hat did I do on my summer vacation? I visited the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I'd been promising myself this trip for a decade, as I missed chance after chance for firsthand observation of the federal government's cutting-edge activities. I'd never been aboard an aircraft carrier, or flown in a fighter jet, or toured many of our spectacular national parks and forests. And I'd never seen what people say is the best thing to see: the launch of the space shuttle.
So when my friend Bob Koch of Northrop Grumman invited me to join him for the launch of STS-93, I rounded up John Clark and Melissa Blum, both freshly minted high school graduates interested in astrophysics careers, and we headed down to Orlando.
Driving into the Space Center complex, I was struck by the scale of the place. It does not seem as big as one might expect. The Space Center's launch pads and other facilities are scattered randomly in flat expanses of scrub, isolated human excrescences on an endless horizon. To be sure, there are some large structures, such as the Vehicle Assembly Building, whose height (50 stories) is less impressive than its volume--it has more square feet of interior space than virtually any structure in the world. The launch pads at the center and the adjoining Air Force base are impressive. And the huge crawler-transporter that lugs the shuttle out to the launch pads captivated my young companions. But all in all, I was reminded of how puny we humans are, and how audacious, as we shape our earth and explore the heavens.
During our tour, I was reminded of the predominance of private contractors in NASA operations. One of NASA's recent signal achievements was consolidation of base operations and support contracts for both the Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force 45th Space Wing's adjoining facilities. This $2.2 billion contract, won by Space Gateway Support, a consortium of Northrop Grumman and two other firms, received one of Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Awards in July for the huge savings it reaped for the government.
But, of course, the real excitement in late July revolved around Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle commander. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and the world-champion U.S. women's soccer team flew down, Judy Collins composed a special song and in Cocoa Beach a little girl at Rusty's eatery flaunted her "Girls Rule" T-shirt. It was the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. landing on the moon, but that ancient (male-dominated) history wasn't very exciting to the new generation of space buffs. In an exclusive interview, Melissa said that what impressed her most was "the fact that a woman was in charge." Melissa remarked that during her education, Collins "took the hard science and math courses and excelled. She is a good role model for all the young girls who want to be astronauts."