Several Orbits Later


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All in all, it was a beautiful coda to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to record, and to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to live.

Last week, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosted its annual Space Exploration Gala, and this year the event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program. The eight living Skylab astronauts all came back to Huntsville for the event.

A similar night, almost 10 years ago, helped plant the seeds in me for a life-changing adventure. The eight were in Huntsville for the 30th anniversary, and it was one of the times I started to think seriously about what it would be like to work on a book telling the Skylab story. I was still a little ways out from having the nerve to actually step out and stop thinking about it and start doing something about it, but that night brought me a little closer.

So it was an incredible experience, on the other side of that adventure, to see the guys gathered in Huntsville once more, to see them and the program being celebrated, and to be a little more involved this time.

I had the chance to see most of the crew members the night before the event as we signed books to be sold the next night as a fundraiser for the museum. It was good getting to have a little time to visit and catch up, and even better to get to be present while they visited and caught up. I’ve been blessed to be in some amazing situations through the book, and this was one of them. I try to always appreciate what a blessing and responsibility it is; the legends will long live in history, the men behind them will only be known as long as there are people to talk about them.

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Five of the Skylab crewmembers came to Marshall the next day to talk about their experiences with the workforce. The event started with an awesome video overview of the program. I’ve always wondered if you could make a good movie about Skylab; certainly, that video showed you could make a great trailer for one. It was a little odd watching the video; I know the guys more as they are now, it was fun and a little odd seeing them looking so young. I ended up watching them watch the video more than watching it myself; it was fun watching their reactions to their younger days.

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It was also neat for me seeing my friend Andy Herron watching their talk from the front row. Andy’s a young NASA engineer working on SLS, and it was encouraging to see one of the team members who are taking on the torch appreciating the value of the experiences and wisdom of those who have paved the way.

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Afterwards, there was a reception at which I ate Skylab cake …

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… and photo-bombed astronauts. (Unintentionally, of course.)

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It was a fun combination of past and present, getting to be there with both the past NASA team I worked with on the book, and the present NASA team I work with today. That’s my former NASA boss in education, Jeff Ehmen, talking to Joe Kerwin. If you work at Marshall, you are the heir of an incredible legacy, and events like this really drive that home.

I was talking with my team lead after the talk about the fact that is a big part of why we do what we do — someday, I’m going to go to an event at Morris auditorium and hear astronauts tell about their experiences flying atop a rocket I was part of. And that will be a good day.

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The Space & Rocket Center used the occasion for another exciting Skylab milestone — the Skylab trainer that had been deteriorating in the parking lot for years was brought inside the Davidson Center for display. What the public didn’t realize is that not only had they fixed up the outside to bring it inside, they had actually also done a substantial amount of work on the inside, and the interior was ready for display also, if not complete. I was amazed at the work they had done. Very very exciting!

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Skylab trivia: Differently colored Snoopy stickers were used by each astronaut to mark his property.

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The Skylab display was particularly exciting to me because that was actually how I began my years as a Space & Rocket Center volunteer, by participating in a volunteer effort to fix up the exhibit many years ago. We made some progress, but it fell apart long before the trainer was display ready again. But we did reverse some damage and laid the foundation for the recent professional effort, and, for me, it was a great experience to be able to spend time inside a Skylab mock-up while working on the book. At one point, we closed the airlock door on the trainer, which was a Gemini hatch that was repurposed for Skylab. How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to close a Gemini hatch? So it was very exciting for me to be inside the trainer for the first time in a long time. Not nearly as many years as it had been since the crew members had been aboard Skylab, but still a nice homecoming for me as well. Before the volunteer effort ended, we all were given the opportunity to sign an out-of-sight wall, and it was a neat experience to see my name still there.

I don’t have good pictures of the talk, but it was great as well. The guys did a good job of telling the old stories, and they have some great ones.

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Have You Heard The Buzz?


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I’ve written before about how much I enjoy playing dress up at the Depot. Last week, however, I found out it could be even more fun than I’d realized.

A bit part of what we do at the Huntsville Historic Depot museum is putting on programs for students on field trips. We have several different programs, and I get to perform different stations for each one. For example, I’ve been the emergency management director of Whoville, a Union general and a train conductor for various activities. I’ve scared kids with ghost stories so badly they had to take a break from the program, and taught them to march around the grounds.

Last week, though — Last week I got to branch out a bit.

The Depot museum is owned and operated by the City of Huntsville, as part of an organization that also includes the Alabama Constitute Hall Village museum and the Earlyworks children’s museum. Last week, while the Depot was closed to prepare for the annual Whistestop Festival, they had me come work at Earlyworks as part of an “American Heroes” program. They gave me the option of who I wanted to be, and asked what I’d need for a costume.

“Well,” I thought, “I do have a flightsuit …”

“Can I be an astronaut?” I asked. Yes, it turned out, I could be an astronaut.

So for two days last week, I went and pretended to be Buzz Aldrin for school kids. And, no offense to Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman, but my Buzz was about as cool an American hero as they come.

I had fun. Like, a lot of fun.

I like talking to kids about space, and I love seeing them get excited about it, and that was definitely the case those days. I had my story that I wanted to cover, and was barely able to get through it each time for them wanting to ask me questions about what it was like for “me” to be in space. I was proud that I was able to answer everything they threw at me, which helped maintain the feeling that it was “real” for the kids. Frankly, I’ve seen actual astronauts do actual Q&A’s with kids, and this really wasn’t that different.

And that part of it made me really happy. I’ve been blessed to meet and talk with astronauts from the early days of spaceflight, and the reality is, there’s a limit to how much longer we’ll be able to hear their stories first-hand. Since I began working on “Homesteading Space,” I’ve always felt a responsibility that, when it’s no longer possible to talk to them directly, the best thing people will be able to do is talk to the people who talked to them, and that I have a duty to carry those stories. These kids will likely never get to talk to Buzz directly, but it made me happy that they could talk to Buzz by proxy. (And I felt like, in places, I was a pretty decent Buzz — when a kid asked if I was the second man to walk on the moon, I responded that “Neil and I were the first men to land on the moon,” a fairly accurate Buzz response, in my opinion.)

I’ve enjoyed all the different programs I’ve done, but this one very well may have been my favorite. Enough that I’m currently trying to convince my boss that, when we do the Civil War program, the Depot should have been captured, not by Union General O.M. Mitchell, but by Buzz Aldrin. THAT would be a great presentation, let me tell you!

Congratulations, Bo Bobko


Because I’m woefully behind on blogging (and, yes, we will get back to that eventually), this post is coming about two weeks after I should have written it. Apologies.

Earlier this month, Bo Bobko was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

If you don’t know who Bobko is, follow the link to the collectSPACE article. Long story short, he’s one of the early shuttle commanders who flew on the maiden flight of two orbiters.

He’s sufficiently accomplished that a few years ago, talking to him, I made the faux pas of assuming he was already inducted. I’m glad that oversight has finally been rectified.

On a personal note, I’m glad to see Bo recognized, since he helped me with both of the space history books I’ve co-authored.

Back when he was still a fairly new astronaut, long before the shuttle commander stuff, he supported the Skylab program in several ways, including, most notably, as a participant in the SMEAT “simulation,” where he and two other rookie astronauts spent almost two months locked up in a altitude chamber testing Skylab equipment. It was a singularly unrewarding task — a full-duration space mission without leaving the ground — but vital to the success of Skylab. I got to sit down while working on the Skylab book, Homesteading Space, with Bo and SMEAT-mate Bob Crippen and have a great conversation that turned what on the surface might have been on of the drier chapters in the book into an entertaining and often hilarious story.

Bo helped me again with the space shuttle book Heather and I recently submitted to the publisher — at one point, he was going to serve as co-author of the volume. That fell through, but he was a huge help in shaping the book early on. In particular, as a pilot astronaut, Bobko gave me a perspective that was very key to understanding the development and early flight program of the shuttle. I’d always thought of the space shuttle orbiter primarily as a spaceship. To Bo — and, it turns out, others of his background — it was “the airplane.” Despite it’s very unusual flight profile, particularly during development it was just the latest and greatest airplane he was going to be flying. He talked to me less about the microgravity operations than about the avionics (pronounced with a short a). The discussions with him provided me with a foundation that proved hugely helpful later on in understanding the experiences of the astronauts involved in the early shuttle program.

So, Bo, congratulations on a well-deserved honor, and thanks again for all your help!