Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

Archive: Jan 2009

  1. The big "Y"

    27 Comments

    challenger-explosionI was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

    I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

    We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

    When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

    I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

    Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

    As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

    Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

    NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

    So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

    They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

    All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

    The answer is “none of the above.”

    With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring m070614-F-5306T-002anned space exploration to an end.

    But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

    Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

    “Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

    And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at  the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

    There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

    Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

    But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

    “Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

    Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

    The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.

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  2. My fast 5

    8 Comments

    bourget_falcon7x

    Bill Garvey of Business and Commercial Aviation Magazine recently interviewed me for the publication’s “Fast 5” column. It has some additional relevance given the Citibank Falcon Flap. There is no way to link non-subscribers to this on line apparently, so here is the text of the Q and A:

    Fast Five
    By William Garvey

    Miles O’Brien, former Technology and Environment Correspondent, Cable News Network, New York, N.Y.

    A history major at Georgetown University, O’Brien reported news at several local TV stations before applying for the science correspondent’s job at CNN. Interviewed by CNN’s chief science producer, a molecular biologist, it was quickly apparent O’Brien “didn’t know squat about science.” He brashly argued that his ignorance combined with his natural curiosity and interviewing skills made him the perfect candidate for the job – and he got it. A pilot, he reported on a wide range of technological subjects including aerospace for nearly 17 years until the network announced in December it was dismantling its science unit and letting O’Brien go.

    1. Do general media reporters and editors have a natural antipathy for business aviation?
    O’Brien:  Most reporters are contrarians and hard-wired to be skeptical, to the point of bordering on cynical, about the intent of people who sit in corner offices. They address a broad audience and tap into that sense of populism. And when confronted with the hubris and arrogance that goes along with a G IV, it’s irresistible; they simply can’t pull their punches.

    2. And that factored into the coverage on the carmakers coming to Washington in their business jets?
    O’Brien: There are certain times, especially with television, when an image provides the perfect metaphor for a larger, more complex story that’s difficult to tell. The nature of the carmakers’ mission and their arrival by jet sums up lots of things about the mindset of the management that got Detroit where it is. They were coming with tin cups while spewing jet fuel by the hundreds of pounds. It was a target that was impossible to overlook, highlighting the fact that they just don’t get it.

    3. Any suggestion on how the business aviation community can alter the perspective and the storyline?
    O’Brien: We all know why these airplanes have no logos and why they block the N numbers. The argument that it’s for security is baloney. It’s because they don’t want shareholders to know they’re jetting around in these things. That’s the wrong approach. It gives the media and the public the sense that the suits are hiding something. Warren Buffett says of all technologies, only a business jet can give you time and can really change your life. Well, if it’s really a time machine and provides efficiency, then companies should promote that fact. They should announce, “Hey, we’ve got six of them and need them all to stay competitive.”

    4. You were on the shortlist to succeed Phil Boyer at AOPA. Had you been offered the job, would you have accepted?
    O’Brien: Yes. I was really excited about the challenge. I think general aviation needs to communicate more effectively and in new ways to advance its issues and to grow new pilots. Communicating is what I do. They decided to go with a Washington guy, since working the halls of Congress is an important piece of the job. I’m no lobbyist. I wish Craig Fuller well; he’s got a tough job ahead of him. Phil’s timing is impeccable.

    5. And what about the timing of your departure from CNN?
    O’Brien: I’m walking out without a walker, and that’s good. CNN is providing a nice financial cushion and that gives me time to figure out what’s next. I’ve heard from lots of people, multiple calls every day, and we’re talking about other channels, speeches and maybe a book. This is an exciting time. Would I still be there if they’d not pushed me out? Sure. We all get comfortable and the compensation was good. But I can now pursue things that my contract wouldn’t allow and I’m looking forward to it.

  3. We Aimed for the Stars…

    73 Comments

    Here is an excerpt of an op-ed I just wrote for Space News.  Would love to hear your thoughts. The entire article can be found at: http://www.space.com/spacenews/archive09/obrienoped_0119.html

    Truth is, we have done nothing to equal (much less top) the accomplishments of Apollo. And even worse, we haven’t tried. We did something truly great, but then walked away from it. We had lightning in a bottle — and we opened the lid.

    Our country has been pulling the rug out from under NASA ever since Apollo. Really, the agency is running on fumes from rocket fuel that was purchased (on a credit card no doubt) in 1961.

    Why did we allow it to slip through our fingers? Sometimes I get the feeling we are the only nation that just doesn’t get it,because we are either cocky or stupid or distracted — or all of the above.

  4. My Favorite Flying Ant

    9 Comments

    There are not many TV anchors/correspondents who can boast over high Q-ratings in the much coveted, yet seldom delivered Formicidae demo. For those of you who are Latin or Biology challenged (or both, like me), I am talking about ants – or more precisely one very special ant by the name of Klyde Morris – who is billed as “Aviation’s Only Ant” (now that is one claim that needs no verifying on The Google).

    authornoliKlyde’s creator, Wes Oleszewski, is a man with a sharp eye for hypocrisy and absurdity – while also being a keen judge of TV talent! He also happens to be a top-notch model-rocket maker – operating under the nom-de-plume (get it?) of Dr. Zooch Rockets. You should check out his handiwork – his Saturn V is a giant in every way.

    In any case, since December 3, 2008 – when management at CNN asked me if I “had a minute?” – and then gave me all the free time I could imagine, Klyde/Wes have penned three strips which mention my name. I submit them for your approval – and invite you to check out  www.klydemorris.com. Thanks, Klyde, for being a fan – and I promise to go easy if I see you at a picnic. MOB

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  5. My Speech to the Mars Rover Team at JPL

    32 Comments

    1-miles-with-shuttle
    Great to be here – behind all this facial hair is a former CNN space correspondent… but as you may have read – I have just been accepted into the anchor protection program – and I was told by my government handlers to change my appearance. Please don’t tell them that I am here…

    Actually – I grew this despite the misgivings of my lovely bride Sandy – because for the first time in 26 years, I actually own my face…I am taking back the territory…thought about planting a flag…but that seemed like it would be painful…

    It is always great to be here at my favorite space portal…the gateway to the universe…one of the smartest – and most fun – places on the planet – Disneyland for Nerds…

    2-hubble-mars
    Mars is my second favorite planet – and many of you in this room helped make me feel as if I have been there…and how cool is that? Thanks for the outstanding vicarious ride these past 30 years or so.

    Sometimes I think we can take for granted that we are now awash in amazing high revolution, panoramic, microscopic, three dimensional images shot on the surface – or in orbit.

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    What we have found is a place that looks an awful lot like home – if you are from New Mexico – and I think that is part of the appeal. Looking at the Eagle crater – a human being can imagine being there – in hiking boots.

    It is truly a transformative experience – and when you consider all the proof we now have that this place was once warm and wet – we cannot help but look at those images and wonder about our place in the universe – and how close we are to learning if we have some company.

    How great is it to be alive at this time – when we just might learn the answer to that question? We are lucky to have people like you who know how to get an answer…

    Of course we have been curious about this since cavemen looked at the night sky – and said ”UG” – or when they saw the spaceship land and the little green men build Stonehenge.

    I hear there may be another Stonehenge underwater in Lake Michigan. Alien SCUBA divers? Who knew?

    4-canali
    While we’re on the subject of water and Mars – it is worth talking about the origins of our modern fascination with the Red Planet. It all begins with water – Giovanni Schiparelli  and the canali  that he wrote about.

    He meant natural channels – but in this case something was gained in the translation – and people assumed he was talking about canals – which implies some sort of Martian Corps of Engineers.

    No one took the ball farther and ran harder with that than the blue-blooded astronomer Percival Lowell. (You don’t hear about many boys being named Percival these days…do you?).

    Lowell was convinced the canals were built by smart beings who were running out of water.

    5-war-of-the-worlds

    This of course begat HG Wells War of the Worlds…Orson Wells radio version of it…which begat Edgar Rice Burroughs…Marvin the Martian…Ray Bradbury…and Robinson Crusoe on Mars among other things…

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    And for a long time – there was nothing to stop the Martian train from rolling down the tracks… until 1964 – when you guys – or your scientific ancestors – launched a series of spacecraft called Mariner.

    Scan line by scan line- the faxes from Mars gave us a whole new view of Mars – and it was not a good place to find or build some condos.

    So much for that fun – but before we could get too depressed – we had some astronauts on the moon to entertain us…

    7-viking
    And then – before too long Mars came into focus as it never had before…1976 – the Viking Landers arrived on the surface –  and the crowd went wild – Mars in vivid color – do not adjust your set – it really is kinda sepia there, ladies and gentlemen…

    Viking did not find smoking gun proof of life on Mars – but then it does seem unlikely there would be any guns at all on Mars.

    But seriously – the data was kind of ambiguous – and even today – as I understand it – scientists are not speaking with one voice on this – as they normally do…

    Oh you mean you guys disagree at times?

    8-pathfinder

    Fast forward twenty years (now that is what I call a gap! – don’t do that again) – and Pathfinder: who could have predicted that one?

    The internets as a mass medium were new – and the Google was just a glint in Sergei and Larry’s eyes…and there was Pathfinder on Mars – and JPL putting pictures on the web almost as fast as they got into the hands of the science team. How cool was that? Millions of hits – and the first global internet event was born. Mars was ready for is close-ups…

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    The missions that have followed have either built on this connection – or built on the suspense because they didn’t make it. Each time you take us back there – we learn something new – and see something cool – some spheres that had to be formed by water…or we touch and taste ice – and each time you take us to the very edge of what is possible. And we are there with you.

    The Mars Rover team took the Pathfinder philosophy one step further – you allow the public to see every image you see. Remarkable. Nothing like that has ever happened in the history science as far as I know. (Of course, I am a history major).

    No wonder Opportunity and Spirit  are so beloved – and so much a part of our pop culture. They are literally and figuratively  – rock stars. The mission ranks number one on the public awareness scale – in TV we call it a Q-rating – if I had Opportunity’s Q – I’d still be at CNN.

    I think the thread that connects Schiaparelli and Lowell – to Opportunity Spirit and Phoenix is the quest for life outside out planet. You – and those of us in the media (I guess I am now technically a recovering journalist) have done a good job setting the bar on what might or might not be found on Mars.

    10-marvin-the-martian
    There are not many people left who are expecting to see Marvin the Martian – or the ruins of an ancient civilization on Mars (even though some people are still fixated on that old face image that captured by Viking and debunked by mars Global Surveyor).

    I guess I can now safely share with you an expression we use in the newsroom – never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    But my sense is people would be pretty excited if you found a fossil – matter of fact we have empirical proof of that given the DEFCON 1 media cluster -event- surrounding the Alan Hills 84001 meteorite announcement.

    It’s not exactly what SETI has in mind as they soldier on in their daunting effort to make contact – but microbes on Mars are enough to lure people away from American Idol for a while…
    I guess the moral of this – is because we are among the living – we are generally interested in other living things…and this brings me to the other great narrative that plays out here: it is the story of all of you.

    I often wonder if you all are big gamblers – because what you do is such an all or nothing thing – in some cases risking nearly an entire career of hard work – on a 6 minute plunge into an alien atmosphere.

    Let’s face it  – this is as exciting as science can be…we weren’t there for the serendipitous moments when researchers stumbled onto Teflon…or Velcro…or Post It Notes – and said, no doubt, Eureka! – before calling a patent lawyer…

    But we are there when you have those moments of unbridled joy – when the all-in bet pays off – or not. In the business – we call this good TV. Suspense, reality – possible smoldering holes…everything but a vote to see who gets booted off the island.

    Phoenix EDL, JPL mall area

    Steve Squyres and I did a special when the Phoenix landed – and I gave all due praise to the gods of orbital mechanics – as the Earth Received Time of the landing was near the end of an hour. And so I sold CNN on the notion of an hour on Mars – with some recorded pieces – a look at some of the most interesting images from the various missions over the past 30 years – and of course frequent cuts to the control room live – as the team endured the hellish final minutes of the long trip to Mars.

    It really was a nail biter – and even better – as Phoenix fell to Mars we had data  the whole way. And then the eruption…We could not have story-boarded an hour any better than that. The ratings were huge – the audience was global.

    But the story was not really not so much about a robot on Mars as it was the humans who made it happen.

    So the human adventure of doing all of this – is a great connection between those of you here – and those of us who only get a day pass to Disneyland for Nerds. Let’s be honest – this is not the strong suit for most scientists. But for whatever reason, you have been blessed with some great communicators – over the years – from Sagan to Squyres.

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    So I bet your thinking, Miles, if all this is so, why there isn’t more coverage in the Mainstream Media of our exploits? In the good old days, it was different: the coverage was longer, better and deeper (as opposed to faster better cheaper??) The reporters were enthused – almost cheerleaders – and the whole world was watching! (oh and the women were more beautiful – the kids smarter – and the beer tasted better too).

    15-britney-spearsMARS PATHFINDER

    So what has happened to the media? Why do we seem more interested in Britney Spears than Tony Spear?

    How the hell should I know? I just got canned!

    17-buck-rogers
    No seriously, a lot of this has to do with the space agency  which you are affiliated with – NASA ascribes to the “no Buck Rodgers no bucks” philosophy – and there is probably some truth in that theory. But sending humans into the vacuum creates a vacuum for the likes of you.

    It is simply hard to compete with those operations in Houston and Florida – too much money – and too many fights over how the money has – and will – be spent.

    18-shuttle-launch
    Shuttle launch coverage has degenerated into little more than a deathwatch for the astronauts – and the space savvy press corps seems poised to pounce on the next gaffe.

    The fact that CNN wiped out its entire – highly decorated science and technology unit – including yours truly – should tell you a lot about where things stand right now in the mainstream media.

    19-newsstand
    We are talking about plate tectonics here – the world is shifting beneath the media’s feet. Once upon a time, we had healthy newspapers in this country – soon we will have nothing to line the bird cage or wrap the fish.

    So what’s the advice? Plastics. Oh sorry, I guess I need to get with the program – and update that. No it is the internets – all of them.
    Seriously, what you, in a sense, started in 1997 with the Pathfinder web-aganza – has grown at a Moore’s Law clip. Today – bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, random folks ranting with a DV camera and a Mac can – and do – compete with a globally deployed standing army of journalists with all their satellite trucks, camera crews, producers and reporters.

    21-social-nets
    There are interested people out there – the mainstream media may no longer be the best way to reach them.  It just looks a lot different than those news conferences in the 60s and seventies.

    So whatever you do, don’t stop – don’t stop exploring of course…but also don’t stop thinking of new ways to speak directly to your audience. This is the future – my teenage kids insist on a two-way transaction on most everything they do on line.

    If they can’t be part of your adventure – they are outta there.

    22-wayne-control-room
    Fortunately you get this – you have a long history of letting the public in – and letting them look over your shoulders as you do your work. Just keep exploring new ways to engage them – never stop thinking of what is just over the horizon – on whatever planet you are on.

    -MOB

  6. Hello world!

    51 Comments

    Welcome to my blog. I am spurred to begin seeing an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. I am in Los Angeles and no longer a reporter for CNN, and so I am feeling my first twinge of transition to a new career. I am inviting my friends who know things about airplanes to weigh in here. At first blush, it seems as if the crew performed heroically after a bird strike. – MOB