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