Godspeed, John Young


I was born about a week after the end of the Apollo era. John Young and Bob Crippen were the first US astronauts to fly in my lifetime, and by then I was old enough to be excited about it. To me, they were like real-life Captain Kirks. It was not until decades later that I realized he had walked also on the moon, but even then it impressed me less than flying that first space shuttle into the heavens.

I still have what may well be the first space writing I ever did, a science fiction story from over 35 years ago about John Young in the Year 1999. I’ve written more than a few words about him since, but he inspired me from the beginning.
 
He had a reputation for being … strong-willed. To the best of my recollection, I only saw him in person once, and my two memories of that occasion are him talking, as he did frequently, about how we needed to explore space because single-planet species don’t survive, and him cussing at my then-wife.
 
When I first began working on Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, a fellow astronaut contacted Young about talking to me for the book. He politely declined; he was working on his own book, Forever Young, at the time, and understandably wanted to save his stories for that.
 
Nonetheless, through the words of others, he looms large over the book; you couldn’t write a history of the early shuttle without the presence of John Young being strongly felt. One of my favorite stories in the book is from my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Owen Garriott; recounting Young landing the shuttle on their STS-9 mission, discovering that the auxiliary power unit was on fire, and calmly noting “I’ve never seen it do that before.”
 
It was amazing to me that he was still an active duty astronaut when I first began working as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, a very real connection between “my NASA” and the earliest days of the agency.
 
Young was one of a kind. He’s left this world six times before, but leaves it a little less colorful this time.
 
Godspeed, commander.
 
 
 

At The Beginning…


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Three years ago today, Rebecca and I were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It was, to put it lightly, an incredible experience. I’d returned to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and joined NASA’s Space Launch System two years earlier that week, but I’d been following Orion for far longer than that, so it was overwhelming finally seeing it fly.

Sunday marked five years that I’ve been part of the SLS program, and they’ve been the most incredible of my career. I’m incredibly blessed to be here – I was talking to a friend, recently, about how, when I was in early high school, this is basically where I’d dreamed of being, that I’d abandoned that dream before college, but had somehow halfway-accidentally ended up where I’d wanted to be in the beginning. The irony is, if I’d stuck with my initial dream, there’s a good chance I would have ended up somewhere else.

All that to say, I’ve watched the SLS team pour themselves into this work, and we’re now seeing it pay off in a very real and very big way as the rocket takes shape. It is phenomenal to see the things they’ve already built, and to watch those massive pieces come together. But the real payoff – I was about to say the real payoff will be finally seeing in launch in two years, but, while that will be incredible, it’s not really true. The real payoff will be seeing what is accomplished when this rocket starts flying, and seeing a generation inspired as humanity reaches farther than ever before.

“The University is Respected, But Ole Miss Is Loved”


This was in my Facebook feed this morning:

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I’ve had the opportunity to go some amazing places and see some awesome things supporting NASA’s Space Launch System, but getting to take my rocket back “home” to Ole Miss will always be a favorite.

For the first six years after college, when I was still working in newspapers, it looked like I was on track to eventually accomplish the career dreams I had when I was a print journalism major there.

In my mind, it’s a far, far greater testimony to how well my Ole Miss journalism prepared me to see now how far it’s carried me from anywhere I’d ever dreamed.
It’s been a little while since I’ve been published in a newspaper or magazine, but I’m still proud of my The University of Mississippi – Ole Miss j-school education, and grateful to folks like Samir A. Husni, Joe Atkins, Robin Street and Judy Crump for the foundation they gave me.

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.