Almost a Review of First Man


When the movie Gravity came out a few years ago, interesting conversations were had about what sort of movie it was. It was about spaceships doing spaceship things, which would generally make it science fiction, but all the spaceships were real, and science fiction uses involves made up things.* I looked forward to seeing that trend grow – the idea that space was just another place that a movie could be set.

Exhibit A: First Man.

As apparently must be mentioned in any discussion of First Man, this movie is not The Right Stuff or Apollo 13.

Those were space movies. This is a movie set partially in space.

Specifically, it’s a family drama – an intimate and personal portrait of a family; a family in which the dad has a rather unusual day job. A day job which involves the movie being set partially in space. Because everyone works somewhere, and sometimes that work involves travel.

I came out of watching First Man the first time, and immediately starting discussing it with the person I watched it with. My immediate reaction – I’m still processing. Honestly, that was still largely true a week later when I saw it again.

I’d had this sense that First Man wasn’t going to be what a lot of people thought it was going to be, but it wasn’t anything I thought it would be, either.

The story of the Armstrongs unfolds in a way that is deeply personal and unflinching; the story it tells and the way it is told mesh deftly – every intricacy of how the movie is shot tells its story.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the subject – Having had the opportunity to meet and talk with Apollo astronauts, to get to know them as people, I made the decision that I wanted Neil Armstrong to stay larger than life for me, more legend than human. The Neil Armstrong in this movie is very human; but while it’s largely exhaustive in its pursuit of accuracy, there are a few moments of speculation that shift it back into the status of legend, growing and changing in each retelling.

The result of my processing is this – I really like the movie for what it is; a well-made biopic of a fascinating man, and the vanguard of the era of movies that just happen to be set in space.

And for space just happening to the setting, the space part is done as well as, if not better than, any movie before it. The space scenes here aren’t sexy or glamorous; they’re realistic in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before, and all the more powerful for it. I strongly suspect this movie captures what it was like to actually ride in these vehicles in a way that’s never been done before.

I almost hate to acknowledge it, but even just this week I’ve had people bring up the flag-planting controversy, and I’ve seen speculation it hurt the box office. Yes, it’s true that you see the flag on the moon without seeing the frankly anticlimactic moment its planted, but that’s missing the point. The sad irony is that unfair criticism are keeping people from watching what is almost certainly one of this year’s movies that most celebrates America.

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 now less than a year away, First Man makes a half-century old story fresh enough to inspire in a new era of exploration.

*Of course, the orbital mechanics in Gravity were science that was fiction, but I’m actually on the side of the filmmakers on that one.

Free Advice for Writers, Worth Exactly That


I posted on Facebook yesterday that it was the 10th anniversary of my first book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, with a picture from the day I got my first copies.
And I looked at that picture of a thinner, darker-haired version of me proudly holding his first copy of his first book, and I thought:
“I’m glad that kid wrote a book and put my name on it. ‘Cause I sure couldn’t do that.”
For people who say they want to write a book, or even just write more, it’s easy to think there will be a better time.
My life is different because the guy in that picture knew better.
I wrote an actual post once of My Bad Advice On Book Publishing, but I’ll add two bits of worthless free advice for writers:
1) The only way to do it is to do it.
2) There will never be a better time than now.

Happy Birthday NASA!


NASA turns 60 today.
 
My great-aunt worked at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’m not entirely sure when she started or exactly when she left, but I know she was there during the Gemini program and I know she was there after Return to Flight after the Challenger disaster.
 
When I was little, she gave me things she’d collected over the years – stickers and lithographs and patches and coins. To young me, it was an incredible treasure.
 
When I started working at Marshall, I began adding to the collection, supplementing the relics of her tenure with those of mine. And, occasionally, the odd bits here and there from the interregnum between us.
 
Her collection is the more impressive – over a quarter century, covering the early days of NASA through the moon landings to Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz and the golden age of the first shuttle flights and the triumphant return after Challenger. It’s tempting to be jealous of the milestones of her time.
 
Even so, my shorter collection is surreal to me.
 
NASA was still a teenager when I was born. That era, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Skylab to Apollo-Soyuz, is history to me.
 
It’s a little odd to realize that the work I’ve been part of that history. It’s odd to think that I’ve been involved in NASA for almost a quarter of its existence.
 
In just a few years, I will have been involved in NASA for as long as it had been around when I was born. Around the time I reach that milestone, we’ll watch humans return to lunar orbit.
 
Should my tenure be as long as hers, I too will watch astronauts walk on the moon.
 
I’m honored to be part of this story. I believe the work NASA does is a good thing. I believe there is value in striving harder, aiming higher, reaching further. I believe the work this agency does reflects the best of who we are as a species.
 

It’s been an amazing 60 years. But the best is yet to come.

One Day In September


I never saw the twin towers.
 
On the day they fell, I was working in Indianola, Mississippi as News Editor of The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper. I’d been to upstate New York, but had never been to the city.
 
My managing editor woke me up that morning with a phone call. (In those days, we worked well into the night and often started late in the morning.) The call made no sense to my groggy mind. Something about two separate planes hitting the World Trade Center. I heard something about unrelated incidents. I was picturing Cessnas or something. Certainly a bizarre coincidence, but I didn’t understand why he was calling me.
 
He told me to come to the office. I did. I understood then. We watched the towers fall.
 
The Enterprise-Tocsin is a weekly newspaper in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. To this day, it’s a great example of community journalism. The content is entirely local; there are no wire stories in The E-T.
 
I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do. Generally speaking, The E-T focused its attention fully within the borders of Sunflower County, Mississippi, and ignored anything beyond the county lines.
 
This was far far beyond our county lines.
 
This was not a thing we could ignore.
 
We would use no wire stories, but we would cover the events of that day. We began working on a local reaction story, capturing how these events had affected our community.
 
But, very quickly, we learned that it was a local story.
 
By the end of the day, I was on the phone with a young man from Indianola who had been there that morning. He was freshly out of college, at his first day on his new job at Morgan Stanley.
 
Hours before I talked to him, he had been making his way down stairs. Not long after, his new workplace collapsed into rubble.
 
I learned something that day about what “local’ means. Regardless of what city you’re in, what county you’re in, there are times local is far bigger than that.
 
There are days the entire country is local.
 
There are days the entire planet is local.
 
The anniversary this year is slightly different for me.
 
I never saw the twin towers, but I have stood where they stood.
 
Rebecca and I went to New York City two months ago; the first time for me.
 
We visited the pools that fill the two iconic squares that mark the boundaries of where the towers once stood. We visited the memorial; heard, saw and experienced the story of what happened there that day.
 
It was real for me in a way I’d never understood before.
 
But, this, too, was real:
 
We stayed in a hotel a short distance from the site.
 
Our window was filled by One World Trade Center.
 
We took the elevator to the top. We looked out over the city.
 
It’s a beautiful building.
 
I never saw the twin towers.
 
I’ve seen the World Trade Center.
 
My experience of that day 17 years ago was defined by connection. By the realization that the world is much smaller than I realized. That distant events are much closer than I knew. No man is an island, nor is any county in Mississippi.
 
My experience this year is informed by what I saw in July.
 
Devastation is not defeat. So long as we endure, hope endures. So long as hope endures, there is resilience.
 
We fall.
 
We rise.

My wife’s brain has not had any activity in about five years. Which is awesome.


My wife’s brain has not had any activity in about five years. Which is awesome.

I’ll admit that, when we started dating, I didn’t really know what Multiple Sclerosis meant. I barely knew what it was, but had no clue why it was “Multiple Sclerosis.” For those like me, “sclerosis” is an abnormal hardening of tissue, basically scar tissue. Multiple, obviously, just means more than one. Traditionally, if you have one bit of abnormally hard tissue in your nervous system, that’s bad, but that’s all it is. You get a second one – boom, that’s MS. (Today, they’re quicker to consider the possibility of MS even at the first sighting.)

The sclerosis are referred to as lesions, and the formation of new lesions is referred to as activity. So MS is about the only situation where it’s good to say there’s no activity in someone’s brain.

Rebecca had an MRI Monday, and the results came back – no new activity since the last MRI, and none for almost five years.

I share this because a friend contacted me earlier today to ask about her experience; his doctor suspects he may have MS. I share this to say there is hope. I share this because not that many years ago, five years without activity would have been a miracle. I share this to say that the war against MS is being fought, and it is being won. I share to say, keep fighting.

One of My Favorite Quotes From This Whole Space Business Thing


A couple of days ago I came across one of my favorite quotes from this whole space business thing. In my head, someday I’m going to write a self-help book based about applying spaceflight principles to personal life, and if that ever happens (spoiler alert: it’s not) this quote will be in there.

Seven years ago yesterday I was in Titusville, Florida, for the last launch of the space shuttle. There was, obviously, a lot of anticipation for the launch, and a lot of attention being paid to the fact that the weather was not looking like it was going to comply.

During a press briefing a couple of days out, Mike Moses, chair of the Mission Management Team, was asked if NASA would still proceed with preparations for the scheduled launch, given that, at the time of the briefing, there was only a 30 percent chance of acceptable weather. (And double that two days later.)

Moses responded, and I love this: “I know of only one way to make it a 100% no-go forecast, and that is not to put propellant into the tank.”

They did, in fact, put propellant in the tank. The weather, did, in fact, cooperate.

And Atlantis did, in fact, launch.

You can never guarantee success. But you can always guarantee failure.

“I’m Going to Paint the Moon for You” Godspeed, Alan Bean


“And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me

I’m going to paint the moon for you”

Captain Alan Bean passed away today. He was a Navy test pilot, an astronaut who served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 12 and as commander of Skylab II, and a painter unlike any other.

He was a great man, and a man who was greater for not appreciating how great he was. I don’t know that I’ve met any who have accomplished more, nor any more driven to better themselves.

History will remember him as the fourth man on the moon, or, more commonly, will remember forgetting him as the fourth man on the moon. The band Hefner many years ago released a song title “Alan Bean,” which while generally a beautiful tribute, contains the line “Everyone will forget soon/ the fourth man on the moon.” In a Twitter war between Wendy’s and Hardee’s a couple of years ago, Wendy’s claimed nobody cared if you were first to do something – “Tell us the fourth person to walk on the moon without googling it.”

Remember Alan Bean.

Twelve human beings have walked on the moon. Someday there will be more; a someday that is both soon and not soon enough. I am proud to be part of a team working to put them there. 

Alan Bean is the embodiment of why I believe that is important.

Right now there are two rovers driving on Mars, among other robots surveilling the planet. They are our vanguard on the Red Planet; they are our proxy scientists, our proxy explorers. They do the things we need to be doing on Mars, and they do it well.

Soon, much sooner than there are humans, there will be new robots on the surface of the moon. They, too, will conduct science and exploration on our behalf on the rocky regolith of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Some believe they should suffice. Some believe that we should spare the cost and risk of sending humans to other worlds in light of the able accomplishments of our mechanical surrogates.

They are, with all respect, wrong. Part of the reason is that as capable as these robots are, a human being is more capable still, and, more importantly, better able to improvise, to respond in real-time to his or her surroundings.

For me, however, that argument is wrong because of Alan Bean.

I had the opportunity to meet Alan Bean. I saw him in person multiple times, but the moments that will stay with me always are the ones I spent with Alan and my Homesteading Space co-author Owen Garriott at Bean’s Houston home.

Alan Bean was an amazing man, and it was incredible to sit with him and hear him tell stories. We were there to talk Skylab, and his Skylab stories were captivating. And even though it’s not what we were there to discuss, the moon was mentioned more than once. 

It was an unforgettable experience to be there with him and Owen, two men who had shared decades before an experience unlike any other, to see them not as heroes in the spotlight, but as two friends who had known each other far longer than I’d been alive. I hope to have friends like that when I’m that age.

We sat in his kitchen, adjoining his studio, surrounded by in-progress paintings. His skill with a paintbrush was impressive in its own merit, but almost shocking in the context of who it was painting – it seemed somehow unlikely – and certainly unfair –  for a man of unparalleled left-brain accomplishment to  be a right-brain virtuoso as well.

Owen asked when he was finally going to paint Skylab. We tried to get him to time a Skylab painting for the release of the book. Every time we asked, it was always just over the horizon. It’s a painting I would have loved to have seen, and one we now never will.

Being a fan of history, his studio area for one reason made me debate whether I was annoyed. There, hanging from his walls, were presentations of patches he had flown to and worn on the moon. Or, more accurately, of portions of patches, gradually stripped apart thread by thread til only half-artifacts remained.

Bean went out of his way to help us. He shared his stories, he reviewed what we’d written to make sure it was accurate. In one of the conversations, he mentioned that he’d kept a diary while on Skylab, something not even Owen had known before. “Would you like to use it in your book?” … Yes. Yes, we would. As if any other answer to that were possible.

It was a fun challenge transcribing the diary; when I first saw it, I didn’t immediately recognize it was English writing. Bean seems to have a very distinctive autograph, but, the reality is, he doesn’t sign his name, he just writes it normally. It’s his normal writing that’s distinctive, to the point of appearing almost heiroglyphic to the untrained observer.

I’m proud we were able to do that; to share such an important historic document, to make it available to the public, to preserve it for future generations.

To make sure no one will forget soon the fourth man on the moon.

One of my most prized possessions is an early draft of Homesteading Space with Bean’s handwritten edits in it. A man who walked on the moon took the time to read something I’d helped write, and in his own hand marked it up to make it better. My answer to the icebreaker “if you’re house were on fire, what item would you save” is easy.

I’ll never meet the Curiosity rover. I’ll never eat cookies in Opportunity’s kitchen. I’ll never hear InSight’s stories of being on another world.

But, even if I could, they couldn’t tell me what it was like. They provide us with endless valuable data, but they can’t shared what it is to experience it, what it means to be the only ones on a distant orb.

Alan Bean did.

I was blessed to have that that personal experience, to have met the man, talked with him, spent time with him, eaten spaghetti with him, to get some slightest vicarious sense of what it was like, how it felt.

Twelve men walked on the moon. Eight have already left this Earth again. Four – Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Jack Schmitt – remain. The dark day will come when none are left. The youngest of them were born in 1935. If it takes another decade to return to the moon, they would be 92. It’s possible this planet will never again be without moonwalkers. It’s possible it will. If so, when there is no one left who can tell what it was like to be there, the best we will have are those who heard and carry their stories; a somber burden.

Not everyone will get to meet a moonwalker. Not everyone will have that experience. Alan Bean knew that, and that knowledge drove so much of his life after his return to Earth.

He realized that he had in combination two things no other human being combined – the experience of what it was to walk on the moon, and the ability to capture it visually. And so he did.

For the rest of his life, he painted. He painted the moon, but in a way that was less driven by photographic truth than by emotional truth; he wanted to paint not what the moon looked like, but what the moon felt like.

To make that connection more visceral, he put something of the moon in his paintings. He took his moon boots and pressed them into the fresh paint, giving it texture. Those half-stripped-apart patches I mentioned? Taken apart thread by thread so that he could place those strands, with whatever slight particles of moon dust they contained, in his original paintings, embedding the actual moon in his paintings of it.

““And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me”

He brought the moon home, and he spent his life sharing it.

Someday men and women will walk on the moon again. It’s not impossible it will be people I know before they leave, and it’s a goal to talk to them when they get back. But when they do, they’ll tour the world, and they’ll tell their stories. They’ll share their experiences.

And Alan Bean is why I believe that’s vital.

Godspeed, Commander.