New Old School

I love when, every few years, they release original-trilogy Star Wars figures in the old vintage packaging style from 30 years ago. It makes me happy.

Releasing prequel-trilogy figures in packaging based on the vintage design? Seeing an 80s-style Revenge of the Sith card? Yeah, that makes me rather happy, too.

Completely Floored

“On the table in the mock-up room, there’s a rather distinctive piece of red triangular grid. What are y’all doing with that?”

I had tagged along on the annual intern and co-op tour of Marshall Space Flight Center, and was visiting the propulsion research facility that has been used for development of the Ares I rocket. The highlight of the tour is full-scale mock-ups of the rocket’s instrument unit and engine housing. The piece of grid in question was on a table in that room. I knew why it was there in the first place, but didn’t know why it was still there.

So I asked the tour guide, and he told me. And hearing the final part of the story was one of those moments that makes me proud just to be associated with NASA.

I knew what the grid was. It’s a piece of flooring from Skylab, or, more accurately, from the Skylab trainer decomposing outside the U.S. Space & Rocket Center here in Huntsville. (Donations to the Skylab Restoration Project can be made to the USSRC.)

The floor, as described in Homesteading Space,was a relic of the development of Skylab. Originally, Skylab was going to be launched as a live, fueled Saturn IB stage. Once it arrived in orbit, astronauts would retrofit it from a live rocket stage into a space station. To expedite that process, engineers looked at what could be done to provide a head-start on the conversion. It was determined that the stage could be launched with floors in place, so long as the floors were a grid pattern than would be allow fuel to pass through it easily.

Eventually, the decision was made to use a Saturn V for the launch instead of the smaller Saturn IB, which meant that Skylab could be launched as a fully ready space station, instead of as a rocket stage. The change meant that the floor was no longer needed for its original purpose, since the stage wouldn’t be fueled. In the meantime, however, a secondary application of the design had been discovered. The obvious problem with floors in microgravity, of course, is that things don’t stay on them. You can’t, nominally, actually stand on the floor. But someone realized that the grid floor lent itself to that nicely. Footwear was designed with a triangular piece that fit into the grid, allowing Skylab crew members to lock themselves into place easily to stand in front of equipment. The original purpose was obsolete, but the secondary purpose was invaluable to the program.

I was touring the Ares I mock-up building years ago, when I saw a piece of the Skylab floor. I asked about it, and was told that Ares engineers were looking at using the design for the new rocket. The human factors engineers were trying to figure out the best way to install equipment in the instrument unit. One of the proposals was to place equipment on a shelf that would be made along the lines of the Skylab floor. The triangular design would be sturdy enough to support the equipment during launch, without wasting precious mass.

Ultimately, however, the idea was rejected in favor of mounting the instruments directly to the interior wall of the ring. So I was a bit surprised to see the floor piece still in the room. And that brings us back to the beginning of this post.

The person I asked, who was leading the tour, was in human factors — designing the equipment with the people who will be using it in mind. Ares I was being designed so that it could be serviced on the launch pad in the event of a problem in order to expedite turnaround time. And that requires that the equipment be designed to be accessible, but also with an eye toward the fact that human beings aren’t perfect and hard hats can catch the edge of instruments or tools can bang against things they’re not supposed to. Someone had the idea of using the Skylab floor design for yet another application — tools carried in to the IU have the potential to hit something or be dropped or cause problems otherwise. But what if tools weren’t necessary? The Skylab floor and footwear allowed astronauts to lock into place and unlock easily, with no tools. If the same concept could be applied to the IU equipment, the need for tools could be reduced and the risks they present reduced correspondingly. The Skylab floor, in this case, wasn’t being used so much as the answer as the question — how can the same thing be accomplished in a way that could be used for Ares.

With Ares I most likely canceled, the odds are that particular application of the Skylab floor design won’t be flying. But the same concept could carry forward into future vehicles.

That said, it’s amazing how one piece of pretty simple design has had four separate applications in the space program over the years; how much inspiration engineers have taken from a repeating triangular pattern. It’s a testament to the creativity in NASA both decades ago and today, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if future engineers discover even more solutions in those simple triangles.

Not My Type …

… but I wish it was.

Linkdump And Stuff

OK, I’m so behind on blogging it’s unreal. Sorry. Someday I’m going to start writing the posts that I’ve been meaning to since, like, February. But not today. Today, though, I’m going to clear out some of my blog fodder folder.

Life on Mars

So apparently that Mars meteorite that became famous on my 21st birthday really is evidence of life on Mars, according to the people who said it was 14 years ago. The relevant thing is, fewer people are saying it isn’t. At this point, I wonder what, short of actually sending people there, it would take to say conclusively that Mars has or has had life, and what the impact of that would be. Just not sure it would be that big a deal anymore.

Defying Gravity

I saw this story recently about country star Keith Urban going on a Zero G flight that managed to annoy me from both country music and space buff perspectives. On the former front, it fails to mention the rather obvious connection that Urban’s last album was Defying Gravity. On the science front, the article explains how the whole microgravity flight works: “The plane obviously traveled high enough to get out of gravitational pull.” Well. Obviously. Sigh.


It made me rather happy to see that my post about the Simon & Garfunkel concert was discovered by a couple of forums, 2010 Tour Reviews (starting w/ #24) and, and that at both places it got positive feedback. Always nice when words find homes.

Mississippi Days

It was weird going on my Facebook the day after the Mississippi tornadoes a couple of weeks ago and seeing two updates from the Mississippi Press Association in my feed, one from the Choctaw Plaindealer in Ackerman, and one from Gary Andrews at The Yazoo Herald. During my career in Mississippi newspapers, Gary was my general manager when I worked in Houston, and I was general manager of The Plaindealer. It’s been a while since I left that world, but the connections are slow to fade.

Purely Referential

Homesteading Space was mentioned recently in an article about design expert Raymond Lowey. It always makes me happy to see the book cited as a reference, though I’m curious in this case how the mention was even discovered.

Alot of Humor

The Alot is Better Than You at Everything

The Plans I Have…

Relevant Magazine has an article on why Jeremiah 29:11 is the most misused verse in the Bible. The ironic thing is, I have long felt this, but for reasons entirely different. And I don’t know whether it’s misused most badly, but it probably is misused most often. It’s everywhere (and was particularly prevalent when I was going through DivorceCare): “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Among other things, the article’s issue with the verse is that people stop there; that, really, if you’re going to cite that verse, you need to go on to verses 13-14: “You will find me, if you seek me with all your heart … and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you.” It’s not just, “sit back and I will do awesome things for you,” there’s some amount of personal involvement there, as well.

The article also makes a good point that I do like — that even the promise in verse 11 must have been very disappointing to its original audience. The people were in exile, and the situation, to be blunt, kinda sucked. They probably would have preferred that God, you know, do something about it. Instead, He comes back with this promise — don’t worry, I’ll do something about it in the future. Maybe not even in the lifetime of the people receiving it. Probably not what they were looking for.

My issue with the verse is completely different. My issue is that it’s a specific promise, at a specific time, for a specific people, about a specific issue. We would like to think that it’s relevant to us, that God is saying that he has a plan for me, of future and hope. And it does sound like the sort of thing he would say. But that doesn’t mean this verse is for me. Yes, there are plenty of Biblical promises that you can claim personally. But, really, claiming this one is no different than saying God has promised that you’ll be the mother of the Messiah or the father of a great nation or will lead your people out of bondage. Yeah, those promises are in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean they apply to you.

A Year in the Life


Funny Because It’s Sad Because It’s True

From Overheard in the Newsroom, about the demise of payphones:
Editor: “Where would Superman change nowadays?”
Reporter: “Change? Where would he work?”

Four Links

It’s Saturday, so no point in doing in major blogging, but figured I’d share a few brief things:

One is this link my Google Alert sent me to a listing on Astro Auction for some Skylab-flown cassette tapes. I’m mentioning this link not because these tapes would be the perfect gift for me if someone were looking to buy me something, but, rather, because, in describing the tapes, the listing states: “Playing music from these tapes while on Skylab is a topic well detailed in the book ‘Homesteading Space’ by David Hitt.” Heh. I’m like an expert, or something.

The next is also from my Google Alert, even though it technically has nothing to do with me. This article about how the new Missile Defense Agency logo represents Obama as a type of the Antichrist would be entertaining enough as it is, but merited my notice because it cites “David Hitt, an intellectual property attorney and former 32nd degree Freemason with an interest in occult symbolism.” For the record, uh, not me.

This xkcd strip is apropos of nothing, but amused me.

Finally, I’ve set up a page where you can ask me questions. The responses are posted automatically to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I figured I would mention it here in case anyone had anything questions they would like me to answer. Questions answered so far are “What is your opinion on Space Elevators?” and “Do you have any tips for writings on perseverance and getting things finished?” Submitted questions in the queue include “What song lyrics sum up your life right now?” and “What is the meaning of life?”

Intelligent Design

So the cool thing about Facebook is that it tells you the things about yourself that it never occurred to you to wonder. For example, until this morning, I had never asked myself how people thought I compared, looks-wise, with The Huntsville Times. But, apparently, at least one anonymous person thinks I’m cuter than the local newspaper.

Now, as a former newspaper editor with extensive experience in design, it forced me to then evaluate whether I had ever come up with a newspaper design that I would have said was more attractive than myself. And, given how I looked when I was designing newspapers, I would say almost certainly so. To be fair, I can’t say that “cute” was generally what I was aiming for in publication design, but, then, I can’t say that “cute” is what I am for for myself either, so it all balances out.

Graphic Language

It’s not that I didn’t have any interest in becoming a writer. It’s just that it didn’t seem like a realistic goal. And that’s why it happened completely accidentally.

I enjoyed writing stories from very early on, and even started my first novel when I was in middle school. Granted, it was a Star Trek book, but I got a decent ways into it for a middle schooler, as I recall. In high school, I went for a more serious literary approach and dabbled with short stories, and even wrote some poems, as unlikely as that may be now. (That said, I’ve been really considering writing a poem on here before too long, inspired by Kyle, from my Journey Group.)

But I never considered writing as a career. I’m not sure why. I wanted to write, but always figured I would get a different job, and write as a side. I think maybe I thought being a professional writer required a level of talent I didn’t have. (This mindset would continue for quite a while. When I first had the idea to work with Owen on Homesteading, my first reaction was that was silly; it was the sort of thing professional writers did. It was literally months before it occurred to me that the fact that I write for a living arguably makes me, you know, a professional writer.)

From the time I was old enough to start seriously considering a career, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, a desire that stayed with me until about halfway through high school. I joke that it was at that point that I realized that it involved math and science; that I had always thought I would just be drawing pretty pictures of spaceships: “OK, we’ll put the warp drive here …”

The truth is that I had a couple of math classes that I could have done better in, and at the same time I first got involved in my high school newspaper. Again, completely accidentally. I had been operating a computer for the guidance counselor, they needed someone to use the computer, so i was drafted. One could make the argument that operating a modem terminal and doing computer graphic arts aren’t really the same thing, but in my teenage arrogance, I figured, sure, I could do that.

And, of course, I could. At the time, newspaper computer graphics and design was actually a pretty decent fit for me, taking advantage of the fact that I’m about equally left- and right-brained. I loved it, and had an aptitude for it. During my senior year in high school, I even worked an internship at The Huntsville Times as a graphic artist, doing some work that I’m still proud of to this day.

By graduation, I knew that this was what I wanted to do professionally, which was where I ran into a problem. I was pretty decent doing graphics on a computer, which was pretty forgiving if you knew what you were doing. Working in physical media, however, I was not nearly so talented. Give me pencil and paper, and, on a good day, I could do competent work. Majoring in graphic design, however, was going to require doing good work consistently.

The solution was obvious, though — I didn’t just want to be a graphic artist, I wanted to be a newspaper graphic artist. So instead of majoring in graphic arts, I could major in journalism. Plus, being the ambitious guy that I was, I had the idea that I might someday work my way up through the ranks from graphics and design to being an editor. Oh, sure, that’s completely not the way it works in real life, but only because I hadn’t done it yet. And clearly my journalism degree would help me make that transition.

And so, I started working toward a degree in journalism, and I started working at the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, as a graphic artist.

But a funny thing happened on the way to graduation. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of taking reporting classes, and being encouraged, primarily by fellow DM staffer Joe Gurner, to do some writing, I stopped being a graphic artist. By the time I graduated, I was a reporter.

Oh, sure, I still dabbled a bit, doing graphics every once and a while for papers, with less and less frequency as time went on. And, ironically, I did ultimately make the transition from graphic artist to editor of a weekly newspaper in about seven years, just with a long detour through reporting.

When I took my current job, I dropped “newspaper” from my role, and became strictly a writer. The last vestige of my original (well, post-engineering) career goal was gone.

It’s been interesting, though, because the team I work on for NASA is composed primarily of former school teachers and former newspaper reporters. And, generally, the companies that win our contract don’t tradionally hire former school teachers and newspaper reporters, so they have a hard time matching us to their existing job title choices. At one point, I was a word processor operator — oh, sure, I’m an award-winning wordsmith, but, more importantly, I know how to push buttons on a keyboard! My eighth-grade keyboard teacher would be so proud!

Comparitively speaking, the “tech writer” title I wear today, while not entirely accurate, is far more appealing. But, as of next month, I will no longer be a tech writer.

Today, I got my job offer from the company that won the new contract at work. And, once again, they had a hard time matching what we do to their existing titles.

So, in a curious turn of events, as of February 1, my offiicial title will be — graphic artist.