It was the quintessential Florida spring day in 1981 and my first grade class was full of hope. We were the first generation to have Star Wars action figures and reruns of Star Trek perpetually ran in our homes. TV was not yet technologically advanced to fool the senses of six year old boys, but we also knew we were watching the dreams of men. We did not play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers like our fathers did in grade school – we had homemade light sabers and blasters. On that spring morning we witnessed from the school yard a bona fide space ship, leaving earth for the first time. We did not yet know the implications of the new space shuttle in the political world. All we knew was that we were witnessing the first steps of the future of man – and it was real, in our sky, not on TV.
Nearing my 11th birthday, the space shuttle had already proven reliable to us. For nearly half our lives we had been flying them. And for me, it did not matter the payload, the length of the mission, or its purpose. For me, it was enough that it was a ship that was going out there and coming back. On our way home from a field trip from a local hospital, the class stopped to watch another shuttle launch on January 28, 1986. It was a quiet ride home. I had yet to understand the impact of that day on my life.
There was (and remains) a stubbornness inside me that would not yield to impossible. It seemed like a lifetime before I was once again on a school yard in Deltona, this time in High School, when I was standing on a field of Pensacola Bahia looking over the tall skinny Florida pines and the familiar thick white vapor trails had returned to the blue skies of Florida. It was then I knew – I didn’t need a “why”. It was more like “Why not?”
Needing to identify a school of study, my only criteria seemed to be Aerospace Engineering and the ability to get a co-op engineering position at Kennedy Space Center. I began my studies at Florida Tech in August 1992 and while the industry was undergoing contraction, I could not imagine myself doing anything else. I started my career at KSC in 1994, the year the space station had passed the house for funding by one vote. The following year brought the Oklahoma City bombing, OJ, and the Atlantis-MIR docking. It also brought my 20th birthday on which Discovery launched her 20th mission. But the space industry was politically neglected and the workforce morale was at an all time low. In anticipation of the contract rebids in 1996, the contractors felt the need to keep salaries compressed as companies merged and giants of the industry were reduced to three major names. As I progressed through my collegiate years, I watched as only nine of us finished a degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1997 (down from 58 which started the program in 1992).
By 1997, we were building and preparing to assemble a space station. I had graduated college and I began my first real job in operations at KSC. My assignment was the Boeing Thermal Protection Systems design engineer for Columbia. My goals were to continue to find ways to improve the processing and design for the vehicle that would reduce operational costs and improve performance and safety.
A mere five years later and several technical problems had caused schedule delays in the space station assembly missions. Schedule and budget pressures continued to compress the launch manifest while reducing the workforce to numbers not seen since the early 1980s. In addition, many of the vendors and suppliers that had produced the hardware and materials for the shuttle program had either decided to go out of business due to lack of commercial viability or move their manufacturing to other states or countries. These pressures raised the cost of sustaining the shuttle program at the time in which budgets did not keep up with inflation. Morale within the space industry continued to be low as the dedicated workforce rarely saw any accomplishments reported and always saw the mishaps reported in the media.
It was two days before my birthday and my family was in Jacksonville, FL visiting my folks. I had just endured two weeks of listening to the discussions over Columbia and the program’s decision to take the risk to come home without any pictures or attempts at repair. I fell asleep around 4 a.m. Saturday morning. I was awakened by the phone ringing and my wife calling to the room.
When President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration and the plan to return to the moon and on to Mars, I was skeptical. There were few in the industry who believed that funding a vision that size could be sustained. There were fewer still that believed NASA had the technical wherewithal to achieve such a goal – even if it had the money. And while NASA attempted to define a bold vision for the future, many of us back at KSC were working diligently to return the vapor trails to the azure blue.
Just a few years ago, it looked as though NASA was truly on a path to retire the shuttle and begin a new era of space exploration. However, at the end of the day, Constellation was merely another cancelled program, like X-33, X-34, and X-38. We have flown the last shuttle missions and they are retired relics. Will 30 years of vapor trails be the path forged for the next century and the next explorers? Or is America retreating from its heritage of Lewis and Clark? There are thousands of dedicated aerospace workers who have supported our country and the programs of NASA through the years. Was their effort for naught? Not at all.
Today, there is a great deal of interest in commercial space development. The investments made by the US taxpayer are not wasted, but may no longer be necessary. The future of space utilization is bright – if we can take a page out of Apple and keep focused on developing and serving the market rather than just making more cool gadgets. If we remember to offer value to the market, vapor trails will return once again.