Fred Haise and the Waning Record


Fred Haise holds the record for distance from Earth.

He’s famous today because of the movie “Apollo 13” that embedded “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option” in the world’s conversation about space. Bill Paxton is probably more often recognized for being Fred Haise than Fred Haise is.

Less known is the fact that, because of that mission and its off-nominal trajectory, Haise, Jim Lovell and the late Jack Swigert went farther into space than any other human being had before or has since.

Fred Haise was at Marshall Space Flight Center today, to speak to the workforce.

It’s an amazing and surreal experience when visitors like this come; I’ve seen Mercury and Apollo astronauts speak in Morris Auditorium; I’ve seen Gene Kranz tell the story of Apollo 13 from the mission control perspective.

Their stories are stories that belong to the world; their history is world history. Anyone, anywhere could listen to them talk and be enthralled and engaged, could listen to them talk and have their stories resonate.

Their history is world history, but they were wearing that blue circle with the red vector and the white word NASA when it happened. Their stories belong to the world, but, at Marshall, their stories are our stories.

It’s awe-inspiring and surreal to hear those stories and be reminded of the unbroken connection between that history and the present and the future. The rocket Fred Haise rode was designed yards from where I work. The story didn’t end, it continues a torch that is passed from generation to generation.

Fred Haise has been farther into space than any human being ever has.

And that will continue to be true, for about five more years.

I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are heir to that history. I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are carrying it forward.

I work with people who, yards from where the Saturn V was designed, are designing a rocket that will build on its legacy, continuing humanity’s outward odyssey.

The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will break Fred and Jim and Jack’s record. The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will, truly, go where no one has gone before. And that new record, pushing back humanity’s frontier into the void, will not be the goal of this new endeavor. It will be the starting line.

As he left the moon for the final time, the late Gene Cernan said, “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”

It was a rare pleasure to hear Fred Haise talk about his experiences, but even more exciting as NASA prepares to turn one of the greatest chapters of its history into a prologue for the future.

Peggy Whitson, Chocolate Candies and Mars


Peggy Whitson in the ISS cupola on her 638th day in space.

Peggy Whitson returned to Earth Sunday.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Peggy. My first day at Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 years ago last month, Peggy Whitson was in space; the only American astronaut aboard the International Space Station when I began working at NASA.

That was on Expedition 5, the fifth crew of the space station. (This weekend marked the beginning of Expedition 53.) The space station was a whole lot younger then; long-duration spaceflight, at least for NASA, a whole lot newer.

After that mission, Peggy came to Marshall on a tour of the NASA centers to share her experiences with the workforce, along with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that had brought her home. The significance of long-duration missions was really driven home for me during that visit, in the most seemingly trivial of ways.

Among the shuttle crew was astronaut Paul Lockhart, who had the unusual distinction of having been part of both the crew that delivered Peggy to the space station and the crew that brought her home five months later. Normally, an astronaut wouldn’t fly two shuttle flights so close together, but the STS-113 crew ended up needing to call in a backup member, and Paul was tapped to fly.

He and Peggy were both rookies on STS-111, and he talked about how gawky they were in microgravity compared to the veteran astronauts. Peggy was allegedly close to utterly graceless as she floated in orbit for the first time.

When he went back to the station on his second flight, he was more experienced, and moving more easily through the spacecraft. When they got to the space station, Peggy was in another class altogether; not only more graceful than when they dropped her off, but more efficient than any of the astronauts, no matter how many times they’d flown.

This was driven home during the crew’s video of their mission, in a relatively minor way. The astronauts, as astronauts are wont to do, were eating some candy-coated chocolates of a totally non-brand-specific origin. I’d seen footage before of this, and it usually involved astronauts floating through a cloud of the candies, Pac-Manning them into their mouth as they floated, catching what they could. Peggy, however, did not. Peggy reached out into the cloud, and, with a fingertip, began pinging them into her mouth with impressive speed and complete accuracy. Orbital Pac-Man had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself five years later, and was provided with some candy-coated chocolates of my own. I decided I was going to Peggy Whitson them. I was wrong. I tried. I failed. Now, granted, I was bad at microgravity in general, but my first effort, from a foot or two away, missed completely. I tried moving it closer. From mere inches, I finally made it to my mouth, the candy bouncing off my teeth before floating away. It was hard. It was hard, and in less than five months in space, Peggy could do it perfectly.

Peggy returned to Earth this weekend with more total time in space than any American astronaut. 665 days, almost 22 months. The better part of two years in space.

Pinging candy-coated chocolates into your mouth in microgravity is hard. But there are tasks that will be required of the first astronauts to sail between the planets, to visit other worlds, that will be far harder. It’s exciting that we are now in a time when astronauts like Peggy Whitson are gaining the experience, and the knowledge, we will need to make those things happen.

Welcome back, Peggy, and thank you.

A “Farewell” To Improv


It was almost exactly eleven years ago that I started going to rehearsal for Face2Face Improv, and Friday, one troupe and over a decade later, I performed in Comic Science Improv‘s “Farewell Tour” show in Madison. (The tour has one more date Friday in Oxford, Miss.) I’m not entirely sure what that means; I have no future plans to do local improv, but it’s also kind of hard to imagine never doing it again. So we’ll see.
 
It was so much fun performing with everyone Friday night, including some who’d not played for quite a while. These folks have become like family, and for me it’s been as much about having fun with them as about the performance. That said, the performance ain’t half bad; I’ve enjoyed hosting shows because it means I get a front row seat to watch some incredibly talented folks be funny.
 
And improv is more than just the troupe, it’s very much a conversation with the audience. We’ve been lucky to have such great fans over the years, and we were so grateful for the big crowd that showed up Friday night to see us off.
 
Thanks so everyone who came, and we’ll see you around…
 
(And, of course, you can still see me doing Downtown Trolley Tours, Huntsville Ghost Walk, the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, and things like that. Don’t be a stranger.)

The Least Likely Interview


Earlier this week, I had what is almost certainly my most surreal interview ever.

In the last few years, I’ve been interviewed by the media talking about everything from space stations to comedy to local history to what causes wind (Answer: “magic.”)

During that time if you’d asked me to come up with a topic I was least likely to ever be asked to talk about, “health and fitness” would a good contender for the top of that list.

And, yet, there’s a picture of me and my friend Robert La Branche talking to WHNT’s Greg Screws about weight loss. Between the two of us (to be fair, mostly Robert), we’ve lost about 150 pounds in the last year and a half, so I guess it makes sense, but it’s still weird.

Greg does a weekly series on Mondays where he talks to local people about their successes and struggles with health and fitness, and Robert and I will be featured on Monday, around 4:45 p.m. (It will also be available online afterwards.)

For me, anecdotal evidence is the most motivating; I can read a thousand articles about weight-loss tips and get nothing out of them, or I can have one conversation with someone that’s done something that really works and really take it to heart. Robert’s weight loss both inspired and challenged me — when I saw his success, it really drove home that it was something that I both could and should do. So Robert and I were both glad to share our stories for that reason — we’re not experts, but we’re real people doing real things that real people can do, and hopefully that will resonate with someone.

We talked way longer than can go on the air, so I’m not sure which parts of my story will make the cut — whether you’ll get to hear my sage advise about losing weight via Taco Bell and intermittent exercise. But if it’s the story of thing that interests you, check it out.

On the Streets of DC


Any conversation with a man that walked on the moon is cool, but it was two random conversations on the walk home that were the highlight of the day.

The second day of the Humans To Mars summit was wonderful; it’s each year to step back to really appreciate how much progress is being made toward landing astronauts on the Red Planet. At the end of today’s summit, I got to have a brief conversation with Buzz Aldrin about Venus flyby missions of fiction and future.

I’d had zero chance to actually see any “DC stuff” on this trip except for glimpses of the Washington Monument from a balcony and down an alleyway, so I decided to walk back, from the Watergate on the river to far side of the senate office buildings.

As I snapped a selfie at the Capitol, a woman asked if I wanted her to take the picture. I was satisfied with what I had, so I offered to take one of her and her husband instead. We chatted for a bit. She was there on a work trip; she teaches at Clemson and had made the drive up that day. For both of them it was their first time in the city. It was one of those moments that just hit reset on what I was doing — for a moment, I got to share their perspective, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. “We’ve seen pictures of it, but now…” “You’re here. It’s right there.” A good reminder to never forget where you are, no matter where that is.

Walking a bit farther, I came across Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience bus parked on the side of the road by one of the Senate office buildings. No one was around, except the driver, so I spoke. “Do you travel with the bus?” “Yeah.” “So you were in Huntsville a few weeks ago?” “Yeah.” “And Houston a few weeks before that?” “Yeah.” I’d gone through the bus back in January at the Super Bowl Live event in downtown Houston, and again with Rebecca a month or so ago when it came to Huntsville for FIRST Robotics; he’d been there both times.

He and I chatted for a while also. He wasn’t affiliated with Orion and didn’t work for Lockheed, he was just staff for the exhibit bus. He’d spend weeks on the road with it; he was going home to South Carolina that night for a two or three week break before heading out again. He said he loved seeing the kids experience it; you can tell, he said, the ones that really get into it. He asked what they were saying at the summit, how things were going. “I’ve been traveling with this thing so long now, I really want to see this happen,” he said. I thanked him for his part in making that happen – his role in sharing with people what the future could look like is as important as any.

It’s weird watching D.C. in the news when you’re in the city. It’s easy to believe sometimes from the TV and Twitter and headlines that this place is tearing itself apart.

But you walk the streets of D.C. long enough, and you realize that maybe there’s hope for us yet.

We Stand With London


When Rebecca and I were planning our honeymoon, I photoshopped an image of her standing on Westminster Bridge in London to go on our wedding webpage.

On our first full day in London, two years ago last week, I took a picture of her standing in the very spot she was in that photoshop image.

We were discussing the other day a question about our favorite memories of our marriage, and I said mine very well may be that moment — we’d just gotten married, we were on our honeymoon, and we were on the other side of the world doing a thing we’d only dreamed of. It was surreal and inspiring. That moment redefined my sense of the possible.

That moment was dear to me. That spot is dear to me. London is dear to me.

It grieves me to see that city, that spot, come under attack.

But on my last trip to London, I made an odd sort of pilgrimage. I work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. A bust of Wernher von Braun stands within sight of my cubicle. Here, he’s the man who made the moon landings possible. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun, and I believed I owed it to myself to acknowledge that. I found and visited a block in London where people had died because of von Braun.

The Germans, with the V2s and the Blitzkrieg, believed they could terrify London into submission. They were grievously wrong.

During that time, King George VI said, “It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.”

It is a fool who believes he has the wherewithal to cause London to cower. Whatever it is a person might believe he is capable of, London has withstood worse.

I love London. I will return there.

We stand with London.

Summoning A Star


My favorite story to tell about our first date is how I summoned a star for Rebecca.

Hold that thought for a moment, though.

See those picture above? It’s Earth, from space. (Trust me, all this is going somewhere.)

Part of Rebecca’s job in education at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center involves the Sally Ride Earthkam project, a camera mounted aboard the International Space Station that provides students with pictures of Earth from space. Students pick the sites they want, and EarthKAM captures them when it flies over.

Those pictures are some from Rebecca’s work with the students. As luck would have it, they got taken on a cloudy day, but they are, nonetheless, pictures of Earth from orbit that she had a hand in.

So back to that date, and summoning the star.

My version goes like this:

We were already several hours into an awesomely epic first date that had thus far included a Sherlock Holmes movie and two bookstores, and we were walking through Big Spring Park. It was just dark, and there were no stars visible.

So I told her I would summon one for her. I pointed across the sky, and, sure enough, a star appeared in the direction I pointed, shining clearly and brightly, and then cut a path across the sky before disappearing.

I hoped she’d be kind of impressed.

The star, of course, was the International Space Station. I’d known that it would be passing overhead that night, timed things to be outside when it would appear, and then checked my phone really quickly to figure out exactly where it would be when.

While I like the magical romanticism of my version, her version was that she saw me doing something with my phone and then a little bit later the space station appeared, so clearly I must have called in some NASA connection to have the ISS fly overhead.

Frankly, I don’t know that having the ability to put in a request for the International Space Station to do things wouldn’t actually be more impressive than magically summoning stars out of the aether.

Flash forward five years. My magic is still limited to sometimes knowing when that bright star is going to pass overhead. And Rebecca actually does have the ability to put in requests for the International Space Station to do things.

And, yeah, I’m kind of impressed.