That One Decade That One Time


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Exactly ten years ago today, I decided that I should write a book. Today, the final edits to my second book arrived at the publisher. What a long, strange decade it’s been.

The idea that became “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” came while I was at Space Center Houston, attending the International Space Station Educators Conference. (The conference is now known as the Space Exploration Educator Conference, but at that time, the idea of human space exploration being taken seriously was less than a month old. To further date this moment, while I had no idea at the time, TheFacebook had just been launched two days earlier.)

I was walking through the incredible Skylab trainer exhibit at SCH, when I decided to actually pursue an idea that had been in the back of my head for months. I went home, contacted Owen Garriott to see if he would be interested in writing a book, and was amazed when he agreed. Thanks to author and editor Colin Burgess, our notional volume soon had a home as part of the Outward Odyssey series on spaceflight history.

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“Homesteading Space” took up slightly less than half of that decade, roughly four and a half years from the day I was in the Skylab trainer until I held the book in my hand. “Bold They Rise” took a bit longer, for various reasons. The opportunity came along at just the right moment as I was finishing “Homesteading” — I was basically finished, so a lot of the stress was gone, but I hadn’t completely finished, so I wasn’t to the point of enjoying being done.

All told, “Bold They Rise” took more than seven years, with a lot of start and stops in between. (The time between original manuscript submission and publication alone was longer than the actual “Homesteading” writing process.) It’s been a long road, for both myself and my coauthor Heather R. Smith, which makes reaching this point all the more rewarding.

It has been an amazing journey, filled with unforgettable and incredibly rare experiences. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to my “Homesteading” co-authors Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin for the help they gave me and the doors they opened on both books. It’s a strange feeling looking around a room full of people and realizing only two of you have never left the Earth. Or sitting down to dinner with a man who is basically one of the inventors of what NASA has come to be. Seeing half-finished paintings by a man who walked on the moon. Bouncing off walls in zero-G. I have been truly, amazingly, incredibly blessed, and am extremely grateful.

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For the first time in 10 years, I am no longer contractually obligated to provide any book pages to anyone. And that’s not a bad feeling either. I’ve greatly enjoyed the process, but I plan to enjoy a moment of freedom as well.

I’m not going to say there won’t be another book. I have an idea that keeps insisting I should turn it into words. Maybe I will. But not today.

And, of course, I’m in the incredibly interesting situation of living out the sort of story I’ve been writing. Each of my two books has chapters dedicated to the development of a spacecraft, and now I’m a member of a spacecraft development team. It’s a strange experience, going from studying history to being a part of it. When the time comes for that book to be written, maybe I’ll want to write it. But, at the moment, I’m far t0o focused on getting the program through this chapter and into the next.

And, of course, edited page proofs are not the same as a published book. The writing process of “Bold They Rise” is completed, but that just means that a new phase begins. Writing a book can range from grueling to enjoyable, sometimes in the same day, but there’s a lot to be said for having written a book, as well. Soon, the book will be released into the world, and I’ll accompany it for some of that voyage.

Maybe I’ll see you out there.

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Capturing the Stories of Challenger


Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Without question, the last chapter of Bold They Rise was the hardest to work on.

Not because it required more effort or research or anything like that, but because every word hurt.

Our publisher defined the scope of the book from the outset — the beginning of the program through the Challenger accident. Before we wrote the first words, we knew how the story had to end.

Writing the rest of the book, there was a lot of jumping around. Large portions of later chapters were written before earlier chapters. We just sort of put down the pieces where they fit.

Except the last chapter. Except the Challenger chapter. The end, we saved until last.

Which was pure procrastination. We knew we would have to write it, we just weren’t in any hurry to do so.

Challenger had always been a personal thing for me. I was in middle school when it happened, and I can only imagine that it was for me what the Kennedy assassination was for a previous generation. I was a school kid, far from involved in it, but it hurt. It was a loss.

I’ve written about it every year since. For school writing assignments, newspapers columns, blog posts, I’ve paused today to put thoughts into words, to remember, to ponder the event, its meaning, the years since. I’ve gone from being a middle school student to being part of the team creating NASA’s next launch vehicle. Challenger has gone from a national tragedy to a mandate. I’m not an engineer; I’m not designing the vehicle. But I try, every day, to hold myself to the standard I would want from those who do — “Do good work.”

The crew of Challenger’s 51-L mission were names in the news to me, far removed from my life. Eleven years ago, working for NASA, I’d not met any of Columbia’s final crew. But over the years, I begin to meet the men and women who were risking their lives. After Columbia, there were few flights for which I’d not seen in person members of the crews. It was no longer names in the news. It was people.

During those years, I’ve also had gotten to know people who were in the astronaut corps at the time we lost Challenger. I’d never talked to them about the accident; I’d never had any desire to do so. There were better things to talk about.

Working on this book, however, I did.

Joe Kerwin, one of my co-authors on Homesteading Space, was the medical examiner after the tragedy. For Joe, these were not names in the news. They were his colleagues. They were his friends. And he and his team had to identify what was left of them, and to try to determine what exactly had happened to them in their final moments of life.

We recorded the story. I cannot imagine the experience.

We first submitted the manuscript for the book three years ago today, picking this date as a small tribute.

Today, we’re reading through the manuscript one last time, with a looming deadline to send it back in for publication.

Heather has that chapter in her pile today. I’ll read it again soon. But not today. Not today.

Currently In Progress


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It’s been a little while since I’ve participated in the Rocket City Bloggers Year-Long Blogging challenge, but I thought the current prompt would be a good little overview in general. (And possibly a good exercise for me personally.)

“This week we want to know a little bit about you. What goals are you currently pursuing?”

Well, professionally, I’m trying to support a rocket getting built. For those that don’t know, I work in the strategic communications office for NASA’s Space Launch System, supporting program executives who are working to get us ready for launch in 2017 (and to enable missions beyond). It’s possibly the most fun I’ve had at a job, and as goals to pursue go, extending humanity’s presence through the solar system ain’t a half-bad thing to be paid to do.

As director of Comic Science Improv, I’m pursuing the goal of entertaining more people. We started the process of forming the troupe almost a year ago, and we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve had some great shows with awesome audiences, developed several new games,  and added some amazing new players. Now we’re just trying to get the word out on what we’re doing so we can share it with more folks. If you haven’t been to a show (or haven’t been lately), come see us on July 5 at Acting Up! Academy on Whitesburg Drive in Huntsville. If you have, tell people about us! And still come anyway!

As a Huntsville storyteller, I’m pursuing the goal of becoming more active in that role. My work as a tour guide at the Huntsville Historic Depot sort of got me started down that path, and I was incredibly privileged to get to take part in the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll last year, portraying Alabama’s second governor Thomas Bibb. Last week, I led the Historic Huntsville Trolley Tour for the first time, and I’ll be doing it again on a few Saturdays through the rest of the summer, starting next week. I’m also working hard to get ready to start leading Huntsville Ghost Walk tours. For an avocation that basically evolved accidentally, it’s an incredibly good fit, and I’m loving it. I’ve always been proud of my hometown, and I’m greatly enjoying learning more of its history and getting to share it.

As an author, I’m mostly passively pursuing the goal of publishing my next book next year. At the moment, “Bold They Rise,” a history of the early shuttle program, is with the editors, so from here out it’s mostly a waiting game that will be interrupted occasionally by sporadic brief periods of frantic activity. I’m not looking forward to those, but I’m looking forward to getting those done. Beyond that, I have an idea for my next next book I want to write eventually, but I’ll most likely wait until this one is one the shelves before picking that one back up.

As a writer, I guess I’m pursuing the goal of blogging regularly, but obviously I’m not taking it terribly seriously. I’m also somewhat working on developing my online brand a little more, but that’s just so not my strong suit. A lot of my writerly focus is on my work for Mud & Magnolias magazine, which lets me relive my Mississippi journalist glory days in a way that’s way more fun and way less stressful than actually newspapering was.

As a Pampered Chef salesperson, realistically, I think I’m pursuing the goal of winding down my business, so if you have anything you want to order or are interested in hosting a party, let me know soon!

As just some guy, ya know, I’m pursuing the goal of trying to get some things in order in my life, including, in particular, my house. And I’m trying pathetically to lose weight again.

Beyond that, I’m mainly just pursuing the goal of trying to simplify my life, not overcommit, and get back some free time. To be honest, it’s not necessarily going that well.

Another Draft Done


20121219-122830.jpgThis is one of those things that I included in the “when I start blogging again, I should blog about this” list, but I have no idea what I intended to say about it.

During the time I was offline, we finished another draft of the space shuttle book, “Bold They Rise,” that I’ve been working on for, what, six, seven years now? In fact, getting the book finished was one of the motivators for taking a break from blogging in the first place.

That said, there’s really not a whole lot to say about the latest milestone, other than the fact that writing a book can be a long, complicated process.

The latest revision mainly makes some stylistic changes to the book, changing the way it reads somewhat, and I think we all agree that it makes it much better. Next it goes to peer reviewers and the editorial board to see whether they concur, and then it comes back to us at least another time or two to make more revisions to make it publication-worthy. If all goes well, we’ll be looking at a spring 2014 publication date.

Still, even if the latest submission is just another milestone in a long string of them, a lot of work went into this one, and it was quite a relief to have the book off my plate for a little while.

Author-y Stuff


Various and sundry author updates:

• I recently had the opportunity to buy several copies of my first book, “Homesteading Space” for $15, and would be glad to sell a few at that price. A few people have contacted me already, but if you would be interested in one, let me know. (Out of town folks would have to pay shipping, also; I would be glad to sign/inscribe books per request.)

• I will be giving a couple of “Homesteading”-inspired talks in the next few weeks; one at the public library in Decatur on July 28 at 6:30 p.m., and the other at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center on August 13, time TBD. I would love to see some familiar faces in the audience. I’m planning on revamping my standard talk a bit, after giving an updated version at ISDC in May, to tie history in to the current state of American human spaceflight.

• On Monday, I reviewed the new index which will be included in the forthcoming paperback version of “Homesteading,” which will be published this fall.

• We’ve gotten notes back on the manuscript of our early-space-shuttle history book, “Bold They Rise,” and are working with the publisher on how best to address those. God willing, we’ll be able to begin work on those edits before too long and get that book turned around as well.

I Was There


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I reserve the right to have more thoughts later, but this an e-mail I sent a friend tonight that I’m posting here as a starter.

I saw it.

It was, from a spectator standpoint, not the best launch I’ve been to; definitely in the lower half. It really looked like it wasn’t going to happen today because of weather. The weather ended up complying, but being very cloudy, so she disappeared pretty quickly after launch. In fact, she was out of sight behind clouds long before the sound reached us from the pad.

That said …

That didnt matter. At all. I was there. I was there.

I can’t tell you what that means. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I was there, in person, for the end, for the last launch.

I’ve followed the program my entire life. The shuttle was the first American spacecraft to fly in my life, and I was five when I watched the first launch on TV with my dad.

I’ve spent the last nine years of my life writing about it, and I wrote the story on the last launch before I left NASA. I’ve written a book about the shuttle. This was my ninth time driving down to see a launches, and the fifth I’ve seen. I’ve been invested.

And I got to be there, got to see it with my own eyes when she flew for the last time. And I’m glad.

I can’t believe it’s over. I really have no sense of that yet. I can’t wrap my mind around it.

Even just these mundane parts are slow to really dawn — Forget understanding what it means for the program to be over, I’m still working on the fact that my coming down here to watch launches is over. I don’t know when I’ll see the VAB again. I don’t know when I’ll drive down this road again. I’ve been down here at least a dozen times over the last few years. And I have no idea when I’ll be back. It’s weird.

OK, long answer to a short question. Sorry.

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!

STS-1: 30 Years Ago Today


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From “Bold They Rise” by David Hitt and Heather R. Smith, forthcoming the University of Nebraska Press:

“Before we did STS-1, there had been some, I guess, things going on in the States,” (said Bob Crippen, the pilot of the first space shuttle flight.) “The morale of the United States, I don’t think, was very high. We’d essentially lost the Vietnam War. We had the hostages held in Iran. The President had just been shot. I think people were wondering whether we could do anything right. [STS-1] was truly a morale booster for the United States, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was welcomed by what I would call our allies abroad. So it was obvious that it was a big deal. It was a big deal to the military in the United States, because we planned to use the vehicle to fly military payloads. So it was something that was important. I feel, still feel, that the Space Shuttle is important. I don’t know that I had to impress that on any of my crews. I think they saw it for themselves, that what they were doing was important work that needed to be done.”

Crippen said that STS-1, and human spaceflight, provided a positive rallying point for the American people at the time, and that human space exploration continues to have that effect for many today. “A great many of the people in the United States still believe in the space program. Some think it’s too expensive. Perspective-wise, it’s not that expensive, but I believe that most of the people that have come in contact with the space program come away with a very positive feeling. Sometimes if they have only seen it on TV, maybe they don’t really understand it, and there are some negative vibes out there from some individuals, but most people, certainly the majority, I think, think that we’re doing something right, and it’s something that we should be doing, something that’s for the future, something that’s for the future of the United States and mankind.”

A Shuttle-Launch First — Seconds!


Back in November, I spent about a week in Florida. Waiting for the space shuttle Discovery to not launch on its STS-133 mission.

Going down there for a launch and coming back without seeing it was not a first for me.

This week will be.

I’m going back down this week with Heather and the boys to try once again to watch the launch of STS-133.

I’ve been down to Florida for shuttle launches six times now.

I’ve seen three launches.

I’ve seen three scrubs.

I’ve never been back down to watch one launch that I also watched scrub. This week will be my first time making a second attempt to watch a particular mission launch. Obviously, I’m hoping this trip is more successful than the last.

We hadn’t been planning on trying again for this mission, so soon after our last trip down, but Heather was offered the opportunity to go down to the launch on a work trip, so all four of us are driving down there.

I’m really hoping it goes this time, so that she and the boys get to see it. As we finished up the book, Caden in particular took a real interest in the shuttle, and started talking recently about wanting to go try to see one again. (“Even if we don’t go to Disney this time,” he offered.) On the plus side, it will probably mean more to him this time than it would have in November. And, of course, Heather, having now co-authored a book about the shuttle, really out to see one launch.

So, wish us luck. Should be an interesting trip.

Farewell To A Friend


Retiring the shuttle was the right thing to do.

I truly believed that. And still do.

Or, at least, that it was a right thing to do, and probably the more right thing to do.

After the loss of Columbia eight years ago today, something had to change.It’s really only been less than five years since the shuttle began flying regularly after that tragedy, and the smaller fleet has done a great job supporting that. But the shuttles are aging, and the fleet is smaller. That’s not to say that they couldn’t fly like this for some time to come, but eventually something would have to be done.

And continuing the shuttle program would have been option. Build, at great expense, an OV-106, a new orbiter from the old mold.  Or build an OV-201, developing from scratch a modern vehicle compatible with the classic shuttle infrastructure. Put the existing orbiters through major upgrades to extend their lifespan.

Or so something new.

And when the decision was made a few years ago to take that last option, I endorsed it as the right thing to do.

The shuttle has incredible capabilities. It will likely be a very long time before there’s another single vehicle with as much capability as the shuttle has. We could continue doing the things the shuttle lets us do for a long time.

But many of those capabilities are currently replicated elsewhere. Expendable rockets let us put satellites in orbit. The International Space Station lets us conduct science in space. Soyuz, for the near term, will let us put astronaut in orbit.

And for all those capabilities, one ability the shuttle does not give us is the ability to leave our planet. We’re confined slightly above our atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to do there. But there are plenty of other places to go as well. The loss of Columbia presented the nation with a choice — you have to make a decision, and either way, you have to do something. Do you keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you do something new?

I believe it’s time to do something new.

That said …

Having finished the manuscript of a book about the early years of the shuttle program, I’ll admit that last week I had this sudden dawning realization that, “oh, crap, there’s not going to be any more shuttle.”

I understood it, and was OK with it, from a technical perspective. As a space historian, educator and advocate, it’s the right thing to do.

From an emotional perspective … I guess I really hadn’t let myself thing about it from that perspective. You can’t let sentiment stand in the way of doing what’s right.

But, yeah, when I think about playing with shuttle toys as a kid, when I think about seeing the mock-ups at Space Camp while visiting the museum here, when I think about talking to astronauts that flew on it, when I think about following missions over the years, when I think about watching launches in the last couple of years, when I think about how much I’ve written about it over the past eight years at NASA, when I think about the book we just finished, it’s a little overwhelming.

I’m going to miss her.

And I know she’s not gone yet. Sometime later this year, I will write a post about the last flight of the space shuttle program. And it will be done. And that’s a little overwhelming, too. But that’s not this post. It’s not done yet.

This post is to say, it’s coming, but it’s not here yet. Three more launches are still scheduled.

Don’t take them for granted. Watch the launches. If possible, make your way to Florida for lift-off. Follow the missions. Watch the landings.

While you can.

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