttle Columbia.  In 1981 I had driven to Florida to watch the first launch.  It was the culmination of a lifetime fascination with space flight, dating all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight.

Anyway, I didn’t think too much more about it that week.  Until Saturday.  Our son called and said turn on the TV, there was something about the space shuttle.  I was with our daughter Audrey and as the news channel came on a deep pit opened in the bottom of my soul.  “Ooooooo,” I said.

Audrey must have noticed visible shock on my face and asked me what was wrong.

columbia2I pointed at the screen.  “See all those trails in the sky?”

“Yes.”

“That is supposed to be ONE.”

She realized what I was implying and asked, “Can anything be done?”

“No.  It’s over,” I said, “They’re gone.”

It was a horrible tragedy, but space flight had always been dangerous and always will be.  Is it worth it?  As I sit here typing on a device that can trace its widespread use, along with the networking and other technology that make this communication possible, I’d have to say … yes.

In a way,  I always thought the Columbia disaster was even more tragic than the Challenger explosion because these astronauts had a very successful mission up to that point, most of it doing hard science.  And a high percentage of their data had already been transmitted home.  They had completed their jobs and were fifteen minutes from landing.  So close, in fact, that people were at the Florida landing area anxiously waiting for their imminent return.  It just never happened.

On a personal level, with the people and families involved, it’s a tough call, but every single person who flies into space has to accept the risk; they know it is extremely dangerous.  Life is full of such risks.  If we were suddenly whisked away from the nineteenth century and plopped onto the freeway into a car driving seventy miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars … we’d probably drop dead in fear.  And at any moment, even those of us who are used to it should realize that it is extremely dangerous and in a split second, we could suffer the same sort of fate as those astronauts.

I think Alan Shepard explained the astronaut side of it best when he said, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

columbia3Anyway, as we approach the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy I’ll be thinking about the Columbia crew and their families.  Tragedies like this make us all stronger and help to make space flight even safer. The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built.  That we lost three out of five was regrettable, but even more regrettable is the fact that we lost continuity … we should have continued building them, making them better and safer, maybe a new one every four years. At the very least we should have had a replacement vehicle ready long before we retired the fleet.

Now, we are on the cusp of a new era of exploration.  There will no doubt be other tragedies.  Advancement sometimes has a high price.

If you ever want to spot the station flying overhead, you can sign up to get text alerts of when one is coming up.  Sign up here:  https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

I highly recommend it.  You can look up and think, “I belong to a civilization that can do stuff like that!”  When you think about it, in many ways it is as remarkable as building the pyramids.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.  You can find out more about him and his works at http://thefensk.com

Note: his debut novel, THE FEVER, is available for a 25% discount for a limited time.  http://thefensk.com/fever.html

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A WeekendCoffee Backstory

img_6284If we were having coffee today I think I’d finally be willing to tell you about certain aspects of the backstory.

 

There was recently a national news story floating around concerning some changes in Texas law … you might have seen it, usually mentioning the plan to make it legal to carry swords or something like that.  Actually, that might be some sort of loophole, but what it really means is that the stalwart citizens of Texas will soon be allowed to carry knives longer than 5.5 inches.  This law has long been on the books.  They classified any knife longer than 5.5 inches as a Bowie knife.  Although Jim Bowie was a hero of the Alamo and was famous for his larger than usual knife, it has been illegal in Texas for quite some time — that is until this fall.

The current law was a major dramatic component to the backstory of my first novel The Fever.  It was based on a real incident I knew about.  It resulted in the arrest of the hero, who felt the same way about the irony of Jim Bowie’s knife.  This was the catalyst that threw my hero Sam into jail, where he made acquaintance with Slim, the derelict who slowly died in his arms.  Ah, but not before revealing his secret.  THAT is the other major backstory component, another bit of Texas lore.  Slim, it seems, had some personal knowledge of the location of the elusive Sublett mine.

That’s right.  And this, my friends, is a true mystery of mythical Texas proportions.  Ben Sublett was a real person who lived in West Texas and there are believable reports that he had access to some quantity of gold.  The stories go that he would disappear into the wilds of the parched landscape and return with gold.  People tried to follow him but to no avail.  He supposedly died without revealing the location to anyone.  If you google Ben Sublett you will see quite a few websites and articles dedicated to him and his lost gold mine.  They all mention pretty much the same details.  Like one curious fact … his name was actually William C. Sublett.  Not sure where “Ben” came from.
Here are a couple of my favorite links about Ben Sublett:

This one has a picture of a roadside Texas historical marker:  http://www.odessahistory.com/subltmkr.htm

http://www.sonofthesouth.net/ben-sublett-gold/Ben-Sublet-story.html

A friend pointed out to me that the historical marker in the first link above is just outside a place called Sam’s BBQ … I promise you that name “Sam” is just a coincidence.  Still a bit of added irony, no?

Old Ben apparently never got rich from his gold.  He seemed content to use it ,subsidize his life, like a sort of nineteenth-century social security.  The common thread in all of the stories about him is that he’d disappear and return with gold.  People have speculated on its location for over a hundred years.  The Guadalupe Mountains seems to be a common landmark, but if it was in the mountain range proper, well that is a National Park now so good luck with that, but there are a lot of possibilities in the general area.

I used both of these things as the core of my story.  An almost ridiculous arrest followed by a chance meeting that resulted in a deathbed confession.  “THE FEVER” was wedged into the hero’s soul where it smoldered until it became a full-fledged obsession.  THAT is what the story is about … a sort of “what would you do?” scenario.

How far would you go to feed your fever?


Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC.  Info on his novels, including THE FEVER, can be found at http://www.thefensk.com  Before you buy them, be sure to check out his new video trailers on the videos tab.

WeekendCoffeeShare

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comIf we were having coffee today I’d tell you I was still thinking about yesterday’s fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo One fire.

Fifty years. I have a FaceBook friend who had her fiftieth birthday yesterday too. I told her something I can’t tell many people.  I vividly remember that event happening on the day she was born.

I was a child of the space age. I was only eight years old when Alan Shepard blasted into space. It was like I had crossed over a bridge from my innocent young kid life into a bigger world. Sure, I grew up in Houston and it was all gung-ho space city, home of the space center and all the astronauts lived there and all.  My fourth-grade teacher dated some guy from NASA and he came and talked to our class.  We watched the entire John Glenn flight at school, the whole thing from launch to splashdown.  I read every news story about the space program.  I followed all six Mercury flights and all ten Gemini Flights.

I had the flu for Gemini 8, really, I did, but watched all day. I was not surprised at all that Neil Armstrong was picked to command Apollo 11 … because he had kept his head, thought on his feet, and totally saved the day when Gemini 8 almost became our first space disaster.

I was looking forward to the first Apollo flight.  We had a long string of space successes and it looked like we were on a roll.  Then I remember the first news flash about a fire during a ground test for that first flight.  I remember being cautiously optimistic that maybe the heat shield would protect them, or maybe the escape tower activated and flew them to safety.  Then came the report that the fire was IN the capsule.  I knew they were dead. Sure thing. I was fifteen years old, a mediocre student, lousy in math and science, but I knew about pure oxygen environments inside the spacecrafts of the time. I knew immediately they were goners, probably the same way everybody in the control room knew it.

I had the same feeling in 2003 when my son called me and told me to turn on the tv because there was something going on with the Columbia space shuttle.  The TV flicked on and I saw the multiple streaks in the sky and blurted out “that’s it, they’re dead.” My daughter turned to me concerned, “how can you know that?”

“That would be one streak if it was an intact vehicle, if it is in pieces, there’s nothing left.”  That’s all it took for me, one look long enough to focus on the screen.  It was tough for me because I had managed to witness the first launch of Columbia in 1981.  And earlier that week, in 2003, I managed to catch sight of the orbiter’s Venus-bright track across an early morning sky.  All of this ran through my mind when I saw those multiple streaks. It’s exactly how I felt when I heard the words “inside the cockpit” in 1967.

Ironically, that tragedy caused a total revamp of the moon project.  A failure in space would have doomed it, but happening on the ground, before the flight, gave them the chance to figure out what was wrong.  What would have been guesswork with a space failure became a solid investigation with all the evidence right there.  We were on a roll.  We still had that goal. We made that goal.

I know a lot of people think it is all a waste of money, but really, we, humanity, have reaped tremendous benefits from space research.  That computer or tablet or phone you’re reading this with, the internet, wireless networking, cell communication, all the fancy gadgets we use every day owe a great debt to things that were started back then.  Sure, eventually we would have maybe progressed this far, but it would have taken a much longer time.  The space race jump-started a new industrial revolution. It did.  It got research moving, and that in turn funded more research that made things happen. In the early 1960s computers were still huge things.  That phone in your pocket has more power than all of the computers NASA used in the Mercury program.  ALL OF THEM.  The beginnings of the technology existed at the time, but the motivation to advance the technology did not exist until we made the push.

And guys like Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were sitting there inside a pressure cooker built by the low bidder on a government contract trying to make it happen.  Is it good they died?  No, it was and will always be a horrible tragedy.  But they knew the risks and they knew the score.  What came out of that was a better system and understand this … we figured out ways to use the newer, more powerful computers to help design the next generation of systems … and on and on after that. They needed the micronization to fit inside the vehicles but once they started to hit that stride, they created systems to design new systems … THAT is when the exponential growth in technology began.  Slow at first but gaining momentum every day. THIS is what we owe to those guys, those early pioneers and to their loss.  That was the motivation so many people forget.  Not landing on the moon.  We owed it to those three guys to do our best to minimize such losses.

Sure, we’ve had two more equally tragic space losses, and there will be more.  Consider this: we lose people to plane crashes, train crashes, even car accidents, yet we still travel.  We just strive to make it safer. But in the case of the space program, everybody gained from this one tragic loss.  Before you hit reply to tell me I’ve got it wrong remember what you’re using … the g-g-g-g-g-g-grandchild of that room sized UNIVAC that calculated orbital trajectories.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC.  You can find out about his books at http://thefensk.com