To his family and legions of friends, BoomerCafé co-founder Greg Dobbs is known – among many other wonderful things – for his letters … observations on life, his work, and his travels. In his latest email letter, Greg writes of two recent stories he has covered, as a correspondent for HDNet.
May 10, 2009, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
Dear Family and Friends,
Today I am going through a bit of culture shock. In the past few years I have traveled here to the Kennedy Space Center (where space shuttle Atlantis is supposed to blast off tomorrow) directly from Shanghai. I have also come non-stop from Moscow. (And, straight from the slopes at Vail.) Quick transitions are a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes disorienting part of my business. In mere days, sometimes even hours, my work over the years has taken me from scenes of unimaginable poverty to enviable riches, from the company of great powers to that of the powerless…. and from war to peace.
But the difference between yesterday and today may be the biggest transition of all, or at least the weirdest. Because while right now, as I write this, I am staring at a ship that manifests the highest technology man has ever produced — think of the shuttle as an eighteen-story building that weighs four and a half million pounds that will lift itself off the ground from a dead stop and eight minutes later be in space. Only yesterday I was with a camera crew on a ship with pretty much the same low technology its predecessors have used for eight generations: a thirty-foot crab boat in the Chesapeake Bay. A thirty foot boat, by the way, that pitches and rolls in 20 mph winds as if it’s sitting on the fault line of an earthquake.
The program we’re shooting is about the slow death of the bay. If you don’t live near the Chesapeake that might not seem so serious, but one way or another it has significance for virtually every American. Either because you like seafood such as oysters and crabs and the estuary of the Chesapeake traditionally has been one of our great providers. Or because you relate to the seventeen million fellow Americans who now live and work and play in the six-state watershed of (which means the drainage into) the Chesapeake. Or because you are aware that at 200 miles long and about 35 miles wide it is a huge geographical feature on the American map. Or because you are mindful of the Jamestown Colony and Captain John Smith and the origins of our culture and our country.
There’s no single reason why the Chesapeake Bay is dying, but that’s because there are several. Agricultural runoff is one. That might sound minor, but when you realize there are poultry and vegetable farms in six different states whose chemicals, like nitrogen, seep into small creeks that flow into tributary rivers that dump into the Chesapeake, you understand that it’s not. Then there is residential growth: nowadays, seventeen million people, whose lawn chemicals and sewage treatment effluent end up in the bay; one of growth’s negatives is the fact that asphalt aggravates the runoff because the use of the ground as a natural filter is lost. Then add in smokestack emissions from the iron belt and the general plague of climate change, and it all plays out in the Chesapeake. People in a place like Cooperstown, New York, famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame, probably don’t think they are polluting the Chesapeake Bay…but they are.
Out in the boat, it’s obvious every time the fishermen pull up a crab pot. It is usually full of sea grass. That won’t sound serious to you if, like me, you darned near flunked out of college because of the science courses that were prerequisites to graduation. But it is more than serious; it is catastrophic. Because thanks to the nitrogen flowing into the Chesapeake — basically it is fertilizer — the sea grass, the algae, is growing like kudzu in the South, a mutant that multiplies without cessation. And what it does is, it sucks up all the oxygen from the water. Two weeks ago we started our shoot on the Chesapeake (I went home in between), and went out with a biologist who had an instrument that actually measures oxygen content in water. As he dropped it off his Boston Whaler (I’m just so into boats), we watched the onboard meter’s measure of the oxygen get lower and lower and lower. That’s what they call a “dead zone” in which seafood cannot survive. An organization called the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that forty percent of the bay is now a dead zone. As the foundation’s CEO characterized it, imagine if someone sealed off forty percent of your home and sucked out all the oxygen.
The crime is, they’ve seen this coming for many years. I interviewed a former Maryland governor named Harry Hughes, who ran the state a quarter century ago, and worked for a compact with neighboring states (and Washington DC on the Potomac, which empties into the Chesapeake). He is sick that now it is 25 years later and they’re still talking about the same crisis: pollutants pouring in, seafood populations declining, the industry of fishermen contracting. The fishermen themselves are partly to blame; they have taken out as many crabs and oysters over the years as they could (and oysters by the millions are natural filters that remove nitrogen from the water), although one might blame state and federal agencies for failing to impose sensible management of fishermen’s catches.
By the way, they’re not “fishermen;” they are “watermen,” and you should call them nothing else. They have been “watermen” since men first went on the water. And while we’re into definitions, the “crab pot” I mentioned earlier is nothing like the pot you’re probably picturing; a crab pot is a squarish chicken-wire cage (or, these days, a lot of them use vinyl), two to three feet across in each cubic direction. There are fluted holes on each of four sides into which the crabs crawl to get at the clams that are put in a round mug-shaped wire enclosure within the cage. It’s a little more intricate than that, but you get the idea. Some of the watermen have four, five, six hundred of these in the bay at a time— although spread around in vastly different parts of the water, identified only by the owner’s color-coded floating buoy. There are small factories in the area that manufacture these cages, but some watermen buy rolls of chicken-wire and make the contraptions themselves.
For our trip yesterday out to the middle of the bay, we met our waterman, Eddie Evans, at five in the morning on his dock. We saw another couple of crab boats putt-putting by, just getting going at the start of the season, their running lights defining their movement and their decks piled high in the silhouette of the pre-dawn light with crab pots, like containers on an ocean-going freighter. Eddie and his “mate,” also named Eddie, didn’t have to load any crab pots onto their deck though; they already are all in the water. But they had to load the clams— about sixty pounds of them— and the thin wooden one-bushel baskets into which the crabs would be tossed as they came falling out of the cages. It was still dark as Eddie started up his engine and with running lights to find us and buoys to guide us, off we went for the first line of pots, about 45 minutes from home.
Too bad for the sound man on the camera crew. He didn’t make it to the first line of pots. We were sitting in the pilot cabin, talking with Eddie Evans, when the sound man said to me, “I’m not sure I’m gonna keep my breakfast til we get back to port.” He barely kept it til the end of his sentence. I’m not sure whether he knew that we would be out on the water in this small boat on these two-foot swells for between six and seven hours. But I knew. So about a half hour later when he was as white as a sheet—the man is African-American— and he asked me in a voice that defined death itself, “How much longer?”, I didn’t have the heart to tell him. So I lied. “An hour, maybe a few minutes more.” If you’ve ever been seasick, you know that if anyone were to offer you a painless albeit permanent end to your suffering, you’d probably take it. What scared me was, hearing the truth would drive him to throw himself overboard while the cameraman and I were paying attention to the watermen harvesting their crabs.
Eventually, but thankfully only about thirty minutes before we headed back to port, the cameraman lost it too. But I almost expected it and here’s why. Many years ago, I was with a cameraman in a small aircraft in a rough sky doing tight circles over ships stuck in the English Channel; the story was a longshoreman’s strike that had stranded a lot of big vessels and perishable cargoes. I wanted shots of lots of ships up close, so that I could get back to land and check on their cargoes and say on the air that night, “And this ship, the so-and-so, has a load of pineapples that will rot if this strike is not settled.” Well, at a certain point I told the cameraman that I thought we had enough. He kept his eye on the eyepiece and asked, “Are you sure?” I said “Yes,” but he asked again, “Absolutely sure?” I said “Yes” and he took his eye off the eyepiece and placed the camera on the seat next to him and pulled the barf bag from the seat pocket and gave back every morsel of food he had consumed for a week. His equilibrium— his horizon— had been defined by what he saw through the eyepiece. When he finally removed it, everything changed…as he knew it would.
Personally, I used to get seasick in a bathtub. Maybe that’s an exaggeration— maybe— but as an example of my vulnerability to motion, Carol and I once were on a picnic on the back of a friend’s boat docked on Lake Michigan in Chicago on a flawlessly calm day… and I still got sick. I have overcome it, and while I can’t say for sure why, I do know when. It was in 1983, and we were doing a story (for ABC) about a member of the Danish parliament who was a professional ocean-going fisherman and was intent on challenging some EEC rules about how far you could fish from another nation’s shores. So we went to the northern tip of Denmark — did I mention, this was in December? — from which he and his crew would set out for the waters off Great Britain. We’re talking the North Sea, icy weather, twenty-hour nights and four-hour days.
For our first two days in the north of Denmark, the gale force winds were so fierce that we couldn’t even launch. So that on the third day, when they told us we finally were going the next morning, meaning three o’clock the next morning, I figured summer weather must be right around the corner. Wrong! The seas had gone from Gale Force 4 to Gale Force 2, and for your garden-variety ocean-going fishing boat, that’s no worse than the weather that makes you fasten your seatbelt on an airplane.
But the beauty of the situation was, when we got on the boat it was dark. When we pulled out of harbor it was dark. And for the first six or seven hours of this voyage from hell, it was dark. So when finally we got our brief glimpse of daylight, my body had acclimated to the movement. Although yesterday on the Chesapeake I kept looking at the horizon to keep my stable bearings, I’ve always thought that having no horizon for those first perilous hours on the North Sea was what kept me healthy. In fact the only discomfort during the whole three days on the water was when a helicopter dropped a harness to haul me off the tail of the boat to get back to London and edit the story, and I did something wrong as the guy in the chopper gave me a signal to jump and instead of instantly rising toward the hovering helicopter, I took a quick dip in the cold high waves of the North Sea. There are better ways to get off boats.
But back to yesterday’s boat. What I didn’t tell you about Eddie Evans is, he is 70. And he’s been doing this since he was 11. His father did it before him, and his grandfather before that, and if you want to hear the whole story, Eddie is the eighth generation of his family to be a waterman, and his son and grandson already are doing the same work. And it is hard work! I was exhausted by the time we got off the boat simply from constantly and relentlessly shifting my weight and finding my balance to keep from falling onto the deck or over the edge. For six and a half hours they’re doing the same thing, but all the while pulling these crab pots up from fifty feet down in the mud, and setting them on a metal platform on the starboard edge of the stern, and extracting the live crabs and replacing the clam bait and removing the sea grass and replacing the crab pot in the water. The moment one pot goes back in, another starts coming up. For hundreds of pots a day.
It’s interesting to see them sort the crabs. Right there on the boat, in movements so swift I hardly had time to follow the action, they sort them into three groups: large males, small males, and females. If you’re wondering, how can they tell, and you really want to know, under the hard belly of each crab there’s a reproductive organ covered by a complex perforation in the shell with a particular shape, and without getting too graphic, it is not unlike the shape of its human counterpart. The large males, appealing to high-end seafood restaurants, are the best catch: they bring in $65 a bushel, which is roughly the volumetric equivalent of a suitcase. That’s a lot of crab. The small males, for the lower-end restaurants, are worth $40 a bushel. The females — sorry, ladies — only bring $20 a bushel. That’s what goes into crab cakes and crab meat. Sexual discrimination is alive and well with the watermen.
But the crabs don’t want to be sorted. Some try scrambling away from the mate’s thickly gloved hands, and some grab other crabs with their pinchers, which the mate then has to separate. He doesn’t do it gently. The sad thing about the segment we’re producing is, the watermen are something like the crabs. At a certain point, their fate is out of their control. If someone in Cooperstown, New York, uses fertilizer on his lawn, ultimately it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay, one more nail in the coffin of the watermen.
There are watermen in many parts of the Chesapeake, but we chose a population that lives in isolation. They come from a place called Smith Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It is absolutely a step back in time. You look at the gravestones in the church cemetery and three quarters of the deceased have only three different surnames: Evans, Tyler, and Dize. There are some cars and trucks on the island although I’m not sure why; the most distant destination is only a mile and a half away. Mostly, people get around on golf cart types of vehicles, or on simple no-gear bikes. That’s all I did. What a great way to commute! Once kids reach 8th grade, they take that 45-minute ferry ride each day both to and from their school on the mainland. And then there’s the people’s language. It’s English, of course, but in some cases, English you’d be hard put to understand. I am no good at describing the characteristics of dialects, but suffice to say that I went into the one island café/store Friday afternoon and sat at a table listening to two men conversing at the next table and they might as well have been speaking Arabic. I barely understood a word. It is a culture that is unique to Smith Island, but with the seafood declining, so too is the young population of the island. Eddie Evans’ grandson might be the last waterman in the family line.
Now, a few words about the space shuttle. I wish every one of you could witness a launch, because it is awesome to see — and hear, and feel — the power. I already wrote about the 18-story building lifting off from a dead stop. The other amazing thing is, when it comes home, having traveled a few million miles, it lands like an airplane on an airstrip not five miles from where it blasted off. On my last leg getting here late last night, I calculated that in the time it took me to leave Smith Island on the ferry, then drive to Dulles Airport in Washington, then fly to Florida and finally drive again, from Orlando to Cape Canaveral, the astronauts who launch tomorrow will orbit the earth six times.
But it’s not the speed, or the power of the space shuttle that makes it amazing. It’s the step it represents in the ongoing exploration of space. I know a lot of people who think it’s all a colossal waste of money. I understand what they think because I used to think the same thing. But since I began anchoring shuttle launches from here four years ago, I’ve become a “home boy” for the space program. Not just because I cover it, but because I’ve talked with so many scientists and astronauts and learned so much more about it.
I argue, there are two reasons we do what we do in space. One is for the spin-offs. I don’t mean Tang, although for a while there, Tang was pretty neat. And I don’t mean the Dust Buster, although when NASA needed a device for astronauts to collect moon dust, Black & Decker developed a small vacuum, and out of that came the tool many of us have in our homes. But there are so many more things that benefit all of us today. Polarized sunglasses are a byproduct of NASA’s appeal to Foster Grant to create protective visors for the men who walked on the moon, then the astronauts who still walk in space. Modern insulation comes from the need to protect human beings from the extreme temperature fluctuations in space. The shock-absorbing soles in athletic shoes were developed for man to walk on the moon.
Infrared cameras, fire retardant materials, acoustical sound absorption, tiny heart pumps, even the materials used in the newest prosthetic limbs— they come from the development of foam for the space shuttle’s external fuel tank. And did I mention the microchips that enable everything from our computers to our cell phones? Or the GPS technology that not only finds us restaurants in strange cities but finds cell phones so they can receive calls from halfway across town or halfway across the world. Not to mention medical research in zero-G, a chance to see things without the crushing impact of gravity. Understanding sand and soil in zero-G can help us understand the ground under our feet, and build structures more resistant to collapse. Growing and studying experimental tumors in zero-G, seeing every dimension of a human cell, can facilitate the treatment of devastating tumors in the human body.
The other argument is about being a pioneer. In the history of great nations, there has always been a push to be pioneers. At first it was with armies, then sailing ships, now space. Think about the sailing ships: they brought Europeans tea and spices and fabrics previously unknown on their side of the planet. Who knows what we’ll pick up when we venture even further in space? And I argue, if we don’t do it, someone else will. It is a slow process, and I don’t think the benefits are evident in the evolution of the shuttle and the construction of the International Space Station. But it took the shuttle to build the station, and it takes the station to test the methods man will use to push deeper into the cosmos…as well as testing his endurance.
Tomorrow’s launch is, in a way, unique. Rather than heading up to help complete the build-out of the space station, Atlantis is going instead to the Hubble Space Telescope. With the shuttle program due to end toward the end of next year to free up money to build the next generation of spacecraft, this will be Hubble’s last human house call. They’re going to replace some instruments and repair others, to give Hubble about five more years of life. Why? Because it has been a treasure for the science of astronomy. We know things about the age of the universe that we didn’t know before, not to mention its composition. And we have seen mosaics from Hubble that blow the mind. In a piece I’ll have on our program World Report Tuesday night, I’m using a shot that captures light from thirteen billion light years away, and shows something like ten thousand galaxies far beyond ours. And another shot roughly three hundred light years across, with solar systems twenty times the size of ours. It’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot of information, and a lot of bling. Galileo would love it.
About half the time when I’ve finished my work here, I choose an off-the-beaten-path route to get back to my hotel in Cocoa Beach; it takes me from the Kennedy Space Center through the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station along its southern border. And some of those times, I’ve stopped at the site on the Air Force station from which Alan Shepard blasted off. A full scale Redstone rocket with a Mercury capsule atop it marks the spot. It is humbling. Not just because that proud day when the first American reached space wasn’t all that long ago— not even fifty years— but because the rocket that carried him 116 miles into the sky before he tumbled back down sixteen minutes later into the Atlantic wasn’t much bigger than a modern RV. All stacked up, it was only 70 feet high, just six feet across, and it didn’t weigh three tons.
That’s a far cry from the space shuttle. It rises from our planet on five hundred feet of flame, streaming from the nozzles as hot as the surface of the sun. By the time it clears the tower, the shuttle is already going a hundred miles per hour. Within a minute it’s going a thousand, and after eight and a half minutes, its speed is 17,000 mph as it goes ‘round the earth usually between 150 and 200 times. The thing is, we’re so accustomed these days to technological advances in space and elsewhere that none of that even sounds astonishing any more. And yet it is. Especially when you recall the late author Stephen Ambrose’s observation that until a steam engine was put on steel rails just a little more than two hundred years ago, man had never moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse!
My first reaction the first time I gazed at the puny rocket at Shepard’s launch pad was, I wouldn’t get up on that thing even if it were at an amusement park and I knew it wasn’t going anywhere. My second reaction was to pull out my cell phone and call a friend of Carol’s and mine in Evergreen, Laura, who happens to be one of Alan Shepard’s three daughters. When I told her where I was, she choked up. So did I. It wasn’t that long ago, yet some of those men with “the right stuff” might not recognize the world we now inhabit. Nor the rockets we fly.
And it reminded me of what she had told me in a documentary I was producing at the time about space flight. When her late father was selected to become the first American in space, she asked him how it would all work, and he told her, “They will put me in a capsule, put me on top of a rocket, blast me into space, and I will come home safely.” She then said with a laugh, “So we told him to have a good trip.”
The fact is, they put him in that capsule up on top of that rocket with a cherry picker. And the launch director crouched behind a roofless six foot high cinderblock wall maybe sixty feet from the tail of the Redstone rocket, periodically peeking out to see if the flame looked hot enough to ignite (the launch director when the shuttle blasts off has to be out where we are, three miles away). We’ve come a long way since then, yet at this point in history, America has still staged just 156 manned flights; tomorrow should be 157. And it still comes down to strapping men and women into rockets, and firing them off into space.
You can argue that the money we spend to stay in space could be better spent here on earth, although in the interest of man’s quest for knowledge and exploration, I would also argue otherwise. Anyway, if we shut the space program down tomorrow, the money wouldn’t automatically gravitate to healthcare or housing or higher wages; it just doesn’t work that way.
For me, there is something stirring about seeing man stretch his resources, and his intellect, and his courage, to the limit. Everything from the calculations that guide spaceflight to the power that ignites it are still almost inconceivable. As is our whole future in space, which I believe is good reason to keep going, not good reason to stop. Late last year I interviewed Michael Griffin, who until January was the Administrator of NASA. He gave me a quote that has stuck with me: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.” And Alan Shepard’s daughter Laura made the same point, just differently, for that documentary: “We don’t know what’s out there unless we go.”
Out there on launch pad 39-A right now, I can see more than just Atlantis. Not two miles away, on the other launch pad, 39-B, sits another shuttle poised to launch, Endeavour. Since Atlantis is going to Hubble, it won’t have the safe haven of the space station if something goes wrong, like being struck by debris during launch the way the ill-fated Columbia was, or by debris in space. Atlantis simply could not reach the orbit of the well-stocked space station from the orbit of Hubble, and its stranded astronauts wouldn’t have more than two and a half or three weeks of consumables like food and water and oxygen to support them. So NASA has worked out a risky, never-tried-before, life-or-death rescue plan which everyone here hopes they won’t have to try: it would have Endeavour taking off, stripped down and with a crew of just four, exactly a week after Atlantis. The two ships would rendezvous in space, 350 miles above us, but since they weren’t built to mate, they would only meet at a distance of about fifty feet. Endeavour would grapple Atlantis with its robotic arm (and consider what could happen if it nudges it a bit too hard in the zero gravity environment of space), and the astronauts would begin an incredibly complex choreography of transfers from one ship to another along a tether (because with spatial limitations, Endeavour can bring up only three pressurized space suits), from one orbiter to another, across the void of space.
I hope the Atlantis astronauts get off the ground tomorrow, and twelve days later, safely return. Without Endeavour’s help. I hope your days are just as good.
Category: Boomer Lifestyle