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.

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.

Ghost Walk/Cemetery Stroll Schedule


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For the next few weeks, Rebecca Hitt and I will be wearing funny things and talking about stuff pretty much every weekend. If you’d like to see us, here’s where we’ll be:

Friday, Oct. 7, I’ll be doing the Huntsville Ghost Walk starting at 6 p.m.*

Saturday, Oct. 8, Rebecca will be doing Saturday Scientist at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center at 10 a.m.. She’ll be doing the Decatur Ghost Walk and I’ll be doing the Huntsville Ghost Walk, both at 6 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 14, I’ll be doing the Huntsville Ghost Walk starting at 6 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 15, Rebecca will be doing the Decatur Ghost Walk and I’ll be doing the Huntsville Ghost Walk, both at 6 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 16, we’ll both be doing the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll from 2-4:30.

Saturday, Oct. 22, Rebecca will be doing the Decatur Ghost Walk at 6 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 29, Rebecca will be doing the Decatur Ghost Walk at 6 p.m.

(When I’m doing a 6 p.m. Ghost Walk, I may or may not also do an 8:30 p.m. walk depending on crowds.)

For more information on Ghost Walks, visit here: http://huntsvilleghostwalk.com

For more information on the Cemetery Stroll, visit here: http://www.huntsvillepilgrimage.org/cemetery_stroll.html

If You Have To Choose Between History And Vampires…


Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This past weekend, I went down to Tuscaloosa to interview my friend Jeff Weddle, whom I’d not seen in way too long, about his latest book, When Giraffes Flew.

We met up at a Barnes and Noble, and, out of curiosity, I went over to their search computer, and typed in some names.

Jeff, Jesse J. Holland, Claudia Gray and I were all at Ole Miss within a year or so of each other, and we all had our first books come out during a similar span back in 2007-2008. I, of course, with space history tome Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story; Jesse with Washington, D.C., African American history/tour guide Black Men Built the Capitol; Jeff with a non-fiction look at a unique chapter of publishing in Bohemian New Orleans; and Claudia with YA vampire romance Evernight.

Turns out, if you type all four of our names into the search computer at the Barnes & Noble in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they currently only have books by one of us in stock. Guess who?

She’s outsold us, her books are in way more everyday venues, and, in an odd thing for me to be slightly jealous of, can be commonly found remaindered, which to me is the ultimate level of authorial success.

And, then, earlier this year, it was announced that she’d be writing one of the first new-continuity Star Wars books pre-The Force Awakens. Like, somebody who worked at my college newspaper is now writing actual, real, canon Star Wars stuff, which is kind of mind-blowing.

So the morals of this story, kids, are:

1) I know some pretty awesome people.

2) Ole Miss produces some pretty awesome alum.

3) The latest from these talented authors, in addition to Gray’s Star Wars book Lost Stars, are Weddle’s southern gothic short story collection When Giraffes Flew and Holland’s The Invisibles, available in early 2016. Collect them all.

4) If you want to be successful as an author, and are debating between history and vampires, always go with vampires.

5) I love Star Wars, and, yeah, the idea of actually getting to be part of the story is unfathomable.

But, then, so is the story I do get to be part of. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My Bad Advice On Book Publishing


printed manuscript for Homesteading space

The original manuscript for “Homesteading Space.”

“How did you go about getting your books published?”

When I had two people ask me to tell this story in two weeks, I realized that maybe I should, you know, write it down. I get this question every so often, and I’m always glad to share my experiences, even if they’re not necessarily that helpful.

Because, really, my answer to that question, if I’m being honest is: “Be really lucky.”

My first book, “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,” has its origins back in 2003. I was working for the NASAexplores education web site, coming up with story ideas for weekly articles, and happened to notice that it was the 30th anniversary of the Skylab program. I started working on an article about the history of Skylab, and, in the process of researching it, noticed that there was a Skylab astronaut, Owen Garriott, living here in Huntsville. Inspired by this fortuitous discovery, I contacted Dr. Garriott to see if he would talk to me for the article. He was so gracious and helpful that I decided to try my luck again and contact two more Skylab astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Jerry Carr, so I could include one from each crew.

The thing that struck me working on the article, though, was how little information there was about Skylab. Really, I thought, someone should write a book about it. With that thought was the idea that writing said book would be a fun thing to do, but that such undertakings are the bailiwick of professional writers, not people like me.

Fast forward a few months later, and there was a reunion event in Huntsville marking the 30th anniversary of Skylab. The book idea popped into my head again, and I pushed it aside just as successfully on this occasion as the first.

Fast forward another couple of months, and I’m at Space Center Houston for the International Space Station Educator’s Conference. (It would later become the Space Exploration Educators Conference, but at this point the idea that human exploration beyond Earth orbit might actually happen again was only about three weeks old.) In the museum, they have the best Skylab exhibit anywhere. Walking through it, the book idea pushed its way into my head again. I dismissed it again with the same logic — that’s something for professional writers to do — but this time it pushed harder. “You know, David, you write for a living. That’s kind of what ‘professional writer’ means.”

I decided that when I got home, I would contact Dr. Garriott with the idea, which I was then picturing as offering to ghost-write his memoir, including Skylab and his Spacelab mission on the shuttle. I sent him a note asking him if he’d let me buy him lunch to discuss the idea. Honestly, at the time, I figured there was a very high likelihood he would say no to the book, but that I would get to have lunch with someone who spent two months in space, which still would have counted as a huge win to me.

Instead he said yes, let’s do it.

Well, um, OK.

david hitt, owen garriott, and joe kerwin

The three ‘Homesteading Space’ co-authors, hard at work on the book

Again, honestly, I’d now gotten a bit ahead of myself, I had no idea how to go about writing a book with an astronaut, but I figured, not completely incorrectly, that it was a lot like writing other things, but much longer. I also had no idea how to go about getting a book co-written with an astronaut published, and that was perhaps a little more daunting.

I called a friend of mine who worked for a major publishing house in New York at the time, and he gave me the one bit of good advice this story contains: Go to a bookstore. Find books similar to the one you’re writing. Look through the acknowledgements of those books. Find ones where the author thanks his agent. You now know agents who will work with this type of book, and do well enough that the author thanks them for it. Send proposals to those agents.

As it happens, I never even actually used the one bit of good advice in this story. Owen had the time had been helping another author, Colin Burgess, with a book on NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, and mentioned to Colin that he and I were going to be working on a memoir. Colin, whom I knew through the online collectSPACE community, said that he was editing a series for the University of Nebraska Press on the history of spaceflight, and the author who had originally signed up to write the Skylab volume had just dropped out. Maybe we would be willing to turn the memoir into a Skylab history?

If we were interested, Colin said, we would have to submit a proposal, which he said he would be happy to help us write. They would then review the proposal they helped us write, and, assuming it was acceptable, we’d be given a contract. The offer had appeal. Everything I had started trying to figure out about how to get published just got resolved. We decided to do it. We even wrote the proposal all by ourselves, figuring if we couldn’t write a proposal without help, we probably didn’t need to be undertaking to write a book. It was accepted; we had a contract.

Joe Kerwin joined us later; when we went to interview him for the book he mentioned that he had also been interested in writing one, so we decided to form a super-team-up for “Homesteading.” I’ll note that Owen and Joe did an incredible amount of work on the book; people have assumed that in a partnership like this the writer does the writing and the astronauts lend their names and stories, but they both actually wrote large portions of the book. And a huge amount of credit also goes to Ed Gibson from the third crew of Skylab, who, through not listed as an author, also made incredible contributions to the finished product, both in the coverage of his mission and in the science chapter.

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of “Homesteading Space”

Bold They Rise” came about similarly. Toward the end of “Homesteading,” Colin asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write one of the series’ two shuttle books. The conversation took place at just the right moment — I was far enough out of doing the real heavy lifting for Homesteading that the intimidation of the work was a little removed, but publication was imminent enough that there was a lot of excitement. So, yes, I know someone — me. The proposal process got extended when an astronaut co-author was briefly attached, and then unattached, from the project, but other than that, it worked in much the same way.

“Homesteading” took about four years from inception through publication; “Bold They Rise” about twice that long, though much more sporadically with more stops and starts. “Homesteading,” co-authored with a couple of astronauts who opened some amazing doors for me, was much more fun to work on. I’m proud of being able to tell the undertold story of Skylab and preserving it for history; but I’ve had a more personal relationship with the shuttle and so I was honored to be able to write that love letter to the program. I think the shorter “Bold They Rise” is a little more accessible, but I also think that “Homesteading” has some really great nuggets that make it worth the read.

In both cases, we completed the manuscript and sent it to the publisher. It goes through a peer review, in which other authors tell the publisher whether they think the manuscript should be published, would be publishable with some work, or shouldn’t be published. “Homesteading” was the former; “Bold They Rise” came back as the second, and, honestly, is a much better book for it. I was perhaps too humble in undertaking BTR; I wanted it to be a whole lot of the voices of the astronauts and very little of mine. Which sounds noble, but the book suffered from the lack of a stronger narrative. The current draft goes much further in fixing that than what we originally submitted. In the case of “Homesteading,” which received a stronger Go from the peer review, there were still some recommended changes, and those were made.

The manuscripts were resubmitted, and went through an edit from a proof-reader hired by the publisher. The manuscript comes back, you make the edits, and send it back. This is the last time your book is yours to do with as you please. It comes back to you one final time, in the form of page proofs, in which it’s laid out the way it will look in print. You make one final look through, just to make sure there are no glaring errors, but unless there is something huge (and at this point there shouldn’t be), you can’t make minor tweaks but you can’t make any changes that would move even one word from one page to another. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had as a writer, having to reread my work but not being able to change it. Reading from this vantage point of having my hands tied, I kept second-guessing myself. The same sentences which I’d loved the last time I read the book now seemed like they could be oh so much better if only I were allowed to change them. (Now that the book is published, they’ve gone back to being just fine again, thankfully.) This was particularly true of the beginning of “Homesteading,” which during that reading felt like I had been trying way too hard to ‘write a book.’ ‘Oh, look at me, I’m such a serious writer,’ 11-years-ago me apparently thought, according to 7-years-ago me. (Me today suspects 11-year-ago me probably really was trying too hard, but that 7-year-ago me may have been a little high on his horse in judging him.)

A big envelope full of

A big envelope full of “Bold They Rise”

The manuscript was mailed back one final time, and the next time I saw it was in the form of a box of printed books on my doorstep. Which, for the record, is a very nice feeling. Someone gave me the advice, which I followed, of signing your first copy for yourself; those two volumes sit in my living room. (I also have “yearbook copies” of each book, in which I get signatures from the people who helped me work on them or who are discussed in the book.)

People ask about royalties, and I’ll just say this is not something you do for the money. For a while, I probably spent more working on “Homesteading” than I made out of it, though that may no longer be true. Part of that comes from working with an academic press, which has its pros and cons. A commercial publisher might have provided more marketing assistance and helped us have more mainstream success, but part of that help most likely would have been in the form of a loss of control. In writing “Homesteading,” a huge motivator for us was preserving the story for history, and so we were grateful for a publisher that gave us the freedom to tell as much of the story as we wanted.

So that’s my story. Like I said, I think the best piece of advice in there is one I didn’t use, so take it all for what it’s worth.

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Beyond that:

• Connections are good. Make them. Use them.

• The best way to write a book is to write a book. It will never be easy. You’ll never have time. The way you do it is this: You type one word. And then you type another word after that. And another word after that. Until there are no more words your story needs. The more time passes between the words, the longer the process will take, but as long as you keep doing it, it will get done. If you wait for the day you have all the time to write all the words, odds are it won’t.

• Write a book because it’s a book you want to write. If you have enough passion to pursue it, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

• I work best with accountability. It’s why I had co-authors on both books; it’s much easier for me to get things done when there’s someone I’m responsible to working with me. I’m not saying you’re the same, I’m saying that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Know both, play to your strengths, compensate for your weaknesses.

The other common question: It’s entirely possible I’ll write another one, but not today. Work keeps me very busy, and my free time goes to improv and history work and freelance writing and Huntsville blogging and being a newlywed husband. Those aren’t an excuse — if I were passionate about writing a book, I would type words around those things. But right, those things are where my passion lies, and a book today would detract from those things. There is an idea I want to write eventually that’s different from my first two, but it’s still boiling in the back of my head. I’d like to write fiction, but I’m not going to start typing until I have an idea that compels me. I’ve had a couple of conversations about collaborating on a project, and for the right project and person, I’m alway open to that.

And, of course, someday the rocket I’m helping to build will need its story told. Part of me would be content letting someone else tell it. But part of me would like to at least be involved in the telling…

Europa and Eupora


Europa

This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.

Space Adventures, A Decadal Survey


It’s taken two stints to get there, but today marks a total of 10 years that I’ve spent supporting NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center. I’ve had some incredible experiences working here during those years, and many more not directly work-related that the job inspired. I’m lucky to do something that I truly truly love.

When you don’t work your 10 years continuously, you don’t get a pin or recognition. But you do get a whole lot of good memories.

Of course, on the to-do list for the next 10 years is opening the solar system for human exploration. So check back then …