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dispatches: June-July 2005

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30 JULY 2005

Discovery lifts off, July 26
Mixed bag: I was happy to see Discovery launch this week and a bit dismayed but not terribly surprised that some foam came off the tank. After all, it's not a completely redesigned tank, and some glitches are inevitable on what NASA is calling a "test flight." The flight is going well, but everyone's knickers are in a twist about how to address the foam problem. I wait in suspense.

I wish I had something else to talk about, like the weather, but the weather's been nothing but hot. No rain. The plants are withering, despite daily hosings. There was some lightning offshore last night, but with all the overnight plus day shifts I've been working, covering the shuttle mission, I was too tired to check it out. Where's our Florida lightning? Even when we've had some this summer, it's all been during the day - not so good for pictures. It's all about the pictures.

25 JULY 2005
Go fever: That's a phrase reporters keep bringing up as NASA discounts its recent sensor glitches and proceeds with the countdown for Tuesday's launch attempt.

Eileen Collins, Discovery's commander, July 22
We're careful, NASA says. But you can feel it everywhere. Even the reporters have go fever, though it may just take the form of wanting to get on with the mission and, therefore, their lives. Everyone wants this space shuttle up, up, and into orbit. For me, also a reporter, it's going to be a horribly long day starting in the early morning hours - assuming the launch proceeds as expected. That's what I want. I want it to go, too. I can take one day of serious sleep deprivation for that. If weather or technical glitches stretch out the attempts ... I may be less cheerful by week's end. More than anything, after the trauma of Columbia, I just want it to go well.

21 JULY 2005

Last glimpse of sunset before the walls closed in
Sun stealers: Please don't take my sunshine away. It's kind of a dumb line from a song, but that's the way I feel as I watch an ugly, institutional, three-story school building go up across the street from our house. This picture may show the last glimpse of sunset we'll ever see. The view wasn't great before, but at least we had the sky. The sky, to me, is the best part of any view.

The adrenaline is kicking up here on the Space Coast again as NASA, still entertaining a touch of mystery about Discovery's vexing sensor problem, plans to try a launch Tuesday anyway. There's a lot riding on this one. The media zoo will recommence shortly to try to capture the excitement. I don't know if any journalist really succeeds in capturing the complexity of the shuttle, however. I find it difficult at best. That complexity is the forest that hides the monsters.

17 JULY 2005

New bumper sticker. I think it's funny.
Sticky subject: This is how I relieve stress. I sit at the computer and design bumper stickers. OK, this is a relatively recent habit, but I think the new one is funny. It says "STORM CHASERS: attracting lightning since 1752," with a mug shot of Benjamin Franklin. If you want it, or want to see more, go to the store or go right to the bumper stickers.

Why am I stressed, you may ask? It's more suspense than stress, waiting for NASA to figure out its fuel sensor problem so it can launch shuttle Discovery. The wait has been so long, two and a half years, that you wouldn't think a few days would matter, but this attempt came so close, and the problem is so mysterious, I think anxiety is inevitable. There's a sense that it's time to get Discovery in space, and it's straining at the leash.

14 JULY 2005

Funnel at KSC!
12:45 p.m. update: A short time ago there was a funnel cloud between the turn basin and the shuttle pads at KSC! It was tornadic-looking, not like a waterspout funnel. It extended horizontally from the cloud - and almost looked like two funnels. Weird. Here's a tiny shot. The sirens went off, too.

Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, July 14
It's quiet: Too quiet. Just when the weather started to look good yesterday, a sensor glitch resurfaced to scrub the launch. It's not clear when the shuttle will go. KSC was a media zoo yesterday. Then the Congressmen descended for a press conference. I caught John Kerry in the press building and asked him a couple of questions about the ship that will follow the shuttle. It was the first time I'd met him. He has a hypnotic stare and speaks in measured, reasoned tones. It took me a while to realize he wasn't exactly citing any facts, but it sure sounded good. Hey, I still think it's cool he donned a "bunny suit" and crawled inside shuttle Discovery when he was here during the campaign. His spin doctors could have talked about how proud they were of his support of the space program, but instead they called release of the photos a dirty trick. Remember that? Ah, politics. Glad I'm not in it.

13 JULY 2005

Astronauts' van at Kennedy Space Center, July 13
Launch day: It's been raining buckets at the Kennedy Space Center press site, but the astronauts have arrived at the dry launch pad. The weather has to clear for a considerable distance, however, due to various criteria, for Discovery to launch. We'll know in a few hours!

12 JULY 2005

Storm at Kennedy Space Center, July 12
L-1: That means L minus one, or one day before launch day. The weather is the big concern at Kennedy Space Center - big surprise in July in Florida, right? Today, there was a tornado warning on this cell over the western edge of the center after a funnel was sighted. The siren sent media scurrying for their cameras. All they got was a pretty picture. Tomorrow, I hope, the storms will clear out as the sea breeze pushes west, so the shuttle can go to space.

10 JULY 2005

Outer band of Dennis over Kennedy Space Center, July 9
See the panorama
Hurricane watch: We're not under a hurricane watch or warning here on Florida's east coast - but all those feelings from last year are coming back as Dennis nears the Gulf Coast. It's an intense storm, strange and scary for July. Yesterday evening I was at Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle crew's arrival when an outer band came over, illustrating just how big this storm is. At the same time, a reporter on TV had an outer band encroaching behind her, on the other side of the state in Pensacola, while the satellite loop showed the big picture. Yet people keep building on the beach. It's crazy. I live slightly inland. I figure with global warming, we'll have waterfront property briefly in a couple of decades, and then we'll have to move to the mountains. TWC's A-team is anchoring the Dennis forecast. His tie matches her suit again. That's intentional, right? ... Get more hurricane info on the data page.

7 JULY 2005

Hurricane Dennis, 7:45 p.m. EDT July 7 (NOAA image)
8:30 p.m. update: Ouch. Hurricane Dennis has bumped me from tonight's Severe Weather Central Internet radio show. Now I know how third-rate comedians feel when Letterman runs out of time. I notice The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, black-shirted harbinger of doom, is in Pensacola Beach. NASA's even considering whether to roll back the space shuttle to the Vehicle Assembly Building -- if the hurricane takes a wobble and brings high winds to eastern Florida and Kennedy Space Center, nobody wants it on the pad. Personally, I'd hate to see another launch delay. Want more hurricane info? Get it on the data page.

5 p.m. update: Hurricane Dennis has reached Category 3 status. What a season this is already.

London calling: My heart goes out to London, one of the most vibrant cities I've ever visited, full of positive energy and hearty souls. Stand fast. Your attackers are our attackers, and our freedom will transcend their delusional, fearful ideology. ... Meanwhile ... watch out, Gulf Coast. Hurricane Dennis is a Cat 2 already (as of 11 a.m. EDT).

6 JULY 2005

Florida shelf cloud, June 15
Storm chat: Thursday night, July 7, I'm scheduled to be on the Internet radio show Severe Weather Central. Tune in at 9 p.m. EDT. It's talk about severe storms and chasing, mostly. It seems as if half my friends have been on it already!

Speaking of severe weather, it's hard to believe we might be having a "D" hurricane threatening the Gulf Coast by the weekend - maybe a Cat 3. Whoa. Though Dennis appears headed for the Gulf, the Bermuda high might set up in such a way again this summer that Atlantic storms tend to be funneled toward Florida's east coast, where I live. Again. I'm starting to think that vacation home, er, bunker in Tornado Alley is a good idea. I've always thought that if I made my fortune, I'd build a half-underground house out on some modest Oklahoma hill in the middle of the prairie, with a place to watch the stars on top. There are still some places out west where you can see the stars in all their glory, not like the brightly lit east coast of Florida. The only thing that helps save our stellar view is the beach, looking out over the ocean, where it's still hard to build condos in the middle of the water. (I'm sure some greedy developer is working out his plans for a floating condo rig ht now.)

30 JUNE 2005
Countdown: Well, NASA says it's going to do it. It's going to launch a space shuttle after two and a half years.

Discovery's 2nd rollout, June 14
As a reporter, I've talked to a lot of space folks in the time since the Columbia accident, and they've been working incredibly hard to get things right. But they've got to be a little nervous. Even the managers admit that there's still a risk of disaster. There's always risk, right? I'm nervous, too. I never want to see another space disaster. Yet the job gives us a front row seat to, as the Space Foundation's Jim Banke says, write the first draft of history. Some 2500 of us, to be precise - that's the media circus expected at Kennedy Space Center on July 13.

In less serious news, we signed Gracie up for puppy kindergarten, but we signed up late, so I had to take her to a remedial class this morning. We tried to catch up on two classes' worth of behavior, grooming tips, tricks and manipulation with treats. Gracie seems puzzled, and I'm pretty sure her cholesterol is spiking after all that cheese. I left feeling like a bad mother.

28 JUNE 2005
Chaser radio: My friend Dave Lewison is to appear on the Internet radio show Severe Weather Central tonight (Tuesday, 9 p.m. EDT here). I'm scheduled to appear on the show on July 7. This is about the only place around where you can hear extensive interviews with storm chasers that aren't punctuated by the kind of melodramatic narrative you hear on TV. Check it out.

25 JUNE 2005
Dogged: Meet the real writer in the house, Gracie the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a growing puppy. When she gets ahold of a pen, she won't let go. Actually, that applies to just about everything she gets ahold of, especially shoes and socks. She hasn't been enjoying Florida's recent bath in tropical moisture. It rains all the time, especially when she has to go outside, and she's not too thrilled about it.

23 JUNE 2005
Think tank: I met with our writers' group last night, though for once, I didn't have any writing, just a rejection letter from a literary agent. I'm starting to collect 'em. I've written another so-far-unpublished novel, and it is making its way in the world, seeking an agent, and subsequently a publisher. It's about storm chasers. I say "chasers" and not "chasing," because it's really about the characters and not the phenomenon, though it's about that, too. The question is, is the world ready for a novel that has characters who experience growth, trauma and change, and also have exciting adventures? That's like combining two genres, a no-no in today's publishing world. Well, hope reigns. My buddies at writers' group tell me they could see it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I hope I really do, someday. This is a fabulous group of writers, whose novels-in-progress range from mysterious Mayan drama to zany Florida crime to Southern coming-of-age. When I hear their good stuff, and know they're getting rejection letters, too, I wonder just how many great novels are sitting in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, never to be seen. One delightful aspect of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels is the idea that somewhere, even these unseen novels have a life, in the shadow world of literary characters and plots, where the characters enact their destinies ad infinitum.

21 JUNE 2005
Bloggish: "Dispatches? What the heck is that?" Forgive me. I'm sick of the word "blog." But that's what this is. The first thing you'll notice is a new look for the home page and, eventually, all the pages on the site. You'll also notice a little shameless commerce. I'm starting to sell some nifty storm chasing and tornado T-shirts. Check them out. More products will follow.