Blast Off: Discovery and Writing

Discovery, still ready to go

Tomorrow, space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch at 4:50 p.m. EST. We’ll be watching it remotely on our computers at 1:50 p.m. here in California. Tonight, the Rotating Service Structure will be rolled back, revealing the shuttle. Last time the RSS rolled back, Anna stood just outside the gate surrounding launch pad 39A. NASA will start filling the external fuel tank early tomorrow morning at 7:25 a.m. The crew will wake up at 7:00 a.m. and head to the launch pad at 1:00 p.m. Within two hours, they’ll be sealed in the space shuttle, ready to go to the International Space Station.

Unless the tanking leads to cracks. Or something else halts the countdown.

Over the past few weeks, knowing this launch is once again impending, we’ve been working on our article for Chapman Magazine. We felt a great responsibility to that writing project because the university’s magazine argued for Anna’s press badge for STS-133, Discovery’s last mission. We chronicled our adventure to the Cape in previous posts on October 27November 7, 2010. But we weren’t sure how to capture our thoughts and experiences for the magazine article. We didn’t want to leave anything out, but we knew that, ideally, we should end up with only 900 words.

In November, in the days before the launch was scrubbed, we had drafted a piece to send to the O.C. Register on launch day as a follow-up to Pat Brennan’s article about our trip. Together, we had mapped out an article, leaving room for our description of the actual launch. When the launch didn’t happen, the newspaper didn’t want a follow-up. Readers, the columnist feared, were barely interested in the space shuttle when it did launch.

But we felt as if we had things to say, not about the launch, but about NASA, its space program, and the end of the shuttle program with no definitive plans for the future of U.S. manned spaceflight. We revamped our follow-up piece as an Op Ed, asserting that the shuttle program was a national effort and making connections with the Southern California aviation industry. Here’s part of what we wrote:

“Space exploration currently depends on the nation—and on the world. All launches take place on the Space Coast of Florida. Astronauts train in and the missions run from Houston, Texas. Lockheed Martin builds the external fuel tank in Louisiana. The propellant for the solid rocket boosters is mixed and cast in Utah. Rocket launches will continue around the globe, including from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“The space shuttle, however, is the last of its kind, and its home is right here in Southern California. Christopher Cowen, the producer of An Article of Hope, who visited Chapman University last fall called the shuttle humanity’s greatest, most complex technological accomplishment. It’s a technological and engineering feat intimately tied to our new home. Dozens of shuttle pilots earned their test pilot wings at Edwards AFB. The contract to build the Space Transportation System was awarded to North American Rockwell in 1972. Each orbiter was assembled in Building 42 in Palmdale, California. It was built, tested, and originally hauled into the sky in the Los Angeles area. Each shuttle was born here.”

But the Los Angeles Times wasn’t interested.

Grappling over the past few weeks with the Chapman Magazine assignment and the likelihood that Discovery will launch on February 24—without us watching its ascent in person—we revised our essay again. We drew in Leatherby Libraries (where Doug is the Science Librarian), their new acquisition of NASA artifacts (leftovers from already and soon-to-be defunct programs), and their archive of Challenger whistleblower Roger Boisjoly’s papers (read his Lofty blog post here). We were happy with the statement our piece made and sent it off to Dennis Arp, the editor.

Welcome to Kennedy Space Center!

Last Friday, Dennis told us it wasn’t quite what he was looking for. We’d lost the story, the immediacy, the reasons we’d wanted to see the shuttle launch in the first place. He was right. Part of the reason we’d lost the original excitement was that the draft had been revised too many times for too many different purposes. But we also knew that we were skirting the emotions because we knew that Discovery was going to launch without us, and we weren’t sure how we feel about that. We’ll probably know better tomorrow.

On Saturday, we rewrote the article from scratch, going back to our “Countdown to the Cape” blog posts and our handwritten notes from those days in Florida. We put our childhood interests in aviation and space exploration into words and depicted the day we first walked into the National Air and Space Museum. We wrote about the waitress in Titusville who shook her head last November, said she wasn’t convinced the shuttle was ready to go, and recounted tales of other tourists who hadn’t planned for delays, forced to leave only for the shuttle to launch the next day. We wrote about our conversations with Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke and Walt Cunningham.

The article is too long, but it’s the one that Chapman Magazine will publish. Dennis liked our new piece much better, so he’ll put the whole thing on the website and print an edited version in the print magazine. Last week, we wrote about a literary science-writing panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. We were able to create a better article from scratch because we put to use some of the advice we’d talked about there, including that science writing is often as much about the people as it is about the science. What we had to discover through the article’s many iterations is that the article is as much about us as it is about Discovery and the space program.

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