Apollo 8 and Orion: “Christmas Miracles”


I really enjoyed reading this great blog post by astronaut Rhea Seddon about the “Christmas Miracle” of Apollo 8, because I was thinking about that very topic two weeks ago today.

Rhea talks about what a miracle Apollo 8 was for NASA, but it was, in maybe even a bigger way, a miracle for the nation. 1968 had been a very dark year for the United States, which had seen the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and was mired in Vietnam. And then, on Christmas Eve, human beings are reading words of hope as they circle the moon. It was a reminder of who we as a species are, and what we can be.

Two weeks ago today, I was standing on the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. And the night before, Twitter could not have been more depressing; the trending topics about police controversies and civil unrest seemed adequate reasons for despair. And then, for two days, social media was ‪#‎Orion‬. And, while EFT-1 was admittedly not Apollo 8, it was nonetheless a reminder again that we are and can can be more.

I love what I do. I’m honored to be a part of it. There are countless reasons why I think what NASA and the space industry do is important, from technological advancement to scientific knowledge to economic benefit. But there are a lot of intangibles, too, and this is high among them — because, as JFK said of the moon, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” because that goal constantly requires us to be better than we’ve been before.

Review: “This Beautiful Mess” by Rick McKinley

this beautiful mess rick mckinley reprint cover

I went through three phases reading This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God by Rick McKinley. From the concept, I really wanted to read it and like it, and coasted on that like a pretty fair ways into reading it. But at some point during the reading, I shifted to really wanting to not like the book. This has much more to do with me than the book, but we’ll get to that in a second. Ultimately, however, despite my best efforts, I never fully made it to dislike, and finished the book out liking it so much that I immediately ordered a copy to give as a gift.

Much of the focus of the book is something that I believe firmly — that Christians tend to focus way too much on the next life to the point of mission the importance of this one. We have a habit of picturing “the kingdom of God” as this place we go when we die with streets paved with gold, rather than a real and immediate kingdom that is truly at hand. And this part of the book, I wanted to and did like. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a real and present kingdom of God, the book may well be eye-opening. For those doing their best to live it, the book is a refreshing reminder that other people are doing the same.

And that’s the trick — it’s one thing to go around and blissfully know that you’re living in the immediate kingdom of God, it’s another to roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches of an alien kingdom in this material land. And thus the part where I wanted to dislike it — it turns out, the book argues, it’s not enough to just go around saying, “yep, Kingdom of God.” You have to love. You have to care. You have to work. You have to GIVE. I wanted to disagree. I wanted to find a loophole. I wanted to find a way not to shoulder that obligation. But ultimately, I couldn’t. And when I made peace with that, I was able to like the book again. I’m not saying that I’ve fully changed my life based on this book, but I’d like to think I’m at least more aware of what practicing the presence of the kingdom of God really means.

(I received a review copy of this book from Blogging for Books.)

Space Adventures, A Decadal Survey

It’s taken two stints to get there, but today marks a total of 10 years that I’ve spent supporting NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’ve had some incredible experiences working here during those years, and many more not directly work-related that the job inspired. I’m lucky to do something that I truly truly love.

When you don’t work your 10 years continuously, you don’t get a pin or recognition. But you do get a whole lot of good memories.

Of course, on the to-do list for the next 10 years is opening the solar system for human exploration. So check back then …

That One Decade That One Time


Exactly ten years ago today, I decided that I should write a book. Today, the final edits to my second book arrived at the publisher. What a long, strange decade it’s been.

The idea that became “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” came while I was at Space Center Houston, attending the International Space Station Educators Conference. (The conference is now known as the Space Exploration Educator Conference, but at that time, the idea of human space exploration being taken seriously was less than a month old. To further date this moment, while I had no idea at the time, TheFacebook had just been launched two days earlier.)

I was walking through the incredible Skylab trainer exhibit at SCH, when I decided to actually pursue an idea that had been in the back of my head for months. I went home, contacted Owen Garriott to see if he would be interested in writing a book, and was amazed when he agreed. Thanks to author and editor Colin Burgess, our notional volume soon had a home as part of the Outward Odyssey series on spaceflight history.


“Homesteading Space” took up slightly less than half of that decade, roughly four and a half years from the day I was in the Skylab trainer until I held the book in my hand. “Bold They Rise” took a bit longer, for various reasons. The opportunity came along at just the right moment as I was finishing “Homesteading” — I was basically finished, so a lot of the stress was gone, but I hadn’t completely finished, so I wasn’t to the point of enjoying being done.

All told, “Bold They Rise” took more than seven years, with a lot of start and stops in between. (The time between original manuscript submission and publication alone was longer than the actual “Homesteading” writing process.) It’s been a long road, for both myself and my coauthor Heather R. Smith, which makes reaching this point all the more rewarding.

It has been an amazing journey, filled with unforgettable and incredibly rare experiences. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to my “Homesteading” co-authors Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin for the help they gave me and the doors they opened on both books. It’s a strange feeling looking around a room full of people and realizing only two of you have never left the Earth. Or sitting down to dinner with a man who is basically one of the inventors of what NASA has come to be. Seeing half-finished paintings by a man who walked on the moon. Bouncing off walls in zero-G. I have been truly, amazingly, incredibly blessed, and am extremely grateful.


For the first time in 10 years, I am no longer contractually obligated to provide any book pages to anyone. And that’s not a bad feeling either. I’ve greatly enjoyed the process, but I plan to enjoy a moment of freedom as well.

I’m not going to say there won’t be another book. I have an idea that keeps insisting I should turn it into words. Maybe I will. But not today.

And, of course, I’m in the incredibly interesting situation of living out the sort of story I’ve been writing. Each of my two books has chapters dedicated to the development of a spacecraft, and now I’m a member of a spacecraft development team. It’s a strange experience, going from studying history to being a part of it. When the time comes for that book to be written, maybe I’ll want to write it. But, at the moment, I’m far t0o focused on getting the program through this chapter and into the next.

And, of course, edited page proofs are not the same as a published book. The writing process of “Bold They Rise” is completed, but that just means that a new phase begins. Writing a book can range from grueling to enjoyable, sometimes in the same day, but there’s a lot to be said for having written a book, as well. Soon, the book will be released into the world, and I’ll accompany it for some of that voyage.

Maybe I’ll see you out there.


Capturing the Stories of Challenger

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Without question, the last chapter of Bold They Rise was the hardest to work on.

Not because it required more effort or research or anything like that, but because every word hurt.

Our publisher defined the scope of the book from the outset — the beginning of the program through the Challenger accident. Before we wrote the first words, we knew how the story had to end.

Writing the rest of the book, there was a lot of jumping around. Large portions of later chapters were written before earlier chapters. We just sort of put down the pieces where they fit.

Except the last chapter. Except the Challenger chapter. The end, we saved until last.

Which was pure procrastination. We knew we would have to write it, we just weren’t in any hurry to do so.

Challenger had always been a personal thing for me. I was in middle school when it happened, and I can only imagine that it was for me what the Kennedy assassination was for a previous generation. I was a school kid, far from involved in it, but it hurt. It was a loss.

I’ve written about it every year since. For school writing assignments, newspapers columns, blog posts, I’ve paused today to put thoughts into words, to remember, to ponder the event, its meaning, the years since. I’ve gone from being a middle school student to being part of the team creating NASA’s next launch vehicle. Challenger has gone from a national tragedy to a mandate. I’m not an engineer; I’m not designing the vehicle. But I try, every day, to hold myself to the standard I would want from those who do — “Do good work.”

The crew of Challenger’s 51-L mission were names in the news to me, far removed from my life. Eleven years ago, working for NASA, I’d not met any of Columbia’s final crew. But over the years, I begin to meet the men and women who were risking their lives. After Columbia, there were few flights for which I’d not seen in person members of the crews. It was no longer names in the news. It was people.

During those years, I’ve also had gotten to know people who were in the astronaut corps at the time we lost Challenger. I’d never talked to them about the accident; I’d never had any desire to do so. There were better things to talk about.

Working on this book, however, I did.

Joe Kerwin, one of my co-authors on Homesteading Space, was the medical examiner after the tragedy. For Joe, these were not names in the news. They were his colleagues. They were his friends. And he and his team had to identify what was left of them, and to try to determine what exactly had happened to them in their final moments of life.

We recorded the story. I cannot imagine the experience.

We first submitted the manuscript for the book three years ago today, picking this date as a small tribute.

Today, we’re reading through the manuscript one last time, with a looming deadline to send it back in for publication.

Heather has that chapter in her pile today. I’ll read it again soon. But not today. Not today.

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV

This is a serialized short fiction piece that we, The Rocket City Bloggers, are collaboratively writing for our Downtown with the RCB Event on January 16 at the al.com office in downtown Huntsville.

Part One is at Huntsville Hashtag.

Part Two is at Capturing Average.

Part Three is at I Write Words on the Internet!

And now …

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV


… yet another flashback, this one to the early ’80s. This time, he was standing in the middle of The Mall, tossing pennies into the iconic fountain, with Lovemann’s visible in the distance and a yearning in his stomach to head a little ways down the Parkway to Dunavant’s Mall for lunch at Britling’s Buffet.

“Enough,” Ray said to himself, as he realized passersby were giving him strange looks as he ambled sporadically in the midst of reveries of Huntsville past. Summoning all his willpower, he decided that he was going to eschew any further recollections of Twickenham Station or Argosy or the Whitesburg Drive-In long enough to finally actually open the door to the al.com building, despite the nigh-overwhelming temptation to fondly recall going bowling next door to the previous Huntsville Times building on the Parkway.

As he entered, he was struck by how modern and professional the new al.com office was. He went upstairs, politely greeting the many friendly people who spoke to him, while keeping an eye out for Sandy’s familiar face. Being honest with himself, he was still a bit intimidated by the whole blogging idea. He knew there were some good stories in his father’s journal, but would other people think so? And what would these seasoned bloggers think of his idea to try and build a blog around those stories? It was hard to imagine any of these people wanting to discourage someone from blogging — you could tell there was a lot of passion in the room — but he certainly was in no hurry to discover he was the exception. So, one step at a time — find Sandy first.

Well — OK, maybe find Sandy second, he thought to himself as he passed a table full of food from The Eaves. If you’re going to procrastinate, you might as well do it in style. And sampling the wares brought by The Brew Stooges wouldn’t hurt either. With a plate and glass in hand, he resumed his search, eventually spotting Sandy across the room, deep in conversation. Rather than go join in, Ray decided to use the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more by exploring the al.com office. The open areas he’d seen so far were fascinating, unlike any office space he’d been in before — an environment designed for reporters who spend most of their time wearing out shoe soles beating the streets of Huntsville instead of warming a desk chair. He started peeking into conference rooms, and was amazed at the view of downtown Huntsville.

But then, in the depths of the building, something caught his attention. All of the other rooms had good, Huntsville-themed names. But not this one. Not the “Clark Kent Room.” What did that mean? What lurked behind its door? It didn’t seem to be part of the public touring area, but Ray’s curiosity got the better of him, and he couldn’t help himself.

He quietly turned the knob and pushed open the door. His heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. But it was. There, in front of him, right there in the al.com offices in the middle of downtown Huntsville, he found himself staring straight at ___________________.

Part Five will be posted at Growing H.O.P.E.

Come meet the Rocket City Bloggers on January 16 starting at 5:30. We’ll be in the  al.com building hanging out with Downtown Huntsville Inc. We’ll have food from The Eaves and drinks from The Brew Stooges. Door prizes and networking opportunities will keep things lively.

Between Two Launches

Four years ago today, I was standing on the Kennedy Space Center Causeway to watch the launch of the Ares I-X rocket.

It was an exciting day; at the time, it was the beginning of the future, laying the groundwork for later flights of the Ares I vehicle. It was the first test launch of a new design for a crewed launch vehicle in almost 30 years, and I got to be there for it.

I remember there being some discussion of what would happen, some concerns from armchair rocket scientists that the test would go horribly wrong. From my uninvolved observer’s perspective in NASA education, I was willing to bet that if they weren’t very sure it was going to fly they wouldn’t be launching it, but I figured, either way, it would be quite a show.

And it was. She was beautiful. Ares I-X was incredibly beautiful on the pad, towering over the shuttle launch complex. And she was incredibly beautiful in flight, looking like she was defying the laws of physics in a way I’d never seen a rocket do before. Simply amazing.

Later, there would be discussion about the second stage recontact after separation, but in real time, it was incredible, and I still think it was completely worthy of its recognition as Time magazine’s Invention of the Year. What the Ares I-X team accomplished in the time they had and with the resources they had is amazing.

It’s been an interesting four years since then. Ares was cancelled; SLS was begun and in two years has completed its preliminary design review. Personally, my two-and-a-half-year “sabbatical” from NASA fell within that time. A lot of changes, for the agency and myself.

Looking back on that day, I’m struck by how blessed I am by my part of those changes. Like I said, watching I-X, I was basically nothing but a fan. We had a poster on the wall by my office, a gorgeous movie poster design about the mission. I saw that poster again recently in a co-worker’s office, and realized that back then, I’d never paid attention to the names in the credits. Those names meant nothing to me then. Today, they’re my co-workers, members of the team I’m a part of. I’m incredibly, incredibly blessed to be part of the team this time for SLS, instead of just an observer.

I talked to my boss a while back about that day four year ago, about how beautiful the rocket looked on the pad. Kimberly agreed, telling about standing at the base of the vehicle and looking up at her, towering well over 300 feet high into the sky. And, yeah, Kimberly’s rocket-on-the-pad story totally trumps my view from across the river. But it gave me something to look forward to, something to work toward. I want to see SLS on the pad.

And I cannot wait, I cannot wait, to see her fly. If this is going to be my first time being part of the team, I’m incredibly lucky that it’s for what will be the most spectacular launch anyone’s ever seen.

Not a bad motivation to get up and go to work every morning.


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