American Gods

I just finished reading American Gods as part of the One Book, One Twitter project that Heather told me about. I did a rather poor job of it, not staying at all on schedule and not following any of the online discussions, but I did, in fact, finish the book.

Since I don’t know whether anyone who reads this has read it, is reading it, will read it, etc., I won’t get into much about the book, but there were two passages that I wanted to share that should be sort of non-spoilery.

The first, the “‘I Believe’ Speech” is probably, looking online, the stand-out passage from the book — you can even buy it on a t-shirt. I don’t necessarily agree with it all, obviously, (I’ll let you guess which parts I do) but it is good reading.

“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen–I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones who look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass.

I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline of good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.

I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of The Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies too. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”

I managed to find the other passage online as well, but it’s far less commonly posted. It’s one of the characters talking about what it means to be a god.

“You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a moving horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief and become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystallize.”

The person who I copied the text from used it as part of a post about love and attraction. And, yeah, that’s a good application of it. In fact, it’s kind of where I was going with it, if via a different route. In the book, the character saying it is talking about being a god. But, to some extent, I don’t know that his reference to “the God thing” doesn’t work in a worship context as well. I talked with a friend of mine this week about the fact that I think the thing God values most about us is not what we do, but who we are.

I wonder if we shouldn’t seek that, to find our “concentrated, magnified essence” of who He made us to be.

Another Sunday — Southwood I

I wrote yesterday about resuming my church journey, which I did this past Sunday by visiting Southwood Presbyterian Church.

Southwood was a remainder from the first round of the journey; I always assumed I would go there, but never did before settling down at Sojourn. But now I have.

I went to their second service, which was their informal service, showing that all things are relative — their informal service was still more formal than anything we do at Sojourn. I’m planning on going back Sunday and experiencing the formal service, but, so help me, I am not wearing a tie. Really wish I could just wait until the weather is more conducive to a jacket. But, here am I, Lord, right?

The service was about “Reconciling Relationships,” and particularly about repairing things after you’ve been wronged by a brother. My Journey Group lesson four days earlier had been about Forgiveness, and touched on some of the same things. To be honest, neither lesson really challenged me. There’s no arrogance in me saying I don’t struggle with letting go of grievances, rather, I’m too far the opposite direction; it’s not hard for me to forgive, but it’s too easy for me to let myself be hurt.

That happened several times during my last journey, however — I would attend a church for the first time, and the sermon would be on a subject that’s familiar to me or that I’d studied recently, which allows me to focus more on the context than the content. On a typical Sunday, I’ll fill a page of my notebook with sermon notes. On a first or second visit to a church, there may be a few lines about the sermon, and much more about the church itself. That was definitely the case Sunday.

I’ll spare the technical stuff — stage set-up, etc. I will note that while I was there it was almost the first time I’d been in a pew all year. The last time I was in a church pew was back in December when I went to a Christmas event at Whitesburg. I say “almost,” because, technically, I sat in a pew last month at the Mother Church of Country Music — the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The fact that was the only time I’d sat in a pew this year seems somehow appropriate.

There was an interesting comment made early in the service — “Many of you are here because, whether you recognize it or not, someone prayed for you.” I wondered if that was true for me. Certainly, I doubt anyone prayed for me to be at Southwood specifically, but even so …

I also jotted down — “I do not ask to see the way my feet will have to tread” from one of the songs we sang. ‘Cause, you know, I totally do. Constantly. It’s hard for me to not.

The best part was taking communion, which, as I’ve written before, is a subject that’s of particular interest to me. I’d never observed communion in quite this way before, sort of a crossover between a Baptist and Catholic approach. It was open, so I was able to participate (and the guidelines and process were included in their awesome-looking bulletin, which I thought was great). Everyone went up front, and received a small cup and a morsel of bread from someone, who said “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given because He loves you so much. Do this in remembrance of Him.” I really liked the way it was done, for a lot of reasons.

OK, enough rambling. That was my Sunday.

Legends of Comedy!!!

SHARING THE STAGE Tuesday night — Steve Lambing! Fred Sayers! Eugene Banks!

OK, I’m kind of proud of this. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been organizing the Tuesday night Face2Face improv shows at Sam & Greg’s Pizzeria and Gelateria in downtown Huntsville. (Tickets for which are an unbelievably low $5!) Part of what that includes is putting together the cast list for each Tuesday’s show. It’s a really cool opportunity, which was driven home recently when Gene, our founder, director and boss, actually asked my permission to host last week’s show. Um, yeah, sure …

This coming Tuesday’s show, however, I’m particularly excited about. We’ve got a great troupe, and any cast of players is going to have a unique chemistry. Tuesday, however, I’ve brought together on stage Face2Face’s three senior members, who haven’t played together in, well, a long time. Gene has only recently returned to playing after being the usual host, so I’m not sure if we’ve had these three playing on stage at the same time in literally years.

Personally, the coolest part is that I’m going to be hosting the show, so I get to be the guy telling the three of them what to do. I fully intent to make the most of that privilege. Huge respect doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to put them through their paces. These guys can do anything, and I fully intend to prove that Tuesday.

If you haven’t been to one of our shows lately, or even if you have, this should be a night not to miss.

For those that haven’t seen Face2Face before, we’re a comedy improv troupe. We make up scenes on the spot, based on suggestions from the audience. (And for the more timid in the crowd, we don’t bring anyone on stage or force anyone to do anything; you’re more than welcome to just sit back and enjoy the show.) We do a family friendly show of live entertainment. If you’ve ever seen the old ABC show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” we’re kinda like that. Only better.

I can’t embed them here, but there are videos of some of my work with the troupe on Facebook that should be publicly visible. Ticket information for shows is here.

Teach The Children Well

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics over the next year. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This week’s topic is “Teachers.”

“I believe this passionately — we don’t grow into creativity; we grow out of it. Or, rather, we’re educated out of it.” — Ken Robinson

I came across that quote a while back, and liked enough to save it. Interesting thoughts there about the nature of creativity. I considered making it my sidebar quote after I heard it but didn’t because — moment of transparency here — I was dating a teacher and didn’t want to offend her.

But that gets into the dichotomy of my thoughts about the education system — the difference between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Do I believe that quote? Yeah, I kind of think I do. Do I believe it’s true of the woman I was seeing? No, I really don’t. Not remotely.

And, her aside, I know a lot of teachers. Almost all of my coworkers are former classroom teachers. Some of my best friends are teachers. Several members of my Bible study group are teachers. My mother has been a teacher. And on and on. So which of them do I look at, and say, oh, so-and-so is clearly responsible for educating the creativity out of children? Not a one of them. Every teacher I’m close to seems to be the sort of person who really encourages their students to aspire to be their best.

One of my coworkers did post that same quote on Facebook not long afterwards. I was a bit surprised. Doesn’t that apply a bit of culpability for the problem if you’re part of the system that creates it?

I actually came close to being a teacher myself. Toward the end of my college career, I went through a crisis of faith in newspapers, and started pursuing education. I didn’t completely quit journalism, but started doing the two together. I worked for a while as a substitute teacher, and took the classes necessary for me to be certified to teach in Mississippi. The substitute teaching, I enjoyed. The coursework, on the other hand, I completed with absolutely no desire to teach. I was taught educational psychology and tests and measurements and and behavior management. But at no point was I taught who to convey information I had to students who didn’t. At no point was I taught how to, you know, teach. And an education system that thought it was reasonable to produce teachers who had been taught many things that didn’t include how to actually teach was one that I had no interest in being a part of.

Now, to be fair, I associate with awesome people. I’m pretty confident there are teachers who are not like the teachers I know; I’m just blessed to associate with the cream of the crop. From my newspaper days, I remember some really great teachers. I also remember plenty of other teachers. Teachers for whom teaching was a job, not a passion. Teachers who were a product of the courses that taught me how to value the system over teaching. Teachers who taught to a class, not a group of individual students. The best teachers I know care about their students. Individually. They do what they do because they want to see each individual student in the class be the best he or she can.

I think my confusion came from assuming the dichotomy is false. How can the education system be taking creativity out of students if the individual teachers are doing a great job? But I think it’s a real dichotomy. I think the system does have flaws. But I think there are a lot of hardworking teachers out there doing great work. No matter what the system requires them to do or not do with standards and discipline and assessments and inclusion and curriculum and whatever else, it can’t prevent them from caring about students.

And the teachers who do, those are the ones we’re blessed to have in the classroom, and who deserve our gratitude and encouragement.

On The Road Again

I didn’t go to Sojourn Sunday for church.

There’s a post coming about where I did go, but first I needed to write this post to provide context for it.

I believe my journey has resumed. It’s time for me, I think, to start visiting churches again. Not because I’m not happy, and not because I’m looking for a new church. In fact, even saying I’m “visiting churches” again is not entirely accurate.

The journey started about two years ago, with the groundwork laid before that when I started attending a house-based church. We had no building, we didn’t even always meet at the same house. Or at the same time. Or every week Our pastor had no formal ordination, and we sought no official church status.

And that led to discussions. “I was at church Saturday night and … ” “That’s not church.” “Why not?” “Well, you don’t have a building.” “So the church is the building?” “You don’t have a preacher.” “Why do you have to have a preacher?”

I realized that I didn’t know the answers to a lot of those questions. Why do churches have a preacher? Is that a requirement? Where does that come from? What does make a church a church? What are the requirements? What does the Bible say about what a church is?

I did a lot of reading, both of scripture and other books; one of which I’ll recommend — Pagan Christianity? I did a lot of discussing it, and did a lot of praying and meditating on it.

I came out of that with a lot of changes about how I see the idea of church, which probably flavors some of what I write on here. My view of what a pastor is, for example, has been radically redefined in a way that has serious functional implications. We tend to treat “pastor” and “preacher” as synonyms, while, really, I don’t think they have anything at all to do with each other. A pastor doesn’t have to preach. A pastor doesn’t have to be the top guy in a church. In fact, those misconceptions really hurt the church a lot, because it means that most Christians don’t really have a pastor, at least not that they recognize. “Pastor” isn’t a career, it’s a relationship. It’s a shepherd. It’s someone who can leave the 99 to find the one. The guy who knows members of his congregation only as faces in the crowd when he’s preaching can’t really be a pastor to them. If you don’t have a personal relationship with your pastor, you don’t have a pastor. OK, rant over.

But one of the earliest things that came out of that research was the idea of where I go to church. If I were talking to Jesus or Paul, and they asked where I went to church, what would I say? Well, I go to Whitesburg. But that means nothing to them. No church names in the Bible, that’s not a language they would speak. Well, I’m a Baptist. Again, blank stares. (I mean, obviously, Jesus, being God, would get it, but you know what I mean.) No denominations in the Bible, despite what the Catholics or Church of Christ would have you believe. Well, um, then … I’m part of … the church at Huntsville. Ah, OK!! That means something. Like the church at Jerusalem. Or the church of Corinth. Or …

The lightbulb goes off. I come home and promptly change my religious affiliation on Facebook from “Christian – Baptist” to “Christian – Huntsville,” becoming the only member of that particular religion. And that’s still how I list myself there. But what does that mean? Well, when Paul wrote his epistles, he wasn’t writing to one particular congregation, he was writing them to the church in the city, the collection of congregations there. My “church” isn’t Whitesburg, it’s the body of believers in Huntsville. Whitesburg could be my congregation, but it’s not my church.

But again, what does that mean? What do I know about my church? Basically, nothing. At that point, I’d regularly attended three churches in Huntsville, all Southern Baptist. I don’t know that, in my entire life, I’d ever attended a non-Baptist church for two weeks in a row. My familiarity with the body of believers was very limited. So I needed to rectify that.

I was ready to start doing that, but God wasn’t ready for me to. There were things I needed to learn at Whitesburg first. He had me stay there another 10 weeks to teach me some things, some very personal and some simply using Whitesburg as the first step in the journey, helping me not to see it as a church, but as a congregation within my church, one that served a particular purpose for particular people. I’m glad He did. It opened my eyes in a way that was key to the journey; helping me to see not through my particular biases but through the beautiful variety in the body that provides diverse homes for diverse people. I went into new churches not with the self-focused approach of “Is this place right” but with the view of, “What does this place offer people.”

I spent about a year doing that, in various forms. I left Whitesburg and visited, in a dramatic leap, a Southern Baptist church that wasn’t Whitesburg. I went on to spend time being Catholic, Methodist, Church of Christ, non-denominational, etc. And learned something everywhere I went. And tended to find myself where I needed to be when I needed to be there.

During the journey, I had no idea how it would end, or even if it would. And I never had any intention for Sojourn to become my new congregation, but, a year after I left Whitesburg, I realized that, apparently it was. And I like Sojourn, a lot.

But now, I feel like I’m supposed to begin journeying again. I have no idea what that means, how long that lasts, what I’m supposed to be looking for. I’ve known it was coming, and I knew where I was supposed to go last week. And I know what I’m supposed to do this coming Sunday, and that’s it.

This doesn’t reflect any discontent with Sojourn; I’m still very happy there. I will continue to be very involved there. In fact, this is very different than the first time, which required me leaving Whitesburg as my church. Sojourn has never been my church; it’s been one congregation in my church I’ve been involved with. And that doesn’t change at all.

And so, I begin my journey again. I have no idea that destination, but I’m looking forward to what He’ll do as I’m journeying. And I suspect that in this and so many other things, that’s the way He likes it.


This post is one of a series I’m writing as part of my participation as an official blogger for COUNTRY Financial/Cotton States’ Road Trips and Guitar Picks tour program, covering Jewel’s June 13 concert in Huntsville, where I had backstage access.

The rest of my pre-concert Jewel blogging can be read here.

Contrary to the promise of opening act Radney Foster, Jewel did not, in fact, rock.

I wasn’t really expecting her to, despite the potential for rocking raised by the last time I saw her at Lilith Fair 13 years ago. Given that this concert was billed as an intimate, acoustic evening with Jewel, I wasn’t really expecting rocking.

Nor was I expecting how incredibly the evening showcased Jewel both as a singer and a songwriter.

The evening started off on a rather cool note. Having been selected as official blogger for COUNTRY Financial/Cotton States’ Road Trips and Guitar Picks tour program, a good friend and I had the opportunity to go backstage before the show, have our picture made with Jewel and be part of an exclusive session. The picture making part, to be honest, didn’t set the bar very high. Jewel was in a curtained-off booth, so you couldn’t see her until it was your turn to have your picture made. Everyone went in in groups of four, no more, no less, stood next to Jewel, who didn’t move, had the picture made, no autographs, no conversation, and then filed back out. Jewel did make eye contact, smile and speak briefly on our way out, but that was it.

Once that obligatory part was done, however, the Jewel who came into the backstage room with us a few minutes later was friendly and personable. During a question and answer session, she joked with long-time fans and gave great responses to others.

I hadn’t planned on asking anything, but couldn’t resist the opportunity. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship that artists have with their material. Once you have a hit song, you’re expected to play it forever. In Jewel’s case, she wrote “Who Will Save Your Soul” twenty years ago. There are things I wrote two years ago that I no longer identify with in the same way, and, frankly, some I’m just embarrassed by. I can’t imagine having to put my heart into things I wrote as a teenager. I asked her she related to songs differently as she was at different places in life.

Jewel didn’t answer the question the way I was thinking, in terms of continuing to sing old songs. Instead, she took it in a different direction, explaining that anytime she releases an album, she goes back through her collection of unreleased songs to see if there is anything she feels differently about or has new ideas on. She said that it’s funny to see things that she has written that she herself understands in a different way than she did when she wrote them. I talked about how I’ve experienced that with Paul Simon songs over the years, identifying more with the emotion in songs as I experience more in life. It was neat hearing Jewel talk about having that same experience with her own material, and, as a writer, I can completely understand how that could happen.

After the Q&A session, Jewel performed an unreleased song for us that I really hope she someday puts on an album. For the record, even in those close quarters and laid-back setting, she has an amazing voice. The chorus went “there’s a hole in my heart in the shape of you,” which I’m including in this blog entry mainly so that I can occasionally check and see if the song has been released yet.

Jewel in concert. Photo courtesy Kristy Hill.

And then, it was time for the actual concert. The opening act, as I mentioned, was Radney Foster. I immediately bought one of his songs, “A Little Revival,” from his new album off of iTunes, as well as Keith Urban’s cover of Foster’s song, “I’m In.” Good stuff.

Jewel’s set was fantastic. The stripped-down, acoustic setting really showed off the power of her voice, and she interspersed between the songs bits of her life story, which put the songs in context. Fascinating stuff for anyone, I would imagine, but for me, it was a really cool peek behind the curtain at her process as a songwriter.

Jewel has always had fun showing off a bit; certainly that was evident in her encore performance in which she came back on stage to yodel for an enthralled audience — “Want me to do it faster?” But the crowd really got into it when she showed off a bit as a songwriter by singing her “Huntsville Song,” a song she had written before the concert about Huntsville. I’m sure she has to have a template that she uses and fills in local details, but, even so, wow! Great stuff!

(ADDENDUM: OK, I’m embarrassed. Jewel herself read my post, and let me know on Twitter that every song is written completely from scratch. Take my amazement at the song, and multiply it by a couple of orders of magnitude. WOW!!!! She’s got a busy tour schedule, so creating songs for each city as she tours is mind-blowing. As is, for the record, the fact that Jewel just read my blog. How cool is that!?)

At the concert, you could pay to be able to download a recording of the night’s concert, and the Huntsville Song by itself was a great reason to do so. (I had been planning on buying the recording anyway; I’m too modest to let myself brag too much, so I have to be passive-aggressive about my bragging. I figured I could get the recording and play songs from it in the future when people would hear it, and then be able to say, as if it were completely random, “Oh, hey, you hear that song playing? That’s actually from this time I got to …”)

Of course, the Huntsville Song was both one of the high points and low points of the concert for me. Sure, it was great, but I had a bet with my friend Heather, who also went to the concert, as to whether she would play her version of Sweet Home Alabama, which she recorded for the soundtrack of the movie by the same name. The smart money seemed to be that she would, so I agreed to a bet that the loser would bake cobbler and bring it to work for the winner, a culinary feat neither of us had attempted before. When I heard the Huntsville Song, I figured the odds she would do both it and Sweet Home were pretty low, and I was right. So, I’m going to have to figure out how to fix cobbler. Given my skills in the kitchen, I imagine it will be a rather pyrrhic victory for Heather.

Given Jewel’s recent foray into country music, I was a little surprised that the entire concert was performed without a hint of twang; I never would have guessed that she’s had a genre change since I’d last seen her. The set list was a great mix of new songs, unfamiliar songs and old favorites.

All in all, it was a great evening — an awesome concert, a unique opportunity and an incredible experience!

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.'”