The orbiter Atlantis rolled over this week. I'm sadly without security clearance at the Kennedy Space Center these days, but an extremely awesome person was present to bless the event-- my former co-worker, Nick the NASA Poobah. Nick is the type of person you want leaning against your filing cabinet in the event furious, grenade-bearing person bursts into the office screeching that the nearest vending machine is charging $87.50 for bottled water. (Where the subcontractor I used to work for is concerned, this is not at all an out-of-hand possibility.) Nick won't throw a woman in front of him or flinch in the slightest; he is going to fashion a deadly weapon out of a stapler and a yellow highlighter, take the bastard down, then very calmly get on the next bus to the launchpads. He will also, on his way out the door, take exactly enough time to assess the situation in action-figure fashion: "They're called drinking fountains, Jack," he'd say, and depart. You get the feeling that he went to bed sometime in 1962, woke up in the middle of the Clinton administration, and has been trying to figure out at exactly what point the world went to hell ever since. TRUE NICK STORY: He and I were briefing an auditorium full of people about an upcoming shuttle launch. A question and answer session went on and on, and finally one guy stood up and said, "You've been answering questions about technology, history, physics, and politics. How do you know all this stuff?"
I knew enough to let Nick handle this one, so I kept my mouth shut while he waited out an exquisitely timed pause. Then: "I make it all up." My Nick stood to feel the most personal hurt after we lost Columbia, and yet had the wherewithal to not only remain composed in front of the roomful of guests for whom he was narrating the landing, he huddled with everyone who was working that day, pulled the crew together, and issued exactly the right instructions. And yet he feels loss and joy, redemption and hope as deeply as the rest of us: At Columbia's memorial service on the landing strip where she was to touch down that day, it was his jacket that was draped around my shoulders just as I began to fall apart. When I am Empress of the World, Nick will be in charge of PR for the entire Kennedy Space Center, and never again will the gift shop sell astronaut oven mitts made in China.
So you see why it is only fitting and good that Nick presided over the transport of Atlantis from her processing facility to the VAB. "Slightly bittersweet, as you might expect," he emailed me, "but not without grandeur and majesty. Perhaps, in horse breeding parlance, she is 'by Columbia, out of Discovery'. In any event, she is every bit the thoroughbred."
As is my Nick.
December 11, 2003