Two Days With Two Chris Krafts


It took hundreds of thousands of people to send humans to the moon in the 1960s.

Of those, there are a handful without whom NASA as we know it doesn’t exist; giants that stand above the rest. The late Christopher Columbus Kraft, who passed away yesterday, is one of that small number.

Mission Control is such an intrinsic part of the character of human spaceflight that it’s easy to forget sometimes that it had to be invented, that it didn’t just spring naturally from the idea of astronauts and spaceships.

Inventing Mission Control was just Chris Kraft’s first act at NASA, in a career that shaped the Johnson Space Center and the agency itself.

A few years ago, Rick Houston, who wrote Wheels Stop, the companion to my shuttle book sent me a picture of a copy of Homesteading Space setting on a shelf, next to books by John Glenn and Gene Cernan. He said he took the picture somewhere interesting, but would have to wait to tell me where. A year later, he said I could share where it was – Chris Kraft’s house. It remains one of my favorite places I’ve seen the book end up.

I had two opportunities to talk with Chris Kraft.

The first was when I was working on Homesteading Space. I was heading out to Houston, and I had plans to have dinner after I arrived with Joe Kerwin, one of my coauthors on the book, and his wife. I showed up at Joe’s house, and he asked if it was all right that he invited the Krafts to join us.

In a word, yes. Dinner with one of the legends of NASA history? Yes, that was perfectly all right.

I ate rather agreeable steak that night with the Kerwins and the Krafts. It was a wonderful dinner. Kraft was friendly and interesting and amiable. There was a bit of space conversation, but there was more talk about things they were involved in today; nonprofits they worked with to make the world a better place. An utterly pleasant evening with a delightful man.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

The stories I’d heard of Kraft were not stories of a pleasant and delightful man.

This is the man who famously wrote of being the Flight Director in Mission Control, “While the mission is under way, I’m Flight. And Flight is God.”

The man I’d heard about was a force of nature, with opinions so strong they functioned as fact, with no tolerance for fools, who was adamant things be done the right way, and the right way was the way that ensured mission success.

Not, in other words, the man I had dinner with.

The next time I met Kraft was at his home. This visit was not a social call; it was business. I was working on my second book, the shuttle history Bold They Rise. I was in Houston talking to astronaut Bo Bobko, and Kraft invited us over to talk to him.

Kraft shared his recollections of the development and operations of the shuttle. He shared his opinions of the decisions made during shuttle’s inception, and his opinions of the decisions NASA was making as we talked. He lambasted every mistake that was made, past and present. He demonized the numerous sins of Marshall Space Flight Center, where I worked. He recounted the painstaking labor he expected from his teams to ensure the shuttle worked as it should.

There was nothing disappointing about this visit.

This was the man I’d heard about.

I’m glad I got both visits. I’m glad I got to see the man I’d heard about, but I’m also glad I met the one I hadn’t.

While the world is eulogizing the man I interviewed about shuttle, they were both Chris Kraft.

Indianola, Mississippi, and the Moon


One of the biggest things I learned at The Enterprise-Tocsin in Indianola, Mississippi is that the world is a small place.

Our job was to cover Sunflower County, Mississippi. That’s it. Not Ukraine or New York or DC or Greenwood, Mississippi. Just our one county – the longest in Mississippi and the birthplace of B.B. King – and it’s 30,000 inhabitants.

And yet, someone, in the process of covering our little postage stamp of native soil, as Faulkner put it, we covered the world. The exchange student from Ukraine. The local native who fled the World Trade Center after the planes hit.

Indianola was a relatively small city of 12,000 people, and yet somehow those 12,000 people were connected to the entire world. For a young kid fresh out of Ole Miss, it was a powerful lesson to learn.

This week, because the world is a small place, I’m on the front page of The Enterprise-Tocsin.

I was back in Indianola a couple of months ago, and, of course, visited The E-T, and talked with Bryan Davis, the Editor currently very ably stewarding the community’s newspaper, and the topic of space may have come up.

It turns out that expats of this tiny Mississippi community had connections to putting people on the moon 50 years ago, and, now, to putting people on the moon again.

The front page of The E-T this week has stories about Indianolans who were involved in Apollo, about Sunflower County native Stephen Clanton, who’s at Marshall today, and about a former news editor who went on to do space stuff.

Stories like this aren’t unique to Indianola. You can find people anywhere connected to anything.

Because this blue and white orb we all live on really is a small place.

Not a bad lesson to learn, whether you’re in Indianola, Mississippi, or looking back at it from the moon.

Farewell, Owen Garriott, and Thank You


There’s a story I tell when sharing about Owen Garriott, a story he and his wife Eve told the first time Rebecca had dinner with them.

Owen, a few years back, was at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for the Fourth of July fireworks, given, as a VIP, a special spot atop a small mound, surrounded by Rocket Center staff.

The ground was wet, and he lost his footing and slipped down the incline. The staff members watched aghast, afraid they’d injured – or worse – an elderly astronaut.

Owen, however, simply identified the optimal way of tumbling downhill, executed said optimal tumble, and escaped unscathed.

If you only know one thing about Owen Garriott, that’s not a bad one to know.

Owen Garriott passed away yesterday.

History will record the spaceflight hero Owen Garriott. Thanks to Owen, I’m blessed to have been able to help write that history.

That history tells about how he flew into space twice, one as science-pilot of the second crew of the Skylab space station in 1973 and once as the lead mission specialist for the first Spacelab mission on the STS-9 space shuttle mission, ten years later.

That history is the story of the man who tumbled down the hill – a man who was insanely brilliant and unwaveringly practical and who managed to stay equally calm tumbling down a hill as he did flying on a spacecraft with a leaking engine or landing on one that was on fire.

That history is indelible.

But while it’s smaller and nigh unnoticed and matters little to anyone else, I need to add a postscript – a testament not to the spaceflight hero Owen Garriott, but to my hero Owen Garriott.

It was unlikely that I would know Owen. An Apollo-era astronaut who lived for two months in space before I was born, a man who was sitting on console while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin napped on the moon almost 50 years ago.

A man who, when contacted by a young writer for a NASA education website who wanted to ask him a few questions about Skylab, not only took the time to talk to him, but invited him to his home.

That story, that one sentence, tells as much about Owen Garriott as the story about the hill.

In the ensuing years, Owen took every opportunity to make my world that much bigger – introducing me to an astronaut friend passing through town, taking me to visit in the home of a moonwalker, giving me the experience of weightlessness on a Zero-G flight, sending my signature sailing twixt the stars.

Owen, and our Homesteading Space co-author Joe Kerwin, gave me passage through Olympus – sitting in a room full of people in which only you and another have not been to space makes one feel agreeably small. I would say it makes you realize how big the world is, but, more aptly, it makes you realize how much the size of our world is irrelevant.

Three men have shaped my life more than any others, and Owen Garriott is one. Without his friendship and mentorship, I would not have had the opportunities I have had. There was no reason for him to play that role in my life, but he could, so he did.

At times, Owen could evoke a Vulcan out of Star Trek – keenly intelligent and pragmatically logical – but he was patient and kind and had a sense of fun that could catch you off guard. He would be fascinatedly curious about other people’s opinions on things, intrigued by how they saw the world. I valued praise from him as much as from anyone I’ve known; when it came, you knew it was earned and meant.

Owen once told me the greatest attribute an astronaut one of the Skylab scientist astronauts could have – and perhaps this is true for any astronaut – was to be a generalist.

This was coming from a man who early in his career had already earned respect as a specialist; he’d literally written the book of ionospheric physics. And yet he saw as more valuable than being great at something the ability to be good at anything.

It was a trait he not only espoused but embodied – in the years I knew him, Owen traveled the world looking for extremophile life that survived where nothing should so that its DNA could be studied and he supported his son in becoming the first second-generation American spacefarer and he invested in biofuels and he booked a flight timed to watch a total solar eclipse from the sky and he helped shape humanity’s return to deep space. He was avidly curious, and constantly used that curiosity to better the world.

History will remember the things astronaut Owen Garriott did decades ago. It may well forget the extremophiles and the eclipses and the biofuels; “postscripts” that would have been enough to fill an ordinary life.

There’s no reason for history to remember a great man tumbling down a hill or inviting a young writer over to talk.

But I will.

Working the Plan


I’ve never not been awed by the massive hardware we’re building for NASA’s Space Launch System, but we’re reaching a point where seeing it is more emotional than ever.
 
The test article of the SLS core stage liquid hydrogen tank recently installed in a test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center is, objectively and inarguably, incredible to stand at the base of. It towers over you, and is made all the more wondrous by the realization that it’s only a “small” piece of a much larger rocket.
 
But seeing it in person was made so much more powerful because its the fulfillment of so much that has gone into that day. I remember when they cleared that area, knowing they would build a test stand there. I remember when they began building the stand, knowing it would change the landscape of Huntsville. I remember signing the final beam installed at the top, knowing that this tank would eventually arrive for testing there.
 
And now it has.
 
This step, too, is an intermediate one. Structural testing paves the way for test firing of the stage. And test firing of the stage paves the way for launch. And that launch paves the way for astronauts orbiting the moon on the next.
 
I was here when Program Management planned the work. It’s incredible to now be here as we work the plan.

Scene from a Cemetery Stroll


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Rebecca just shared this with me, and it’s now my favorite pic of me from the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll. (For some reason, the first I’ve seen of me talking where I’m not making a horrible face. If you have any others, I’d love to see them!)

It’s always an honor to portray Turner Mayes at the Cemetery Stroll, and to share his story, and, by extension, the story of all of those from this area who fought – and in some cases died – in the Great War.

This year was particularly poignant, however, because the Tuesday before the Stroll marked 100 years since Private Mayes was killed by a German mortar in the Argonne forest.

Next month, Veterans Day, will mark the centennial anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. I encouraged those who came by Sunday, and encourage those reading this as well, to take a moment that day to remember all who served in that war.

My Name, Writ, Across the Sky


This is a story about the most memorable time I watched the International Space Station fly overhead, but it’s also a story about the Soviet Union and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So before I talk about standing in an empty field early one morning ten years ago today, I need to jump back about twenty years before that, too.

My friend Jason Smith introduced me to Ultima about three decades ago, initially on his household Commodore 64. We didn’t have a C64 at my house, but when Ultima IV came out for the Nintendo, I had to have it.

I’ve not played it in years, but it’s stuck in my head as a favorite of its class of role playing games, an innovative take on the medium less about fighting monsters than about character. The realm of the Ultima games was ruled by Lord British, a character who coexisted as both fictional and real, ruler of realms of Brittania in the Ultima games and nom de plum of the creator of those realms in real life.

For who grew up in the last 26 years or so, it’s worth noting that these were the waning days of the Cold War, even if the average person didn’t fully appreciate that yet. However frightening the specter of Russian interference may be today, it doesn’t hold a candle to the fear of a Soviet Union nuclear attack that loomed over life.

When I was growing up, the Space Race mentality of the ‘60s was a thing of the past, but space also was not defined by the international cooperation of today. Space was still very much an us-versus-them thing, the United States with its shuttles and the Soviet Union with its Soyuz and space stations.

Lord British, in real life, is a man by the name of Richard Garriott. His father is Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. I’d heard of the former before I heard of the latter.

When Owen and I signed the contract with the University of Nebraska Press to write Homesteading Space together, I called my dad and told him I was writing a book with a Skylab astronaut. I called my friend Jason and told him I was writing a book with Lord British’s dad.

I came very close to not even trying to write that book because it seemed absurd. It’s not the sort of thing people like me got to do. Better and better-known writers got to do things like that. Not people like me.

Two significant Garriott milestones just passed their tenth anniversaries.

Ten years and a week ago, we received the first copies of Homesteading Space.

Ten years and ten days ago, Richard Garriott launched into space.

Richard visited the International Space Station as a paid spaceflight participant, purchasing a seat on a Russian spacecraft, accompanying a NASA and Russian crew to conduct a personal mission in space.

Earlier that year, Richard had noticed the close timing of those two events, and asked if Owen if he would like to fly something related to the book into space. The book wouldn’t be out, and really was kind of large to pack, so we decided to make photo prints of the cover.

It was a last-minute opportunity, so we needed to get them made quickly. I took a digital image of the file, and processed it through Target’s instant printing.

I’ve loved ever since being able to mark the anniversary of the day I bought a spaceflight payload at Target. Today, working with payload integration as my day job, it amuses me even more. I sit in meetings about all the PIPs and ICDs and EOMPs and ODARs and IDRDs needed to put something in space, and the one time I’ve had something flown of my own, I bought it at Target.

The three authors signed the prints and Owen got them to Richard.

Which brings us to ten years ago today.

It was early that morning when the International Space Station flew over Huntsville, but I wasn’t going to miss it. I stood in an empty field, as far from lights as I could easily get, and watched as the bright dot, carrying Richard Garriott and his Soyuz and my Target payload and my signature, crossed the sky.

It’s a moment I’ll spend my life being grateful for.

It’s a moment, amazing in its own right, made all the richer for the absurdity of it.

It’s made me wish I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me about it.

“You know Lord British, right? Many years from now, the video game character you like is going to be in one of those Soyuz spaceships the Soviet Union uses.

“And with him he’s going to have a picture of a book given to him by your astronaut friend, his dad, and it’s going to have your handwritten name on it.

“And you’re going to see it fly overhead in space.”

I’m not sure what 15-year-old me would have thought.

Maybe he would have been quicker to jump on the opportunity to write that book when the time came, even if he wasn’t a better or better-known writer.

Either he would have believed it was absurd, that it was impossible. Or he would have had to believe that anything is possible.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn.

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.