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.

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.

Ode to Opportunity


A poem for the Mars rover Opportunity, still silent in the midst of a planet-wide dust storm on the Red Planet.Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 10.27.21 AM.png

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.

More Rocket in the Rocket City


In the past week, without most locals being aware of it, more rocket arrived in the Rocket City.
 
The core of NASA’s Space Launch System will be the largest rocket stage in history. One of its fuel tanks alone, the liquid hydrogen tank, holds as much as maybe 20 average backyard swimming pools. The liquid oxygen tank is “smaller,” but that’s a very relative term. When they’re full, they get kind of heavy. In between them is an empty cylinder that’s sole job is to keep them from bashing into each other during launch, because that would be what the technical folks call “a bad day.” There’s over seven million pounds of pressure pushing up on several swimming pools worth of a substance that really likes to burn, and millions of pounds of pressure pushing down on more swimming pools of another substance that really really likes to make things burn. And there’s one empty cylinder, the intertank, taking the combined force to make sure that doesn’t happen.
 
It’s kind of important that cylinder work. That’s why, the other day, a test version of that cylinder arrived in Huntsville to undergo unimaginable stress (seriously, stop and try to imagine it in a way that provides any real understanding) to ensure that, when the day comes, the real thing will do its job.
 
The intertank test article joins both more test hardware and actual flight hardware of the world’s largest rocket here in Huntsville. Over the course of the year, it will be joined by even more test articles, including those giant fuel tanks, while being accompanied by less flight hardware – while it’s cool to have giant rocket parts in Huntsville, it’s even cooler to have them in Florida, and way cooler still when they leave there.