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In July of 1969, 41 years ago (!), I was a 12-year-old boy away from home for the first time at Camp Morehead by the Sea in coastal North Carolina. I had a great time that summer. I learned to sail and eventually won the Morehead City Yacht Club’s 4th of July Regatta, Sunfish Division. (I still have the medal floating around somewhere.) I swam, canoed, shot rifles and went to my first dances with girls brought in from town for the occasion. (Side note: I learned that summer that there were certain advantages to hanging out with the opposite sex.) My most vivid memory of that summer was none of the above, except maybe the bit about girls. It was of a hot, late night spent in front of the camp owner’s color TV watching grainy images of Neil Armstrong step onto the moon.

As an even younger boy, I have memories of watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and being “wowed” by them. Now flash forward through those 41 years. I’ve done a lot of diverse things during that time. Worked construction for many years, got into a bit of trouble here and there, spent a short but memorable time separating people from their money at a carnival, traveled a bit. But for more than 27 of those years, I have been a NASA employee at the Kennedy Space Center.

For the vast amount of that time I have been fortunate enough to look forward to going to work each morning. I have seen some truly incredible things. I’ve watched, and felt, most of the Shuttle launches since STS-6. I’ve seen them from my yard, from the beach, from the Launch Control Center. More than a couple have been surreal. Standing in the ocean up to my knees at night, adult beverage in my hand, while the launch lit the night sky to the point where you could read a paper. Watching unmanned vehicles explode in the night sky sending their boosters skimming just above the ocean. And of course, the most surreal and awful, watching the Challenger explode. That’s another story.

I’ve been aboard the Orbiter (tiny!). I’ve sat in the Firing Room during launch. I’ve played a small role in this huge process, never forgetting the significance of what is taking place. But the most fun is being around people seeing it for the first time. It’s a physical experience…from here at the Cape the ground shakes and the sound is a physical thing that you feel in your gut. People cry, people cheer, but mostly the people just gape with their jaws to their knees. Since Challenger, you can also tell who the locals are versus the tourists. At lift off, with the huge white cloud of water vapor rising and the shuttle riding the flame, the tourists start cheering and clapping. The locals don’t. We cheer a bit over 2 minutes later when the solids drop off. We remember.

It’s been a strange journey and a great ride. Things here at KSC are, shall we say, a bit turbulent right now with the Shuttle Program ending and the future uncertain. But we’ll keep going. It’s what we do. Who would have thought it, 41 years ago?

STS-126, 11/14/08

Above & below: Liftoff of STS-126 from the Banana River Viewing Site, 3.9 miles from the pad

STS-126 timelapse, 11/14/08

Ares I-X , 10/28/09

Above: Ares I-X Liftoff from the viewing mezzanine of the Operations Support Building 2, 3.6 miles from the pad

Below: In Firing Room 2 on Launch Day (Sorry for the quality…taken by my iPhone)

Launch Day, STS-129, 11/16/09

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My good friend Oscar thinks I’m crazy. Now, he’s not alone in that assessment, but it’s the reason for this belief that’s the subject of this post. He simply can’t understand the great enjoyment that I derive from going camping solo. It is one of my favorite things in life … quality time in beautiful settings doing exactly what I want, when I want.

The roots of my love of the outdoors go way back. My parents were not big on the outdoors and the closest we ever came to camping was staying in cabins in Wisconsin for a few days at a time (my sister still insists that “roughing it” is a Holiday Inn without cable). However, when my family moved to Baltimore when I was 8, we lived in a house that had a large wooded expanse adjacent to our backyard. I knew every inch of those woods and used to spend hour upon hour in there. Good times. But it wasn’t until my mid-teens that the definitive event took place. I spent 28 days in the woods of North Carolina at Outward Bound.

For those of you who don’t know, Outward Bound is an outfit that takes folks into the woods, teaches them skills and essentially stresses them out. Pushing their limits is the goal. It was originated as a result of the Second World War when many merchant seaman were perishing after their ships were sunk. It was deduced that the high casualty rate was because the men simply gave up hope due to a lack of self-confidence in their ability to survive. Outward Bound was created to show people that they are capable of far more than they themselves believed possible. They’re very good at it. We spent many days hiking long distances with little food, canoeing whitewater rapids, rock climbing 600′ cliffs, rappelling and, ultimately, spending 3.5 days alone in the woods with no food. It was quite an experience, one that left me with a deep-seated love of the outdoors as well as an appreciation of my own capabilities.

Shortly after my return I became good friends with Tom. Tom & I would go off to Western Maryland and West Virginia for hiking and caving trips. We would pile into my old VW with too much gear and head out. We did this for years and I have many fond memories from those trips, as well as some pretty funny stories. (For example: we rated the wet caves we went into as to whether you had to wade through any water that hit “yodeling depth,” that being the depth of water that hit certain regions of a man’s anatomy that makes him yodel. There was also the time he set himself on fire, but that’s another post.) I have been regularly camping since those days.

GSMNP, 2009

One of the perks of my job is that I get a lot of time off. My Loving Wife (MLW) does not get nearly as much, so for the past several years I have been taking some time shortly after Labor Day and spending a week by myself camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This has quickly become one of my favorite trips of the year (not including ANY trip with MLW, of course) along with my annual trip with my buddies to the Shenandoah Mountains on the 2nd weekend of January … 25+ years and counting. I head up there with my gear & some fine bourbon and spend a few days hiking at my own speed (slowly) and taking lots of photos. Cool nights around a campfire next to a noisy stream and believe me, it doesn’t get any better. I just made my arrangements for this year’s trip and I simply can’t wait.

Try it, Oscar, and you may just understand.

Outward Bound, North Carolina, Too Long Ago

Above: Yup, I’m in there.