Review: “The Mars Challenge” by Wilgus and Yates


Mars is hard.

In fact, just the prospect of humans missions to Mars is so hard that even talking about why Mars is hard can be hard because, well, it’s hard.

Alison Wilgus and Wyeth Yates’ The Mars Challenge is a shockingly good book on this topic.

To say The Mars Challenge gets it right is an understatement.

The prospect of sending humans to Mars is daunting, and the reasons for that get very technical very quickly. Try to explain it, and you start talking about things like the rocket equation and orbital mechanics and EDL, and the specter of complex mathematical formulas starts quickly drawing near like a gathering storm. 

It becomes very easy to let the technical become so technical that the average person, or, for that matter, a decent number of fairly technical people who haven’t immersed themselves in this particular deep dive, get overwhelmed.

On the other end of the spectrum, there can be a temptation to try to make the topic accessible by watering down the technical to the point where you’re not really doing it justice.

The Mars Challenge does neither of these. It lunges bravely directly into the very real technical challenges of a human mission to Mars and then deftly unpacks them so that a lay reader can understand.

Oh, and did I mention The Mars Challenge is a graphic novel?

The framework for the book is a conversation between a teenager with dreams of dirtying her boots with Martian regolith, and her space professional mentor all too aware of the hurdles that must be overcome to make that happen. 

In Wilgus’ hands, that mentor speaks the language of spaceflight with a  realism worthy of an insider, but lovingly translates it into human in a way a teenager could believably understand.

Ably assisted by Yates, the creators overcome another substantial challenge to tell the story – keeping what is essentially a 200-page comic book consisting solely of two people having a conversation from becoming tedious. Both the writing and the artwork, replete with visions of the past, present and future of space exploration, are lively and engaging.

The Mars Challenge takes an admirably even-handed approach devoid of agenda – unlike many books on the subject, it eschews “all you have to do is” editorializing in favor of an honest analysis.

The book is a perfect primer for teens who feel the call to boldly go – or build the ships for those who do – and is a quick and accessible read for adults who’d like an overview of how space exploration works.

Mars is hard, but it’s doable, and The Mars Challenge is an inspirational tool for equipping the next generation of explorers for the challenges ahead.

DIY LEGO Rocket Garden


(Updated June 22 with Ares I-X.)
(Updated July 4 with scale converter and STS mod.)
(Updated July 7 with Sputnik R-7 and more STS info.)
(Updated July 15 with Vostok and Voskhod.)

Unknown-9

It started with the Saturn V, combined with a love of Skylab.

Like many people, I bought the original LEGO Saturn V kit. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I happened to see that there were instructions online to convert it into a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. And, obviously, I need to have a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. So I bought a second LEGO Saturn V set. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I built my two Saturn Vs. And because I replaced the top part of the second Saturn V with the Skylab mod, I had a Saturn V third-stage-and-Apollo stack left over. And the site where I got the instructions for modifying the Saturn V to Skylab configuration also had instructions on how to build a first stage for that S-IVB-and-Apollo stack to make a Saturn IB. So I did. And by that point, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end of it.

And that’s how I ended up with a LEGO rocket garden, all built to the same 1:110 scale as the LEGO Saturn V.

When I’ve posted pictures of my LEGO rocket garden, I frequently get questions about how I built it, so I thought I’d put together a “guide” based on my experiences. So here’s pretty much all I know about building a LEGO rocket garden.

Basically, all you need are pieces and instructions. (If you’re cleverer than I, you can do it without instructions, of course; but I’m writing for this for folks who, like me, aren’t cleverer than me.)

I buy my pieces at Bricklink. There are other places you can buy them, including Brickowl. Different people use different sites, so while I prefer Bricklink, you may prefer something else. Bricklink is a portal to individual vendors; it’s not so much a store as a storefront for sellers. When you make a purchase, you’ll frequently be placing multiple orders split between different stores that have different parts you need. Particularly with the bigger builds, the parts can get pricy over time, so I’ll spread my piece purchases out. Bricklink lets you set up multiple want lists, so I’ll have want lists set up for multiple projects at once. When I buy pieces I need for the thing I’m working on, I’ll add a few bucks extra for a future project, so it doesn’t hit all at once.

I haven’t done this yet personally, but someone more experienced than I read this post and pointed out you can also buy pieces directly from LEGO. Their shop doesn’t have the variety you can find on Bricklink, but it can be good if you need a large quantities of specific pieces.

Here’s where I found the instructions for the different builds, along with any hints I have from building them:

V2 – The instructions for this one are here. The site they’re on is a Google Drive with instructions for an incredibly wide collection of space vehicles. I was late finding it, so haven’t used it much. I thought I was going to be clever and make mine narrower because I didn’t like the way it narrows, but it looked bad. In the process, though, I replaced the nose with a simple 2x2x3 cone, and I do like that mode. You’ll need to add, I think three more 3024 pieces to go between the 4733 and the cone.

(Quick update, since I mentioned the Google Drive here. Another experienced builder, reading this, pointed me toward this Gitlab site with a very comprehensive collection of designs, which I had not seen before but will be revisiting. Update update: The creator of bricksin.space rightfully reminded me it’s a good resource. I have downloaded his books, but haven’t had a chance to use them yet.)

Juno – The instructions for this one are here. LEGO Ideas is a good, but inconsistent place to find instructions. The site’s primary purpose is for designers to post their ideas for people to vote on them so that they might become official sets. A few, but far from all, designers will share the instructions for their builds. The site will do nothing to help you find them, and in fact hides old ideas after they’ve expired. The designer, Eiffleman, includes decal or wrap designs here; I prefer to stick to just bricks. Also included here are the instructions for versions of the next three builds I did. I didn’t do the Juno until I’d done the other three, so I used instructions from elsewhere. (As a result, my Juno and Redstone fins don’t match, even though they’re the same in real life.)

Mercury Redstone – Instructions are here. In fact, it’s from a source where I got the designs for a good chunk of the collection. I mentioned Bricklink as a place to buy bricks; it also has a “Studio” section where you can find or share designs. A benefit to finding designs in the Gallery at Bricklink is that it’s very simple from there to create Wanted Lists for the parts and order them. There’s a designer in the gallery named legorockets who is based in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and whose collection of designs includes my Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Gemini Titan and Falcon 9. This (or the Eiffleman version mentioned above) is a good one to start with; it and the Juno are probably the easiest and cheapest, and of the two the Mercury Redstone is arguably more iconic.

Mercury Atlas – I believe these are the instructions I used for this one. All all note here is the importance of paying attention to version numbers. legorockets has at least four versions of the Mercury Redstone, and they’re all still on the site. At least once I realized I’d ordered pieces using a different design version than the instructions I was using.

Gemini Titan – I think this is the version of the instructions I used for this one. Side note here: Remember at the beginning where I said all you need to create your own rocket garden is pieces and instructions, and you don’t actually need the instructions if you’re creative. Well, technically, you don’t actually need the pieces, either. There’s a branch of the hobby where, rather than building physical models, you just design them virtually, using LEGO Digital Designer or Studio. Designing virtually lets you figure out what you need before you start ordering parts, and creating a digital rocket garden has two advantages over a physical one – it’s a whole lot cheaper, and you can do things virtually you can’t do in real life. A model that would collapse under its own weight in real life works beautifully virtually. And, in the case of this Gemini Titan, you can use a piece that doesn’t exist in real life – a white barrel piece, shown at the base of the Gemini capsule. This same piece, or lack thereof, also shows up in my shuttle model at the base of the boosters. Some people will paint the pieces to the color they need; I find limiting yourself to the limits of LEGO is part of the charm of the hobby.

Saturn V – I built the official LEGO kit. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued now. You can still find them for sale on places like eBay, but be prepared to spend a lot more than the original cost. (It looks like some folks have reverse-engineered the set so you can order the parts and build it yourself; this may be one.)

Skylab Saturn V – I found the instructions here (design by Eiffleman, who did the Juno above) to modify the official LEGO Saturn V kit to the Skylab configuration. Unfortunately, that requires an official LEGO Saturn V kit, and, as noted above, it’s discontinued. If you don’t want to buy one second-hand, I noticed in working on this that legorockets has a Bricklink Gallery design for the full-up Skylab Saturn V, engines to shroud. It looks like you can probably source the parts cheaper than buying a secondhand Saturn V.

Saturn IB – I found the instructions here. As mentioned above, this was a mod using the pieces leftover from the Saturn V kit when I built the Skylab Saturn V, so it has the same issue with needing the discontinued set. If you want to build it from scratch, here are instructions from legorockets. I’ll throw in another side note here – Most of the bigger rockets have a lot of internal structure that you don’t see. Generally, when you get the part lists, they’ll have a color assigned to the pieces for that structure. If the pieces isn’t going to be visible, Bricklink will let you change the color to “(Not Applicable)” so that you can order the piece in the cheapest color, rather than paying extra to match a color that doesn’t matter. Many designers make this easy by picking an obviously weird color, like blue cylinders on a rocket that’s all black and white.

Space Shuttle – Since I originally posted this, KingsKnight has created an improved version; the instructions for which are on sale at Rebrickable for $15. You can probably still find the old instructions for free, but I endorse buying the new ones both because KingsKnight has put a lot of time into this design and its worth the money, and because I’m pretty sure the new design can save you more than $15 in parts versus the old one.)

I found the instructions here for this design by KingsKnight. I used a part list from Bricklink Gallery to create an easy Wanted List. You can also find the instructions on the Google Drive mentioned in the V2 section, but I figured this would be a good time to mention the Bricks In Space group on Facebook, which is a great resource for general information. There’s also an r/legorockets subreddit on Reddit.  Since I built built my Saturns using official kits, this was the biggest project for which I had to source all the pieces. I started buying parts several projects ahead, and broke it into chunks – I did the Orbiter first, and then got serious about the boosters and then got serious about the ET. As designed, it’s a phenomenally expensive build because of some rare dark orange parts for the external tank. Some people buy other colors and paint them; some go with a “close enough” orange. I went with white, the way the tank looked for the first two launches, which not only matches the way the tank looks on the cover of my shuttle history book, Bold They Rise, but saved me maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Bricklink’s Wanted List makes it easy to filter the parts for a particular color (i.e. dark orange) and then bulk change them to a different color (i.e. white)


Update: At the suggestion of KingsKnight, I made a slight mod to my orbiter, replacing the front end of the wings with the distinctive black appearance of Columbia, making it more true to the STS-1 or -2 white external tank. (It’s a pretty simple change, and much more simple if you make it was your building instead of after you’re finished.)
Update Update: I recently came across a post where someone gave instructions for modding KingsKnight’s build to the exact appearance of any orbiter for *any shuttle launch.*

Falcon 9 – Instructions found here. Another one by legorockets. Side note here: Relying on other people’s instructions and parts lists, and letting Bricklink’s automated system find sellers for you, it’s easy to sink money into things you don’t care about. Case in point: My rocket garden centers around the history of human spaceflight, so I wanted to build the Crew Dragon configuration of Falcon 9. This design includes that, so I went with it. When I was buying the parts, I noticed that one order had a small number of parts and a big price tag. Upon inspecting it, I found it was because one of the fairing configurations used a rare, expensive part. I have no interest in building a fairing for the rocket, so I removed the part from my order, and saved about $18. My Atlas V had flames for the Starliner that were like $4 each. I’m displaying it as a full-up stack, so you’d never see the flames. Gone. This was the first build where I really noticed that; if I’d paid more attention, I could have saved even more. There were other fairing parts I could have struck, and this design has legs that are interchangeable for either a launch pad or drone ship configuration; I only needed the former. (I recently had met the designer online behind this version that has folding legs, but no Dragon, if you’d prefer to go that way.)

Atlas V – Instructions are here. This is the only one so far that I’ve paid for instructions for; it was the only one I could find that was proper Saturn V scale and included Starliner. They were on Rebrickable, where people can sell designs. I paid just over two bucks for the instructions, and it was totally worth it. I’ll take free instructions where they’re offered, of course, but people put real time and effort into coming up with these, and I don’t begrudge them at all making some money off that. A bit of jargon – Bricklink has a Gallery; Rebrickable has “MOCs.” MOCs? My Own Creations, as opposed to official LEGO designs. (Back when I was a kid, making your own creations was what you did with LEGOs, before they started becoming more like model kits. That said, I’m not really building my own creations now, so I can’t say anything.) A MOC is just a custom design; it’s still a MOC even if it’s someone else’s creation that you’re just building. More jargon – you’ll occasionally see AFOL. If you do, it’s Adult Fan of LEGO. Now you know.

Ares I-X – Design files are on the Google Drive site here, and on Facebook Bricks in Space. The design for the Ares I is by Sebastian Schoen, aka Moppe Stone. While the Studio files were available, instructions weren’t included, so I contacted the creator through the Bricks in Space FB group. I modified it to Ares I-X since I attended that launch and work with some team members; the mod mainly involved replacing orange pieces with white like with the Shuttle; but it also meant I could simplify things a little at the bottom of the upper stage.

Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod – Instructions are here. LEGO Ideas designer tech_niek submitted a Soyuz design for consideration to become a real set (which wasn’t chosen), and as a bonus included versions for an entire fleet of Soviet vehicles using the same approach – the launchers for Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod, in addition to Soyuz. (The post also has instructions to mod them to the whitish appearance at launch caused by ice collecting on the rocket.) The upside is, it’s a great all-in-one approach to the highlights of Soviet launcher history, (Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the siren call of building N1 and Buran someday, designs for both of which exist.) The downside is, it’s a design optimized for being created as an official set, versus sourcing parts on your own, particularly if you’re doing the entire fleet. The Sputnik R-7 uses six of this part; the others use even more. Currently, no Bricklink seller in the US has more than five in stock, which means shipping is going to drive the price up; and the Soyuz uses an orange version that is even more rare. (The design also leaves a gap between the boosters and the core that is very visible at some angles, FWIW.)

Space Stations and Other Things

In addition to my 1:110-scale rocket garden, I’ve also built a couple of builds to accompany the official LEGO Space Station kit, which is roughly 1:220 scale, about half the Saturn V. I started with a 1:220 Skylab found in the Facebook Bricks in Space files; it was fascinating to see the two stations in scale with each other. The visiting vehicles that come with the Space Station kit are out of scale with the ISS, and people have designed replacements for those. The space shuttle, in particular, struck me as bad, so I used a design from those Files for a properly-scaled 1:220 Space Shuttle. It was one of the most interesting builds of the collection because it was the only one that didn’t have step-by-step instructions; I had exterior pictures and a list of parts and had to figure out how it went together from there. It took a while, but it was rewarding. (As an added bonus, it meant that I could create in LEGO the planned-but-never-flown Shuttle-Skylab rendezvous mission.)

I’ve done one true “MOC” – my own creation – the upper stage of NASA’s new SLS rocket deploying a CubeSat. It’s not as accurate to scale or as elegant, but I did it, and it was a good first step. If you’re interested in creating your own design to Saturn V or ISS (or any other scale), here’s a useful tool for converting real-world measurements to LEGO measurements.

I’ll update this as I add to the rocket garden (I’ve already started the next rocket). If you have any questions, leave a comment or find me on Twitter. Or, better yet, look up the Facebook or Reddit groups and join the conversation!

I hope this helps, and happy building!

Happy Birthday, Hubble!


Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope! I’m already being flooded with all sorts of great Hubble stories and imagery, and you can pretty easily find lots of cool stuff online.

So I want instead to share one of my favorite Hubble stories, which has almost nothing to do with those decades of incredible images and game-changing science. Today, of course, Hubble is considered one of NASA’s signature successes, but when it launched, it was seen as a devastating blunder – just months after returning to flight after Challenger, NASA had put up a $1.5B observatory (that was a lot of money back then) that had a misground mirror and couldn’t focus properly.

Plans began quickly on how astronauts could visit Hubble and repair it (and here I’m obligated to note that Goddard publisheda web feature yesterday that mentions how the foundation of that repair was Skylab – “With Skylab, in-space servicing was born.”) But shuttle missions take time to plan, prepare and execute, and it would be almost three and a half years before the first Hubble servicing mission could be flown.

Three and a half years in which NASA had a flagship space telescope – albeit a broken one – in orbit. Not wanting to let those years go to waste, a temporary stopgap fix was found. They couldn’t do anything on orbit to improve the images yet, but they could do something on the ground; image processing software was developed to compensate, as much as possible, for the mirror flaw, making the images in those early years more useful.

It turns out that if you develop software to improve images, sometimes you can improve multiple types of images with it. To quote a NASA web feature: “When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble’s initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment. The sooner the cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are that a patient will make a full recovery and preserve her quality of life.”

Speaking to the public, I sometimes get asked if this whole space thing we do is worthwhile. And this story is one of my handful of go-to answers to that. If NASA can save lives even when it screws up, much less by being successful, and can revolutionize our understanding of the universe in the process, then, yes, maybe this is a thing worth doing.

“Saving Skylab” Launches Tomorrow


TL;DR – You should watch Hubbell Power Systems’ Saving Skylab documentary, premiering tomorrow.

Long version: There’s a short story I like a lot in Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story about this guy named Cliff Bosch. Skylab has launched, and had its anomaly during ascent, and the micrometeoroid shield and one of the solar arrays are gone, and the other solar array is stuck and won’t deploy, and teams all over NASA are figuring out how to resolve the situation in time to launch the first crew. And some engineers at Marshall working the solar array issue get the idea that what might help is a “limb lopper” like lineman use to cut back tree limbs at a distance. So they call the AB Chance Company in Centralia, Missouri, and end up talking to Cliff Bosch. Long story short, Cliff ends up throwing a bunch of tools in a box and hoping a ride on the head of MacDonnell Douglas’s Aerocommander and coming down to Marshall. Before the end of the day, he’s having to call his wife who doesn’t know he’s gone, telling her he won’t be home that night, and hopping a flight to KSC.

It’s a tiny anecdote, but I love the story of this “ordinary guy” that woke up one morning and randomly helped save a space station.

Well, last year, I was contacted by someone from Hubbell Power Systems, which now owns AB Chance, which is still around, and still makes lineman’s tools. And this story has been part of their corporate mythology for almost half a century, but they didn’t have the NASA side of the story until they stumbled across my book. And now they wanted to make a documentary. So they did.

Selfishly, I love seeing that tiny story brought to life that way. They talked to Chuck Lewis, the Marshall guy that was the interface to Chance – and who it turns out still had the original receipts for the tools and one of the original tool prototypes, after it was given to him by a friend of his who’d taken it home after the Skylab rescue and been using it to cut deer antlers. But they also talked to people I didn’t on the Chance side, so it was neat getting the other side of the story. It’s beautifully shot and edited; they even made me look decent.

Point being, coronavirus has scuttled their original plans to debut it tomorrow at an IEEE power convention, but they’re sticking with the original date – National Lineman Day – with an online debut at 11 am CDT tomorrow. “Saving Skylab” is a free watch, and you can find out more and see the trailer at the website I linked to at the top. I’ve seen an advance screener; it’s about half an hour long and, in my admittedly very biased opinion, well worth it.

Tough And Competent: Remembering Those We Lost


Time is a funny thing.

Seventeen years passed between the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the loss of Columbia in 2003. During those 17 years, I went from my first year of middle school to finishing high school to graduating from college to have a career as a newspaper editor to taking a job on a contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

They were seventeen long years.

Seventeen years have now passed since the loss of Columbia. During those 17 years, I’ve gone from one contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to a different contract.

They were seventeen short years.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance.

The agency’s three greatest tragedies – the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in 1967, the loss of Challenger’s 51L crew in 1986, and the loss of Columbia’s STS-107 crew in 2013 – all mark their anniversary this week, on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, respectively.

Those tragedies occurred almost a generation apart. Nineteen years between Apollo 1 and 51L. Seventeen years between 51L and STS-107.

On average, eighteen years.

Next year will be eighteen years since Columbia.

The seventeen to nineteen year span starts this year and lasts until 2022.

From this year to 2022, we will see the first crewed flights of three new spacecraft.

There’s an expression you see a lot in media and discussions about spaceflight.

“Space is hard.”

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

Kennedy described it as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” I’d not argue.

Today, you hear “space is hard” as an explanation after something has gone wrong.

A rocket explodes, a capsule fails, a launch is aborted.

“Space is hard.”

After the Apollo 1 tragedy, Flight Director Gene Kranz told the Mission Control team that “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.”

In other words, space is hard.

But he didn’t stop there.

“From this day forward,” he instructed, “Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.”

Space is hard. We have to be harder.

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

In this industry, you have two choices.

You can either say space is hard every day before launch, as a reminder to be harder.

Or it will be said after launch.

As we prepare for a game-changing two years and the historic exploration to follow, may all undertaking this great adventure be tough and competent.

A Good Name Is Rather to Be Chosen…


Today is Owen Garriott’s birthday; the first after the loss earlier this year of the Skylab and shuttle astronaut, a brilliant scientist, a friend, and my son’s namesake.

In fact, we found out the day before Owen died. The fact I never got to tell him was the one bittersweet moment of the joyous news.

What I will tell my son about his name is this:

Owen Garriott was a great man, and he is named in part of the great man history will remember. Owen was brilliant and accomplished, possibly the most brilliant man I’ve ever known, and his work helped pave the way for everything in spaceflight that’s come since his first flight.

The name is a challenge. I don’t ask or expect my son to accomplish as much, but I challenge him to work to do his best, whatever that may be.
But more than the man history will remember, my son is named for the man I knew.

From the first time I contacted him, Owen was kind to me, and enthusiastic to share his stories and knowledge. I reached out to him hoping for an e-mail or a phone call I could use to write an article I was working on; he invited me to his home and spent time with me.

Months later, when I asked him whether he’d be interested in working on a book, I would have been beyond content if all that had come of it was getting to have lunch with a man who spent a couple of months in space.

Instead, he said yes, and changed my life.

Working on Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story was an incredible experience, and, more than that, it was an experience that continues to open amazing opportunities.

But he gave me so much more than that opportunity. He went out of his way to introduce me to people and to give me experiences that I will always carry with me.

More than any of that, he shared his knowledge, his experience, his insight, his wisdom. He asked hard questions, and made me think about the answers. I don’t know that, in my entire life, anyone’s complements have meant more than his, because, when they were given, they meant something.

I give my son his name as a gift, but also as a charge. To do his best to do good work. To observe, to analyze, to deduce. And, most of all, to use his gifts to give others the opportunity to use theirs.

The Owen Garriott history remembers was a great man. The Owen Garriott I knew was a good man. All I can ask of my son is to do his best to be one also.

Of Mutiny and Myths: A Skylab Story


(Updated on 30 December 2019 with info from @jasminchill on experiment record data.)

Hey, look! Pete’s wearing one eye patch! Maybe it’s a mutiny!

There’s a story – a myth – about Skylab, and people like it a lot.

The story – the myth – goes like this: Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard, and they went on strike. They mutinied.

It’s a great story. People like it. People want it to be true. It’s exciting. It’s a triumph over the people over The Man. It’s a victory for labor.

It’s not true.

Well, it’s half true. Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard.

The real second half of that story is this: “…so they had an adult conversation with Mission Control and changes were made.”

It’s not as good a story, I’ll admit. I can understand where people wouldn’t want it to be true.

But it is true.

Sorry.

All that’s easy to say. Either version is easy to say.

So let’s get into the “Citation Needed” part.

Over a year ago, prompted by Wired, of all outlets, I posted a thread on Twitter about this. Since then, I’ve reshared it on occasion as needed. It’s needed more than it should be. People on Twitter really like the mutiny myth. Again, I can understand why.

Traditionally, I would just let it go, categorizing the Skylab mutiny folks in a group with the moon hoax folks and the flat Earth folks that it’s better for your mental health to just let be. The problem is, there are now people who believe it – I mean, journalists and historians, for heaven’s sake – because they don’t know any better because it’s so ambient.

What prompted me to get engaged was a Wired UK article titled “The weird history and terrifying future of mutiny in deep space.” Sexy, no?

The article said this:

As often happens with sci-fi, when it came to space mutinies fiction was way ahead of reality. The first – and, as far as we know, last – instance of outer space crew rebellion would not happen until 1973. On December 28, the three-man crew of Skylab 4, the third manned mission to US space station Skylab – Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue – turned against their bosses at Nasa mission control, shutting off radio communications for several hours.

If you see articles saying the mutiny happened, my advice is simply to apply this litmus test: What sources do they use?

I tried that with the Wired UK article. It didn’t surprise me that they had no sources supporting their claim, since it didn’t happen. But I was a little disappointed that a magazine I respect would publish something this fringy with no supporting evidence.

In fact, there’s only one source cited as to whether it happened or not:

(Some experts, including spaceflight historian David Hitt, dispute that the interruption in communications was intended as a protest.)

Pro-tip as a former journalist: If a story quotes “experts” as saying something didn’t happen and no one saying it did, you should probably be suspicious.

If you’d like to read more about the “mutiny,” here are some sources that actually support their version with research:

As a free gift, I’ll provide the sources that the Wired UK article didn’t. There are two respectable sources that argue for a strike.

Without question, there were workload issues that had to be resolved, but the escalation of that seems to be the work of space author Henry SF Cooper, who published “A House in Space” in 1976. Cooper was a writer who worked to make spaceflight accessible and exciting to the public, and as a result things were sometimes … oversimplified. This is one.

Four years later after Cooper’s book, in 1980, the Harvard Business Review published “A Strike in Space” about Skylab as a case study.

And, again, the story has the advantage that a lot of its facts are true. There were issues with the crew being overloaded. There were tensions with mission control. There was a disruption in communication, just not the way they describe. (There was one communications pass where each astronaut thought another was on the radio, and none were.) It’s just that last bit of the strike story – the part about there actually being a strike – that isn’t true.

This is not a mystery. It’s not unknowable. If you’re not sure what to believe, the mission transcripts are online. Look through them yourself. You can start with the most common day, December 28, the day mentioned in the Wired article. Not only will you not find a strike, you’ll find the crew talking to Dr Lubos Kohuetek, the discoverer of the comet they’d observe on a spacewalk the next day.

But you don’t have to stop there. You can read the entire transcript in case they got the date wrong. When I first posted all this on Twitter, I said the first person to find the mutiny gets an astronaut-signed copy of Homesteading Space. It still remains unclaimed, and the offer remains open.

During a subsequent online discussion of this, Twitter user @jasminchill noted that, in addition to the mission transcripts, the experiment data logs also belie the mutiny myth. One of the most famous experiments performed during the supposed mutiny time frame were the Comet Kohuetek observations, which were conducted with instrument S054, the x-ray spectrograph. The observation logs show no day off on December 28 or 29.

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It does amuse me a little how the story is escalating. I saw a tweet lately claiming that the crew declared their mutiny before disabling their radio, and only restored it when they eventually needed to come home. I’d watch that movie, but, no, it didn’t happen.

While some of the Skylab mutiny versions are fun, as a whole it’s too annoying to replace the Skylab UFO conspiracy as my favorite crazy thing I’m cited as an expert on.

In conclusion:
Earth is round.
We landed on the moon.
No mutiny on Skylab.

Review: “Love Changes Everything” by Micah Berteau


 

How is God like a Nintendo game?

Relative that question, there are, I’d argue, two types of people:

Those who are intrigued and would like to know the answer, and those who roll their eyes.

Which of those camps you’re in will most likely determine what you would think of pastor Micah Berteau’s “Love Changes Everything.” If you’re in the eye-rolling camp, you may want to stay away. If you’re in the intrigued camp, this book may well be for you.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and in the case of “Love Changes Everything,” that includes the description on the back cover, which will tell you that this is a book about the Biblical book of Hosea. 

Hosea, the story of a prophet whom God instructs to marry a prostitute and then to literally purchase her back after she leaves him, is a challenging text. There are deep truths about God there, which at a surface reading can be both beautiful and troubling. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your camp, this is not a book about Hosea. (If you would like a book that is about Hosea, one of the best may be Francine River’s “Redeeming Love,” a novel set during the California Gold Rush which captures the beauty and import of the book of Hosea captivatingly.)

“Love Changes Everything” does mention Hosea as much as it mentions anything. A third of the way through, for example, you’ll have read a good four of five paragraphs about Hosea. But to say it’s a book about Hosea is a stretch.

What it is about, as one might gather from the title, is Love. Specifically, God’s love, and what it means to to be loved by God and to love God.

It uses Hosea as a way to talk about that topic, but it also uses Nintendo games and GPS and toddler cups and cabinet doors.

In fact, it uses those things more liberally than scripture. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Berteau’s claim that Martha and Lazarus’ sister Mary had been a prostitute strikes me as dubious, as does one of his major claims about the Hosea story.)

Berteau uses these copious everyday analogies to personalize and humanize scripture. This is a book not for someone looking for a deep exegesis of scripture, but for someone looking for a more relatable way to connect to it. Berteau uses his own life, and the culture around us to make his points accessible, to make the Father’s love as tangible as, well, a father’s love.

I’ll admit that I found it a mixed bag – his GPS analogy that we don’t always get direction while we’re still going the right way resonated with me, his Michael Jackson reference that Jesus is the “Smoothest Criminal” perhaps less so. (I suspect I’m probably a little older than the target audience, so your milage may vary.)

All in all, “Love Changes Everything” is an engaging and energetic introduction to God’s love for those seeking a new  approach a new understanding.

(Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Handlebar publishing. Also full disclosure: I’m in the eye-rolling camp on the whole Nintendo thing.)

An Unlikely Road from Ole Miss


In the staircase of the Student Union at the University of Mississippi, there were was a brief excerpt from a poem, the Heart of Ole Miss. And part of that excerpt was this – “The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure…”
 
Last month marked 23 years since that diploma was given and my tenure there terminated. Ole Miss did what it good for me and set me free. For those two decades and change, I’ve been proud to be an alumnus of the University of Mississippi.
 
So it was incredibly heartwarming and validating this year to have the Ole Miss Alumni Association look back on those years and say, hey, we’re proud of you, too.
 
 
When I was an undergrad at The University of Mississippi
, I never dreamed the direction my career would take me. My ambitions were that at this point in my life, I’d be a weekly newspaper publisher. To say that helping to put tiny spaceships on giant rockets sending people to the moon was not on the map would be understatement.
 
And yet, those years in the journalism school at Ole Miss were the foundation for everything since. Reporting and writing professors like Joe Atkins and Robin Street taught not just the basic knowledge of the craft of journalism; they taught something far more valuable – how to become knowledgeable. A journalist had to be able to go into any unfamiliar situation and quickly gain the ability to communicate competently about it. Like schools or courts or county government. Or rockets.
 
In my younger days, I dreamed of winning the Silver Em award, the highest recognition Ole Miss gives its alumni for their accomplishments in careers in journalism. My career has long since taken me in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Silver Em, and I joke that I, instead, want the award for least-likely career for an Ole Miss journalism grad.
 
And that’s kind of what this article is.
 
The funny thing was, when they contacted me, I actually had the most recent issue of the Review on my desk, because I was about to write and tell them they should publish a feature about Chris Cianciola, the deputy program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, which ain’t half bad for an Ole Miss engineering alum. (There’s a lot lot of Mississippi State alums on the SLS program and not a lot of us Ole Miss folks, and I love that all the State grads answer to a UM alum.) When they contacted me about an article, I immediately told them I was flattered, but they’d really rather write about Chris. They took down his name for a future article, but said they really wanted to write about my unlikely story.
 
And, I gotta say, they did a pretty decent job with it. Nobody’s ever written my story like this before, and I’m not displeased with the result.
 
“The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” – Frank Everett, UM BA’32, BL’34

Two Days With Two Chris Krafts


It took hundreds of thousands of people to send humans to the moon in the 1960s.

Of those, there are a handful without whom NASA as we know it doesn’t exist; giants that stand above the rest. The late Christopher Columbus Kraft, who passed away yesterday, is one of that small number.

Mission Control is such an intrinsic part of the character of human spaceflight that it’s easy to forget sometimes that it had to be invented, that it didn’t just spring naturally from the idea of astronauts and spaceships.

Inventing Mission Control was just Chris Kraft’s first act at NASA, in a career that shaped the Johnson Space Center and the agency itself.

A few years ago, Rick Houston, who wrote Wheels Stop, the companion to my shuttle book sent me a picture of a copy of Homesteading Space setting on a shelf, next to books by John Glenn and Gene Cernan. He said he took the picture somewhere interesting, but would have to wait to tell me where. A year later, he said I could share where it was – Chris Kraft’s house. It remains one of my favorite places I’ve seen the book end up.

I had two opportunities to talk with Chris Kraft.

The first was when I was working on Homesteading Space. I was heading out to Houston, and I had plans to have dinner after I arrived with Joe Kerwin, one of my coauthors on the book, and his wife. I showed up at Joe’s house, and he asked if it was all right that he invited the Krafts to join us.

In a word, yes. Dinner with one of the legends of NASA history? Yes, that was perfectly all right.

I ate rather agreeable steak that night with the Kerwins and the Krafts. It was a wonderful dinner. Kraft was friendly and interesting and amiable. There was a bit of space conversation, but there was more talk about things they were involved in today; nonprofits they worked with to make the world a better place. An utterly pleasant evening with a delightful man.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

The stories I’d heard of Kraft were not stories of a pleasant and delightful man.

This is the man who famously wrote of being the Flight Director in Mission Control, “While the mission is under way, I’m Flight. And Flight is God.”

The man I’d heard about was a force of nature, with opinions so strong they functioned as fact, with no tolerance for fools, who was adamant things be done the right way, and the right way was the way that ensured mission success.

Not, in other words, the man I had dinner with.

The next time I met Kraft was at his home. This visit was not a social call; it was business. I was working on my second book, the shuttle history Bold They Rise. I was in Houston talking to astronaut Bo Bobko, and Kraft invited us over to talk to him.

Kraft shared his recollections of the development and operations of the shuttle. He shared his opinions of the decisions made during shuttle’s inception, and his opinions of the decisions NASA was making as we talked. He lambasted every mistake that was made, past and present. He demonized the numerous sins of Marshall Space Flight Center, where I worked. He recounted the painstaking labor he expected from his teams to ensure the shuttle worked as it should.

There was nothing disappointing about this visit.

This was the man I’d heard about.

I’m glad I got both visits. I’m glad I got to see the man I’d heard about, but I’m also glad I met the one I hadn’t.

While the world is eulogizing the man I interviewed about shuttle, they were both Chris Kraft.