“And the sun took a step back, the leaves lulled themselves to sleep and Autumn was awakened” – Raquel Franco
(Photo by me: Kendall road, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, October 2017)
“And the sun took a step back, the leaves lulled themselves to sleep and Autumn was awakened” – Raquel Franco
(Photo by me: Kendall road, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, October 2017)
I was only 15 years old when I saw the announcement for NASA’s upcoming exploratory mission to Saturn. At that moment in my life I had solidified my interest (sorry, “obsession”) with spaceflight. The brief article burned in my mind with NASA’s bold assertion: this new space probe would be exploring the planet Saturn from orbit. Saturn! No country had yet sent a spacecraft to study specifically the ringed gas giant.
On Friday, September 15th of this year, Cassini will descend into Saturn’s atmosphere after nearly 13 years in orbit. The spacecraft was lunched in 1997 and entered orbit around Saturn in 2004. Take a moment to think about everything that you’ve experienced for the last thirteen years. For the entirety of that period, planetary scientists from around the world have been working to study the data returned from this far-flung space probe.
The spacecraft (which is nearly as large as a bus and is powered by a nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generator) has shown to us visions of a world alien to our senses. Photographs taken by the Cassini orbiter have allowed us to see things we are incapable of viewing from earth such as the hexagonal jets streams turning about Saturn’s poles or the faintest of the rings that encircle the planet. A magnetometer onboard has measured the first record of the planet’s magnetic field. Orbits that passed the famous ring structure made it possible to determine the nature of the matter that forms them. And imagery returned of the diminutive moon Enceladus has shown what appear to be geysers of water erupting from its surface. (The tiny world was thought to be of too little mass to feature active geothermal processes).
One of the most impactful elements of the mission was the inclusion of a lander probe, know as Huygens (Named for Christiaan Huygens.) The lander detached from the main spacecraft and entered the atmosphere of the moon Titan in 2004. Never before had humans seen what existed below the clouds that masked the surface of the largest moon in our solar system.
Everything we know about the chemistry, atmospheric makeup, geography, and geology of Titan comes from data collected by instruments on Huygens and Cassini. Here is an entire world, alien to us, yet close enough to be similar. We can see in images like the one above that Titan has hills and shorelines and most of it was formed by chemicals other than water. Instead, we know through Cassini that Titan experiences a hydrologic cycle that is made up of ethane, methane, and hydrocarbon rich nitrogen.
The longevity and audacity of the Cassini mission has, and will continue to have an impact on NASA and its affiliate s for decades to come. Unlike the Voyager and Mariner missions of the 1970s, Cassini did more than a dramatic flyby of Saturn -it persisted. The mission not only demonstrated the technological capability of deploying a separate lander, but of the extensions to the original mission profile and flexibility to change targets. In an increasingly risk-averse aerospace culture, the Cassini team proved that bold goals can still achieve results.
There’s a certain sadness than comes naturally at the end of a space mission. Years of labor and study come to a close, and in many cases, the actual hardware is lost to the cosmos forever. Additionally, trends in both science funding and politics have curtailed further proposals to study Saturn and its moons. For those who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of the outer planets, this week could be the last an American spacecraft visits Saturn in their lifetimes. It’s justified to feel bittersweet about the successes Cassini/Huygens accomplished when political changes suggest there will be no successor.
But there is hope: Every decade, the U.S. National Research Council meets and publishes a document known as the Planetary Decadal Survey . Participating scientists make suggestions, balance cost versus scientific return, and prioritize potential future exploratory planetary missions. the last decadal survey was conducted in 2011 and the report was published a year later. In the 2011 survey, strong emphasis addressed the lack of knowledge concerning Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons. This had impact on NASA’s decision to approve a planned orbiter probe, now known as Europa Clipper.
Saturn and it’s moons were not left out; in fact, there were seven distinct mission concepts featuring the ringed-gas giant in the 2011 survey. Listed, they are: Titan Saturn System Mission,
Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Trade Study, Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Mission Concept Study, Saturn Ring Observer Concept Study, Enceladus Flyby & Sample Return Concept Studies,
Enceladus Orbiter Concept Study, and Titan Lake Probe Concept Study. While none of these mission concepts received the priority or impetus of Europa or Mars, if offers a glimmer of hope for the researchers who wish tone day delve deeper into the study of Saturn.
For now we will have to remain satisfied with the years of data Cassini/Huygens delivered. In days, the spacecraft will descend into Saturn itself, heated by the friction of the planet’s atmosphere. What remains will be pulled deep into the gaseous abyss, eventually crushed by the immense gravity. A mission is complete. Goodbye, Cassini.
For more information about Cassini and the Grand Finale, click the link below:
“Like light falling upon the polished plate of a photographer, the glory of Nature, to be felt, must descend upon the soul prepared to receive the image and superscription”
-Dr. John Tyndall (1820-1893), Hours of Exercise in the Alps, 1861
“Where is your space program?”
This is the tagline that summarizes the independent documentary “Fight for Space“. Produced and directed by Paul J. Hildebrandt, the film attempts to discern the point at which NASA deviated from the traditionally understood pathway of space exploration to the stasis the agency exists in today.
Fight for Space collects a considerable “who’s who” of spaceflight luminaries- from Apollo era astronauts to the most prominent astrophysicists in popular culture today. Through interviews, the audience gets a glimpse of the opinions of these noted individuals. This is the film’s strength and crutch. By focusing much on the perspectives of those closest to the state of NASA in the 1960s, it emphasizes the positives of the Lunar exploration missions without explaining the scientific progress being made in space today.
Fight for Space is heavy on the nostalgia for the Project Apollo and the lunar landing missions of 1968-1972. I say this upfront as framework in which to understand the documentary. As the lunar landings have defined the extant which our species as travelled beyond Earth, they also remain as the benchmark for public perception of what space exploration is to be. And in many cases, this measuring rod is wielded by space exploration advocates as well. In Fight for Space, the viewer is introduced to a number of outspoken spaceflight advocates who adhere to this idea, and aren’t subtle in their presentation of it.
Following President Kennedy’s 1961 address at Rice University, political momentum built to surpass the Soviet Union in the development of human spaceflight. In a simple challenge, a goal was set that drove the fledgling NASA to the surface of the Moon. When that was achieved in 1969, a few additional missions continued, until public and political support dwindled and the project was terminated. This unparalleled event has remained so, as no further human missions beyond earth orbit have been carried out. Fight for Space takes the viewers back to this period, letting such gentlemen as Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell, and Story Musgrave describe the incentive for Kennedy’s challenge.
Why did NASA stop sending astronauts to the Moon? Perhaps no other question dominates the public consciousness concerning the space program. This documentary explores that question thoroughly, which becomes the film’s strength. From Kennedy’s brinksmanship, to Johnson’s maintenance of the legacy, and finally Nixon’s self-imposed strife, the audience is shown how the executive branch dictated space policy, from Mercury to the Space Station. As compelling as the missions themselves, the history of NASA is populated by heroes and villains in the quest for funding. The stories of compromises that resulted in the final Space Shuttle configuration and contemporary Orion spacecraft are both heart-breaking and hopeful tales on par with the greatest of the golden age oceanic voyages.
Space policy professionals such as Marcia Smith, Rick Tumilson, James Muncy, and John Logsdon add their takes on the fate of Apollo and what it meant for NASA throughout the film. These interviews are the meat in this sandwich, offering nuanced perspectives on the direction of the space program from professionals who were not astronauts or engineers. Each of these speakers makes the point that, in essence, its not for a lack of technical failure that Apollo was discontinued, but a lack of political will. [We] stopped going to the Moon because [we] (Congress and the White House) chose not to. I emphasize this is an important distinction he film makes- NASA didn’t curtail human spaceflight, the bureaucratic and partisan machinations of government did.
What this results in is less a documentary than a lament for space exploration achievements of the past. There is no fault in the direction, cinematography, or editing in Fight for Space. Nor is there a criticism in the message- that human spaceflight is best destiny for our species. Where the film falters, when it does, is the emphasis that “NASA is going nowhere”. (This message is reinforced by interviews with Robert Zubrin, Lovell, and Musgrave). Emphasis on “destinations and timelines”, such as Kennedy’s 1961 speech, oversimplify the challenges of space exploration and hint at repeating the errors inherent to Project Apollo. One of the best sequences in the film shows the fallacy of building disposable spacecraft that shed components via computer simulation of an airliner discarding its wings, tail, engines on a flight from Los Angles to New York. Again later, there is a point where narration commends the Russian space agencies for relaying on sustainable technologies to support orbital access. Yet this epiphany is buried just as quickly as it is shown by over emphasizing the successes of the Saturn V rockets (Of which not one component was reusable, and which was monetarily unsustainable).
I was disappointed in how the film chose to represent the contemporary era of NASA (and it’s commercial partners) and in particular, the International Space Station. ISS, as it’s abbreviated, has been the focus of much of the negative press aimed at NASA. Many politicians, space advocacy pundits, and spaceflight enthusiasts tend to point toward the space station as “all that is wrong” with America’s government managed space program. This film could have made point to better share the science being conducted in orbit today, perhaps even altering the public perception of ISS. Instead, we are left with a few minutes in the movie where random pedestrians are interviewed about the role of ISS, in which each person admits to their ignorance of it. The director rightly ascribes to NASA’s inability as a n agency to “sell” ISS to the general public, but then does the same by leaving the viewer with no answers.
Of all the “space celebrities” interviewed for the documentary, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was by far the clearest in enunciating the political dance NASA has endured in it’s 50+ years. As much as many spaceflight enthusiasts are loath to admit it, the agency cannot act independently of the legislative and executive branches of our government. To lambaste the administrators of NASA for “lack of will and vision” is a copout. NASA can only do what it is authorized (and funded) to do. The film illustrates the transition period from the Space Shuttle and potential follow-on vehicle development programs Constellation and Space Launch System. Much to the credit of the director, the film does not take any partisan political slant here where too many others have before. Many space policy advocates have pointed to the previous federal administration as crippling the space program for the cancellation of Constellation, but few diagnose correctly the ailment was lack of congressional support. Fight for Space rightly shines the light on this controversy without falling for the easy path of choosing a political scapegoat.
My review of this movie may seem mixed, and that would be truthful from my (as yet) single viewing. As someone who has absorbed a great deal of the media surrounding NASA and it’s contemporary space programs, I feel that this documentary missed an opportunity to tell the story of what is happening is space NOW. Indeed, “where is your space program?”. It’s not in the 1960s, nor shouldn’t it be. There is so much more to the progress necessary for any future explorations of Mars, for example, than shown in this film. Overemphasis on launch vehicles is one of the most aggravating elements of space advocacy in my personal opinion. And that is the sidestep this film does when lamenting the cancellation of the Saturn V rockets. (An educational sequence to be sure, but is that what the audience should take away from this?)
Human space exploration has always been a story of hope. There can be a powerful, positive message in any film describing the progress of understanding our solar system. Fight for Space doesn’t necessarily become that movie. The audience is left with hopeful statements by Dr. Tyson and Mr. Tumilson, following a sequence describing the benefits of an inspired populace. Examples included technology spinoffs, higher education participation, increased understanding of STEM principles – obvious to the space enthusiasts, and necessary for any film advocating spaceflight. But by turning to look back on the glory of Apollo, we lose sight of where we’re going. (Or for those who interpret NASA’s current path as going nowhere, where we CAN go.) Perhaps it would be the topic of a different documentary, but as it has been repeated consistently that the goal NASA is pursuing is human missions to Mars, I believe it would have been more effective to include the research a development taking place within NASA today as a coda, and ask “WHEN are we going?”
“I take no pleasure in seeing things as they are- sometimes you have to go higher for a different view”
There has never been a better time to become involved in policy as a citizen.
Access to information has never been greater, and the ability of the motivated person to share a message is unprecedented. From municipal levies to national reform, Americans benefit from active participation in public policy. For those interested in space industry and science, the ability to promote measures of protection for research or ensure funding for programs is incomparable.
The National Space Society is America’s largest public space advocacy organization. There are chapters in every state, and in many cases, one in each metropolitan center. NSS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and therefore is not an entrepreneurial venture. Under NSS’ 501(h) regulations, NSS is allowed to conduct grassroots lobbying, which permits a limited amount of activity aimed at influencing U.S. legislation.
Unlike a number of other space-oriented associations, the NSS takes a broader approach to the various topics encompassed by the space industry. While some organizations focus their energies to promote aerospace engineering, Martian colonization, or satellite technology, NSS looks to bring together all proponents looking to further space exploration and utilization. The advent of commercial space enterprises has provided NSS with a boon for promoting nascent launch opportunities.
NSS was formed in 1987 after two previously established space advocacy groups, the L5 Society and National Space Institute, were merged. While the initial intent of the society was aimed at promoting space settlement, it has evolved into something more. The organization states it’s mission to be: “to promote social, economic, technological, and political change in order to expand civilization beyond Earth, to settle space and to use the resulting resources to build a hopeful and prosperous future for humanity.” The vision of NSS is: “People living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.” The society also publishes a monthly periodical, Ad Astra, which members may contribute to.
Each May, NSS hosts one of the largest space-oriented conferences: The International Space Development Conference, or ISDC. As stated on the NSS website, “The annual conference of the NSS, bringing together NSS leaders and members with leading managers, engineers, scientists, educators, and businessmen from civilian, military, commercial, entrepreneurial, and grassroots advocacy space sectors”. For space professionals and enthusiasts, ISDC offers an opportunity to learn from and network with those who practice in the industry.
ISDC 2017 will be held in St. louis, Missouri, May 25-29. Organized by the St. Louis Space Frontier (the local NSS chapter), this year’s event is conveniently located in the Central United States, within minutes of Lambert Field. While living in St. Louis last year, I had the privilege to take part in the planning process for the conference. What I found most remarkable about this was that this enormous challenge, all of the logistics and fundraising, was being conducted by space enthusiasts like myself. Professionals in their fields for sure, but not one of the individuals involved was being compensated for this effort. Instead, these were dedicated volunteers, working every week to ensure that this event is organized thoroughly.
Members of NSS are encouraged to provide input regarding their opinions and interests for the exploration and/or utilization of space. Few advocacy organizations provide opportunities for their membership to shape policy to the extent NSS does. From regular surveys to gauge interest in contemporary NASA and commercial space concepts to inviting members to participate in visits to the legislature in Washington DC, NSS desires proactive involvement. The space message boards, letter-to-the-editor, and social media sites are inundated with the opinions of space enthusiasts. So many people with so many ideas and thoughts on the direction of national space policy- but few who make any effort to effect that policy.
Like any grassroots initiative, the National Space Society’s efforts to effect policy by advocating STEM initiatives, supporting tech development, and contributing to legislative process requires proactive participation. It is never enough to cynically call for change without offering to be an engine for said change. NSS Chapters lead local efforts to promote space policy, both regionally and nationally. By taking advantage of this organizational framework, the membership is given a voice. And while citizen petitions, legislative blitzes, or other forms of advocacy may not change the direction of congressionally derived authorizations, it certainly won’t without trying.
Wherever you are, there are ways to take part in the efforts to explore and utilize space. I encourage you to follow the links below and read about the NSS. Decide for yourself if this is an organization that you would like to take part in. Why not be a participant instead of an observer?
To learn more about ISDC and register for the conference, follow the link before:
To Join NSS, follow this link: https://www.nss.org/membership/new_member_form.shtml
My next adventure takes me to the Southern Hemisphere- To Chile, where the Patagonia and Andes meet, to one of the most inhospitable landscapes found on this planet- the Atacama desert.
Save for the dry valleys of Antarctica, no other places on Earth replicates the surface of Mars like the Atacama. High on the altiplano (high plane) and puna (windswept tableland) plateaus of Northern Chile, the Atacama resists life. Rainfall is exceedingly rare (some sites have never received a drop in the historical era), plantlife struggles in the volcanic ash and salt pans, and there are localized conditions that keep even bacteria at bay. If one wishes to study what the Martian environment might exhibit, this is the place.
I will be taking part in an expedition led by Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist and founder of Science in the Wild, an investigative research outfitter. She is also a fellow commercial suborbital candidate from Project PoSSUM as well a veteran of NASA’s HERA analog simulation. She has assembled a team of adventurers: scientists, climbers, photographers, (and myself) to accomplish this task. So I travel now to join her team and take part.
I will not be able to share the entirety of this endeavor in real-time because of the remoteness, but I will be keeping a journal of the expedition and will post about it following our return. For updates, follow Science in the Wild on Facebook. I will use the hashtag #MarsOnEarth in my social media.
In my ceaseless efforts to read nearly everything, I occasionally come across a passage that is both enlightening and inspiring. These are the moments when I’m scrambling to find a post-it note to mark the page, or a pen and a napkin to scribble what is often an indecipherable transposition. This time I chose to copy-paste for your benefit:
“In the spring of 1903, while visiting Yosemite, President Theodore Roosevelt slipped his Secret Service detail to go camping with John Muir. The first night, the President, the naturalist, and two park rangers camped out by a grove of sequoia; the second, in a hollow at Glacier Point. Roosevelt emerged from the woods to learn that an elaborate banquet had been planned for him, complete with fireworks. He stayed long enough for a glass of champagne, then announced that he was skipping the rest of the festivities. He and Muir spent a third night camping in the shadow of El Capitan.”
“Roosevelt and Muir camped the first night, […] bedding down in a pile of about 40 wool blankets, and the second night was spent in the vicinity of Sentinel Dome during a snow storm that left five inches of new snow on top of the existing five feet of snow. The third night of camping […] President Roosevelt was Muir’s captive audience to hear a convincing plea for Yosemite wilderness and for setting aside other areas in the United States for park purposes.”
“The only record of what passed between Roosevelt and Muir during their trip comes from one of the rangers, Charles Leidig. According to Leidig, among the topics the two discussed were: lion hunting; Muir’s theory—controversial at the time—that Yosemite had been shaped by glaciers; the importance of forest conservation; and the need for more national parks. Roosevelt and Muir had some difficulty communicating, Leidig observed, “because both men wanted to do the talking.” Nevertheless, their journey has been described as the most consequential camping trip in American history. Roosevelt went on to create eighteen national monuments, five national parks, and a hundred and fifty national forests. All told, he conserved some two hundred and thirty million acres—an area larger than Texas.”
The preservation of natural spaces not a uniquely American tradition, but the concept of designating tracts of wild land for the citizenry is. Theodore Roosevelt’s continuation of western conservation led to the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.
Before the end of his last term, President Barrack Obama exercised the powers authorized by the Antiquities Act to preserve 2 additional wildlands as National Monuments. Gold Butte (pronounced “beaut”) in Nevada, and Bears Ears in South Eastern Utah. These two federally administered monuments will be added to the list of national treasures that include the memorials in Washington, DC and the greatest of America’s national parks.
Bears Ears (named for a geological outcropping) will encompass 1.35 million acres, to include the existing Natural Bridges National Monument, the Dark Canyon Wilderness, portions of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and numerous culturally significant Native American ruins. With Canyonlands National Park to the North and Navajo lands to the South, the region is not unaccustomed to unique jurisdictions. This proclamation in fact strengthens the existing protections.
In Nevada, the newly designated Gold Butte National Monument formally protects a unique geological and biological oasis in the high desert. The isolated habitat is home to ecologically threatened Desert Bighorn Sheep and Mojave Tortoise, and the monument’s borders envelope numerous historical and archeological sites that would otherwise be vulnerable to unregulated development. Over 300,000 acres will now administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Gold Butte has been targeted for preservation by local grassroots leaders for over 20 years. Environmental activists, the Paiute Indian Tribe, and supporters of U.S. Representative Dina Titus (NV, D) have sought monument status for the region. Legislation to do so was introduced in 2008, but Congress failed to pass any such bills. It wasn’t until the nations’ highest executive intervened that Gold Butte would be recognized.
Unfortunately, no government action today can be accomplished without the cloud of political partisanship. The establishment of these monuments is no exception. The lengthy process by which grassroots supporters, environmentalist, archeologists, and most importantly, a coalition of 5 Native American tribes, worked for years to see this Bears Ears region become federally protected. (The first efforts to designate this land as a protected tract began more than 80 years ago) However, there remains considerable opposition: Elected officials from the State of Utah have announced their intention to protest- and if possible reverse– the president’s decree.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has stated publically that the establishment of Bears Ears N.M. is an “attack on an entire way of life.” The state legislature of Utah accused the President’s decision as “unilateral tyranny”. There is some irony here- as the state of Utah receives millions of dollars in revenue from tourism every year because of the National Parks found there, not in spite of them.
Emboldened by the incoming Presidential administration, several lawmakers have already drafted legislation to counter existing conservation and environmental policy. Efforts to reduce the scope and role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began with a gag order on January 23rd. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (Utah, R) has begun seeking support to invalidate the Endangered Species Act. Even today, as I was typing this, the twitter account operated by Badlands National Park, (SD), was abruptly silenced after it shared several facts about carbon dioxide saturation and the effect it has on the climate.
One can infer from this that not only are our public lands in danger, but that elected officials are actively pursuing policy contrary to will- and safety- of the people.
Conservation is not a practice of static achievements. If our American history is any indication, advocates for the preservation of natural places must be willing to oppose a strong willed, and financially influenced adversary, without respite.
Arguments against the preservation of wild places have but one common root- and that is financial gain by those who oppose. Efforts to delegitimize the Antiquities Act and the lands protected by it are being pushed forward with only resource extraction as an end state. The sale of public lands to private (read corporate) interests is a singularly linear path. Once sold, the inevitable result will be the commercial gain for some, and the loss of wild places for all.
The insidious counter to Roosevelt’s vision is alive and well in American politics. Every lawmaker espousing state’s rights, or federal overreach, with regards to the establishment of public lands, ought to be carefully reconnoitered. For efforts to sow doubt upon the premise of our wild places has never been with the common citizen in mind. These places such as Gold Butte and Bears Ears belong to us all- with those protections negated, you can expect that any monetary value intrinsic to them will be extracted, repackaged, and sold to you at market price. (Profits collected by the few lucky enough to be given “rights” by whichever political body reneges it’s mandate to the people.)
We, the people, have the power to save our wild places. Short-sighted politicians have introduced bills that intend to diminish the size, protections, and of our public lands. If you find this as abhorrent as I do, I strongly encourage you to contact your representatives. A failure to stop this legislation is to gamble there won’t be a fracking station where a petroglyph or campsite used to be. We owe it ourselves, and we owe it to our future.
To find your Representatives in Congress, click Here:
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”
Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic”, A Sand County Almanac.
For more information:
I don’t often write about my experience or responsibilities as a member o the American Armed Forces. I’ve chosen to focus my writing on my participation and aspirations pertaining space science and exploration. But that isn’t the primary means of my employ and doesn’t reflect my “day-to-day” life. As a bit of a disclaimer, I will write more about it, but for so many reasons, my opinions and observations are going to be guarded. I want to be able to share my experiences in the military but there are systemic and personal limitations that will prevent me from being as frank as in my prose. In the mean time:
I am typing these words from a small room in a prefabricated building in a guarded compound on a military base in the Arabian desert.
In a place where almost no sound occurs naturally, I am bombarded with the din of machines, be they the struggling fans of the ever-present and overworked air conditioners or the rumble of B-52 bombers climbing away towards their targets.
Although I am a reservist, my obligation to the Air Force does require me to activate for National service when necessary. I have periodically been called to duty to take part in the ongoing war against terror over the last decade. I wasn’t able to deploy with my squadron that last time they were called to war (read more about that here). When the call came again, I volunteered.
My last deployment to the Middle East was at a time when U.S. forces were withdrawing from Iraq and being repositioned to support operations in other theaters of the campaign. I served in a capacity then to plan many of those missions (and flew several myself). I was able to see much of Iraq that has since been occupied by the aspirant caliphate and fundamentalist terror group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). I remember specifically Mosul now the “capital” of ISIS ‘ would-be state and the objective of our Coalition’s campaign to unseat the invaders.
I flew some of the last sorties into Iraq before the Coalition force turned over facilities and air bases to the reconstructed Iraqi military.
Today, I am back in that very same squadron serving in a different conflict in those very same countries.
Promoted and several years wiser, I now return as part of the leadership of this squadron. For this tour, I will serve as the Assistant Director of Operations, supervising the daily flying missions of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. My role is no longer to fly as a crew member (to my lasting regret), but to prepare those crews and ensure the completion of their objectives. Monitoring flight schedules, crew duty periods, ensuring coordination between various military units that will be my responsibility. It is not a glamorous position there is no recognition and I own any errors that are made on my watch. But after all, I’m an officer first and an aviator second.
As part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), our task is to conduct airlift and airdrop in Iraq (or Syria) to support the Coalition forces fighting against ISIS. Alongside sister units operating out of Kuwait, the 746th flies multiple sorties everyday to move troops and supplies where they are required. Although based at Al Udied Air Base in the small country of Qatar, we are responsible for mission to any country in U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
As tactical aircraft, our planes are especially equipped to handle missions in this war. The C-130H “Hercules” can carry up to 5 standard pallets of cargo or 60+ troops, or a combination of both, depending on our assigned mission. The aircraft is also equipped with defensive systems and sensors that allow the crew to protect themselves from surface-to-air threats, like those utilized by extremists in Iraq. Our planes are also designed to handle “short field” (as in shorter runways) than the other transport aircraft in the war. The C-130 is designed to be able to deliver its payload by parachute, a mission we refer to as “airdrop”. If any of our objectives are too remote or occupied by enemy forces, our squadron is ready to fly there and release our cargo while airborne to see it delivered safely and accurately without having to land.
Our crews will also continue to support missions in Afghanistan, now under the auspices of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS). As many of the NATO partners diminish their presence, U.S. military units are bolstering the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security for critical sites. With the presence of the Khorasan ISIS “franchise” gaining foothold in several Afghan provinces, it is critical that military aid continues to be flown there. These are some of our more taxing sorties, as the distance the crews must fly is so great. That distance also limits the cargo that can be carried aboard, as the fuel quantity (and therefore, weight) must be increased and compensated for. Our planes, though capable – flew at the edge of their capacity in order to complete each mission. The performance can be diminished enough to limit the “ceiling” at which the planes can cruise. Sometimes this means flying at only 17,000 feet, far lower than the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains that form the landscape of war-torn Afghanistan.
Although most of our sorties in this conflict are mundane at worst, one role we play that continues to have a tangible positive outcome is Aeromedical Evacuation. “AE” missions consist of transporting medical patients from the forward bases to “hubs” from which they are flown on jet transports to surgical hospitals in Europe or the states. Our squadron acts as a link in the chain from battlefield rescue to repatriotization and recovery. In place of palletized cargo, the C-130 can be configured to carry litters , stacked 3 high, within the cargo compartment. Patients are tended by nurses and critical care technicians who are specially trained to treat while flying. This has been an essential factor in the survival rates of troops wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My own contribution to the fight against ISIS will be insignificant. There are so many others here right now who are accomplishing greater things to win this war. I wish that I was in a better position to do more: I’m not sure the current structure of this branch allows for reservists like myself to participate in more direct roles. Despite my professional desires to be a part of the space industry and take part in the many space events that I miss in the coming months, I could not turn away from this fight. I only regret that I cannot accomplish more.
My relief comes from knowing I will learn from this experience and hopefully one day be able to apply it to a command of my own. Each day I’m here I watch as young men and women step to their aircraft to engage in a particularly hazardous occupation. The responsibility I bear is not lost on me. When I was a new lieutenant, I was responsible for navigating my aircraft. As a captain, I became responsible for planning and leading formations of aircraft. Now as a major, I am responsible for a squadron of aircraft and crews while on my watch.
For the next few months, as the Coalition takes the fight to ISIS in the battle for Mosul, I will be here, behind the scenes. My experience in this conflict is not going to be the exciting enough to warrant any lengthy journal. Given time, I may write more- although I am the first to admit that there is little I can say that others haven’t said considerably better. But I’m open to sharing more if readers are interested.
I was distressed to learn today of the passing of a legend- prolific test pilot Peter James Collins, formerly of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, died this August, 2016.
Collins lived the epitome of a fast jet pilots life- fighter pilot, flight demonstration pilot, test pilot, and contract aviation consultant. His service record was noteworthy in in its own right. But it was his contributions to field of test flying that made him famous in the aviation community. He continued his pursuit advancing aviation through flying and writing until his unexpected death this month.
Peter Collins joined the UK’s armed forces in 1975. While serving in the Royal Air Force, Collins was assigned to a Harrier GR.3 squadron in Germany. The Gr.3 operated in the ground attack and reconnaissance role. The unit’s mission was to provide responsive tactical support to NATO forces against Warsaw Pact armies.
During his assignment in Germany, the military Junta in Argentina directed the Argentine armed forces to invade and hold the Falkland Islands. Collins’ tour in Deutschland was cut short and he was given orders to report to the Royal Navy for conversion to the Sea Harrier FRS.1, in time to sail aboard the carrier HMS Illustrious to the contested South Atlantic.
He flew Sea Harriers with the decorated 809NAS (Naval Air Squadron) during the UK’s operations to reclaim and hold the Falklands following Argentina’s capitulation.
Collins returned to the RAF- now as an instructor, teaching Tactics and Weapon techniques to advanced students at the RAF Tactical Weapons Unit. This prestigious posting lead him to another- that of a pilot for the RAF’s Red Arrows flight demonstration team. This in turn gave him the opportunity to propel his career even further- to the world of test flying.
Collins was accepted to the Empire Test Pilot School and graduated in 1989. At RAF Boscombe Down, the UK’s primary test and evaluation flight center, he had the opportunity to participate in numerous aircraft development programs.
Peter Collins chose to leave the RAF in 1993, opting for the flexibility of a civilian flight test career. He lent his experience to several major aerospace manufacturers over the last decades of his life. Some of the aircraft he contributed to were the Fokker F70 and F100, Mirage 2000, Panavia Tornado, Dassault Rafale, Dassault Falcon jet series, Pilatus PC-12 and PC-21, Aeromacchi M346, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Lockheed-Martin F-16 He eventually rose to the position of Chief Test Pilot for Raytheon UK. With that company, he was responsible for delivery of the Sentinel R.1 and Shadow UAS projects. Both of those aircraft now fly with the Royal Air Force as part of the counter-ISIS Coalition air campaign.
Over the course of his life, he flew over 10,000 hours in 119 different aircraft types. In an era of diminishing budgets and risk averse contractors, that number is noteworthy. It wasn’t just that he flew so many, it’s significant that he test flew so many of those designs. It is unlikely that records such as his will ever be broken or matched.
I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. However, he and I did converse online about our shared interests in military aviation history, flight test, and opportunities within the industry. Mr. Collins offered advice about my career in aerospace, and answered every question I posed about his own. I took to heart his mentoring, as brief as it was. He was pragmatic in his suggestions and simultaneously encouraging. I regret that I didn’t have the foresight to be more proactive in my correspondence. But I am thankful for the brief chance to speak with a legend.
Clear Skies, sir.
(All photos were retrieved from the public domain via Mr. Collins’ personal Twitter account)