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So Long And Thanks for All the Flights

If the Incredible Hulk and the Thing from the Fantastic Four got into a fight, who do you think would win? Mr. Duggins said his friend who worked for Marvel Comics would describe attending cocktail parties full of conversations that began along those lines. That was how Duggins transitioned to describing the conversations engineers were getting into at the 2005 NASA meeting at Disney’s Contemporary Resort Motel when they were asked to create a new kind of space ship. They were told that it could have wings, it could have tanks, it could have anything – just throw what you have against a wall and see what sticks – so they were coming up with all kinds of scenarios. But in every scenario imagined Batman beats Superman. Just saying.

Pat Duggins, NPR space expert and newly hired something or other with Alabama Public Radio, gave a lecture on campus today based on his book Beyond the Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. I am curious if this is the same lecture he gave on CSpan’s Booknotes. I watch that show –that’s where I discovered Simon Singh and AJ Jacobs – but I haven’t seen Mr. Duggins there. I have heard him on NPR. His lecture today was a bit meandering and his powerpoint presentation minimal and slapdash, but I think his actual book will be really good. I think he must have liked the subject so much he hopped around a lot in his talk, but he probably couldn’t do that when writing a book. He has a great voice and is very personable, so it was pleasant just listening to him talk.

My favorite story from the presentation was centered around Challenger. He opened with asking us to share our first memories of NASA and the space program. From the memories shared, I think I was the youngest person in the room by about twenty years. Cosmos would be my first “real space” encounter, but my first actual memory of the space program is the Challenger explosion. Well, unless you count the MTV commercials with Buzz Aldrin. So I was particularly interested when he got to that portion of his presentation. He said in the 1980’s the news programs didn’t really cover the space program. When Coke and Pepsi sent up zero-gravity dispensers it was on the news, but other than that the space program was mostly ignored, which I guess is why I don’t have many memories of it. Reporters didn’t cover the space shuttle’s flights because it would be like covering an airport – they took off, they landed, back to you Jim. So he wasn’t covering Challenger when it exploded; he was in the production room with another story when he noticed people scurrying about and asked what happened. Upon hearing the shuttle exploded he grabbed his tape recorder and a company car and sped to Cape Canaveral barking on a CB radio to arrange press passes be waiting for him when he arrived. While waiting outside the security office to pick up his badge he noticed a school bus and a group of 3rd graders with hangdog expressions, so his first interview regarding the Challenger was with those kids recounting their experience watching the shuttle explode. He kept the tapes and 20 years later when he began writing this book he tracked down some of the children, now in their 30’s, to get their reflections on the shuttle program. I found it interesting that for the kids the scariest part of the Challenger explosion experience occurred when they returned home later that night. The bus ride was three hours and no one had cell phones back then, so by 6pm their parents had watched the shuttle explode over and over on television without knowing for sure if their children were okay. What if they’d been hit by some debris?!?! When the kids disembarked they were grabbed in a mad scramble by frightened parents.

He also told a great story about the invention of WD40 . He showed a street sign in Cocoa Beach called “I Dream of Jeannie Lane” and said astronauts really did hang out at Bernard’s Surf as mentioned on the show. And because I was in the audience he mentioned Steve Jobs.

I didn’t realize that when the Shuttle program shuts down it will spell the end for Cape Canaveral. Duggins thinks Huntsville, AL will pick up the torch. As a Florida native, I’m saddened by this.



Nov. 5th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
I've never seen a launch live. That has to be absolutely amazing. :)
Nov. 5th, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
A regular launch is interesting... a night launch is one of the most amazing things ever.

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