Me and Rocket Engine 2059

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

…Speaking of Mars

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 1.29.39 PM
Waaaaay back in aught-two, when I was still new to Marshall Space Flight Center, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe came to the center to talk about the state and future of NASA. I was watching the the talk on center TV, and I turn it on to see O’Keefe on the stage at Marshall’s historic Morris Auditorium, with a banner behind him reading “Mars Space Flight.”
And, yeah, space nerd me was excited. This is really happening? The NASA administrator is here to announce something about sending people to Mars? OK, that’s kind of cool.
And then the camera zoomed out. And the banner did not read:
Space Flight
It read:
Space Flight Center
Oh. Well, that’s cool, too, you know. And, to be sure, we were doing exciting things, but for that one moment, I was really hyped that somebody was about to stand on the stage at Morris Auditorium talking about sending people to Mars.
Today, I stood on the stage at Morris Auditorium, talking about sending people to Mars.
I had a really neat opportunity to brief the latest class of Leadership Huntsville about the challenges we face on the Journey to Mars. It was an honor to talk to that group, it was an honor to stand on that historic stage, and it was an honor, due to a scheduling change, to have Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May as MY opening act.
But it was one of those moments that drove home what an incredibly exciting time this is. This is happening. We’re going to Mars. And we’re actively working on it now.

One Giant Among Many

Without a doubt, one of the coolest parts of my job is getting a front-row seat for history, and today was an incredible one in that respect. The test area at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is a cradle of exploration — tested here were the propulsion systems that carried the first American into space, the first humans on the moon, and everything from Hubble to the International Space Station.

And now, we’re about to add to that list the core stage that will eventually send humans to Mars. NASA’s Space Launch System has made its own addition to the Marshall test area with two new towers, one of which will test the rocket’s liquid oxygen tank and the other its hydrogen tank.

Pictures don’t do justice to the size of this tower. And as I approached it, I had to remind myself that this gargantuan construct was there not to test the rocket, or even the core stage of the rocket, but one tank of the core stage of the rocket. Seeing how big the stand for that tank is was an awe-inspiring reminder of just how incredible the finished machine will be.

Review: Ten Prayers That Changed the World

I was recently provided with an advance copy of “Ten Prayers that Changed the World”
by Jean-Pierre Isbouts to review for this blog. Because my wife absconded with the book immediately upon arrival, today’s entry is a guest post by Rebecca Hitt.


When was the last time you prayed a prayer so beautifully worded, so breathtakingly, artistically crafted that as a result of your prayer, the world would be forever changed? Take a moment to think about it. This can’t be just any prayer, now. No simple prayer for sunshine during vacation or for the gas in your car to last a few more days until pay day. Not even one that rendered a profound effect on your life. This has to be one that radically and dramatically changed the lives of countless others both in the world around you and in the world to come, for generations… people you would never meet, people seemingly unrelated to you save that one thing… that one change, that one difference that came about a result of that intimate moment between you and the divine. People would listen to or read the words of your prayer and find themselves inspired, humbled, touched, revolutionized. Changed.

Do you have that memory? Do you have the number of how many times you have prayed like that in your life?

I do.


True to its title, “Ten Prayers that Changed the World” by Jean-Pierre Isbouts explores ten prayers, stretching over time from Abraham to Mother Teresa, that somehow altered not only the world of the supplicant but the world for all time. Each chapter consists of a different prayer and most importantly, starts off with the story behind the prayer. Isbouts places the reader right there in the thick of the action. Historical background is seamlessly provided so that the reader understands what is going on and the exact nature of the situation without any feeling of obtrusion to the narrative. If you are a history lover like me, you will appreciate the blend of spirituality and history. (Although my one slight annoyance Isbouts’ historical summations was that I felt he very much glossed over the circumstances and events leading up to and during the Hundred Years’ War between the English and the French in the 14th and 15th centuries. Though I totally understand that he had to condense a very complex situation into a few paragraphs so that a broad audience could understand. And that Joan of Arc, and therefore the French, had to without a shadow of a doubt appear to be in the “right.” That just happens to be one of the time periods that I have researched a good bit about so it’s easy for me to be nitpicky.) I became engrossed each person’s story. I worried with them. I hoped with them. And when it came time for the person to articulate to God their pleas, their hopes, their needs, their thanksgivings—I was right there with them, saying “YES! AMEN! THAT’S PERFECT! GOOD JOB! THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED TO SAY!”

And their prayers are good. I mean, really good. Beautifully worded. Not a word too much or a word too little.

I can’t pray like that. A good many of my prayers don’t even have words.

For me, the book pushed me to examine my own prayers. When I was little, I thought that when I prayed, I had to use my absolute best grammar, with the most flowery language possible. Maybe with a few thee-s and thou-s thrown in there for good measure. Because isn’t that what God desires? Isn’t that what He deserves? And aren’t the well-worded prayers the ones that God answers? As if I could just craft a prayer good enough, maybe He would hear. Maybe He would answer. As I grew older, I realized that prayer wasn’t about me presenting God with a pretty turn of phrase. It’s not about me and what I can do. I could never plead my case good enough to get anything or change anything. That prayer is about a moment of connection with my God. When I cry out to Him without words, silently pleading with Him to work through me whatever it is that needs to be done because I don’t have the faintest clue, He hears me. When I beg Him to give me whatever it is in my life that He decides I need because I don’t even know what it is I should ask for, He answers me.

The ten people in this book didn’t set out to write a good prayer. Not even a half-decent one. They opened their hearts and their mouths to God and just spoke. Sincere, honest, heartfelt words. Their prayers are not profound because they are exceptional writers. They are profound because the authors, in a vulnerable and exposed time reflected in their words, remind us of ourselves.

So if you are looking for a few of the prayers and stories that altered the course of human history, this is the book to place at the top of your to-read list.


Ten Prayers That Changed the World coverAbout Ten Prayers That Changed the World

ï Hardcover: 272 pages
ï Publisher: National Geographic (March 1, 2016)

From time immemorial, prayer has provided comfort in our darkest hours, stirred us to action beyond what we thought possible, and shown us the way through seemingly insurmountable challenges. In this engaging tour of world history, author and historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts takes us on an inspiring tour of ten prayers that played a pivotal role in world eventsófrom the divine inspiration of Joan of Arc to Martin Lutherís powerful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”; from†Abraham’s poignant†plea to save his son; from George Washington’s prayerful words to the newly formed American states to the horrors of Auschwitz; from Constantine the Great’s prayer before battle to Gandhi’s deeply moving “prayer of peace.” Ten Prayers That Changed the World delves into the moments in history where faith and prayer intersected with the course of mankind.

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Purchase Links

National Geographic |†Amazon†| Barnes & Noble

Jean Pierre Isbouts APAbout†Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Jean-Pierre Isbouts is a bestselling author, historian, and award-winning director of documentary and feature films. A humanities scholar and professor at Fielding Graduate University of Santa Barbara, California, he has published widely on subjects in art, history and archaeology, and directed films for Disney, ABC, Hallmark, History Channel and other studios and networks. He has also produced a broad repertoire of classical music with ensembles in New York, Los Angeles and Amsterdam.

Find out more about Jean-Pierre at his website.

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.


Only These 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.

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.

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.

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

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.


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