That One Decade That One Time


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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.

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“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.

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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.

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Several Orbits Later


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All in all, it was a beautiful coda to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to record, and to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to live.

Last week, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosted its annual Space Exploration Gala, and this year the event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program. The eight living Skylab astronauts all came back to Huntsville for the event.

A similar night, almost 10 years ago, helped plant the seeds in me for a life-changing adventure. The eight were in Huntsville for the 30th anniversary, and it was one of the times I started to think seriously about what it would be like to work on a book telling the Skylab story. I was still a little ways out from having the nerve to actually step out and stop thinking about it and start doing something about it, but that night brought me a little closer.

So it was an incredible experience, on the other side of that adventure, to see the guys gathered in Huntsville once more, to see them and the program being celebrated, and to be a little more involved this time.

I had the chance to see most of the crew members the night before the event as we signed books to be sold the next night as a fundraiser for the museum. It was good getting to have a little time to visit and catch up, and even better to get to be present while they visited and caught up. I’ve been blessed to be in some amazing situations through the book, and this was one of them. I try to always appreciate what a blessing and responsibility it is; the legends will long live in history, the men behind them will only be known as long as there are people to talk about them.

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Five of the Skylab crewmembers came to Marshall the next day to talk about their experiences with the workforce. The event started with an awesome video overview of the program. I’ve always wondered if you could make a good movie about Skylab; certainly, that video showed you could make a great trailer for one. It was a little odd watching the video; I know the guys more as they are now, it was fun and a little odd seeing them looking so young. I ended up watching them watch the video more than watching it myself; it was fun watching their reactions to their younger days.

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It was also neat for me seeing my friend Andy Herron watching their talk from the front row. Andy’s a young NASA engineer working on SLS, and it was encouraging to see one of the team members who are taking on the torch appreciating the value of the experiences and wisdom of those who have paved the way.

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Afterwards, there was a reception at which I ate Skylab cake …

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… and photo-bombed astronauts. (Unintentionally, of course.)

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It was a fun combination of past and present, getting to be there with both the past NASA team I worked with on the book, and the present NASA team I work with today. That’s my former NASA boss in education, Jeff Ehmen, talking to Joe Kerwin. If you work at Marshall, you are the heir of an incredible legacy, and events like this really drive that home.

I was talking with my team lead after the talk about the fact that is a big part of why we do what we do — someday, I’m going to go to an event at Morris auditorium and hear astronauts tell about their experiences flying atop a rocket I was part of. And that will be a good day.

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The Space & Rocket Center used the occasion for another exciting Skylab milestone — the Skylab trainer that had been deteriorating in the parking lot for years was brought inside the Davidson Center for display. What the public didn’t realize is that not only had they fixed up the outside to bring it inside, they had actually also done a substantial amount of work on the inside, and the interior was ready for display also, if not complete. I was amazed at the work they had done. Very very exciting!

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Skylab trivia: Differently colored Snoopy stickers were used by each astronaut to mark his property.

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The Skylab display was particularly exciting to me because that was actually how I began my years as a Space & Rocket Center volunteer, by participating in a volunteer effort to fix up the exhibit many years ago. We made some progress, but it fell apart long before the trainer was display ready again. But we did reverse some damage and laid the foundation for the recent professional effort, and, for me, it was a great experience to be able to spend time inside a Skylab mock-up while working on the book. At one point, we closed the airlock door on the trainer, which was a Gemini hatch that was repurposed for Skylab. How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to close a Gemini hatch? So it was very exciting for me to be inside the trainer for the first time in a long time. Not nearly as many years as it had been since the crew members had been aboard Skylab, but still a nice homecoming for me as well. Before the volunteer effort ended, we all were given the opportunity to sign an out-of-sight wall, and it was a neat experience to see my name still there.

I don’t have good pictures of the talk, but it was great as well. The guys did a good job of telling the old stories, and they have some great ones.

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“Here Comes Skylab!”


@jeff_foust noted that the news about the impending re-entry of the large UARS satellite is bringing back memories of the return of Skylab, and shared this insightful video on that event by “esteemed science journalist J. Belushi.”

(In retrospect, the mental image of Skylab striking the World Trade Center is rather disturbing.)

Spacecraft Past, Spacecraft Future


So about two weeks ago, I went and gave a talk in Decatur. And it was fun.

The Friends of the Library group for the Decatur Public Library invited me to come talk about my book, Homesteading Space. Which, in large part, I did. However, I gave the short version of the Homesteading lecture that I put together when I spoke at the International Space Developers Conference earlier this year, and which turned out not to be all that short.

It was short enough, however, that I was able to use the audience as guinea pigs to update my talk a bit, jumping forward 40 years from Skylab to talk about the current and future state of human space exploration. As a member of the policy committee of the National Space Society, and just as someone who is passionate about spaceflight, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the topic of “now what,” and I now have a bit more freedom to discuss that openly than I have before.

What surprised me was how much fun it was. In retrospect, I just don’t have as many opportunities to have in-depth discussions about space as I used to, and I think I’m in a bit of withdrawal. I hadn’t been having a terribly good day, to be honest, before the talk, but I was in a great mood by the time I finished it. I’d gotten my fix.

Point of all of this being, I’ll be doing it again on Saturday at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Davidson Center at 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and I’ll have a few copies of the book to sign. And this time, I’ve actually practiced the new part of the talk, so it should be even better.

Join me, won’t you?

Speaking Event Tonight


If anyone’s interested, I’ll be giving a free talk tonight at the Decatur Public Library  at 504 Cherry St. NE, Decatur, Ala., beginning at 6:30 p.m. The event will be open to the public.

I will, of course,  be hitting the high points of my “Homesteading Space”-inspired lecture, “Everything I Really Need to Know About Space Exploration I Learned From Skylab,” which is a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

But, given the recent end of the space shuttle program, and my post-NASA freedom to talk more candidly about the current state of spaceflight and the future, I’ll also be updating the talk some to discuss those issues, and I’ll take questions from the audience as well. I’ll also have some books to sign after the event.

I’m too modest to toot my own horn about my speaking abilities, but I will note that after my first public lecture two years ago, one of the members of my improv troupe came up to me, and, with a shocked expression, noted, “You were actually funny!” Um, thanks, I think?

If you can’t make it tonight, I’ll be giving another talk on Saturday, August 13, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Author-y Stuff


Various and sundry author updates:

• I recently had the opportunity to buy several copies of my first book, “Homesteading Space” for $15, and would be glad to sell a few at that price. A few people have contacted me already, but if you would be interested in one, let me know. (Out of town folks would have to pay shipping, also; I would be glad to sign/inscribe books per request.)

• I will be giving a couple of “Homesteading”-inspired talks in the next few weeks; one at the public library in Decatur on July 28 at 6:30 p.m., and the other at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center on August 13, time TBD. I would love to see some familiar faces in the audience. I’m planning on revamping my standard talk a bit, after giving an updated version at ISDC in May, to tie history in to the current state of American human spaceflight.

• On Monday, I reviewed the new index which will be included in the forthcoming paperback version of “Homesteading,” which will be published this fall.

• We’ve gotten notes back on the manuscript of our early-space-shuttle history book, “Bold They Rise,” and are working with the publisher on how best to address those. God willing, we’ll be able to begin work on those edits before too long and get that book turned around as well.

Kind Words


I was flattered recently to see this exchange on Twitter:

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As an author, it’s pretty hard to see that as remotely merited, but it’s also hard not to be very flattered by it.

And speaking of Homesteading Space, I’ll be giving a brief talk inspired by the book at the ISDC conference in Huntsville tomorrow.

Congratulations, Bo Bobko


Because I’m woefully behind on blogging (and, yes, we will get back to that eventually), this post is coming about two weeks after I should have written it. Apologies.

Earlier this month, Bo Bobko was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

If you don’t know who Bobko is, follow the link to the collectSPACE article. Long story short, he’s one of the early shuttle commanders who flew on the maiden flight of two orbiters.

He’s sufficiently accomplished that a few years ago, talking to him, I made the faux pas of assuming he was already inducted. I’m glad that oversight has finally been rectified.

On a personal note, I’m glad to see Bo recognized, since he helped me with both of the space history books I’ve co-authored.

Back when he was still a fairly new astronaut, long before the shuttle commander stuff, he supported the Skylab program in several ways, including, most notably, as a participant in the SMEAT “simulation,” where he and two other rookie astronauts spent almost two months locked up in a altitude chamber testing Skylab equipment. It was a singularly unrewarding task — a full-duration space mission without leaving the ground — but vital to the success of Skylab. I got to sit down while working on the Skylab book, Homesteading Space, with Bo and SMEAT-mate Bob Crippen and have a great conversation that turned what on the surface might have been on of the drier chapters in the book into an entertaining and often hilarious story.

Bo helped me again with the space shuttle book Heather and I recently submitted to the publisher — at one point, he was going to serve as co-author of the volume. That fell through, but he was a huge help in shaping the book early on. In particular, as a pilot astronaut, Bobko gave me a perspective that was very key to understanding the development and early flight program of the shuttle. I’d always thought of the space shuttle orbiter primarily as a spaceship. To Bo — and, it turns out, others of his background — it was “the airplane.” Despite it’s very unusual flight profile, particularly during development it was just the latest and greatest airplane he was going to be flying. He talked to me less about the microgravity operations than about the avionics (pronounced with a short a). The discussions with him provided me with a foundation that proved hugely helpful later on in understanding the experiences of the astronauts involved in the early shuttle program.

So, Bo, congratulations on a well-deserved honor, and thanks again for all your help!

Everything I Need to Know About Rescuing Chilean Miners I Learned On Skylab


I wrote this a while back at work, but it wasn’t really an education feature, so I shopped it around a bit to see if it could find a home. For a while, it looked like it had, but now it’s looking like it’s not going to be published, so I’m sharing it here.


Photo: Gabriel Ortega/Government of Chile

From the capsule that was used to rescue 33 Chilean miners trapped underground to the food they ate while awaiting help, NASA provided expert advice to the Chilean rescue team.

The miners spent over two months trapped almost half a mile underground after an access tunnel caved in. NASA sent a four-man team, including an engineer, two doctors and a psychologist, to Chile after the Chilean government approached the United States Department of State seeking assistance. The agency provided consultation on the design for a capsule that could be sent down a small shaft to return the miners to the surface. It also advised in areas  such as diet and exercise to keep the miners healthy while they awaited rescue. (NASA wasn’t the only space agency to contribute — the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent specially designed “space underwear” designed to alleviate discomfort and reduce odors.)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the agency’s contributions to the rescue effort were a great example of an Earth-bound application of lessons from spaceflight. “For decades, the people of this agency have learned to live, work and survive in the hostile environment of space,” Bolden said. “Our expertise in maintaining physiological and psychological health, and our technical and engineering experience in spacecraft design all proved to be valuable in a situation that is far from our traditional scope of work. I am proud of the people of this agency who were able to bring the experience of spaceflight down to Earth when it was needed most.”

One person who saw a strong parallel between living space and the experiences of the miners was Skylab II astronaut Owen Garriott. Failures in two of the thrusters in his crew’s Apollo command module during a 1973 mission to the Skylab space station called into question whether the vehicle could be used to return the astronauts safely to Earth and led to a rescue investigation into how best to bring them home.

Garriott said that several aspects of the mine rescue operation echoed aspects of his Skylab experience, and provide a good blueprint for dealing with similar crises:

–Establish communications with home. A communications link used to allow each miner to talk to loved ones on the surface was similar to a system used on Skylab. Garriott said that this provided a “very positive connection to things at home.” In the case of Skylab, it was a turning point in space-to-ground communications, which in the past had been more tightly controlled. “Now, it is a very obvious positive morale booster and also keeps the control center very ‘honest,”” he said.

–Establish a leader. Strong leadership is invaluable in dealing with a situation like this, Garriott said. The NASA training and military background of many astronauts make this a natural process in the agency, and Garriott said the role of leaders both in the mine and on the ground was important in the Chilean rescue operation.

–Provide good food. “The miners were just about to run out of the stored rations, and topside rescuers very promptly started sending them down more and better food, eventually even hot meals,” Garriott said. “On Skylab, all meals were planned beforehand, but were very positive for morale and well-being. Skylab [had] the best food ever flown!”

–Give everyone responsibilities. Rather than focusing on the concerns over their spacecraft, Garriott’s crew, which also included Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean as commander and Jack Lousma as pilot, poured their energy and attention into their work. Upon their return, they were dubbed the “supercrew” for accomplishing 150 percent of their mission objectives. Similarily, Garriott said, shifts were set up in the mine so someone was always working, and miners were given tasks like cleaning, preparing the tunnels for the rescue and exercise, vitally important when activity is limited. “Everyone needs real work to do,” Garriott said.

–Train a medical officer. “I was it on our Skylab mission, but everyone wanted to participate and was trained for it,” Garriott said. And, also as on Skylab, Garriott said the medical miner was helped by the communication link providing “telemedicine” connections with experts on the ground.

–Pay close attention to the morale. “Seems like they did this well, following much of the ‘common sense’ procedures first employed on Skylab,” Garriott said of the Chilean rescue.

For The Person Who Has Everything


(Bagged and Bored shown here is only a working cover; actual cover can be seen on Amazon.com)

The holidays are coming, and if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling with what to get that person that’s so hard to buy for, the person who has everything. Well, here’s your big opportunity to get them something that it’s pretty much guaranteed that they don’t have, unless they’re Richie Younce. Or Lain Hughes.

First, of course, there’s Homesteading Space,the book I co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin. Homesteading Space is the story of the Skylab space station from the point of view of the people that made it happen, and is written to give readers an idea of what’s it’s really like to live and work in space.

Of course, since Homesteading has sold thousands of copies, it may be that the person you’re wanting to buy for already has a copy. For that person, you can get them another copy of Homesteading, just in case. (Heck, on Abebooks.com, you can even pick up a signed copy for only $350.) Or … you can dig a little deeper into my oeuvre with David Pogue’s The World According to Twitter,for which I wrote 13 words, or one word, depending on how you count. (I get nothing from the sale of this book, of course, but it is pretty entertaining.)

But those are both books that are pretty mainstream; real books, published by actual publishers, that you could buy at your local Barnes & Noble, as long as your local Barnes & Noble is in Huntsville. Let’s talk about the stuff that they’re really unlikely to have. For that person, there’s Bagged & Boredand Mayor Of Awesometown,the first two collections of the Hatbag comic strip I create(d?) with Lain. The collections are full-color, and each include a year’s worth of the strip, plus all sorts of bonus stuff. Amazon even has the “Look Inside” feature turned on, so you can check them out.

And, then, for the person who has everything, including an appreciation of really bad books, there’s the best bad novel ever written, The Leonardo Code (The Broken Triad – Book Two),which was team-written on my old blog by me and some friends. There’s flying robot death monkeys, nanite-laced mind-controlling ribs, a hidden paramilitary bunker under Graceland, enough celebrity cameos to earn us several cease-and-desist letters if anyone but us ever read the thing, and much much more. And the cover looks perfectly legitimate sitting on your shelf. (You can read a preview here.)

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