Space Camp, I Demand A Recount!


Another fun find from my recent cleaning:
 
So I never went to Space Camp.
 
I never went to Space Camp, but not for lack of trying to get a scholarship. Every year I could, I wrote an essay for the competition to try to win a free stay at Space Camp, and every year … well, I didn’t.
 
Nowadays, it rather amuses me — I couldn’t write about space well enough to impress Space Camp, but I write about space well enough that NASA pays me to do so, which shows you who has the higher standards.
 
So it was neat to find in my cleaning a copy of my submission from 7th grade. Here’s what 11-year-old David had to say about the future of space.
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I shared it with Rebecca, who has actually reviewed scholarship applications for Space Camp as part of her job, and she said it was fine, but not exceptional. (She did give me bonus points for my teacher recommendation, which was very kind.)
 
Which, to be sure, is one theory.
 
But in looking at it, I think the *real* issue is obvious. This was written 30 years ago, while the fleet was still grounded after Challenger. It talks about space telescopes, three years before the launch of Hubble. It talks about tourism on the space station, 23 years before any astronauts were on ISS. It talks about asteroid resource prospecting, which is still on the to-do list. Clearly, I was just too forward thinking. It’s taken 30 years for space to catch up with my essay.
 
I demand a recount, and am happy to clear my schedule for my visit to Space Camp.

Me And John Grisham


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One of my favorite brush-with-fame stories over the years has been the time I got invited to John Grisham’s private screening of his first movie, The Firm.

The story goes like this: I was in school during the summer semester at Ole Miss, way back in ’93. Grisham, who has a house in Oxford, was a favorite son, and was riding high after the release of his fourth book, The Client. So the release of an actual movie based on an actual bestseller by a local guy was a Big Deal locally of the type we’d not seen since the Faulkner days (which, lets face it, most of us couldn’t remember anyways).

In fact, it was so exciting that I’d gone to the matinee show during the day on the Wednesday it came out at the theater in the local mall. I went back to the newspaper office afterwards, to discover I had an invitation waiting for me: Would I like to come that night to watch the movie at Grisham’s private screening at the other local theater, The Hoka?

Um, yes.

(I wrote a lot of stories about The Hoka and movies playing there, and the owner figured it would be good publicity to have us cover the event. I was certainly willing to do so.)

And so there I am, at the theater, with John Grisham and various local notables, watching The Firm. Which, to be sure, was kind of cool.

But you know what would be cooler?

So this was during a period when Grisham didn’t do interviews. Like I said, he was at a pretty high point with four huge bestsellers behind him and now a movie, and he decided that interviews just weren’t worth the trouble.

To the best of my knowledge, he only did two interviews during a half-year period.

One, for Parade Magazine, was with himself. He agreed to the article, but got to ask and answer his own questions.

The other —

I approached John that night, and told him I knew he didn’t do interviews, but told him who I was and that I was with the Ole Miss paper, and asked him, if he’d be willing to answer just one question.

He said he’d never met a reporter that could ask just one question, so if I could do it, he would answer it.

So I did.

I can’t tell the story without being asked what the question was, and really, the story demands a question that lives up to that situation. My question wasn’t that epic, but it worked. “When you watch the movie, can you detach from the process of writing the book and enjoy it like any other movie, or are the two too tied together?” Again, not brilliant, but I figured it would require him to talk a bit about the book and the movie and the writing process, etc., so I could cover a lot of ground with one question.

And that’s how I became the only person in the summer of 1993 to interview John Grisham.

The End.

Except …

I hadn’t seen the story in probably 20 years. If I still have a copy, it buried in a box buried in a closet with countless other newspapers. The story of what happened and the story that came from it, for me, both existed only in my head.

Until Lain came across it randomly recently and sent me a picture of the story, which ran exactly 23 years ago today.

It’s interesting to note that the story ran a week after the screening, which I don’t understand, unless it was around the school holiday schedule. (Which might also explain why I didn’t try to submit what seems like a decent exclusive to the AP.)

But every time I’ve told the story, I’ve never been able to share what he said. Here, then, is the printed answer to The One Question.

The Time We Were In A French Classic Car Rally


Laon, France. We visited Laon about a week into the trip, on our first full day in France; Tim thought (correctly) that Rebecca would enjoy seeing the 900-year-old cathedral there. I’d be tempted to combine Laon with some of the later French excursions, save that it was the site of one of our favorite stories of the trip.

The cathedral was built on the top of a mountain (a Huntsville-“mountain”-size mountain, at least), visible from miles away, and was surrounded there by the old city of Laon. Today, Laon is much larger, and the modern city has grown down the mountain and into the valley. As we’re passing through the new town toward the old town, we notice that it’s filling up with classic cars. We, however, are there for loftier things than a car show, so we continue on our way.

We visited Laon on a Sunday morning, so there was actually a church service taking place in the cathedral when we arrived. We joined some visitors who snuck quietly into the back, the beauty of the architecture complemented by the music of the voices raised in worship. When the service ended, we explored more fully a beautiful building that was in many ways a smaller version of Westminster or Notre Dame but still used primarily as a community church.

When we sat down to lunch in an Italian restaurant in the old town, the people next to us overheard us speaking English and spoke to us. English themselves, they were there for the car show, and assumed from the Alvis’ accents that we were as well. “What kind of car do you have?” Tim’s response that he was driving a Peugeot 308 was met with polite disdain, and their interest in us was extinguished. Quite all right, really.

We explore a bit more, including an old Knights Templar church, before finally being ready to leave. Tim heads down the road that should be the way out, down a hill on a one-way-street and under a bridge only to find barricades at the end of the short tunnel.

The car show, it turns out, has turned into a car rally, and the streets are blocked off to let it pass. Tim goes to ask the police officer how long we’ll have to wait, and is told four hours. At this point, more cars have pulled in behind us.

So Tim talks to the other drivers, and we succeed in all backing up the hill until we can finally turn around, and we begin looking for another way out. We finally came to another barricade, and Tim asked this officer how exactly we were supposed to get out of town.

The officer moved the barricade and let us through. Into the parade. Classic cars in front of us, classic cars in front of us, crowds gathered around, and us in our Peugeot 308. Which, to be sure, was a fine car that served us well on our travels, but isn’t exactly classic, per se.

The streets were lined with people watching the rally — cheering for the cars as they passed, taking pictures. Until we went past, and the cheering stopped and the cameras went down.

Tim and I were in the front seat; Rebecca and Mags were the in the back, and decided that they should make the most of the situation, so they began waving back to the crowd with proper waves that would have made the queen envious.

And, sure enough, the people began cheering again, and one or two pictures were even taken of the novelty of the 308 in the classic car rally.

We finally reached a point where we could make our escape, and got out of Laon as quickly as we could.

Laon was a beautiful city. The cathedral was amazing. The pizza was not bad at all. The templar church was a nice bit of history. It was a special experience, early in our time in France, being immersed in the architecture and language.

But we’ll always remember Laon for that time we were part of a French classic car rally.

Book Review: “Lessons From the East” by Bob Roberts Jr


I was recently offered an advance copy of “Lessons from the East: Finding the Future of Western Christianity in the Global Church” by Bob Roberts Jr to review for this blog. Since she enjoyed the last review she did and wanted this one as well, today’s entry is a guest post by Rebecca Hitt.

You know, I like to think I know things. Well, I feel like I know a few things at least and am reasonably confident that I know how some things should work. I know Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 by heart (or used to…). I know how to scramble an egg (with bacon grease, of course, being a good, civilized Southern lady). I know how to play Pachelbel’s Canon on piano. I know how to beat a large foam ball until it looks exactly like a heavily cratered moon. And like a lot of American Christians, I’m fairly certain I know church. And “how to” church, so to speak. You bow your head when you pray, you sit in your designated pew at your local church, you put some money in the collection plate when it passes by, you sing a few hymns slightly off-key (but not too loudly, let’s not get carried away now). Maybe you invite someone from work to come to Sunday School with you or you pitch in for some community service. It’s a well-oiled machine of a system and you know it well. And a good many American Christians are comfortable with the routine. It’s not too hard. It doesn’t really require much out of you except on Sundays and maybe Wednesday night. But what if… what if that view of proper churching was incomplete? Or even spiritually inadequate? Bob Roberts book, “Lessons from the East” sets out to shake up the Western view of the church’s purpose and how the church functions.

The book is written as a challenge and a call to arms for American ministers, pastors, and church leaders. Basically, it says, if you think you know how to successfully grow or plant a church, you probably are wrong. Roberts uses examples of his extensive world travels and visits with world religious and secular leaders to convince the reader to rethink concepts that may have seemed a given, like what a successful church looks like. Well, clearly it’s one with an extremely large worship sanctuary and thousands of people attending any one of the multiple services, with just the right amount of projectors and screens, a nice sound system, and reasonably talented praise band. Everyone reads just the right books and speaks just the right words. Even better if the church is supporting multiple missions in a handful of countries. And if your church doesn’t look like that despite your best recruiting and fundraising effort, despite having followed THE tried and true formula for structuring church… sorry, Pastor… guess it’s just not in the cards for you to be one of the “good” preachers. Or maybe it’s the Enemy who is keeping the masses from busting down the doors to hear your sermon. Or maybe if you had had a hipper youth program, families would have flocked to join. But certainly not your methods, right?

Roberts proposes that you are looking at it all wrong. According to him, mistake number one that you made is that you failed to actually serve your community. Not communities in Africa or Asia or Central America but the one you are living in. You failed to meet the needs of people around you. Before you build a church, address the needs of the locals. In other parts of the world, that might look like provide access to clean water or creating gardens to produce food. Here it might look like providing childcare to single working parents. Serving others shows you truly care and wins their trust and respect. Roberts stresses respect as a vital tool in creating a successful church. Respect for customs and religions of other cultures and strong sense of kindness has gained Roberts access to areas in the Middle East and Asia that are usually more difficult for Christian missionaries to visit.

Second mistake you made was wanting to build a mega church when instead you should be forming cell churches focused on discipleship. He explains cell churches are similar to the small group movements in a lot of American churches but not nearly as categorized. Instead of youth groups and women’s groups and singles’ groups, they need to be diverse with people of various ages, social statuses, and interests so they can help each other grow spiritually.

And lastly, you had a picture of what YOU thought good proper church should look like. You never asked God what it needed to look like. Maybe He needs it to look like a couple of families gathered together in someone’s home. Maybe it looks like a group of coworkers that gather in breakroom during lunch.

I’m not a church leader. I’m not a preacher. I don’t even teach a Sunday School class. So what did I get out of the book? A question that kept popping up in my mind was “What do you want to be when you are a grown Christian?” I want to be kind. I want to be compassionate, to others and serve with a glad heart at every chance. I want to live my life in such a way that to mention I believe in God is redundant. To love others in such a way as to remind them of the much greater and infinite love that God has for them. I don’t want to be good at churching; I want to be good at following Christ. I never want to get so lost in the ritual that I forget the reason. I want to break down my expectations and allow His will to work through me.

I don’t want to know church; I want to know God.

Home Away From Home


So of course I would travel 4,000 miles from home, and go look for Twickenham and rockets. I’ve already written about going to “the other” Oxford and about seeing SLS in the London Underground, but one of the cool (and accidentally convenient) pilgrimages of the trip for me was getting our picture made with a Twickenham sign.

Early on and very briefly, Huntsville was named Twickenham — the “father of Huntsville” Leroy Pope’s namedropping nod to his famous poet cousin, Alexander Pope, one of the original Twickenham’s more famous sons. Since this was happening around the time of the War of 1812, pro-British sentiment wasn’t at an all-time high, and pro-Leroy-Pope sentiment wasn’t that great either, and the city was named for founder John Hunt instead.

The name has stuck around, however, and it still used fondly in talking about old/downtown Huntsville. As a fan of Huntsville history, I thought it would be neat to visit our city’s quasi-namesake. For logistic reasons, that visit was a selfie out the window at the train stop, but it was still a neat experience. (In doing some quick research, it looks like Huntsville is the only other place to have used the name.)

We also made a trip to the British science museum, which has a room dedicated to space. It was neat seeing an Apollo command module and some Saturn engines so far from home, but it was more interesting seeing the early-space-history stuff. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun and his V2 missiles than Huntsville did (one thing I wanted to do but failed to make happen on either of my London trips was to [knowingly] visit a V2 bombing site), and it was interesting seeing the difference in presentation. Honestly, what surprised me most wasn’t the more realistic depiction of the V2 as a war machine, but the graciousness with which von Braun was treated. They were far kinder about his place in history than one might have expected.

And, really, Iooking at the pictures, I think we’ve held up pretty well in the exchange — we’ve taken Oxford and Twickenham from them, and in return we’ve given them space ships. Not too shabby.

A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Silver Snoopy


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