Only These Bones


Driving down to the see the latest progress at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside of new Orleans, where welding takes place for the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew modules, I was struck by dichotomy.

The event was taking place two weeks before Mardi Gras, and already that spirit was in the air — visitors to the event I was going to were fed king’s cake and received beads as their group identifiers. But then, the spirit of Mardi Gras is never really gone from New Orleans, is it? You think of everything that the name New Orleans evokes, and that’s where we’re building the biggest rocket in history. Again.

I don’t write a lot of poetry (or, you know, for decades, any), but it seemed the best way to capture how appropriate that juxtaposition is.

vac_gross1

Only These Bones

Bones
in boxes
resting higher.
The ground too shallow for its dead.
Old bones, old stones;
History creates mystery.
The old world becomes ever new,
But here the new world remains ever old.

Bones
with beads
strewn all over.
Foreign streets of Bacchus’ own.
Magicks, carnal;
Emerald and amethyst and gold.
Here abide vampires and spirits,
In a quarter owned by flesh.

Bones
of buildings
sinking lower.
A city challenging the sea.
Winds tear, waters dare,
The buildings rise again.
The storms, looming, relentless,
The city’s heart more relentless still.

Bones
of metal
rising higher.
A tower taking shape.
Welding wonder;
Eyes toward unwalked ground.
A city’s history, magick, resolution
Come together in a rocket’s heart.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rocket plant…

There’s Magic as Long as We Make It


CZ0ZyA2WYAADpyY.jpg
Thirty years.
On the day I heard the news at Huntsville Middle School, it had been 19 years and a day since the Apollo 1 fire. That was history, distant. Eight years before I was born.
Today, it’s been far longer than that since the loss of Challenger. And it it still looms. It’s still immediate. To be honest, in some ways, Challenger for me has left a scar deeper than the more recent Columbia.
Thirty years later, Challenger is a “why.” It motivates. It demands. It’s why we don’t take things for granted. It motivates better solutions. It demands our best. Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. Never again.
It’s an odd memory for me today. It’s something I remember as who I was then, and something I remember as who I am now. At this point, I’ve worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for longer than I’d been alive when it happened. It is a part of our agency history, and it informs my professional life.
But that’s who I am now. Who I was then was a kid in middle school who grew up playing with toy spaceships. One of my favorites, which helped decorate a table at my wedding last year, was the Fisher-Price Alpha Probe, one of those early transitional toys that stopped showing spaceships as tall cylindrical things and started showing them with wings.
My connection to Challenger was not as immediate as it is now, but it was bigger in some ways. The shuttle wasn’t a vehicle, it was a national mythology and science fiction and hope and excitement and science. It was the future, wrapped in tile and foam and rocket engines. And thirty years ago today, I learned that even myths and science fiction and the future can fail. There was a little less magic in the world.
But the secret — part of the real legacy of Challenger — is that there’s not. There’s magic as long as we make it.
I had the opportunity to wander Tuesday through the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans. The factory where the Apollo I crew’s rocket was built. Where the external tanks for the final flights of Challenger and Columbia were built. The factory where Neil Armstrong’s Saturn V was built and the tanks that held the fuel that launched the first shuttle and the last, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station.
The factory where the core structure of a spaceship that will go around the moon was just welded. The factory where the rocket that will send it there is being built.
On the way down, I visited some friends, and in the midst of the visit, they bought their son a spacecraft playset he can sit inside. One of the early transitional toys showing spaceships not as things that look like airplanes, but as tall rockets and exploration capsules that fly atop them.
Their son won’t remember the shuttle. Challenger and Columbia are ancient history for him. But he’ll be seven or eight when we launch this rocket. Old enough to know, and appreciate it. A thing of wonder and hope and excitement and science fiction and the future.

If You Have To Choose Between History And Vampires…


Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This past weekend, I went down to Tuscaloosa to interview my friend Jeff Weddle, whom I’d not seen in way too long, about his latest book, When Giraffes Flew.

We met up at a Barnes and Noble, and, out of curiosity, I went over to their search computer, and typed in some names.

Jeff, Jesse J. Holland, Claudia Gray and I were all at Ole Miss within a year or so of each other, and we all had our first books come out during a similar span back in 2007-2008. I, of course, with space history tome Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story; Jesse with Washington, D.C., African American history/tour guide Black Men Built the Capitol; Jeff with a non-fiction look at a unique chapter of publishing in Bohemian New Orleans; and Claudia with YA vampire romance Evernight.

Turns out, if you type all four of our names into the search computer at the Barnes & Noble in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they currently only have books by one of us in stock. Guess who?

She’s outsold us, her books are in way more everyday venues, and, in an odd thing for me to be slightly jealous of, can be commonly found remaindered, which to me is the ultimate level of authorial success.

And, then, earlier this year, it was announced that she’d be writing one of the first new-continuity Star Wars books pre-The Force Awakens. Like, somebody who worked at my college newspaper is now writing actual, real, canon Star Wars stuff, which is kind of mind-blowing.

So the morals of this story, kids, are:

1) I know some pretty awesome people.

2) Ole Miss produces some pretty awesome alum.

3) The latest from these talented authors, in addition to Gray’s Star Wars book Lost Stars, are Weddle’s southern gothic short story collection When Giraffes Flew and Holland’s The Invisibles, available in early 2016. Collect them all.

4) If you want to be successful as an author, and are debating between history and vampires, always go with vampires.

5) I love Star Wars, and, yeah, the idea of actually getting to be part of the story is unfathomable.

But, then, so is the story I do get to be part of. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Following the Light of the Sun, We Left the Old World”


I’ll cede that Christopher Columbus is a historically challenging figure (and apparently was a challenging guy even in his own day), but one also has to cede that he left behind a legacy that has inspired explorers for half a millennia.

Honestly, Columbus Day is usually one of those holidays that I’m grateful for the day off but think little about, but this year it is a little more special to me. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to walk ground that Columbus had walked, and to step foot in water that Columbus had sailed.

Columbus is one of those figures who is so far removed that it’s easy to think of him as a historical figure, a larger-than-life story that’s central to our national creation myths, so the experience of being where he had been — and not as a legend but as a young man — was one of getting a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood man who was Cristoforo Colombo, a very brave and very human individual who changed the world.
The experience was made richer by the fact I was there for a space exploration symposium, gathering with others from around the world united in a desire to sail further into the new ocean of space, to again visit New Worlds.

Regardless of how one feels about this day as a celebration of the past, it should stand as the embodiment of a holiday our calendar other lacks — a celebration of exploration, and a challenge for the future to dare, to sail, to find, and to continue to seek.

An Ill Wind — Things I Learned From Katrina


david hitt with hiking stick

Be patient; I’ll explain this picture at the end.

I feel a bit guilty for enjoying that night.

I remember being outside, that night 10 years ago. I remember the wind and the rain. I remember how glorious it was — the storm was the embodiment of the raw experience of being in nature, with all its power and majesty. I remember the feeling of the driving wind and the pouring rain, and it seeming beautiful. I remember basking in the overwhelming sensation of it.

Elsewhere, people had lost their homes. Elsewhere, people had died.

I didn’t know. I hadn’t heard yet.

Monday, August 29, 2005. The day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Ten years ago today.

That night, to me, Katrina was the most remote thing in the world. Certainly, newswise, it was a Big Deal, but, honestly, it seemed, not one that affected me. It was a tragedy, but that tragedy affected others. When I realized where the wind and rain had come from, I felt somewhat guilty that I had enjoyed something — the remnants of Katrina that blew over Huntsville — that had caused such devastation elsewhere, but that was it. It just wasn’t part of my life. Not that I wasn’t sympathetic, not that I didn’t feel bad for them, just that I wasn’t … touched? … affected? by it. It was bad, but it wasn’t personal.

I first felt the wings of the butterfly that weekend, in the smallest of ways, and, looking back on my attitude, the pettiest. I had made plans for friends in Jackson, Miss,. to come visit that weekend. Given the situation in Jackson, which was still without power and would be for a while, where gasoline was a precious commodity when it could be found at all, and where people were, even that far inland, dealing with substantial damage, my friend decided — and rightfully so — not to come to Huntsville, and to try to help out there instead. And I, I’m ashamed to admit, was annoyed by the inconvenience. In my limited defense, I still didn’t get it; still didn’t understand the scope and magnitude of what had happened.

I’m also a bit embarrassed to admit that the next time Hurricane Katrina blew into my life, it was in a positive way. My then-wife got a job a few months later on a state contract working with Katrina evacuees in north Alabama. These were people who had been transported out of New Orleans; basically, they all boarded a bus, and were driven up Interstate 65. Along the way, they were dropped off basically randomly based on how many people could be housed in a given location. With that luck of the draw, they might end up somewhere like the cities of Birmingham or Huntsville, or they might end up in a smaller Alabama town like Cullman. Her job was to help those people adjust to life after Katrina, either by helping them get settled in Alabama or by helping them move back home. It was a good job for her, and a contract that paid rather well. It is, they say, an ill wind that blows no one good, and I had become a beneficiary of the hurricane. But it also meant that I had the opportunity to meet a couple of her clients, to put faces and stories and lives to the headlines I had seen months before. Real people, with real struggles. The distant became a little closer.

The next significant time Katrina and I crossed paths was in October 2006, when I visited Stennis Space Center, the first time I’d been to the coast since landfall. It was very odd seeing the changes in Biloxi and Gulfport, where I’d visited several times during my Mississippi newspaper days. In some ways, it was hard to believe it had already been a year, in others, it was hard to believe it had only been a year. Some buildings still looked like they must have immediately after the hurricane, while others (like, of course, casinos) had impressive new structures designed and built post-Katrina. It was interesting talking to people at Stennis about how their lives had been, and continued to be, different after Katrina.

Two years later, I would become engaged to, and subsequently dis-engaged from, a woman from Louisiana whom the storm had blown, indirectly, to Huntsville and thus into and out of my life. A more remote connection to the storm, but a more personal impact on me.

Today, supporting the SLS program, I have cause occasionally to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans to visit Stennis and the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the rocket’s engines are being tested and its core stage is being built, respectively. More time has passed, but my connection increases again. Just two weeks ago, I was driving through Waveland, which was utterly destroyed by the storm. The tenth anniversary was a very real and present thing on that trip, but, there, as everywhere, life goes on.

Back in May 2006, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on what was the first week-long vacation I’d ever taken, made possible by that state contract job. In a local coffee shop there, a saw a hiking stick for sale, handcrafted from wood felled during Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm was the author of that vacation, it seemed appropriate to take the stick home as a memento, even though I had never really been hiking at the time.

When I began hiking three years later — in the wake of the departure of the aforementioned Louisianan ex-fiancée — I used that stick, and have used it many many times since.

The stick is a reminder — of Katrina, specifically, and all the ways it touched my life, but also, in general, a reminder that no man is an island, that something that seems completely remote and unconnected can end up changing one’s life in ways you could never anticipate.

And, just as importantly, a reminder to appreciate that behind every headline are real people with real struggles.

To remember that every story is somebody’s story,

My Bad Advice On Book Publishing


printed manuscript for Homesteading space

The original manuscript for “Homesteading Space.”

“How did you go about getting your books published?”

When I had two people ask me to tell this story in two weeks, I realized that maybe I should, you know, write it down. I get this question every so often, and I’m always glad to share my experiences, even if they’re not necessarily that helpful.

Because, really, my answer to that question, if I’m being honest is: “Be really lucky.”

My first book, “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,” has its origins back in 2003. I was working for the NASAexplores education web site, coming up with story ideas for weekly articles, and happened to notice that it was the 30th anniversary of the Skylab program. I started working on an article about the history of Skylab, and, in the process of researching it, noticed that there was a Skylab astronaut, Owen Garriott, living here in Huntsville. Inspired by this fortuitous discovery, I contacted Dr. Garriott to see if he would talk to me for the article. He was so gracious and helpful that I decided to try my luck again and contact two more Skylab astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Jerry Carr, so I could include one from each crew.

The thing that struck me working on the article, though, was how little information there was about Skylab. Really, I thought, someone should write a book about it. With that thought was the idea that writing said book would be a fun thing to do, but that such undertakings are the bailiwick of professional writers, not people like me.

Fast forward a few months later, and there was a reunion event in Huntsville marking the 30th anniversary of Skylab. The book idea popped into my head again, and I pushed it aside just as successfully on this occasion as the first.

Fast forward another couple of months, and I’m at Space Center Houston for the International Space Station Educator’s Conference. (It would later become the Space Exploration Educators Conference, but at this point the idea that human exploration beyond Earth orbit might actually happen again was only about three weeks old.) In the museum, they have the best Skylab exhibit anywhere. Walking through it, the book idea pushed its way into my head again. I dismissed it again with the same logic — that’s something for professional writers to do — but this time it pushed harder. “You know, David, you write for a living. That’s kind of what ‘professional writer’ means.”

I decided that when I got home, I would contact Dr. Garriott with the idea, which I was then picturing as offering to ghost-write his memoir, including Skylab and his Spacelab mission on the shuttle. I sent him a note asking him if he’d let me buy him lunch to discuss the idea. Honestly, at the time, I figured there was a very high likelihood he would say no to the book, but that I would get to have lunch with someone who spent two months in space, which still would have counted as a huge win to me.

Instead he said yes, let’s do it.

Well, um, OK.

david hitt, owen garriott, and joe kerwin

The three ‘Homesteading Space’ co-authors, hard at work on the book

Again, honestly, I’d now gotten a bit ahead of myself, I had no idea how to go about writing a book with an astronaut, but I figured, not completely incorrectly, that it was a lot like writing other things, but much longer. I also had no idea how to go about getting a book co-written with an astronaut published, and that was perhaps a little more daunting.

I called a friend of mine who worked for a major publishing house in New York at the time, and he gave me the one bit of good advice this story contains: Go to a bookstore. Find books similar to the one you’re writing. Look through the acknowledgements of those books. Find ones where the author thanks his agent. You now know agents who will work with this type of book, and do well enough that the author thanks them for it. Send proposals to those agents.

As it happens, I never even actually used the one bit of good advice in this story. Owen had the time had been helping another author, Colin Burgess, with a book on NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, and mentioned to Colin that he and I were going to be working on a memoir. Colin, whom I knew through the online collectSPACE community, said that he was editing a series for the University of Nebraska Press on the history of spaceflight, and the author who had originally signed up to write the Skylab volume had just dropped out. Maybe we would be willing to turn the memoir into a Skylab history?

If we were interested, Colin said, we would have to submit a proposal, which he said he would be happy to help us write. They would then review the proposal they helped us write, and, assuming it was acceptable, we’d be given a contract. The offer had appeal. Everything I had started trying to figure out about how to get published just got resolved. We decided to do it. We even wrote the proposal all by ourselves, figuring if we couldn’t write a proposal without help, we probably didn’t need to be undertaking to write a book. It was accepted; we had a contract.

Joe Kerwin joined us later; when we went to interview him for the book he mentioned that he had also been interested in writing one, so we decided to form a super-team-up for “Homesteading.” I’ll note that Owen and Joe did an incredible amount of work on the book; people have assumed that in a partnership like this the writer does the writing and the astronauts lend their names and stories, but they both actually wrote large portions of the book. And a huge amount of credit also goes to Ed Gibson from the third crew of Skylab, who, through not listed as an author, also made incredible contributions to the finished product, both in the coverage of his mission and in the science chapter.

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of “Homesteading Space”

Bold They Rise” came about similarly. Toward the end of “Homesteading,” Colin asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write one of the series’ two shuttle books. The conversation took place at just the right moment — I was far enough out of doing the real heavy lifting for Homesteading that the intimidation of the work was a little removed, but publication was imminent enough that there was a lot of excitement. So, yes, I know someone — me. The proposal process got extended when an astronaut co-author was briefly attached, and then unattached, from the project, but other than that, it worked in much the same way.

“Homesteading” took about four years from inception through publication; “Bold They Rise” about twice that long, though much more sporadically with more stops and starts. “Homesteading,” co-authored with a couple of astronauts who opened some amazing doors for me, was much more fun to work on. I’m proud of being able to tell the undertold story of Skylab and preserving it for history; but I’ve had a more personal relationship with the shuttle and so I was honored to be able to write that love letter to the program. I think the shorter “Bold They Rise” is a little more accessible, but I also think that “Homesteading” has some really great nuggets that make it worth the read.

In both cases, we completed the manuscript and sent it to the publisher. It goes through a peer review, in which other authors tell the publisher whether they think the manuscript should be published, would be publishable with some work, or shouldn’t be published. “Homesteading” was the former; “Bold They Rise” came back as the second, and, honestly, is a much better book for it. I was perhaps too humble in undertaking BTR; I wanted it to be a whole lot of the voices of the astronauts and very little of mine. Which sounds noble, but the book suffered from the lack of a stronger narrative. The current draft goes much further in fixing that than what we originally submitted. In the case of “Homesteading,” which received a stronger Go from the peer review, there were still some recommended changes, and those were made.

The manuscripts were resubmitted, and went through an edit from a proof-reader hired by the publisher. The manuscript comes back, you make the edits, and send it back. This is the last time your book is yours to do with as you please. It comes back to you one final time, in the form of page proofs, in which it’s laid out the way it will look in print. You make one final look through, just to make sure there are no glaring errors, but unless there is something huge (and at this point there shouldn’t be), you can’t make minor tweaks but you can’t make any changes that would move even one word from one page to another. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had as a writer, having to reread my work but not being able to change it. Reading from this vantage point of having my hands tied, I kept second-guessing myself. The same sentences which I’d loved the last time I read the book now seemed like they could be oh so much better if only I were allowed to change them. (Now that the book is published, they’ve gone back to being just fine again, thankfully.) This was particularly true of the beginning of “Homesteading,” which during that reading felt like I had been trying way too hard to ‘write a book.’ ‘Oh, look at me, I’m such a serious writer,’ 11-years-ago me apparently thought, according to 7-years-ago me. (Me today suspects 11-year-ago me probably really was trying too hard, but that 7-year-ago me may have been a little high on his horse in judging him.)

A big envelope full of

A big envelope full of “Bold They Rise”

The manuscript was mailed back one final time, and the next time I saw it was in the form of a box of printed books on my doorstep. Which, for the record, is a very nice feeling. Someone gave me the advice, which I followed, of signing your first copy for yourself; those two volumes sit in my living room. (I also have “yearbook copies” of each book, in which I get signatures from the people who helped me work on them or who are discussed in the book.)

People ask about royalties, and I’ll just say this is not something you do for the money. For a while, I probably spent more working on “Homesteading” than I made out of it, though that may no longer be true. Part of that comes from working with an academic press, which has its pros and cons. A commercial publisher might have provided more marketing assistance and helped us have more mainstream success, but part of that help most likely would have been in the form of a loss of control. In writing “Homesteading,” a huge motivator for us was preserving the story for history, and so we were grateful for a publisher that gave us the freedom to tell as much of the story as we wanted.

So that’s my story. Like I said, I think the best piece of advice in there is one I didn’t use, so take it all for what it’s worth.

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Beyond that:

• Connections are good. Make them. Use them.

• The best way to write a book is to write a book. It will never be easy. You’ll never have time. The way you do it is this: You type one word. And then you type another word after that. And another word after that. Until there are no more words your story needs. The more time passes between the words, the longer the process will take, but as long as you keep doing it, it will get done. If you wait for the day you have all the time to write all the words, odds are it won’t.

• Write a book because it’s a book you want to write. If you have enough passion to pursue it, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

• I work best with accountability. It’s why I had co-authors on both books; it’s much easier for me to get things done when there’s someone I’m responsible to working with me. I’m not saying you’re the same, I’m saying that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Know both, play to your strengths, compensate for your weaknesses.

The other common question: It’s entirely possible I’ll write another one, but not today. Work keeps me very busy, and my free time goes to improv and history work and freelance writing and Huntsville blogging and being a newlywed husband. Those aren’t an excuse — if I were passionate about writing a book, I would type words around those things. But right, those things are where my passion lies, and a book today would detract from those things. There is an idea I want to write eventually that’s different from my first two, but it’s still boiling in the back of my head. I’d like to write fiction, but I’m not going to start typing until I have an idea that compels me. I’ve had a couple of conversations about collaborating on a project, and for the right project and person, I’m alway open to that.

And, of course, someday the rocket I’m helping to build will need its story told. Part of me would be content letting someone else tell it. But part of me would like to at least be involved in the telling…

Europa and Eupora


Europa

This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.

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