One giant leap for humankind, one giant leap backwards for equality

(Hastily written on tube journeys – forgive typos)

This morning I’m full of conflicting emotions. So excited -so excited – that ESA managed to pull off the incredible feat of landing Philae on comet 67P, but also sad. I’m sad, truly disappointed, upset about that shirt.

The shirt I’m referring to of course, is that worn by Rosetta lead project scientist Matt Taylor during the coverage of this historic landing. He took it off at some point, either waking up to the fact it was hugely offensive to many people, or because he was advised to by someone in the press team, but the damage was already done.

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Following the landing on Twitter, with friends all round the world, I didn’t want to be distracted from the mission. When I first saw tweets and small auto-loaded images that mentioned the shirt, I thought they were referring to it’s garish colours. It was certainly um, “eye-catching”. But then I looked closer, and saw it was covered in images of semi-naked women. Er, what? My first thought was that it should never have been made, let alone bought, let alone worn – never mind the fact the eyes of the world were on this coverage.

At work, and only able to sneak glimpses of the landing coverage via Twitter, I didn’t think too much about it. I sort of figured this was some quirky scientist attempting to have their moment of fame by emulating Curiosity landing’s “Mohawk guy”, wearing something bright so they could be picked out in a crowd.

It was only later that I realised this wasn’t just anyone, this was one of the lead scientists of the mission – one of “the faces and voices” of the mission. Ah, this is the guy who had the landing tattooed on his leg, before it happened, so confident (or hopeful) that it would happen. I thought that was cool. It showed real passion and dedication and love of his work. Showing that scientists aren’t just the stereotype of old, serious, white male in a lab coat.

So what went wrong? How could this happen?

I’m going to give Matt Taylor the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he just didn’t think about his choice of shirt in that way and didn’t realise that it might upset people. Let’s just imagine he wanted something bright and “non-lab coat”. Let’s imagine that he wanted to do something positive by wearing something bright and showing that science can be fun.

My question is how could anyone at ESA have allowed him to wear it on screen? I know they were all busy, so busy, I know they had other things on their mind, I know you might think “get over it Kate, it’s just a shirt”, but this has really bothered me. Here we are, making history, making great leaps forward, and yet the historical record will show just how backward we were. Here was a chance, with the whole world watching, to show a new generation of potential scientists that this stuff is cool, it’s exciting, and it’s for them – and yet with one bad clothing choice we’ve potentially alienated half the audience.

I’m cross. I’ve campaigned previously to keep sexism out of space. These things might seem small, but the effect is toxic. I’m sad. So sad, that at this great moment, this never-to-be-repeated galactic first, that no-one stepped in and said “mate, what are you thinking, take that off!”.

I’m sad that no member of the press and PR team, no member of management, no team member or journalist said “take that off before you represent the leading edge of human achievement”.

There was some uproar on Twitter, but actually this wasn’t just a “Twitterstorm” for the sake of it – in fact I was really impressed at the way Erin Ryan gave it a more positive angle by highlighting some of the female scientists and engineers that were part of the team, noting for each of them that #shedeservesbetter.

The shirt disappeared later in the day, but by then press interviews had been done, and as I watched the BBC Ten o’clock News, there it was again. That shirt.

It might not have been quite such a big problem if it was confined to the live coverage on the ESA stream – lots of people were watching, yes, and lots of them could feel disappointed by it, sure, but the fact it made it into the mainstream media coverage, that’s a really big problem. Now we have many thousands of people, the audiences that space and science might not always reach, exactly the sort of people we need to excite – and this is the glimpse they get of the space family.

Not good enough.

I’m sad that the journalists interviewing him didn’t stop and suggest he take the shirt off, point out that it might detract from his message about great science. I’m just so sad that this could happen.

Since I started writing this post I know there have been several others posting on the topic, I saw Matt Taylor on the front of the Evening Standard yesterday with an interview from his family saying that he is super smart but can lack common sense (I didn’t see a reference to the shirt) and I’ve even seen horrible abuse aimed at people on Twitter who (rightly) called him out on it.

I’ve been asked whether my love of space exploration trumps the issue of objectifying women. My answer is a clear no. They are different things. Yes, I’m totally thrilled that we landed on a comet and we did that no matter what people were wearing, but do I think the coverage has been marred by “shirtgate”? Yes. Without a doubt. Here was the most fantastic opportunity to show that space is for everyone, and yet that stupid shirt sent out an entirely different message, consciously or not.

In fact maybe that is the issue here, that we’re so used to this sort of thing that it doesn’t register with people as being sexist or damaging. Well we shouldn’t be, and we certainly shouldn’t be raising the next generation to just accept it either.

I’m sad that I’m writing this post and not just raving about the super coolness of landing on a comet, but you know I think that’s amazing, and I know that story is being told elsewhere, so I think it’s important that I add my voice to the others, in expressing my disappointment at this – at best a missed opportunity, at worst a damaging step backwards.

I know people working in media at ESA. They are good people. They work hard. They probably realise that this is an issue too. This is not about blaming anyone, but making the point that this wasn’t okay. We simultaneously took one giant leap for humankind, and one giant leap backwards.

So what now? I would like to hear from Matt Taylor – to find out what he really thinks. An apology and a strong statement that gives the women on the Rosetta team the respect that they deserve. As for ESA? A concerted effort to highlight all the great and inclusive things that they do – all the brilliant women that made this mission possible – and all the opportunities for the next generation of female engineers and scientists to be part of this incredible international partnership.

UPDATE:

Matt Taylor made a heartfelt apology for the offence he caused during an ESA hangout today where scientists were updating us about the status of Philae. It was genuine and I thank him for it. I still question why those around him didn’t do something which could have avoided this situation, but I’m confident that a lesson has been learnt and people will be more careful in future. It is important that we learn from mistakes, and acknowledging it was a mistake is a good first step. Thank you Matt. Now let’s get back to rooting for Philae and hoping there’s enough power for the next communication window later tonight.

I do moderate comments on my blog, to stop spam, but I’ve approved all the comments that have come in today, precisely because they illustrate some of the issues that we face. It’s not about men vs women, it’s about the level of vitriol in comments on what I had hoped was quite a balanced post. It’s like people haven’t read what I actually said, or just prefer to attack rather than think about whether there might really be a problem.  Perhaps it’s easier to attack rather than calmly engage, and therein lies a problem. It shows there is still work to be done, and although I don’t expect my voice alone will make a difference, I hope it will help other realise that it is okay to speak out about things that matter to them. It’s the only way things will ever change.

ESA’s Rosetta Mission is Making History

Today is a day we make history. After a ten year journey to comet 67P Churyumov-Grasimenko, the Rosetta spacecraft said goodbye to its washing machine-sized lander Philae, which is now on its way to attempt to land on the odd-shaped comet.

This is something that has never been done before – never even been attempted before. It is groundbreaking, exciting stuff. 

While it’s being referred to as a comet “landing” – and I’ve even heard people describe Philae “kissing” the surface of 67P as it drops gently down on the surface at a speed of 1m/s – it’s a bit more dramatic than that, as Mark Bentley once explained to me.:

The legs of the lander have shock absorbers to minimise the risk of it bouncing back off the comet into space due to the low gravity on the comet. The Philae lander is then going to have to use hold-down thrusters and harpoon the comet to anchor it down. (I hope no-one tries kissing me like that!)

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Will it succeed? We don’t know.

What we do know is that in getting this far, past so many difficult hurdles, the Rosetta mission has already been a triumph. The team has successfully awoken a spaceship that’s been hibernating for years, manoeuvred it to orbit a comet, and collected incredible images of the surface.

The animations of Rosetta and Philae’s incredible journey have brought the mission to life for thousands of people and at 5am this morning, over 30,000 people were tuned in to a live stream showing nothing more than a virtually empty control room.

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People are excited about this, and rightly so – it’s a great achievement already. Let’s hope we witness a successful landing this afternoon, but whatever happens, we mustn’t forget that ESA is making history, and we’re are witnessing it unfold in real time. Now that is exciting.

Follow #CometLanding on Twitter to be part of the global community watching this piece of history. @ESA_Rosetta, @Philae2014 and @ESAoperations will bring you the latest news on Twitter throughout the day.

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Posted in Events by SpaceKate. 2 Comments

Amazing Encounters – Apollo 13′s Fred Haise

Fred Haise

You’ve seen the film, you know the dramatic story, but meeting one of the members of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission is something else. Ken Willoughby and the Space Lectures team secured Apollo 13 Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise as their guest of honour in Pontefract for the final weekend of October. We all came away knowing something new – though not perhaps what we had expected…

Apollo_13-insignia“My name is Fred Haise, I’m a NASA astronaut” begins Haise, “I flew Apollo 13 a while back”.

Thus begins my chat with the understated Fred Haise. “I wanted to be a journalist” he tells me, “I studied journalism for two years at junior college and freelanced for AP – they paid 75 cents a line”.

It was the outbreak of the Korean War that changed his course as he joined the naval aviation cadet programme. “I’d not been interested in flying, I’d never flown, but I loved flying” he says, “that made a right turn in my career”.

There’s something very matter of fact about the way he describes joining the astronaut corps. “I’d been working at NASA before, so for me it was just another transfer from one NASA centre to another one”.

“I didn’t think of myself as a particularly renown person at the time, I was just a test pilot” he says.

There’s that word again “just”. It’s a word he seems to use a lot when talking about himself. I can’t tell whether that’s because he’s uncomfortable with the level of recognition and awe he now commands, or that it’s a reflection of his view that he was “just” a test pilot, getting the job done.

That’s not to say he’s blasé about it, “I feel very fortunate to have stumbled into this line of work” he says.

Fred HaiseA few minutes into his lecture at the Carlton Community High School, Haise mutters that immortal phrase: “We’ve had a problem”. This time however, it’s just an issue with the microphone he’s using to deliver his talk – we share a moment of laughter as they disentangle him from the wires of the headset and give him a hand-held mic instead.

“There was no book for this set of problems” says Haise, referring to the multiple failures caused by the oxygen tank explosion on Apollo 13. Despite many hours training in the simulators at both Johnson and Kennedy Space Centres, the escalating string of issues they had to deal with was something new.

In fact, one of the reasons they’d not planned for it was that the problem was so serious an issue that crew were lucky to have survived it at all.

“We kinda gave them a problem” he says, “we were still sitting there breathing”.

The mission control team had their work cut out. Although the initial aim of the mission, a Moon landing at Fra Mauro, was lost, the crew were not – and that meant they had to work round the clock to return them safely to the Earth.

It was not like a car swerving off the road though, says Haise, in fact it took Mission Control 18 minutes to come to the same conclusion that the crew had come to, that the oxygen tank was lost. “Sy Liebergot got a lot of heat for that” he says, “for 18 minutes they thought it was an instrumentation problem”.

The crew had been filming for a TV show two days into the mission, finding things to show people that the other missions hadn’t already covered, giving a little tour of the vehicle and enjoying the effects of microgravity – “it’s kinda euphoric” he says.

TV transmission from the Apollo 13 crew moments before the accident that crippled the mission. Fred Haise can be seen on the large screen at the upper right.

TV transmission from the Apollo 13 crew moments before the accident that crippled the mission. Fred Haise can be seen on the large screen at the upper right.

It was at the end of the filming that they had the problem. “It ended up being a very long day” he says earnestly.

“Initially I was still in the landing craft, putting away stuff” he explains. “By the time I drifted up the tunnel to the right seat – that had all the electrics – all three meters were down at the bottom for tank two”.

“I just had a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew that we had lost the landing. Without referencing mission rules or the books I knew that was an abort, to lose one of the tanks.”

Haise had trained as back-up for both Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but this was his first flight. “Here I had my chance, and it was gone in an instant”

Fred HaiseThis last line, delivered with an almost imperceptible tinge of sadness, a little quieter than the others, is the closest I feel I’ll get to the truth of the disappointment. Haise is a military pilot, a test pilot, a “stiff upper lip think of the mission” pilot. There’s not room for emotion when you’re thinking of the next thing that could kill you, and while he talks at length about the technical details, he doesn’t give much away about the emotion behind the experience.

I wonder if he’ll say more, but we’re back onto the timeline of what happened, how it panned out and who knew what, when.

Haise is keen to point out the sheer number of people who worked the problem and got the crew safely home. “One of my main complaints to Ron Howard about the film (Apollo 13) was that it didn’t show the number of people involved” he says, though he admits Howard pointed out he had neither the budget for so many actors, nor the time to introduce them all as characters in his blockbuster film. Fair point.

“A few years ago I listened to the back room loops” says Haise, referring to recordings not of the space to ground communications, but those containing the discussions in the “back rooms” – the rooms of experts that supported those people in the main Mission Control centre.

“We were desperately trying to isolate the leak in the second oxygen tank” he explains, “we would have aborted even without that, but it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was”.

Listening to the tapes, decades after the incident itself, he describes hearing the voices of people he knew – hearing from the inflection in their voices that they knew they’d lost it, and they were losing hope. A new Mission Control team came on and they realised they had to shutdown the command module, and fast. “We were eating into our entry batteries”.

There was a change in the voices, some hope, but now they had a new problem to deal with. The command module was never meant to be shutdown during flight so there was no manual for the procedure. Despite that the team worked out what to do and they worked through the shutdown sequence and managed to do it safely.

“When I listened to the tapes, it really made me want to applaud” he says, with obvious admiration for the commitment and skill of those involved.

co2 scrubberCommander Jim Lovell tasked Haise with calculating the consumables required, assuming a return time of around 150 hours. Haise recalls that they were running out of water, but he thought that they were okay on electrical power, and plenty okay on oxygen – especially with the two suit tanks that were no longer required for Moon walks. He didn’t think of carbon dioxide as a consumable and missed that from the calculations – though of course it was the build up of carbon dioxide that caused another big problem for them, requiring them to create a makeshift CO2 scrubber.

“It went real cold so we stayed in the LM(Lunar Module)” says Haise, “we didn’t go into the ‘icebox upstairs’ as we called it”, talking of the shutdown command module.

The crew were no longer able to heat their food and soon gave up on trying to eat anything powdered. “We ate cookie cubes, bread cubes and peanuts from a little larder of snacks” he explains.

Cooling vapour being released from the lander (not usually present when returning from the Moon) had pushed them slightly off course – enough that the craft could have “bounced” off the atmosphere and been lost forever. They had to correct for this, without the computer and without being navigate using the stars since there was still too much debris glistening around them. Instead they used the Earth’s terminator – the line where the light of day and shadow of night meet – for guidance.

“We did two short burns, one of 18 seconds, one of 21 seconds. One with the descent engine and the other with the four RCS (Reaction Control System) engines” says Haise, explaining that unlike the way the film presents it, they didn’t swing around all over the place – that was just put in for dramatic effect.

“We did not move more than one degree in any deviation in any axis” he states firmly. Jim Lovell controlled the yaw of the spacecraft, while Haise controlled their pitch. He lightens his tone to mention “the biggest deviation was in Jim’s axis”, adding a wry smile.

Apollo 13 splashdown

Despite all the issues, not only did the crew get back safely, but their splashdown was one of the most accurate of the whole Apollo programme. “Only Apollo 10 did better”.

It’s an impressive feat, and the crew’s safe return deserved some celebration, but unlike other missions there was no splashdown party when the crew landed. Those in Mission Control were too tired, some of them having never left once they were called in, choosing instead to lie down in corridors to nap when they knew they needed to. They celebrated by getting some sleep.

Haise tells us the Apollo 13 crew are unique in that they were allowed to go to their own splashdown party, which was held two weeks later. What a party that must have been!

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He survived Apollo 13, but sadly the next mission he was slated for, Apollo 19, did not survive financial cuts. His chance at the Moon really had been lost in an instant.

Haise is asked about his role as CapCom for Apollo 14′s Moonwalk – which had inherited Apollo 13′s landing site – was that bittersweet for him?

“Bittersweet?” he says before a pause, “Every time someone landed on the Moon it was bittersweet – not just 14.”

But he’s lucky to be alive – and Apollo 13 was not his only narrow escape. Continuing with flying he had an engine fail at around 300ft on the set of the Pearl Harbour film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”. Attempting to land in what he thought was a dirt field, he found the start of a housing project, filled with ditches. Having caught a wheel in a ditch, he was in trouble. Trouble that left him with second degree burns over 65% of his body.

After months of treatment, and many more to get back to flight status, Haise was ready to take to the skies again. In 1976 he joined one of two duos tasked with carrying out the approach and landing tests for the latest space vehicle, the space shuttle.

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Sitting up in the shuttle cockpit atop a 747 plane that took them up to around 30,000ft for the test was “like a magic carpet” he says. “You couldn’t see the 747 at all.”

Haise takes a detour from speaking of his direct experiences at this point. “Apollo was a very unique programme” he says. “Lots of things all lined up at the right time to allow it to be properly supported and funded.”

“But why did it happen then and not since?”, he asks. His answer comes in three parts – firstly, there was a threat. The Soviets, with Sputnik and Gagarin, made the US feel threatened.

Secondly, John F Kennedy wanted a way to declare the technological capability of the US. Various options were suggested, but the Apollo programme happened to tick the right boxes. “I don’t think, personally, that he was a space fan” says Haise.

Finally, for something like Apollo to become reality, there cannot be something else drawing on your national budget, like a war.

“You can dream about doing something, but you better have the technology to pull it off” he says.

Enterprise_1977_Approach_and_Landing_Test_mission_patchHaise shares his views on the way the space shuttle programme was squeezed and the issues that caused. “Content got taken out of the programme” he says, “They cut the second Enterprise (test vehicle) and moved OV-99 from being a test vehicle to a flight vehicle”. (This orbiter later became more commonly known as Challenger.)

The whole shuttle programme was delayed, with the first orbital launch coming two years after its original scheduled date. This is one of the reasons Haise didn’t make a return to space on the shuttle.

Haise also mentions the “worrisome” nature of a change in administration from Nixon to Carter. Carter cancelled the B1 bomber project just at the time they were conducting the approach and landing tests for the shuttle, “it was pretty obvious that space was not in his top ten priorities” he says.

“That morning when we climbed into Enterprise there were Polaroids stuck on the steps at the top” says Haise. The photos showed their colleagues dressed in blue suits (flight suits), wearing hats and masks, pretending to be Haise and his crewmate

Gordon Fullerton. They were sat posing on a street sweeper with the message: “If you foul this up, this will be your next job!”, written on the photos.

It may have just been a prank, but it reflected everyone’s worst fears. Had they crashed Enterprise it would have set the programme back by at least two years, says Haise. Thankfully that didn’t happen and thirty years of shuttle flights ensued.

“I just feel very fortunate with my total career” says Haise.

Fred Haise“Magically, luckily, I got into flying. I was going to be a journalist – like Kate here, making notes” he says picking me out of the crowd and causing me to feel simultaneously self-conscious, and proud at having been name-checked by an Apollo astronaut.

Haise closes his talk by saying “I arrived at the right time, with the right experience and the right background for Apollo”.

“Today they are people with the same credentials, but no programme to go into” he adds, slightly ruefully. “I feel very lucky to have had the chance”.

The room fills with applause and he is given a standing ovation. At 81 later this month, Haise is in fine form, and despite talking late into the evening the night before, he patiently signs autographs without a flicker of tiredness.

I feel very lucky to have met him. Journalism’s loss was definitely NASA’s gain.

A Bad Week for Commercial Space

space is hard

It’s been a tough week for commercial spaceflight. We know spaceflight is hard, but two stark reminders so close together really bring the message home.

Before I realised that space was “real”, before I met someone who actually worked for NASA, these stories might have caught my eye in the paper, made me gasp at the images, then floated away from my consciousness somewhat. Even when I went to see my first rocket launch, which was meant to be a shuttle, I was there for the excitement, the spectacle, the sight, sound, experience of it all. To see a mighty rocket lift off toward space.

I didn’t really think of the astronauts. I mean, they weren’t quite real, in the same way that NASA was distant and untouchable – like something from a film, astronauts were sort of like superheroes. Not quite real, so you didn’t have to worry about them, they were superhuman, untouchable, they exist like Father Christmas does… (We know he exists, but you’ll never actually meet him!) ;)

But when I got to know an astronaut, and when I sat and watched as tonnes of rocket fuel were ignited beneath him on a rocket that blasted away from the confines of Earth, it was different. It wasn’t just a spectacular show – an amazing human achievement, an exciting thing to watch – it was terrifying. We say we know that spaceflight is hard, but then we act as though it isn’t. Astronauts aren’t scared, things are nominal, *another* successful launch etc. But when you know someone on top of a rocket, you’re keenly aware that this stuff is hard. Really hard. It is risky.

You remind yourself your friends have trained for years, that they are smart, prepared, that they understand the risks etc. You tell yourself it will be okay, but until you see them safely on orbit, or back on the ground, you are intensely aware that spaceflight is hard.

Busy editing some audio from the International Astronautical Congress, I was a few seconds late getting NASA TV to load so I could watch Orbital’s Cygnus launch on October 28th. When the feed finally loaded there was just fire everywhere. “That’s not good” I thought, immediately. You don’t want to see that much fire after a launch.

There was silence. And fire. This was bad.

I scrolled back through the tweets in my feed. It was spooky. The usual crowd getting excited about the countdown, sharing the livestream link with others, then “LIFTOFF!”, “Go #Orb3″, “Cleared the tower! :D”, followed by “Shit!”, “omg”, “oh crap”. Fifteen seconds into flight there was (in space speak) “an anomaly” – a catastrophic failure to you and me – and the range safety officer made the call to destroy the rocket to minimise further potential damage.

I sat listening to the livestream as the commentator struggled to keep sounding calm and find enough things to fill the airtime, giving what little information they had at regular intervals. But what was there really to say? The third launch of Orbital’s Cygnus craft had ended in a matter of seconds. Burning debris told the rest of the story.

We heard the comms loop as people were told to keep all their notes, data, anything that might help the investigation. Then there was the silence, nothing but the sound of the wind and the sight of the launch complex with fires burning all around.

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I was in shock. I was used to coming online for a launch, chatting with fellow space fans from around the world, and watching as rockets lifted off in a blaze of glory.

Thankfully this wasn’t a crew launch. We had confirmation that staff at the launch site were safe. What was lost was the payload destined for the ISS, numerous satellites (including those from a friend’s company) and the work of hundreds, more likely thousands, of people.

Previously I would have felt no real connection to any of this, but having followed the progress of commercial companies delivering cargo to the ISS, and with friends at SpaceX, I felt a real sadness on behalf of all those trying so hard to make this work – to see all your hard work destroyed in a matter of seconds must be heartbreaking. Thank goodness no-one was hurt.

Spaceflight is hard, and when we get it right it’s something to be proud of, but we must never forget how hard it really is. My heart ached for the space family so many hopes, dreams and hours of work went up in smoke.

I went on holiday for a few days, disconnected from the internet a bit, had a break. Sitting ready to go out for some dinner my friend suddenly said “what? SpaceShipTwo has crashed”.

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I felt a chill down my spine and went to find out more. Sure enough the news was just breaking on Twitter – not just a crash, but a fatal one at that. One pilot lost, the other’s status unknown.

Another commercial space disaster, this one including a loss of life, it felt too much.

I know people at Virgin Galactic. I’ve met one of their test pilots – was it him who had died? (Actually it turned out he was the survivor.) How must they all be feeling? The small space community at Mojave Air and Spaceport, were they all okay?

The commercial space sector, just learning to walk by itself, had taken another painful tumble.

5495518903_2bb3411526_mSpace is real. I think it’s hard for many people to grasp that unless they’ve been touched by it in some way – in the same way the realities of war are lost on those of us listening to reports on the news as we wake up. But it’s real to me these days and the past week has been tough.

I’m sending good wishes to the pilots’ families, all those at Virgin Galactic and Orbital, those involved in commercial space and to the whole space family. It is like a family, you may argue with traditional parents or squabble with rival siblings, but when it comes down to it, you want everyone to succeed.

There will be many months of investigation into both of these events, and it is right that serious questions are asked, lessons are learned and we move forward. For now though, I offer my support and best wishes to all those in the space family who need them. Space is hard, this has been a hard week, but we choose to do these things, not because they are easy…

I hope that those people involved can pick themselves up again, and continue the endeavour to reach for the stars. As rocketry pioneer Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky once said, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever”. We’re just learning to walk, there will be other hurdles to overcome, but the only way we’ll do this is to do it together. My thoughts are with you all.

 

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Posted in Opinion by SpaceKate. 1 Comment