“I’m Going to Paint the Moon for You” Godspeed, Alan Bean


“And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me

I’m going to paint the moon for you”

Captain Alan Bean passed away today. He was a Navy test pilot, an astronaut who served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 12 and as commander of Skylab II, and a painter unlike any other.

He was a great man, and a man who was greater for not appreciating how great he was. I don’t know that I’ve met any who have accomplished more, nor any more driven to better themselves.

History will remember him as the fourth man on the moon, or, more commonly, will remember forgetting him as the fourth man on the moon. The band Hefner many years ago released a song title “Alan Bean,” which while generally a beautiful tribute, contains the line “Everyone will forget soon/ the fourth man on the moon.” In a Twitter war between Wendy’s and Hardee’s a couple of years ago, Wendy’s claimed nobody cared if you were first to do something – “Tell us the fourth person to walk on the moon without googling it.”

Remember Alan Bean.

Twelve human beings have walked on the moon. Someday there will be more; a someday that is both soon and not soon enough. I am proud to be part of a team working to put them there. 

Alan Bean is the embodiment of why I believe that is important.

Right now there are two rovers driving on Mars, among other robots surveilling the planet. They are our vanguard on the Red Planet; they are our proxy scientists, our proxy explorers. They do the things we need to be doing on Mars, and they do it well.

Soon, much sooner than there are humans, there will be new robots on the surface of the moon. They, too, will conduct science and exploration on our behalf on the rocky regolith of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Some believe they should suffice. Some believe that we should spare the cost and risk of sending humans to other worlds in light of the able accomplishments of our mechanical surrogates.

They are, with all respect, wrong. Part of the reason is that as capable as these robots are, a human being is more capable still, and, more importantly, better able to improvise, to respond in real-time to his or her surroundings.

For me, however, that argument is wrong because of Alan Bean.

I had the opportunity to meet Alan Bean. I saw him in person multiple times, but the moments that will stay with me always are the ones I spent with Alan and my Homesteading Space co-author Owen Garriott at Bean’s Houston home.

Alan Bean was an amazing man, and it was incredible to sit with him and hear him tell stories. We were there to talk Skylab, and his Skylab stories were captivating. And even though it’s not what we were there to discuss, the moon was mentioned more than once. 

It was an unforgettable experience to be there with him and Owen, two men who had shared decades before an experience unlike any other, to see them not as heroes in the spotlight, but as two friends who had known each other far longer than I’d been alive. I hope to have friends like that when I’m that age.

We sat in his kitchen, adjoining his studio, surrounded by in-progress paintings. His skill with a paintbrush was impressive in its own merit, but almost shocking in the context of who it was painting – it seemed somehow unlikely – and certainly unfair –  for a man of unparalleled left-brain accomplishment to  be a right-brain virtuoso as well.

Owen asked when he was finally going to paint Skylab. We tried to get him to time a Skylab painting for the release of the book. Every time we asked, it was always just over the horizon. It’s a painting I would have loved to have seen, and one we now never will.

Being a fan of history, his studio area for one reason made me debate whether I was annoyed. There, hanging from his walls, were presentations of patches he had flown to and worn on the moon. Or, more accurately, of portions of patches, gradually stripped apart thread by thread til only half-artifacts remained.

Bean went out of his way to help us. He shared his stories, he reviewed what we’d written to make sure it was accurate. In one of the conversations, he mentioned that he’d kept a diary while on Skylab, something not even Owen had known before. “Would you like to use it in your book?” … Yes. Yes, we would. As if any other answer to that were possible.

It was a fun challenge transcribing the diary; when I first saw it, I didn’t immediately recognize it was English writing. Bean seems to have a very distinctive autograph, but, the reality is, he doesn’t sign his name, he just writes it normally. It’s his normal writing that’s distinctive, to the point of appearing almost heiroglyphic to the untrained observer.

I’m proud we were able to do that; to share such an important historic document, to make it available to the public, to preserve it for future generations.

To make sure no one will forget soon the fourth man on the moon.

One of my most prized possessions is an early draft of Homesteading Space with Bean’s handwritten edits in it. A man who walked on the moon took the time to read something I’d helped write, and in his own hand marked it up to make it better. My answer to the icebreaker “if you’re house were on fire, what item would you save” is easy.

I’ll never meet the Curiosity rover. I’ll never eat cookies in Opportunity’s kitchen. I’ll never hear InSight’s stories of being on another world.

But, even if I could, they couldn’t tell me what it was like. They provide us with endless valuable data, but they can’t shared what it is to experience it, what it means to be the only ones on a distant orb.

Alan Bean did.

I was blessed to have that that personal experience, to have met the man, talked with him, spent time with him, eaten spaghetti with him, to get some slightest vicarious sense of what it was like, how it felt.

Twelve men walked on the moon. Eight have already left this Earth again. Four – Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Jack Schmitt – remain. The dark day will come when none are left. The youngest of them were born in 1935. If it takes another decade to return to the moon, they would be 92. It’s possible this planet will never again be without moonwalkers. It’s possible it will. If so, when there is no one left who can tell what it was like to be there, the best we will have are those who heard and carry their stories; a somber burden.

Not everyone will get to meet a moonwalker. Not everyone will have that experience. Alan Bean knew that, and that knowledge drove so much of his life after his return to Earth.

He realized that he had in combination two things no other human being combined – the experience of what it was to walk on the moon, and the ability to capture it visually. And so he did.

For the rest of his life, he painted. He painted the moon, but in a way that was less driven by photographic truth than by emotional truth; he wanted to paint not what the moon looked like, but what the moon felt like.

To make that connection more visceral, he put something of the moon in his paintings. He took his moon boots and pressed them into the fresh paint, giving it texture. Those half-stripped-apart patches I mentioned? Taken apart thread by thread so that he could place those strands, with whatever slight particles of moon dust they contained, in his original paintings, embedding the actual moon in his paintings of it.

““And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me”

He brought the moon home, and he spent his life sharing it.

Someday men and women will walk on the moon again. It’s not impossible it will be people I know before they leave, and it’s a goal to talk to them when they get back. But when they do, they’ll tour the world, and they’ll tell their stories. They’ll share their experiences.

And Alan Bean is why I believe that’s vital.

Godspeed, Commander.

Thoughts about Time Travel


Without spoiling anything, the most recent episode of my friend Jason Sims’ podcast has a moment that relates to a subject I’ve given a lot of thought, involving time travel:

If I had the ability to travel through time, I would do some amount of the stereotypical time-tourism stuff, like watching the Apollo 11 launch or being at the Sermon on the Mount.

(But not the one with the loaves and fishes, because I am allergic to seafood.)

But that would only be like 5 percent of my time-traveling.

The huge majority of my time traveling would be going back to places that I miss, like eating at favorite restaurants that have closed or walking through places I worked that have been torn down or playing classic video games at the arcade.

In particular, there is a Mexican restaurant in Indianola, Miss., in the mid/late ’90s that would have gotten a lot of my future business.

Because these were favorite places of mine, though, it raises the possibility of past-me encountering future-me, which I feel it would be important to avoid. There are two reasons for this:

One reason is the cliché concern that it would create some sort of temporal paradox/anomaly thing that would destroy the space-time continuum. This is the lesser of the two concerns.

The bigger reason is this: If I assume that I’m going to actively avoid past-me being aware of the presence of future-me, then the fact that I’ve never seen myself do this is entirely consistent with the possibility that I will, in fact, do it.

I’ve been thinking about this for about 20 years now.

And even back then, I wondered how careful that would really require me to be. For example, if 22-year-old me were at a restaurant, and 52-year-old me walked in, would younger me even recognize me as the same person?

Factor in the facts that a) I’m not really going to be expecting time-traveling future older me to come in, so that’s probably not going to be my first thought*, and b) I’m honestly probably not paying a lot of attention to the other patrons anyway.

For example, the guys on the right in these two pictures from 22 years apart certainly favor each other, but if they were in the room together, do they really look “the most logical explanation is that one of them has traveled from the future” alike?

Supporting my theory is this: Several years ago, my friends Caleb and Lauren told me about the time they were at their favorite restaurant, and an older couple came in as they were leaving. (Or vice versa, I forget.)

And this older couple looked JUST LIKE OLDER VERSIONS OF THEM!!

And they now say that this restaurant has since made some changes so they don’t think it’s now as good as it used to be.

There are only two possible explanations: 1) The couple they saw was future-them, who had traveled back to the past to revisit their favorite restaurant when it was in its prime, or 2) It was an older couple that favored them quite a bit.

I, obviously, subscribe to option 1.

Which means that there is a good chance that I may already will have eaten again at Los Arcos in Indianola again in the future before it closed.

*Though I’ve already acknowledged that I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years, so if it happened since then, I actually probably am maybe more likely than average to think it’s time-traveling future me.

MS Awareness Month 2018: Blessings and Monsters


March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month.
 
Last year, Rebecca and I really couldn’t help but promote MS awareness when we spent the better part of a week in Cullman so she could receive what may be her final MS treatment. You take off that long, and folks are inevitably going to be aware.
 
MS Awareness has become a different sort of thing for us over the past year since that treatment. Our awareness of Rebecca’s relationship with MS has evolved in that time. Free of some of the worst of it, and gradually and tentatively letting go of some of the fear of what tomorrow could be like, I think we’re both a little more of the realities of day-to-day post-Lemtrada life with MS. There have been days where it’s so obvious that the progress since last March is incredible. There have been days where it’s obvious that an indefinite treatment is not the same thing as a cure. Rebecca has always amazed me at how she perseveres; it’s easy for someone to not know what she deals with. I admire her so much, and have such a deep respect for her strength.
 
Without question, though, MS Awareness for us over the past year has included a deep-seated awareness of how incredibly blessed we are – to live in the time we do, to have the resources we do, to have the doctor we do, to have the community we do. Take any of those things away, and life could be very different.
 
One member of that community is Amy Kibbey, who has shared with Rebecca experiences from her own battle. I’m grateful to her (and so many others) for that, but I also really respect her efforts to share the blessings we experience with others.
 
Rebecca has been a beneficiary of the National MS Society, an organization that Amy supports each year through Walk MS. Here is a link to how you can support her Walk. The fight against MS is a fight which can be won and is being won. The Walk, and the Society, really do make a difference.
 
I’m not asking people to give. I really believe these battles are fought best by passionate people. Everybody has a battle. MS may not have touched your life. For you, the monster facing you or your family may be diabetes or cancer or any number of others. It so, I’m not asking you to fight MS, and don’t judge you for not. Fight your monster. Fight hard.
 
But I did want you to have Awareness.
 

Puppies and Magic


 

Joel went outside the other morning with Rebecca, and encountered a creature he’d not met before right there in his backyard.

It was much smaller than Joel and walking around, and he decided he needed to go meet it.

He took a few steps toward it, and it took a few steps away. He took a few steps faster, and it ran faster away.

Joel started started running toward it, and IT LEFT THE GROUND! This creature was suddenly IN MIDAIR, with nothing underneath it! JUST IN THE AIR! With no ground under it! It just took off as if that were a perfectly normal thing to do! Not on the ground! In the air!

Joel turned back to Rebecca with this “Did you see that!?!?” look on his face, and then stared, dumbfounded, at the thing until it was gone.

He’s never going to understand, the way we do, concepts like gravity and lift and drag and airfoils and aerodynamics and the low-density of hollow bones.

But he’ll get older and kind of figure out that the world works in consistent ways, and everything he witnesses generally meshes with those consistent rules and there’s not really any magic.

But right now, there is.

And, really, it’s not a bad perspective to have.

More Rocket in the Rocket City


In the past week, without most locals being aware of it, more rocket arrived in the Rocket City.
 
The core of NASA’s Space Launch System will be the largest rocket stage in history. One of its fuel tanks alone, the liquid hydrogen tank, holds as much as maybe 20 average backyard swimming pools. The liquid oxygen tank is “smaller,” but that’s a very relative term. When they’re full, they get kind of heavy. In between them is an empty cylinder that’s sole job is to keep them from bashing into each other during launch, because that would be what the technical folks call “a bad day.” There’s over seven million pounds of pressure pushing up on several swimming pools worth of a substance that really likes to burn, and millions of pounds of pressure pushing down on more swimming pools of another substance that really really likes to make things burn. And there’s one empty cylinder, the intertank, taking the combined force to make sure that doesn’t happen.
 
It’s kind of important that cylinder work. That’s why, the other day, a test version of that cylinder arrived in Huntsville to undergo unimaginable stress (seriously, stop and try to imagine it in a way that provides any real understanding) to ensure that, when the day comes, the real thing will do its job.
 
The intertank test article joins both more test hardware and actual flight hardware of the world’s largest rocket here in Huntsville. Over the course of the year, it will be joined by even more test articles, including those giant fuel tanks, while being accompanied by less flight hardware – while it’s cool to have giant rocket parts in Huntsville, it’s even cooler to have them in Florida, and way cooler still when they leave there.
 

Godspeed, John Young


I was born about a week after the end of the Apollo era. John Young and Bob Crippen were the first US astronauts to fly in my lifetime, and by then I was old enough to be excited about it. To me, they were like real-life Captain Kirks. It was not until decades later that I realized he had walked also on the moon, but even then it impressed me less than flying that first space shuttle into the heavens.

I still have what may well be the first space writing I ever did, a science fiction story from over 35 years ago about John Young in the Year 1999. I’ve written more than a few words about him since, but he inspired me from the beginning.
 
He had a reputation for being … strong-willed. To the best of my recollection, I only saw him in person once, and my two memories of that occasion are him talking, as he did frequently, about how we needed to explore space because single-planet species don’t survive, and him cussing at my then-wife.
 
When I first began working on Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, a fellow astronaut contacted Young about talking to me for the book. He politely declined; he was working on his own book, Forever Young, at the time, and understandably wanted to save his stories for that.
 
Nonetheless, through the words of others, he looms large over the book; you couldn’t write a history of the early shuttle without the presence of John Young being strongly felt. One of my favorite stories in the book is from my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Owen Garriott; recounting Young landing the shuttle on their STS-9 mission, discovering that the auxiliary power unit was on fire, and calmly noting “I’ve never seen it do that before.”
 
It was amazing to me that he was still an active duty astronaut when I first began working as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, a very real connection between “my NASA” and the earliest days of the agency.
 
Young was one of a kind. He’s left this world six times before, but leaves it a little less colorful this time.
 
Godspeed, commander.
 
 
 

At The Beginning…


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Three years ago today, Rebecca and I were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It was, to put it lightly, an incredible experience. I’d returned to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and joined NASA’s Space Launch System two years earlier that week, but I’d been following Orion for far longer than that, so it was overwhelming finally seeing it fly.

Sunday marked five years that I’ve been part of the SLS program, and they’ve been the most incredible of my career. I’m incredibly blessed to be here – I was talking to a friend, recently, about how, when I was in early high school, this is basically where I’d dreamed of being, that I’d abandoned that dream before college, but had somehow halfway-accidentally ended up where I’d wanted to be in the beginning. The irony is, if I’d stuck with my initial dream, there’s a good chance I would have ended up somewhere else.

All that to say, I’ve watched the SLS team pour themselves into this work, and we’re now seeing it pay off in a very real and very big way as the rocket takes shape. It is phenomenal to see the things they’ve already built, and to watch those massive pieces come together. But the real payoff – I was about to say the real payoff will be finally seeing in launch in two years, but, while that will be incredible, it’s not really true. The real payoff will be seeing what is accomplished when this rocket starts flying, and seeing a generation inspired as humanity reaches farther than ever before.