A Good Name Is Rather to Be Chosen…


Today is Owen Garriott’s birthday; the first after the loss earlier this year of the Skylab and shuttle astronaut, a brilliant scientist, a friend, and my son’s namesake.

In fact, we found out the day before Owen died. The fact I never got to tell him was the one bittersweet moment of the joyous news.

What I will tell my son about his name is this:

Owen Garriott was a great man, and he is named in part of the great man history will remember. Owen was brilliant and accomplished, possibly the most brilliant man I’ve ever known, and his work helped pave the way for everything in spaceflight that’s come since his first flight.

The name is a challenge. I don’t ask or expect my son to accomplish as much, but I challenge him to work to do his best, whatever that may be.
But more than the man history will remember, my son is named for the man I knew.

From the first time I contacted him, Owen was kind to me, and enthusiastic to share his stories and knowledge. I reached out to him hoping for an e-mail or a phone call I could use to write an article I was working on; he invited me to his home and spent time with me.

Months later, when I asked him whether he’d be interested in working on a book, I would have been beyond content if all that had come of it was getting to have lunch with a man who spent a couple of months in space.

Instead, he said yes, and changed my life.

Working on Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story was an incredible experience, and, more than that, it was an experience that continues to open amazing opportunities.

But he gave me so much more than that opportunity. He went out of his way to introduce me to people and to give me experiences that I will always carry with me.

More than any of that, he shared his knowledge, his experience, his insight, his wisdom. He asked hard questions, and made me think about the answers. I don’t know that, in my entire life, anyone’s complements have meant more than his, because, when they were given, they meant something.

I give my son his name as a gift, but also as a charge. To do his best to do good work. To observe, to analyze, to deduce. And, most of all, to use his gifts to give others the opportunity to use theirs.

The Owen Garriott history remembers was a great man. The Owen Garriott I knew was a good man. All I can ask of my son is to do his best to be one also.

Of Mutiny and Myths: A Skylab Story


(Updated on 30 December 2019 with info from @jasminchill on experiment record data.)

Hey, look! Pete’s wearing one eye patch! Maybe it’s a mutiny!

There’s a story – a myth – about Skylab, and people like it a lot.

The story – the myth – goes like this: Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard, and they went on strike. They mutinied.

It’s a great story. People like it. People want it to be true. It’s exciting. It’s a triumph over the people over The Man. It’s a victory for labor.

It’s not true.

Well, it’s half true. Way back in 1973, the third crew of Skylab got tired of Mission Control working them too hard.

The real second half of that story is this: “…so they had an adult conversation with Mission Control and changes were made.”

It’s not as good a story, I’ll admit. I can understand where people wouldn’t want it to be true.

But it is true.

Sorry.

All that’s easy to say. Either version is easy to say.

So let’s get into the “Citation Needed” part.

Over a year ago, prompted by Wired, of all outlets, I posted a thread on Twitter about this. Since then, I’ve reshared it on occasion as needed. It’s needed more than it should be. People on Twitter really like the mutiny myth. Again, I can understand why.

Traditionally, I would just let it go, categorizing the Skylab mutiny folks in a group with the moon hoax folks and the flat Earth folks that it’s better for your mental health to just let be. The problem is, there are now people who believe it – I mean, journalists and historians, for heaven’s sake – because they don’t know any better because it’s so ambient.

What prompted me to get engaged was a Wired UK article titled “The weird history and terrifying future of mutiny in deep space.” Sexy, no?

The article said this:

As often happens with sci-fi, when it came to space mutinies fiction was way ahead of reality. The first – and, as far as we know, last – instance of outer space crew rebellion would not happen until 1973. On December 28, the three-man crew of Skylab 4, the third manned mission to US space station Skylab – Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue – turned against their bosses at Nasa mission control, shutting off radio communications for several hours.

If you see articles saying the mutiny happened, my advice is simply to apply this litmus test: What sources do they use?

I tried that with the Wired UK article. It didn’t surprise me that they had no sources supporting their claim, since it didn’t happen. But I was a little disappointed that a magazine I respect would publish something this fringy with no supporting evidence.

In fact, there’s only one source cited as to whether it happened or not:

(Some experts, including spaceflight historian David Hitt, dispute that the interruption in communications was intended as a protest.)

Pro-tip as a former journalist: If a story quotes “experts” as saying something didn’t happen and no one saying it did, you should probably be suspicious.

If you’d like to read more about the “mutiny,” here are some sources that actually support their version with research:

As a free gift, I’ll provide the sources that the Wired UK article didn’t. There are two respectable sources that argue for a strike.

Without question, there were workload issues that had to be resolved, but the escalation of that seems to be the work of space author Henry SF Cooper, who published “A House in Space” in 1976. Cooper was a writer who worked to make spaceflight accessible and exciting to the public, and as a result things were sometimes … oversimplified. This is one.

Four years later after Cooper’s book, in 1980, the Harvard Business Review published “A Strike in Space” about Skylab as a case study.

And, again, the story has the advantage that a lot of its facts are true. There were issues with the crew being overloaded. There were tensions with mission control. There was a disruption in communication, just not the way they describe. (There was one communications pass where each astronaut thought another was on the radio, and none were.) It’s just that last bit of the strike story – the part about there actually being a strike – that isn’t true.

This is not a mystery. It’s not unknowable. If you’re not sure what to believe, the mission transcripts are online. Look through them yourself. You can start with the most common day, December 28, the day mentioned in the Wired article. Not only will you not find a strike, you’ll find the crew talking to Dr Lubos Kohuetek, the discoverer of the comet they’d observe on a spacewalk the next day.

But you don’t have to stop there. You can read the entire transcript in case they got the date wrong. When I first posted all this on Twitter, I said the first person to find the mutiny gets an astronaut-signed copy of Homesteading Space. It still remains unclaimed, and the offer remains open.

During a subsequent online discussion of this, Twitter user @jasminchill noted that, in addition to the mission transcripts, the experiment data logs also belie the mutiny myth. One of the most famous experiments performed during the supposed mutiny time frame were the Comet Kohuetek observations, which were conducted with instrument S054, the x-ray spectrograph. The observation logs show no day off on December 28 or 29.

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It does amuse me a little how the story is escalating. I saw a tweet lately claiming that the crew declared their mutiny before disabling their radio, and only restored it when they eventually needed to come home. I’d watch that movie, but, no, it didn’t happen.

While some of the Skylab mutiny versions are fun, as a whole it’s too annoying to replace the Skylab UFO conspiracy as my favorite crazy thing I’m cited as an expert on.

In conclusion:
Earth is round.
We landed on the moon.
No mutiny on Skylab.

An Unlikely Road from Ole Miss


In the staircase of the Student Union at the University of Mississippi, there were was a brief excerpt from a poem, the Heart of Ole Miss. And part of that excerpt was this – “The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure…”
 
Last month marked 23 years since that diploma was given and my tenure there terminated. Ole Miss did what it good for me and set me free. For those two decades and change, I’ve been proud to be an alumnus of the University of Mississippi.
 
So it was incredibly heartwarming and validating this year to have the Ole Miss Alumni Association look back on those years and say, hey, we’re proud of you, too.
 
 
When I was an undergrad at The University of Mississippi
, I never dreamed the direction my career would take me. My ambitions were that at this point in my life, I’d be a weekly newspaper publisher. To say that helping to put tiny spaceships on giant rockets sending people to the moon was not on the map would be understatement.
 
And yet, those years in the journalism school at Ole Miss were the foundation for everything since. Reporting and writing professors like Joe Atkins and Robin Street taught not just the basic knowledge of the craft of journalism; they taught something far more valuable – how to become knowledgeable. A journalist had to be able to go into any unfamiliar situation and quickly gain the ability to communicate competently about it. Like schools or courts or county government. Or rockets.
 
In my younger days, I dreamed of winning the Silver Em award, the highest recognition Ole Miss gives its alumni for their accomplishments in careers in journalism. My career has long since taken me in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Silver Em, and I joke that I, instead, want the award for least-likely career for an Ole Miss journalism grad.
 
And that’s kind of what this article is.
 
The funny thing was, when they contacted me, I actually had the most recent issue of the Review on my desk, because I was about to write and tell them they should publish a feature about Chris Cianciola, the deputy program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, which ain’t half bad for an Ole Miss engineering alum. (There’s a lot lot of Mississippi State alums on the SLS program and not a lot of us Ole Miss folks, and I love that all the State grads answer to a UM alum.) When they contacted me about an article, I immediately told them I was flattered, but they’d really rather write about Chris. They took down his name for a future article, but said they really wanted to write about my unlikely story.
 
And, I gotta say, they did a pretty decent job with it. Nobody’s ever written my story like this before, and I’m not displeased with the result.
 
“The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” – Frank Everett, UM BA’32, BL’34

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.

From Mercury 13 to Virgin Galactic in One Night


Last night I had the honor of being the emcee for the 2019 Space Camp Hall of Fame induction ceremony. For the record, it was more than a little surreal sharing the stage with Homer Hickam and NASA

Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer and Dr. Deborah Barnhart and X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris (and standing, as Jody pointed out, in the spot where Vice President Pence announced the goal of going to the moon in five years back in March).

But possibly the most incredible part was the history captured between two of the inductees in particular.

I was awed just to be in the same room as Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who aced the tests given to the Mercury 7 astronauts and helped paved the way for female astronauts in the United States, despite never getting to go into space herself (yet). Getting a giant bear hug from Wally Funk as she takes the stage – yeah, that memory will stay with me.

It was also rather incredible to be sitting at a table having supper with Beth Moses, who made news (and history) just a few months ago as the first passenger of a commercial spaceflight.

As I was watching the presentations, though, I was struck with the realization that in a lifetime, we’ve gone from Wally Funk not getting the opportunity to fly because she was female to Beth Moses being the first human being, period, to open a new era of spaceflight. And if we can go from Wally Funk to Beth Moses in a lifetime, the future is exciting indeed.

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.