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.

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.)

Me and Rocket Engine 2059

Back in 2006, I drove down to Florida to watch the shuttle launch. It didn’t. A year and a half later, I drove back down again. The shuttle didn’t launch again. And this was in the wake of unsuccessful launch viewing attempts my dad took me to as a kid.
And then, back in 2009, I went down to see the launch of the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission. I had the best seat I ever had or would have for a shuttle launch attempt. And it flew! Like, right there, with me watching, the shuttle left Earth and headed into space. It was, too put it lightly, rather cool.
In the couple of years between then and the end of the program, I made several more trips down to Florida. I left without seeing a launch more times, and I saw more launches, including the final flight of the shuttle. But STS-125 was special for being the first.
Though I had no clue about such things at the time, one of the three engines that powered Atlantis that day was RS-25 number 2059. Honestly, to me, an engine was an engine until two years ago, when I had the opportunity to get within a foot of an engine that will fly on SLS during a tour of Stennis Space Center. I looked up which engine it was, and realized that we had history.
I was back at Stennis this week, and had an opportunity I’d never gotten before — to actually go up in the stand where the SLS engine tests are conducted. And the most-recently tested engine was still in the stand, and I got to stand right next to it again. And, of course, it was 2059, an old friend by now.
I don’t know when I’ll see 2059 again, but I hope to have as good a seat for its next launch as when I saw it seven years ago next week. The next time 2059 flies, it will be on the second launch of SLS, the first to carry astronauts; 2059 will help propel Orion’s first crew farther from Earth than anyone has ever traveled.
And I’ll be able to say I knew it back when…

“Another year over, and a new one just begun…”

Probably the best case I could make that 2014 was a good year for Rebecca and I was that it was a year where things like Rebecca flying a plane, me hanging out in a green room with Cary Elwes, both of us going to B.B. King’s final homecoming concert in Indianola, and lots and lots of work travel for me all sort of fall into the “other stuff that happened” category.

It was a year that saw some really cool stuff:

8) IMPROV — Comic Science Improv had a challenging year this year, having lost our main rehearsal and performance venue when it closed in April. After a tough summer of rebuilding, the troupe has rebounded in a big way and is gearing up for an awesome 2015.

7) NASA SOCIAL — Rebecca got picked to participate in the NASA Social Event for the ribbon cutting of the world’s largest welding tool at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans, which will be used to build the world’s most powerful rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System which I have the honor of working for. We got to see core stage hardware and engines that will actually fly as part of the rocket. (I got to see booster flight hardware later in the year as well.) A very cool experience. Plus, Rebecca got to ride a train, we got to hang out on Bourbon Street, and we met Curt Godwin.

6) HISTORY — Rebecca and I both led Huntsville Ghost Walks, a first for her (and she did the Decatur Ghost Walk as well). We almost did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, but got rained out. I did the downtown Huntsville Trolley Tour. She gave bus tours of Marshall Space Flight Center. Depot things happened. We got to wear awesome clothes and tell awesome stories.

5) OLE MISS — When I graduated from Ole Miss, my commencement speaker was the then-NASA-administrator, Dan Goldin. As a graduating journalism major, I was so disappointed by his talk. I want to hear a more ambitious future for NASA. I wanted to hear about human exploration. This fall, I got to return to Ole Miss with a NASA Program Manager who said all of the things I wanted to hear 18 years earlier. I got to set up a model of the rocket outside my journalism building. I got to talk to three classes of j-school students. I got to sign copies of my books at Square Books. I got to eat a darned good breakfast with Todd May. Even if Auburn beat Ole Miss, it was a pretty memorable weekend.

4) ORION — In a few years, we’re going to launch Space Launch System, and then we’re going to use it to send astronauts farther into space than anyone’s ever been, and after that, we’re going to start a series of missions that will lead to Mars. And I get to be a part of that. But before any of that will happen, there was the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft, beginning the journey to Mars. And Rebecca and I got to be there to see it. (She also got to see an ocean for the first time, which was pretty cool. And we met the future first man on Mars, Kerouac G-k.)

3) BOLD THEY RISE — My second book, Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, was published in April of this year, and was accompanied by a series of signings and talks, from Huntsville to Pasadena, California. It was a great privilege to be able to recognize my dad, Bill Hitt, and introduce him to astronaut Hoot Gibson at the official book launch event.

2) BECKY’S JOB — Rebecca got promoted to an office job at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and became a full-time, permanent employee. You should have seen her excitement over having her own cubicle! Apparently she’s done pretty well with it, because she was named Employee of the Quarter later in the year.

1) ENGAGEMENT — We’re getting married in two and a half months!!! Huzzah!

We’re both blessed to have had an incredibly amazing year, and we are so so grateful to all of you who were a part of it.

… And, we’re even more blessed to know that, as awesome as 2014 was, 2015 has it beat, if solely for a little thing that’s taking place on March 15 at the Depot.

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV

This is a serialized short fiction piece that we, The Rocket City Bloggers, are collaboratively writing for our Downtown with the RCB Event on January 16 at the office in downtown Huntsville.

Part One is at Huntsville Hashtag.

Part Two is at Capturing Average.

Part Three is at I Write Words on the Internet!

And now …

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV


… yet another flashback, this one to the early ’80s. This time, he was standing in the middle of The Mall, tossing pennies into the iconic fountain, with Lovemann’s visible in the distance and a yearning in his stomach to head a little ways down the Parkway to Dunavant’s Mall for lunch at Britling’s Buffet.

“Enough,” Ray said to himself, as he realized passersby were giving him strange looks as he ambled sporadically in the midst of reveries of Huntsville past. Summoning all his willpower, he decided that he was going to eschew any further recollections of Twickenham Station or Argosy or the Whitesburg Drive-In long enough to finally actually open the door to the building, despite the nigh-overwhelming temptation to fondly recall going bowling next door to the previous Huntsville Times building on the Parkway.

As he entered, he was struck by how modern and professional the new office was. He went upstairs, politely greeting the many friendly people who spoke to him, while keeping an eye out for Sandy’s familiar face. Being honest with himself, he was still a bit intimidated by the whole blogging idea. He knew there were some good stories in his father’s journal, but would other people think so? And what would these seasoned bloggers think of his idea to try and build a blog around those stories? It was hard to imagine any of these people wanting to discourage someone from blogging — you could tell there was a lot of passion in the room — but he certainly was in no hurry to discover he was the exception. So, one step at a time — find Sandy first.

Well — OK, maybe find Sandy second, he thought to himself as he passed a table full of food from The Eaves. If you’re going to procrastinate, you might as well do it in style. And sampling the wares brought by The Brew Stooges wouldn’t hurt either. With a plate and glass in hand, he resumed his search, eventually spotting Sandy across the room, deep in conversation. Rather than go join in, Ray decided to use the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more by exploring the office. The open areas he’d seen so far were fascinating, unlike any office space he’d been in before — an environment designed for reporters who spend most of their time wearing out shoe soles beating the streets of Huntsville instead of warming a desk chair. He started peeking into conference rooms, and was amazed at the view of downtown Huntsville.

But then, in the depths of the building, something caught his attention. All of the other rooms had good, Huntsville-themed names. But not this one. Not the “Clark Kent Room.” What did that mean? What lurked behind its door? It didn’t seem to be part of the public touring area, but Ray’s curiosity got the better of him, and he couldn’t help himself.

He quietly turned the knob and pushed open the door. His heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. But it was. There, in front of him, right there in the offices in the middle of downtown Huntsville, he found himself staring straight at ___________________.

Part Five will be posted at Growing H.O.P.E.

Come meet the Rocket City Bloggers on January 16 starting at 5:30. We’ll be in the building hanging out with Downtown Huntsville Inc. We’ll have food from The Eaves and drinks from The Brew Stooges. Door prizes and networking opportunities will keep things lively.

Rocket City Bloggers Carnival — Summer in the “City”

Image unrepentantly stolen from Entirely Adequate’s submission for the carnival. Used without permission, unless she tells me to take it down.

For those who don’t know, I’m part of an incredibly awesome group of local bloggers, known as The Rocket City Bloggers. Basically, as a group, we write things, share things we write with each other, eat things, and talk about writing things. And sometimes write about eating things. And often write things about talking about writing things, but that’s getting kind of meta. Like I said, it’s an awesome group.

Also, once a month, we have a blog carnival, in which those of us who aren’t too lazy (Bo, I’m looking at you here) all write posts about the same topic, and then one of us publishes a post linking to all of the other posts.

This month, the theme is “Summer,” and the host for the month is yours truly.

So, welcome, then, to the Rocket City Bloggers June Carnival.

Here are this month’s posts:

• From the “Mrs. Mood” blog, we have Who Else Is Ready?: “I know, I know, here we are on the inauguration of June but I am here to tell you, I am ready for Christmas.”

• Over on “Ninasoden,” there’s Summer Then & Now: “Summer time used to be a time of running around in the sprinklers and riding my bike for hours before finally running into the house truly exhausted and collapsing on the living room floor.

• “Calluna” wrote a post titled Summer As I Knew It: “The routines of the first 21 years of my life were dictated by a school calendar.”

• At “Girl Gad About,” you can read Summer Editorial Calendar: “To all my wanderlust-stricken love bunnies out there, Girl Gad About plans to implement a summer editorial calendar.”

• Over on “Entirely Adequate,” there’s Unscheduled Summers Provide The Best Memories: “Nearly everyone I know who has kids spends tons of money and time striving to plan the perfect summer.”

• And, for those who missed it, I posted my entry on Monday, How’re Dem Seasons? Summ’er Not As Good As Others: “When I was younger, as should be the case with every red-blooded American child, my favorite season was summer.”

• As an added bonus, I’ll include this submission from “Successful Freelance Writer,” who, participating the carnival for the first time, didn’t quite get the theme idea, but did put in enough of an effort to actually send something. Next time, though, it’s all gonna be theme-related again, so don’t nobody go getting any ideas: Taking Steps to Build A Writing Career

Huntsville High School Alma Mater

Where the vale of dear old Huntsville
Meets the southern sky;
Mid the rustling of the treetops
Stands our dear old high.

When the evening twilight deepens
And the shadows fall;
Linger long the golden sunbeams
On the western wall.

When the shades of life shall gather
Dark the heart may be;
Still the rays of youth and love
Shall linger o’er thee.

School we love, high school
Live for aye, Our alma mater dear,
May thy sons be leal and loyal to thy memory.

Fire Flew From His Fingertips — Another CDB Exegesis

In the arena of contemporary music, a lot of fluff exists.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of songs recorded in the last 75 or so years that serve no purpose beyond mindless entertainment.

But then, there are the songs with depth, the songs that mean something, the songs that beg to be analyzed and discussed.

Songs like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

I would hope you’re familiar with this American classic. But, if you’re not, you should be. Take this moment to listen to the video below. I’ll wait.

OK, welcome back. Don’t you feel better now?

I’ve read any number of good analyses of the song, like this post looking at the silliness of the bet and disputing the outcome. Or this one that, at greater length, reviews the performances of the two competitors, and also concludes that the devil won.

I’ve dipped my toe into those waters before myself, in a post in which I argued that the golden fiddle was just a loss leader to win more souls.

But I had the song stuck in my head the other day, and had a different thought.

Maybe the point wasn’t really about the bet at all. Maybe the song is really all about artisanship, about integrity.

Because it’s true — it’s hard to make a case that Johnny’s overall performance was indisputably that much better than the devil’s. I mean, really, enough that THE DEVIL, lord of evil, would just say, without contest, without any other judge, that Johnny had won? It’s hard to buy.

Maybe the devil was just his own harshest critic. He clearly took his fiddle playing seriously and was proud of his skill. Maybe, in that contest, he realized he wasn’t where he wanted to be with his playing. Maybe he’d gotten complacent. The overall performance was great, to be sure, but maybe Satan realized he’d become too dependent on his band of demons. No doubt they were a great combo at hell banquets, but the contest was supposed to be purely about the one-on-one fiddle playing, and the devil’s calling in his session musicians. That’s fine if it’s about the musical end result, but if it’s supposed to be about pure fiddle-playing virtuoso skills, it’s crap.

Maybe the devil gave Johnny the golden fiddle because he was disappointed in himself. I hope that after the song ended, the devil went back to hell, rosined up his bow, and started practicing again, playing purely for the love of the instrument, getting his skills back where he knew they should be.

And, after all, after that, you never hear about anyone else beating the devil in a fiddle contest.*

*Ignoring the, to me, non-canonical “The Devil Comes Back To Georgia,” which doesn’t really say what happened in the end anyway. The video is kind of awesome, though.

Review — “The Voice” Bible

A while back I wrote a review about how much I loved the “The Voice” translation of the New Testament, so when Booksneeze offered me a free review copy of the now-completed full “The Voice” Bible, I was incredibly excited.

Since I first got The Voice New Testament, it has become my primary versions of those books. When we’ve been reading the epistles in my Sunday School class, I read out of The Voice. An almost-seamless combination of a word-for-word and a thought-for-thought translation, I have never encountered a Bible that does a better job of making the scriptures readable to a modern audience while still maintaining a feeling of literal authenticity. Making The Voice even more amazing is that it not only does an unparalleled job of making the language contemporary, it does while also doing an unparalleled job of working into the text the historic context in which the scriptures would have originally been read. This Bible is very possibly the closest a lay person can come to what it would have been like to read the canon when it was first closed — in contemporary language and with an understanding of the cultural context.

Since I first started reading The Voice New Testament, I couldn’t wait to read the full version. While The Voice does an excellent job of making the epistles more easily accessible, in my opinion, its greatest strength is in how it presents the narrative portions of scripture. While that means the gospels seem newly fresh, narrative storytelling is a minority of the New Testament. It’s far more prevalent in the Old Testament; and this new complete version of the Bible really demonstrates the advantages of The Voice. As with any new translation, deviations from familiar language may be jarring — “In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below. Here’s what happened:” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — there’s a great benefit to being stripped of knowing the words and having to start actually hearing them and thinking about them again.

And The Voice is a great place to start doing that.

The Voice at

“One Day, Down In Alabama”

“Early evening, April 4, shot rang out in the Memphis sky …”

I was working as a substitute in a middle school one day in February, and the teacher, it being during Black History Month, had left an assignment for her students to read excerpts from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

The students, as students tend to do, were becoming more interested in talking to each other than in doing the assignment, so I asked if they would like me to read it to them.

I am, I should note, a decent reader.

They were enthralled. They’d probably never actually heard a recording of the speech, and you can tell that having the words actually come alive, actually be a speech, instead of just another reading assignment, let them feel the power and emotion of King’s words.

Unfortunately, their reaction caused me to get a little overconfident.

The excerpts in the book were good, but it left out some parts that I felt were worth including — the “Free at last” part, for example, and the titular “I have a dream” parts, particularly the “one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” section.

So for the next period, I offered to read again, but this time, instead of reading the excerpts in their book, I looked up the full text online.

This was, arguably, a mistake.

I was able to keep the students enthralled with the excerpts, but the full speech proved to be too long for their attention span, and I had to balance trying to maintain discipline without losing the flow of the speech.

And, I’ll admit, at one point, it made me sad. I’m reading this historic speech to a very predominately African American classroom of students, and I’m having to deal with, for example, one student taking off his shoe and making another smell it as I’m trying to read. And it just seemed — disrespectful. Not to me, but to King, and his followers and peers who changed the nation. Show him the courtesy of listening to the words that helped change your life, you know?

But, then I wondered — what would he have thought? How would King have reacted to see African American students so disinterested in his fight? To be acting out in that way instead?

And, really, part of me wonders if maybe, just maybe, the fact that 49 years after he gave the speech it could be so taken for granted would bring him a little happiness. That maybe, just maybe, that’s kind of what he was trying to accomplish.