OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

THE SKYWALKER

``I stood, my eyes turned upward still
And drank the air and breathed the light.
Then, like a hawk upon the wind,
I climbed the sky, I made the flight.

by Elizabeth J. Buchtenkirk

The tears of emotion rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks as the magnificent machine roared into the night sky in a blaze of lightning, flame and thunder. Volatile waves of pride, joy, elation, fear, and sorrow all coursed through my body. Pride in the two magnificent young men, Garrett Reisman and Bob Behnken, whom I had tutored and who rode this monster into space. Fear, of course, for their safety and the well-being of another student, Simone Francis, who stood just a few yards away. This is dangerous business and all of us, though we know the danger only too well, are adventurers willing to pay those costs should they come. Pride that I had some small part in the development of the incredible turbopumps at the heart of Space Shuttle engines, perhaps the most remarkable turbomachines ever built. It had all begun in the early 1970s when, as a young scientist/engineer I first became involved with the space program studying the instabilities of liquid-propelled rocket engines and learning how the Main Engines of the Space Shuttle could avoid potentially catastrophic failure due to those instabilities. Named the Pogo instabilities because the vehicle vibration that resulted could be likened to the child's toy of the same name, the Pogo instability had plagued many of the earlier rocket engines including the Saturn rockets that carried men to the moon. Ultimately the facilities I helped to construct and the understanding that I helped uncover led to designs (and particularly the Space Shuttle Main Engine design) that avoided this malaise. And so as Endeavor cleared the launch gantry I felt a sense of having contributed to the safe passage of all who rode that magnificent machine. There was also sorrow for Garrett carried with him mementoes of my son Patrick and my late wife Doreen, symbols of lost loves being carried high into the heavens. Among these Doreen and my wedding rings linked together and the two Celtic crosses Doreen and I wore around our necks in rembrance of Patrick. But there was also hope for the future, for my eldest daughter Dana and her two children were there to witness the launch. And, at the last moment, the future wedding rings of Barbara and myself were sneaked aboard in Garrett's pocket.

This moment, 2.28am on March 11, 2008, was truly a defining time in my life, a vertex of almost all I had been or would be. The Florida night sky was suddenly and explosively filled with light and thunder as fire and smoke shot across the swamp and the spacecraft accelerated vertically into the sky. The Space Shuttle Endeavor on Mission STS123 soared skyward on its way to outer space. I stood transfixed as it rose into the clouds with the noise and vibration of thunders crashing down all around me. It was minutes before I could stir myself to follow the crowds back to the buses in time to avoid the acid clouds drifting toward us across the swamp water.

***

It had all begun many years before in the summer of 1991. Earlier in that year when I was looking for a new graduate student to bring to Caltech as a member of my research team, I encountered the application of a student at the University of Pennsylvania by the name of Garrett Reisman. He had an excellent academic record like so many of our applicants. But what I liked about this young man was his versatility and his conviviality for I thought to put him to work in a group of accomplished but individualistic students. We talked by phone and he made the decision to come to Caltech for his graduate studies. Thus in October of 1991 he embarked on four years of classes and research that ultimately led to his Ph.D. He turned out to be a careful, thorough and imaginative experimentalist who was an excellent presenter of his research work. His Ph.D. thesis involved water tunnel investigations of the phenomenon of cloud cavitation. He was able to photograph and recognize the presence of bubble collapse shock waves within collapsing clouds of cavitation bubbles. It was very nice work and I still show the photographs and results he obtained in seminars I give on the subject.

   
At Gold Dollar Mine Climbing the Grand Teton - second from right

But that is much less than half of our relationship and a digression is needed to fill in the rest. It so happened that in the 1980s I had begun to do a great deal of hiking and mountain biking in the local San Gabriels mountains with which I had always been fascinated. Indeed, in a small way, I had been exploring them ever since I arrived in Southern California in 1969 and my children recall, as youngsters, climbing up waterfalls and dangling from makeshift ropes. But the 1980s saw me greatly expand my solo excursions. I began exploring beyond the end of the trails as described elsewhere in these journals. Then, about 1993, I was focussing on trying to find a way to descend a steep side canyon that we called Skull Canyon in order to access the middle section of the larger Devil's Canyon. I recruited several of the newer graduate students to accompany me on a Skull Canyon expedition. One of the most eager and enthusiastic was Garrett. Our successful descent of Skull Canyon that day began a whole raft of explorations in the San Gabriel mountains. During all those hours spent together Garrett and I became close friends and would remain so throughout our lives. After my son, Patrick, was tragically killed in an automobile accident Garrett became like a son to me and this relationship was further cemented after his own father died of cancer.

       
Bailey Canyon Great Falls of the FoxGreat Falls of the Fox

In the years which followed we became more and more ambitious in tackling canyons that presented more serious obstacles. Eaton Canyon held a special fascination for us. We had hiked up to Idlehour Campground and explored down as far as a place we came to know as the "Point of No Return", where a small slide down into a deep swimming pool meant that return upstream would be exceedingly difficult without a rope. We had also conducted several expeditions in which we tried to get as far as we could up Eaton Canyon from the bottom. In these efforts we bypassed the big falls at the bottom by climbing over the ridge above where wooden stairways had once been a fixture. Upstream of that we arrived at a deceptively easy looking obstacle that we came to call "Naked Triumph Falls" after Garrett led the way by swimming the pool naked before leaping out of the deep water to ascend the small falls. It was an epic but characteristic Reisman moment, remembered ever after by all those who witnessed it. His effort allowed the rest of us to ascend and pass the the falls. But, further upstream, we were never able to find a way around the large deep pool and 12 foot falls that descenders now jump during a descent. Worryingly, the topo map showed there could be many difficult obstacles between the "Point of No Return" and these 12 foot falls. Though we were determined to attempt a descent, we could find no information anywhere that might guide us.

It had became obvious to all of the group that, in order to get to some of the more interesting and exciting places in Eaton Canyon and elsewhere in the San Gabriels (and other mountainous locales in the southwest), it would be neccessary to acquire technical rock climbing skills and equipment. Since Garrett had some rock climbing experience, it was natural that we would arrange an opportunity for him to teach us some basic skills. And it was typical of our young, cavalier approach that we decided that this learning would be done, not in some boring gymnasium, but while descending one of the major San Gabriel canyons. I had picked out Bear Canyon in the Devil's Canyon Wilderness Area as one I would like to explore. So, one Saturday in the early 1990s, we collected together some ropes and climbing harnesses and set off in the early morning for the road above Crystal Lake in order to descend into upper Bear Canyon. There were about seven of us and only Garrett had ever rappelled before. He claimed it was easy and he would teach us "on the job" as it were. In that group was another future astronaut, Bob Behnken, and Bob, I remember, came dressed in what he considered appropriate attire for this adventure, full army fatigues and big, black army boots. Even a camouflage hat. When I think back that somehow epitomizes how naive we all were - and we didn't have a single helmet in the whole group! What happened became a much-storied legend in the group of astronauts that Garrett and Bob joined a number of years later and so I digress briefly to relate it.

We dropped down into Bear Creek from the end of the highway at Crystal Lake and penetrated quite deeply into the canyon before we encountered the first necessary rappel, a drop that would be trivial for us today. It consisted of a vertical 12 foot drop into a deep pool. There was a very convenient tree about 10 feet back from the sharp lip at the top of the drop. Garrett took over. After much talk (as always with Garrett!) he rigged the rope around the base of the tree and asked for the first volunteer. Bob stepped forward in his natty fatigues. Garrett instructed him at considerable length and, so instructed, Bob then started backwards toward the lip. Once there, he very slowly began to rotate backwards with his feet on the edge. Unfortunately Garrett had rigged the rope so low on the tree that this rappel entry was much more difficult than it could have been. Bob got about two thirds of the way into his rotation before the inevitable happened. He lost his balance, swivelled sideways and ended upside down just over the lip with the black army boots sticking straight up. Fortunately he hung onto the rope. Garrett rushed forward and peered apprehensively over the edge. Coming face to face, as it were, with Bob's posterior he collapsed in laughter and the rest of us had to rush forward to rescue Bob from a much worse demise. Recognizing Garrett's mistake we elevated the anchor and the rest of the canyon descent proceeded without incident.

Now flash forward several years to when Bob is going through his interviews to be an astronaut and Garrett is already one. Bob tells this story as an example of how he could keep his cool under adverse circumstances. As he remembers, he thinks it helped him to be selected, particularly since it also made fun of Garrett and we all liked to make fun of Garrett. Flash forward another decade when we learn that they have both been selected to be on board STS-123. We also learn that Bob is to make two space walks on the end of the robotic arm. We also learn who is to be in control of the arm: Garrett! After that ignominious beginning our canyoneering expertise could only improve. We began to learn skill in rappelling by trial and error, by devising our own anchor methods and other rope techniques. Now that we had acquired some technical skills and equipment, we began a series of technical canyoneering descents. One of our first objectives was Eaton Canyon. Though we still had virtually no information on what lay between the "Point of No Return" and the 12 ft falls, Garrett and I decided to attempt a descent without what we would now call "beta". After several irreversible rappels, we arrived at the top of the falls we now call "The Gully". I don't think I will ever forget looking down at the pool at the bottom of that abyss that seemed hundreds of feet away. But we made it down. And to make the descent even more exciting the river was flowing lustily that day so we ended the descent behind the falls and had to do our first swimming disconnect.

In the 1990s others began to join our adventures, in particular three younger graduate students who became key canyoneering pioneers, Clancy Rowley, Mark Duttweiler and Simone Francis. Years later Simone and Garrett were married and I like to think that I helped make that union. Those were years of great adventure. Seemingly every weekend involved a new exploration into the unknown though we tried to interpret the topographical maps in order to predict where it would be neccessay to rappel. Sometimes, as with Eaton Canyon, we conducted preliminary reconnaisance hikes. We even made use of the fact that Garrett was a qualified pilot in order to conduct aerial reconnaisance. I remember one afternoon when we circled high over the deep gorge in Fox Canyon to try to glean information on the numerous drops in that spectacular canyon. Garrett would tip the plane over so that I could photograph vertically downwards into the depths. All to no avail for the shadows were much too dark to discern the details in the deep narrow gorge where the drops we came to call the "Great Falls of the Fox" were located. Subsequently we used information from a local search and rescue team member to descend the Great Falls, a truly spectacular adventure that we repeated many times.

***

   
Space Shuttle Discovery on the pad Bob (left) and Garrett in space

In 1996 Garrett went to work with TRW as a Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation and Control Engineer in the Space and Technology Division, Redondo Beach, California, where he designed the thruster-based attitude control system for the NASA Aqua Spacecraft. Since he was close by we still found time for canyoneering. Then, in July 1998, on his second application he was selected by NASA for the 19th group of astronaut candidates as a mission specialist. However, before he actually moved to Houston he asked me to come along on a visit to Edwards Air Force Base where the Shuttle Discovery was undergoing rehab and we were allowed to crawl through it. Even after his move to Houston we found opportunity to get together again, several times for rock climbing and canyoneering but once also when I flew an experiment in the Nasa Zero Gravity KC135 (see "Vomit Comet"). It was a long wait before he was assigned to a Space Shuttle flight, in fact some ten years before he was named to the STS123 crew. During that time his assignments included working on the space station robotic arm, the next generation space shuttle cockpit and living in the Aquarius underwater habitat as a crewmember of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations program. The year after Garrett was selected, Bob Behnken was chosen and we celebrated having two of our Mechanical Engineering graduates together in the astronaut program. I was often asked what I thought made these two young men "the right stuff" for the astronaut program and I would answer that in my view it was a combination of their engineering judgment, athleticism, conviviality and cool-headed-ness.

   
Garrett (center) and Bob (right) Garrett space walking

After the long wait for a Shuttle assignment, Garrett was finally selected to serve with both the Expedition 16 and the Expedition 17 crews as a flight engineer aboard the Space Station. He and Bob were to launch together as members of the STS-123 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on March 11, 2008. Bob would come back in the same Shuttle but Garrett would live in the Space Station for 3 months and return to Earth with the crew of STS-124 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on June 14, 2008. During his tour of duty aboard the station, he was scheduled to perform one, 7 hour spacewalk and to execute numerous tasks with the Station's robotic arm and new robotic manipulator, Dextre. The two global tasks associated with Garrett's and Bob's spacewalks were the assembly and placement of this Canadian-built robot arm and the installation of a new modular addition to the Station, a Japanese laboratory called "Kibo". Because of the latter, there was heightened interest in this mission in Japan and that gave rise to some personal involvement on my part.

   
Zion Canyon from space Mount Fuji from space

So it was that, accompanied by my daughter, Dana, and her two children, I travelled to Cape Canaveral in March, 2008, in order to witness the launch of STS-123. The day before the night launch was taken up with a tour of the NASA launch facilities including a close-up visit to the launch pad prior to the fueling of the liquid propellants. Later in the afternoon, there was a large party in Garrett's honor organized by his family followed by transport to the special visitor viewing area. The launch proceeded on time and in the aftermath we travelled home in something of a benumbed daze.

In the days that followed I made my way back to California and then across the Pacific to Japan where I had been invited to spend a three month sabbatical at the University of Tokyo supported, coincidentally, by the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA. There I was scheduled to give a series of lectures to a combined audience of University faculty, researchers and students and JAXA staff members who commuted from as far away as Tsukuba (50 km from Tokyo). The lectures were directly connected with the Japanese Space Program in that they dealt with turbomachine design and performance. The university had kindly arranged an apartment for me quite close to the campus so it was an easy walk back and forth each day. I was able to keep in touch with Garrett by email since he received those emails in the Space Station and he even telephoned me in my apartment one evening. In his spare moments he enjoyed taking photographs of earth and, in particular, relished the challenge of identifying and photographing specific locations on earth. For example, at the request of one of my granddaughters he took some pictures from space of her hometown, Perth, Australia, which she proudly showed to her elementary school class. He also photographed one of our favorite canyoneering destinations, Zion National Park in Utah. And he took a photograph of Mount Fuji which I was able to show at the outset of my lecture the next morning much to the enjoyment of my Japanese audience especially the JAXA staff members. They also enjoyed the photographs of his space walks since a number of them remembered his research work many years before. But, perhaps, the greatest cheer was for Barbara who came on a ten day visit and for the photographs of our wedding rings floating in the air of the Space Station.

   
Wedding rings in space The bus home approaches

Of course, for Garrett the two highlights of the adventure were the launch and the spacewalk. The launch involved an extended period of 3g linear acceleration, something that cannot be adequately simulated on earth. Garrett described it as an awesome experience. The spacewalk was not only awesome but also truly exhausting. After seven hours he was barely able to move. But these are unique memories that will be with him for the rest of his life.

Garrett's conviviality was a great plus for NASA and was utilized for many public relations stunts including a video tour of the Space Station, an interview on the Steve Colbert show and a ceremonial opening pitch at Yankee Stadium that was conducted in the Space Station. Even his return to Earth on June 14, 2008, was notable. Most astronauts who spend an extended time in the Space Station cannot walk when they first return to Earth. They have to be helped from the Shuttle to a hospital bed. Garrett, on the other hand, not only walked out of the vehicle and down the steps, but also toured the underside of Endeavour with the other crew members. And, that evening he showed up at the local hamburger joint frequented by the astronauts.

In the aftermath of his high adventure, there were not only many public relations chores to attend to but also much contemplation regarding the future. Perhaps he will get to fly again before the Space Shuttles are mothballed in 2010 but it seems unlikely given the size of the astronaut core. Whatever the future holds, it will be impossible to match the extraordinary adventure of those days in 2009. And Garrett himself will never be the same however much he might try. But I do believe that "The Skywalker" has the wisdom to look to the future rather than the past, to reach for the sky in other endevours and, in his turn, to create new adventures for the next generation.


Last updated 1/01/09.
Christopher E. Brennen