A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.

The Silver Snoopy


This probably comes as a bit of a shock to some, but I’m a bit of a space nerd. (I’ll give you a moment to recover.)
 
Long before I had the honor of working at NASA, I was excited about the things the agency does. I still have my Fisher-Price space shuttle and a story I wrote about space exploration in elementary school displayed at home. It’s unbelievable that I get to be a part of it, and it’s a rare day I’m not keenly aware of where I work and what we do here.
 
But even so, there are the days that take that to another level. I remember a day early on when Gene Kranz came and spoke at Marshall about his experiences in mission control. This is the guy that told Neil and Buzz they were Go to land on the moon; the “failure is not an option” guy of Apollo 13. And the NASA I support is the same NASA he did those things for. Surreal.
 
Last week, when I received my Silver Snoopy, I didn’t actually post anything about it; I was content to let Rebecca and my family and friends share the news. But with the excuse of now being able to share the official photos from the event, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.
 
Tuesday was one of those days for me. The Silver Snoopy has a long history in the agency; between the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the success of Apollo 11 it was decided that the astronaut office needed a way to recognize people who make significant contributions to “safety and mission success.” It was their way of thanking the people whom they entrusted with their lives and their labor. For almost 50 years, the astronaut office has continued that tradition, and last week they saw fit to include me in it. Surreal.
 
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a thing I hoped for eventually; I think everyone out here does. And the thing is, you look around you at work, and everyone you see deserves one. The crazy thing about NASA is that it’s NASA. Extraordinary is the average. I am surrounded with insanely talented people. For the astronaut office, the office that has been home to John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Bob Crippen and Sally Ride and Joe Kerwin and Victor Glover and will be home to the astronauts who fly Orion and SLS to tell you “well done”? Surreal.
 
As a communicator, as a liberal arts major from Ole Miss, it’s gratifying to see the work we do recognized. I don’t turn screws on the vehicles. I couldn’t put together a schematic drawing to save my life. But NASA has a mandate, going back to its original charter, to tell the world about what we do and what we’ve learned. It means a lot for the work my team does toward accomplishing that to be recognized as important to “mission success.”
 
My pin was presented by astronaut Victor Glover. You may not know his name yet, but you will. Victor was part of the last class of astronauts selected, and is an incredibly accomplished pilot before coming to NASA. He just became eligible for his first spaceflight, but, in the meantime, he’s supporting the team at Kennedy Space Center that’s preparing the facilities there for SLS and Orion. He’s crazy passionate about the future of exploration, and does a great job communicating both that future and that passion. I had the opportunity to put some charts together for a panel he was on at South by Southwest this year; it makes it easy when you know somebody’s going to knock it out of the ballpark whatever you do.
 
Each Silver Snoopy pin is flown in space; my pin was in orbit when I was in eighth grade at Huntsville Middle School. It flew on STS-27; the second flight after the shuttles were grounded after the loss of Challenger and her crew. The commander of STS-27 was the rather incredible Hoot Gibson, who two years ago was part of the book launch event we had at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for the release of Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986. It was neat having Hoot connected to another amazing moment.
 
I’m thankful every day for the opportunity I’ve been given, for what I get to be a part of. I’m thankful for the people I get to work with, for the amazing team we have. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be here, surrounded by people working to not only be worthy of the legacy we have inherited, but to surpass it, to learn more, to go farther, to explore as we never have before.
 
Surreal, indeed.

All the World’s A Stage


Catching up from the trip a bit more — So one of the things we realized we just weren’t going to be able to squeeze into the trip was a foray up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, which this year is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. But, in honor of the anniversary, we did take in a few other sites and exhibits related to the Bard.
 
We revisited the New Globe Theater, built several years back just meters from the site of Shakespeare’s Globe. We’d gone by last year but were in a hurry, so we only walked around the outside and into the gift shop. This year, we were excited that we actually had the time to do a tour, but, of course, when we got there, tours were closed for rehearsals for an upcoming performance. (I was a little disappointed, also, that they didn’t have anything in the gift shop marking the 400-year anniversary.)
 
At Windsor Castle, there was a Shakespeare exhibit, including an original first folio, and then at the British Library they had a special exhibit on Shakespeare, which included not only the only known script with his writing, but also two of the only known six remaining examples of his signature. (You had to pay to see the exhibit, and we were running short on time so were afraid we couldn’t do it justice, but then realized that, even if those things were all we saw, the odds that we’d come back to the States and say “I’m so glad we saved a few bucks not seeing Shakespeare’s original handwriting” were about nil. If you ply your living working with the words of the English language, you owe a debt to Shakespeare.)
 
From the Globe, we made a quick trip further into Southwark for another literary pilgrimage to find the original site of the Tabard. It’s a little bit deeper cut than Shakespeare, but the real English lit nerds recognize the name:
 
“Bifil that in that seson, on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout courage…”
 
The general prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was burned into my brain a quarter-century ago in Tish Hammer‘s English class at Huntsville High School, and on a good day, I can still breeze through more than 30 lines in the original language (which isn’t bad, considering we only had to memorize the first 18). We’d had another Chaucer encounter earlier in the trip, seeing his crypt at Westminster Abbey.
 
It made me really grateful for Mrs. Hammer and the other great English teachers I had at HHS. It really says something about a teacher than can inspire such interest that decades later on the other side of the ocean I want to take the time to track down a small marker in a shady alley to find something we studied in her class. (Similar side trips were made in Oxford to find Lewis Carroll sites, inspired by a video project Jasons Smith and Hutchinson and I made for Mrs. Guerin’s AP English class.)
 
I’m very blessed that I enjoy what I do for a living. I love the subjects I get to write about at work, but I also love just the shear act and art of storytelling. And without a doubt, there that love of language and story owes a huge debt to teachers I had at Huntsville High.

From Oxford to Oxford


So while almost all of our England/France trip was vacation, a really neat opportunity popped up during the planning that I had to take advantage of — a conference about deep-space CubeSats at the University of Oxford.
 
For those that don’t know (and Facebook was really insistent that instead of CubeSats, I probably meant cubists, which would have been an entirely different thing), CubeSats are small satellites ranging from a little larger than a softball to a couple of lunch boxes put together. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on with CubeSats in Earth orbit now, but this conference was focused on using them for interplanetary missions. Huge potential, but the trick is getting them there. Conveniently, we’re building a rocket that’s going to be launching 13 deep-space CubeSats the first time it flies. (No planned cubist launches at this time, though.) So the folks at work agreed that it would be worthwhile to go and build some relationships with people in this relatively new field.
 
And, yes, it was professionally very gratifying to help build those bridges, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also very very cool on a personal level. I mean, I went to college in Oxford, just not that one. The opportunity to give a presentation at a 350-year-old theater in “the other Oxford”? Yeah, that’s kind of awesome.
 
I put on my Oxford shoes, because that’s the sort of nerd I am. (I realized that I left an Oxford comma out of my presentation. #APforLife!) We spent the night in the converted prison of a thousand year old castle. We ate lunch were Tolkien and CS Lewis hung out with their writer friends. I saw where the OED is edited. We saw the lamppost and faun decoration that supposedly inspired Narnia. (Rebecca got to see some cool Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter stuff while I was NASA-ing.) I saw posters for a talk Buzz Aldrin was giving in the same theater the next week. (He often shows up places after I’m there. I guess he’s comfortable being second.) I bought some Oxford gear to wear the next time I’m in Oxford. I randomly told Rebecca “Hotty Toddy” from time to time.
 
‘Cause, you know, my Oxford may not be that Oxford, and that Oxford is probably a bit more prestigious, maybe. But I wouldn’t have been at that Oxford if it weren’t for my Oxford and folks like Joe Atkins and Robin Street and Samir Husni and Judy Crump. So, yeah, you know what, Hotty Toddy.
 
There was a neat bit of serendipity around the talk, too. Boeing’s Above and Beyond exhibit is at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, and the first time we went into London after we got back from France, we saw a poster for it in Fenchurch Street Station. A poster featuring NASA’s Space Launch System. When we went to Oxford, we were seeing that poster everywhere — the train stations, tube stations, newspapers. It was incredibly, incredibly encouraging to be seeing the rocket randomly and ubiquitously on the other side of the pond. Maybe the word is getting out. But the timing was nice, too. Here I was, over in England, getting ready to go talk about the rocket at a conference in Oxford, and the rocket had come to London to wish me luck.
 

Never the Same River Twice


A year ago today, Rebecca were saying goodbye to Mag and Tim Patrick Alvis as they prepared to head to the Memphis airport for their flight home to England after a month with Rebecca’s aunt and uncle, Amy and Tim Alvis. Before they left, the England Alvises said again, as the couple of times we say them during their stay, that we should come and stay with them at their home outside London.
 
Saturday morning, we were saying goodbye to Mag and Tim as we prepared to head home on our flight back to the States after three weeks staying with them.
 
Tim and Mag happened into our lives completely randomly. He struck up an online friendship with Rebecca’s uncle after looking on Facebook to see who had the same name as he. When they found out last year that we were coming to London for the honeymoon, they offered to show us around one day, and gave us tickets to the Tower of London as a wedding present. A couple of months later, they were in the US visiting Rebecca’s family, and a year later we were staying with them in England. And their campsite in France.
 
We owe the trip entirely to them, both for hosting us and for encouraging us to do it; we would never have thought to undertake something like this on our own, but it was an amazing experience. So we’re incredibly grateful for those reasons that they happened into our lives. But we’re also grateful they happened into our lives because we’re so glad we have gotten to know them.
 
On the honeymoon, they were basically the first people we really spent any time with after the wedding, and we could not have asked for a better couple to be around as newlyweds. After half a century together, Tim and Mag seemed like newlyweds themselves. We got that impression immediately in that first day together last year, but staying with three weeks confirmed that not only was that first impression accurate, it was, if anything, understatement. I hope that we can age together so well.
 
They were incredibly gracious hosts to us, and did so much to make sure our trip was amazing. We loved getting to spend time with them (and the interesting folks they introduced us to).
 
Last year, on the honeymoon, we took a tour boat with them on the Thames as we were sightseeing. Two months later, we were on a boat with the same couple on the Mississippi, which seemed a rare and special thing. A couple of weeks ago, we were on a boat with them on the Seine.
 
I hope that someday we can find ourselves on a boat with them on some new river somewhere else in the world.

Walking The Great War


The first year I did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, I portrayed the second governor of Alabama, Thomas Bibb. The second year, the regular Bibb portrayer returned, and so I was assigned a new character.
 
To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the change. Bibb was a more fun story than Turner Mayes, a local man who died in World War I, and I felt that I’m not the greatest fit for the character — I’m twice his age and twice his mass. But for the last three years, while I’ve occasionally checked on the availability of other characters, I’ve tried to do the best by Turner I could.
 
I was surprised by how immediate and present the Great War was during our trip, particularly the week we spent in France. I had an academic understanding of where and when and how the war was fought, but it did nothing to prepare me for how it had touched and scarred every where we went. There was perhaps more awareness in these centennial years, but the reminders and effects are permanent.
 
It had a particular impact visiting the site where the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” armistice that ended World War I was signed; at the museum there we saw images and artifacts of the war from throughout France. My travels did not take me to the places Turner walked, but here I saw where he had been. Between the places I visited and the things I saw there, and the stories of the family I stayed with, for whom the war had cost relatives only two generations back, Turner’s story became a little more real. A little more concrete. A little more visceral.
 
I won’t be asking about a different character for the Stroll this year. If I portray Turner Mayes for as long as I do the Stroll, it will still be the smallest token of deserved respect and gratitude.

Me and Rocket Engine 2059


Back in 2006, I drove down to Florida to watch the shuttle launch. It didn’t. A year and a half later, I drove back down again. The shuttle didn’t launch again. And this was in the wake of unsuccessful launch viewing attempts my dad took me to as a kid.
 
And then, back in 2009, I went down to see the launch of the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission. I had the best seat I ever had or would have for a shuttle launch attempt. And it flew! Like, right there, with me watching, the shuttle left Earth and headed into space. It was, too put it lightly, rather cool.
 
In the couple of years between then and the end of the program, I made several more trips down to Florida. I left without seeing a launch more times, and I saw more launches, including the final flight of the shuttle. But STS-125 was special for being the first.
 
Though I had no clue about such things at the time, one of the three engines that powered Atlantis that day was RS-25 number 2059. Honestly, to me, an engine was an engine until two years ago, when I had the opportunity to get within a foot of an engine that will fly on SLS during a tour of Stennis Space Center. I looked up which engine it was, and realized that we had history.
 
I was back at Stennis this week, and had an opportunity I’d never gotten before — to actually go up in the stand where the SLS engine tests are conducted. And the most-recently tested engine was still in the stand, and I got to stand right next to it again. And, of course, it was 2059, an old friend by now.
 
I don’t know when I’ll see 2059 again, but I hope to have as good a seat for its next launch as when I saw it seven years ago next week. The next time 2059 flies, it will be on the second launch of SLS, the first to carry astronauts; 2059 will help propel Orion’s first crew farther from Earth than anyone has ever traveled.
 
And I’ll be able to say I knew it back when…

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