Making History

I’ve made the occasional reference on this blog to Homesteading Space,my first book, co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.

I haven’t talked as much about Bold They Rise.

Back in the day, even long before Homesteading was published, I used to include in my online profiles that I was working on my second book, but I finally decided I should take it off until it was closer to being done. Plus, I got tired of people asking about it, and not having anything to report. I really don’t remember when I started working on it, but I know I went out to Houston over three years ago with astronaut Bo Bobko, who was briefly attached as co-author on the project. Since then it’s been through more than one turn-around and contract change.

The biggest change came around the beginning of the year, when my friend and NASA co-worker Heather R. Smith (using her byline here since it’s an official writer context) came on as co-author. Heather has proved invaluable, bringing not only her substantial talent and wealth of space knowledge to the project, but also the motivation and accountability to bring out better work from me as well. We spent a little while getting things organized and turned around, but now as we’re entering the deadline stretch, it’s really cool to see the project come together.

After a long period of working on it solo and answering questions about it with a grumbled, “yeah, I’d rather not talk about it,” I’m really excited about it. Both the process and the product. BTR is going to be a very different book than Homesteading, and the process of writing it is very different, as well. To be honest, for those reasons, it was much harder for me to get invested in this book the way I did my first one (which is probably another reason in itself). I really feared for a while this would be sort of a contractual-obligation project; a book I wrote because I had to. And I felt bad about that, because I love the shuttle. It’s the only American human spacecraft that’s flown during my lifetime, so it’s personal. And that love wasn’t carrying over into the project.

But, yeah, today, I’m having fun. I’m having fun writing. In a way, that’s silly. I write at work. I write in my journal. I write on this blog. And BTR is probably less free-form writing than any of them. But, nonetheless, it’s different. It feels so right. The cool thing is, it feels like writing a book, even more than Homesteading did. The first time around, I had no frame of reference; I’d never written a book before. This time, it’s familiar. It’s comfortable. And that’s nice. I do this because this is what I do. I’m a writer. In fact, I’m an author.

I’m also having fun working on this particular project. It’s a great story. The shuttle is, let me point out, amazing. The astronauts who flew it are also, for the record, amazing. And they have great stories. And it’s an honor to tell them.

This book, like Homesteading and perhaps even moreso, is going to be the human story of the program, and the shuttle story has never been told the way we’re telling it. It’s an awesome thing to be doing. So, yeah, I’m invested in it emotionally. Just a little bit, you know. Ever so slightly. (Those who know me can probably picture the big grin as I type that.)

And it’s fun collaborating. I realized this weekend that I’ve not done one single worthwhile thing on this Earth by myself. From Spare Time, the paper I started in college, to Hippie and the Black Guy with Lain and Jesse, and later Hatbag with Lain, to Face2Face to Homesteading and even to The Leonardo Code, all my best work has been done working with other people. Writing BTR with Heather is very different than working on Homesteading with Owen and Joe, and it’s neat having a very different collaborative experience. It’s fun. And, like I said, she not only brings a lot to the table herself, she really brings out the best in me, too.

So what’s the book about? On the surface level, the space shuttle program from inception through Challenger. It’s part of the Outward Odyssey series that also includes Homesteading, and will be followed by another book (written by someone else) that will pick up where this one leaves off and continue through the end of the program. On the literary level, it’s about ambition and accomplishment and hubris. But, ultimately, it’s about the experience. It’s about the human story of the shuttle. It’s about the people. It’s about what it was like.

I may try to include some teasers between now and publication next year, but I came across a couple of stories this weekend that sort of captured a little bit of the spirit of the book.

T.K. Mattingly, possibly best known as the Gary Sinise character in Apollo 13, helped design the cockpit of the shuttle, drawing on his experience as a test pilot before coming to NASA.

Early in the process, they realized that there was one particular area of prime real estate — the center console area. The commander sits in the left seat in the cockpit; the pilot in the right. Each has controls in front of him or her that they each can use. The center console, on the other hand, could be reached by either. Put a control or instrument there, and you have a sort of safeguard — if one astronaut can’t get to it, the other can.

Mattingly and his team realized the value of that, and that you didn’t want to waste it on just anything. Unless there’s a need for both commander and pilot to be able to use something, it should go only in front of the one who needs it. Meetings would be held where controls or instruments were suggested for inclusion and shot down as not really being worthy of the spot.

In the end, they were succesful — mostly: “Well, after working on this thing for years, there’s practically nothing that’s important on the center console. We kept relegating everything to somewhere else, and it’s now the place where you set your coffee when you’re in the [simulator].”

Mattingly’s first shuttle flight, STS-4, was scheduled to land on the Fourth of July. “It was no uncertain terms that we were going to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off. Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the Fourth. That meant, if you didn’t do any of your test mission, that’s okay, as long as you just land on the Fourth, because the president is going to be there. We thought that was kind of interesting.

“The administrator met us for lunch the day before flight, and as he walked out, he said, ‘Oh, by the way.’ He says, ‘You know, with the president going to be there and all, you might give a couple of minutes thought on something that’d be appropriate to say, like ‘A small step for man,’ or something like that,’ and he left.

“Hank and I looked at each other and he says, ‘He wants us to come up with this?’ And we had a good time. We never came up with something we could say, but we came up with a whole lot of humor that we didn’t dare say. But that was an interesting experience.”

They did come up with an idea in case the president wanted to come aboard the vehicle. “We built a little sign that says ‘Welcome to Columbia. Thirty minutes ago, this was in space.'”

Hank Hartsfield, the pilot, on the other hand, was inspired with great ideas for what Mattingly could say to the president after the commander, not readjusted from weightlessness, pushed out of his seat zero-g-style and hit his head so hard it started bleeding.

“Hank said, ‘Well, let’s see. If you do it like you did getting out of your chair, you’ll go down the stairs and you’re going to fall down … Why don’t you just look up at the president and say, ‘Mr. President, those are beautiful shoes.'”

Dynamic Duo

Thanks to a couple of high-traffic days recently, my blog traffic stats make Batman. This amuses me.

That is all. Carry on.