Month: June 2012

NASA Super Guppy brings Shuttle trainer to Seattle

We hustled out of the house this morning to Kite Hill at Magnuson Park in the hopes that we could catch a glimpse of NASA’s Super Guppy transport plane as it flew into Boeing Field, loaded with the nose and crew compartment of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Though I’m disappointed that Seattle’s Museum of Flight won’t be getting one of the real shuttles, the wooden FFT mockup was used to train every shuttle astronaut, and the general public will be allowed inside it (unlike the real deals in the Smithsonian, Intrepid Museum in New York, and elsewhere).

After craning our necks at every sea plane overhead, the Guppy and its Learjet chase plane quietly flew north on the other side of Lake Washington:

NASA Super Guppy & chase plane over Lake Washington

If you squint just right, you can see the Super Guppy dwarfing its Learjet chase plane. This camera phone photo doesn’t really do the experience justice. With such a long history of aviation, the Seattle sky is full of interesting planes — I’ve seen a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-25 Mitchell (twice) fly over in the last three weeks. But the Super Guppy carrying Space Shuttle history was something unique. Everyone at the park looked up, shouting for others to look and wondering (if they hadn’t read the paper this morning) what such an odd airplane could be.

Beneath the Guppy’s flight path, the experience was even more awe-inspiring. My friend Mark commented on the photo above, “That’s it going right over my house. It was an incredible thing. Windows rattled, dogs barked. Flying so low an Edgar Martinez pop fly could have hit it, it looked like.” Indeed.

Here’s a better view by The Seattle Times as it lands at Boeing Field:

NASA Super Guppy photo by The Seattle Times
Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times

I’m excited to see the FFT come together over the coming months at the Museum of Flight, and can’t wait to step through it later this year.

My Fellow Americans [Part II]

Continued from Part I.


But then, my fellow Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I sometimes forgot that, but then I’d remember the mannequins at the Peace Museum. By the time we were visiting Yokosuka on weekends, that mother and her son had been lurching toward me each night for years.

Just before we moved to Yokohama, my father’s parents visited us in Himeji. We climbed the Castle of the White Heron and ate handmade noodles at the counter of the noodle shop on the first floor of the building where my father had his church.

One trip I took alone with Grandpa Becraft. We were going to see pearl divers, robots that made cars for Toyota, and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I was seven, and he needed my Japanese skills to make sure he didn’t get lost. By age 10, I would be giving tours of Tokyo landmarks to visiting church dignitaries, for a small fee.

The oysters were gross, as were the black-and-white pictures of the ladies who used to dive for pearls without wearing any shirts. How long they could hold their breath did impress me. The robots were amazing, dipping and bobbing with shiny car parts clasped in their claws.

When we got to Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Park.

I gawked at the skeletal dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall. I wanted to become an archaeologist and I loved ruins. We listened to someone ring the bell. And then I noticed a two-story building across the plaza – the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

I also loved museums. The first one I remember visiting was full of strange animals and scenes of Ainu men with beards and women with markings around their mouths that made them look like they had enormous blue grins. I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg. She picked me up and carried me outside to look at a stone wall where someone had painted hundreds of handprints. But I wanted to go back inside with Father and look at those terrifying people behind the red ropes. I wanted to see the elephant with the brown hair again. I wanted to learn the names of each labeled artifact lying under glass and dim lights.

And so I pulled Grandpa past the Cenotaph and the thousand cranes, through school groups and old people following a lady with a yellow flag. Grandpa paid the admission fee and we entered. Immediately, I saw that this was like no other museum I’d been in. I took Grandpa’s hand as we stepped back forty years, to August 7, 1945.

The artifacts under the glass and dim lights in this museum were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Watches and clocks with their hands frozen at a quarter past eight. Melted bottles. Fused lumps of stone, metal, and glass. A hollow Buddha. A tricycle.

Pictures covered the walls. Grinning Americans stood under the nose of an airplane.

Enola Gay crew

A tall cloud climbed from the earth to the sky. Women bare-chested like the pearl divers, patterns from their cotton robes burned into their skin. Men with sores all over their bodies. Children my age balding in patches as their hair fell out.

There were diagrams with red and orange and yellow sections on a map. There were movies of houses blowing down in a great wind. There were drawings of a woman carrying a burned-black baby and a person with blue flames coming from their fingers.

We looked at the stone steps where a woman waiting for the bank to open had burned into thin air, leaving behind only her shadow.

Hiroshima bomb bank steps shadow

And then my grandfather and I were standing in front of those mannequins. Painted in the distance, a river I knew now was full of people whose thirst drove them down the banks to their death. Above the mother and her son, I knew clouds hung waiting to let fall black rain no better for drinking than the poisoned river. Their mouths hung open. Their hair stood up in bomb-blast afros. In my dreams, they would howl and moan. Skin dangled from their hands in strips.

I took Grandpa’s hand — a hand that learned to fire a rifle in 1944 as he trained in Hawaii for the invasion of mainland Japan, an invasion made unnecessary by the horror documented so meticulously all around us. Would he, and therefore I, be alive today if that bomb had never fallen?

Whether logic or rationalization, such thoughts did not enter my mind until many years later.

In that moment, aged 7, I’d never felt more ashamed to be an American.


On the bridge of USS Midway, I thought of what this great machine was capable of, said “Thank you,” and climbed down from the captain’s chair.

March 2007

Nathan and I followed the man in the yellow CV-41 hat down the ladders and back into the glaring sun. We followed the exit signs, walked down the gangplank, and stepped onto the pier again.

Continued in Part III

My Fellow Americans [Part I]

March 2007

There she was, dominating San Diego’s Harbor Drive the way she’d dominated the docks of Yokosuka 20 years earlier. I stood on the pier and stared at the wall of gray that seemed to soar all the way to the sun hanging in the clear March sky. Pipes tangled between portholes and catwalks. A line of red planes adorned a section below the enormous 41 painted in white. Above all this, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze.

Island Superstructure

A conference had brought me here to San Diego, where my younger brother Nathan now lives, working as a probation officer. He took Friday off and we headed for the harbor. I could see her island superstructure from the street where we parked.

The man in the yellow CV-41 hat sat us down in a waiting area roped off at the base of the island. He explained how this was going to work. We were going to be climbing. “All the way up there,” he pointed. He told us how he flew Phantoms from this very flight deck, back in the early Seventies when Midway patrolled Yankee Station in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I could see his younger self, strapped into the cockpit of an F-4, climbing to avoid radar lock as the threat warning blared in his ears, waiting for the MiG on his six to stall out so he could drop in behind the Gomer and shoot a missile up his tailpipe. I didn’t ask how many kills he’d had.

We climbed a ladder, walked down narrow passageways, past doors with cryptic red labels, ran our hands over the steel “Ouija Board,” peered through portholes down at the water. The pilot lead our group through Primary Flight Control – a bay window overlooking the jets, the choppers, and the tourists.

Up another ladder, the bridge opened around us, windows on three sides. In the distance, USS Nimitz lay on the water like a skyscraper on its side.

“This is the captain’s chair.” Green velvet, worn through in patches, cracked vinyl armrests. “Nobody sits in the captain’s chair.”

I raise my hand. “Actually, I have.” Everybody turned to look at me.


Ray Bradbury reads “If Only We Had Taller Been” at NASA JPL, 1971

My favorite author of speculative fiction, Ray Bradbury, died recently. Where Clarke and Asimov explored what affect technology would have on humanity, Bradbury explored what it is to be human. The literary canon will remember Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451, but I love him for the language he used in books like Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Ever a proponent of science and space exploration, Ray Bradbury was invited to speak (alongside Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, and others) at NASA JPL just as Mariner 9 arrived at Mars in November 1971. In this clip, Bradbury reads his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been”.

Via Boing Boing.