“Following the Light of the Sun, We Left the Old World”

I’ll cede that Christopher Columbus is a historically challenging figure (and apparently was a challenging guy even in his own day), but one also has to cede that he left behind a legacy that has inspired explorers for half a millennia.

Honestly, Columbus Day is usually one of those holidays that I’m grateful for the day off but think little about, but this year it is a little more special to me. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to walk ground that Columbus had walked, and to step foot in water that Columbus had sailed.

Columbus is one of those figures who is so far removed that it’s easy to think of him as a historical figure, a larger-than-life story that’s central to our national creation myths, so the experience of being where he had been — and not as a legend but as a young man — was one of getting a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood man who was Cristoforo Colombo, a very brave and very human individual who changed the world.
The experience was made richer by the fact I was there for a space exploration symposium, gathering with others from around the world united in a desire to sail further into the new ocean of space, to again visit New Worlds.

Regardless of how one feels about this day as a celebration of the past, it should stand as the embodiment of a holiday our calendar other lacks — a celebration of exploration, and a challenge for the future to dare, to sail, to find, and to continue to seek.

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Rome

roman ruins

Rome, reportedly, is on the verge of collapse.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and thousands of years later, the city of 2.8 million remains home to some of the world’s most remarkable fountains, museums, and churches. But it’s also “dirty and disorganized,” reports Reuters. Untamed grass and graffiti can be spotted on city streets and buildings, while a rat infestation reportedly plagues the city center. A bed and breakfast owner says some of the city’s 10.61 million tourists last year complained “the metros never arrive on time, the stations are full of pickpockets, the streets are full of rubbish,” she says. “Instead of getting better, the situation is getting worse.” In fact, the city “is on the verge of collapse,” says the Chamber of Commerce president. “It is unacceptable that a major city which calls itself developed can find itself in such a state of decay.”

But the best example of disorder is perhaps Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the largest in Italy, which has been partially closed since a fire May 7.

Rebecca and I visiting Rome on our honeymoon was serendipity. I wanted to take her to London, her “anywhere in the world” choice and a passion from her history studies. The travel site helpfully informed us we could stay a day longer and still come out cheaper if we split the trip between London and Rome. Well, OK, if we must, we must.

To be sure, Rome very much fit in with the theme of the trip. While there were many places we were excited about see in London, for Rebecca, there was no question about what was the top of the list: the Tower of London. There was incredible appeal to the idea of being where so much history had unfolded, of walking halls walked by people she had read about time and time and time again, of seeing the things they had seen.

Rebecca and I met working at a history museum; for Huntsville, a relatively old building. Dating back 150 years. The Tower of London dates back 1,000 years. History.

So for me, there was immense appeal to the idea of taking Rebecca to London, letting her walk through a building a thousand years old, and then flying to a city that was older than that when the first stone of the tower was laid. To begin the trip seeing ancient history, and then to see history that was already ancient long before the first place was new.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I've long known what the Coliseum looks like; I've seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

This is one of the pictures I was excited about being able to take. I’ve long known what the Coliseum looks like; I’ve seen countless pictures. But until I went, I had no sense of the context, what it was like to walk down the street to the Coliseum. The mix of ancient and modern was fascinating.

I was captivated by the idea of it. I was curious what it would be like to go to a contemporary city building on foundations thousands of years old. Not just to see ruins, but to see modern life among the history.

I left with no answer to that, really. I saw a lot of history in Rome. Amazing, humbling amounts of history. And I saw the modern metropolis built on that foundation. But it wasn’t just a city that was thousands of years old.

It was Rome.

Walking through the city, the legacy upon which it is built is inescapable. But it’s not just a legacy of long history, it’s a legacy of greatness. Of empire. Of primacy.

You see the ruins of the greatness of ancient Rome, and you see the relics of attempts, time and time again, to recapture that greatness, to restore that glory. From emperors to popes to fascists, the way to show you should be taken seriously is to reflect, restore, recreate its history, to call back to a time when all of western civilization took Rome seriously. The city is an endless cycle, on centuries-long centers, of using the past to show strength in the present. Of attempting to claim the destiny of The Eternal City.

An endless cycle of Rome striving to be, once again, Rome.

My experience there in March was not as bad as that article describes, but it did seem a city on the low side of that cycle. Still beautiful, still exotic, still a feast for the senses. But a bit more relaxed than ambitious, with more inertia and drive. I readily acknowledge we were in more touristy areas, and were there mainly on the weekend, but the main industry I saw was the selling of selfie sticks. (Or, in the rain, umbrellas. I’m convinced that if I were to invent an umbrella that converted to a selfie stick, I could own that city.)

But there was also a sense it didn’t matter. Time in Rome means a different thing. Rome may be complacent today, but in 50 years, or a century or two, it will be glorious again. A long time to you or me, but a blink of the eye to Rome.

Perhaps Rome is on the verge of collapse. Rome has collapsed before. Rome will collapse again.

And, in between, other cities come and go.

Rome remains.


Apollo 8 and Orion: “Christmas Miracles”


I really enjoyed reading this great blog post by astronaut Rhea Seddon about the “Christmas Miracle” of Apollo 8, because I was thinking about that very topic two weeks ago today.

Rhea talks about what a miracle Apollo 8 was for NASA, but it was, in maybe even a bigger way, a miracle for the nation. 1968 had been a very dark year for the United States, which had seen the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and was mired in Vietnam. And then, on Christmas Eve, human beings are reading words of hope as they circle the moon. It was a reminder of who we as a species are, and what we can be.

Two weeks ago today, I was standing on the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. And the night before, Twitter could not have been more depressing; the trending topics about police controversies and civil unrest seemed adequate reasons for despair. And then, for two days, social media was ‪#‎Orion‬. And, while EFT-1 was admittedly not Apollo 8, it was nonetheless a reminder again that we are and can can be more.

I love what I do. I’m honored to be a part of it. There are countless reasons why I think what NASA and the space industry do is important, from technological advancement to scientific knowledge to economic benefit. But there are a lot of intangibles, too, and this is high among them — because, as JFK said of the moon, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” because that goal constantly requires us to be better than we’ve been before.

Mars Rocket Yadda Yadda Horses’ Butts


According to an old story that’s circulated the internet for years, the dimensions of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were prescribed by the width of a horse’s rear end.

The story goes from Roman chariots that were made wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses to British roads that were built for those chariots and ended up with ruts where their wheels were to Engish wagons that were built wide enough to fit those ruts to trains that were built from the jigs and toolings for those wagon and thus U.S. railroads were all built to the width of a Roman chariot and thus based on the width of two horse’s butts. And then it takes it a step farther to the fact that the shuttle solid rocket boosters were designed to be transported via rail and thus had to fit through a railway tunnel determined by the width of a  train and thus, yadda yadda, horses.

The particulars of the story get some stuff wrong. U.S. railways didn’t originally have a standard gauge, and were built to a variety of widths before being standardized, so there was no particular magic number that they had to be. On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that the original railroad cars were horse-drawn, so there was a more direct connection between the widths of train tracks and horses, so there is some basic truth to the story, even if the particulars aren’t exactly right.

I was thinking about this story again recently because of interesting fact I learned about the Space Launch System rocket I’m honored to support.

The core stage of SLS is 27.6 feet in diameter, because it’s designed to have the same diameter as the space shuttle’s external tank in order to more effectively take advantage of existing manufacturing and launch facilities. We were talking about that at work, and the question came up as to why the shuttle’s external tank had that diameter. We suspected at first it, in turn, had something to do with the facilities left over from the Saturn days, but weren’t able to find the answer anyway.

So I called someone I know who worked on the external tank, and asked him. And the answer has to do with the fact that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were to be mounted to the side of the external tank. Given the volatility of the fuels inside the tank, you wanted the attach points to be somewhere on the structure off of the fuel tanks inside it. The length of the solid rocket booster had already been established, and that determined what the length of the external tank would need to be to properly accommodate the attach points. The engineers knew what the volume of the tank had to be in order to hold enough fuel for launch, so once the length was established, the diameter was just a question of division.

Which means that the next time astronauts fly around the moon, they’ll be launched on a vehicle with a diameter determined loosely by the width of horses’ butts.

Dead Man Talking

20121214-065702.jpgAnd then there was the time I dressed up as a dead man and hung out in the cemetery.

Someday, there’s going to be a post about how the last year and a half or so have changed me, and this post relates to one of those ways. My writing and acting backgrounds have merged into a new skillset, and I had a neat opportunity to put it to good use a little while back.

I met the awesome Jacque Reeves, who has an incredible knack for breathing life into Huntsville history, through the Depot earlier in the year, and mentioned that if she ever needed help with any of the fun things she does, I’d love to come play. That chance came a few weeks ago when I was invited to participate in the annual Cemetery Stroll at Maple Hill Cemetery.

In the Stroll, local folks dress up as historical characters buried in Maple Hill, stand by their graves, and tell their stories to visitors. The event continues to expand each year to the point where it’s now almost impossible to hear all of the stories, which keeps it fresh for repeat visitors.

I was called in as a last-minute replacement to portray Thomas Bibb, the second governor of Alabama. My museum connections helped my lay hands on some rather dapper period attire, and I rather misguidedly shaved my full beard off in favor of muttonchoppy sideburns. (I was apparently the only guy to sacrifice facial hair for his character, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.)

The last-minuteness of it added an element of challenge; I was provided a couple of sheets of information about Bibb, which I supplemented with a bit of my own research, but then had only a few days to make it my own and be ready to perform it. I found myself wishing it had been this easy to learn history when I was in school; it’s far more interesting when you take a narrative approach instead of a raw data-dump angle.

Bibb was an interesting guy. His family played a huge role in the formation of Alabama as a state, and he became governor when his brother, the first governor, was thrown from a horse and killed. He served out the remainder of the term, and decided he’d had enough. Of course, for all his accomplishments, the fact that capture more people’s attention was that, after he died in New Orleans, he was shipped back home in a barrel full of whiskey; a testament to his stature.

It was a great honor to get asked to participate this year, and I look forward to giving another lifeless performance next year!

Stars And Stripes Forever

So two of the things I love about working at the Huntsville Depot Museum — learning new things, and playing dress up.

The whole experience has been an adventure in the former. I knew nothing about anything when I started. I’d worked as a tour guide before, as a volunteer at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, but that was very much in my comfort zone. Space and rockets are two things I know. The Depot plays to multiple areas that are very much not my strong suits, from trains to the Civil War. But I’ve greatly enjoyed learning about those things, and getting to the point that I can give an informative and engaging tour that also has my personal touch to it.

As to the latter — in addition to giving tours, a big part of my job at the Depot involves children’s programs, of which we have several, and are continuing to add more. For the train programs, we just wear our usual black-and-white Depot duds, but for others, we dress up a bit. So far, I’ve worn both the blue and the gray for Civil War programs.

Yesterday, we had a new program honoring veterans and giving an overview of different aspects of American wars throughout history. I was told last week that I needed to be ready to lead a session on medicine during the Korean conflict, and to get a costume together. And I loved both parts. I enjoyed the challenge of going from zero to ready on the session material, and it was surprisingly enjoyable to walk around the Depot grounds this morning in costume. I actually do feel different sometimes when I don the different garbs.

Everyone did an awesome job with the program, and it was really neat seeing the diversity of the costumes. As much as I enjoyed my part of the program, I loved being the official photographer and getting shots of all the presentations.

Speaking Event Tonight

If anyone’s interested, I’ll be giving a free talk tonight at the Decatur Public Library  at 504 Cherry St. NE, Decatur, Ala., beginning at 6:30 p.m. The event will be open to the public.

I will, of course,  be hitting the high points of my “Homesteading Space”-inspired lecture, “Everything I Really Need to Know About Space Exploration I Learned From Skylab,” which is a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

But, given the recent end of the space shuttle program, and my post-NASA freedom to talk more candidly about the current state of spaceflight and the future, I’ll also be updating the talk some to discuss those issues, and I’ll take questions from the audience as well. I’ll also have some books to sign after the event.

I’m too modest to toot my own horn about my speaking abilities, but I will note that after my first public lecture two years ago, one of the members of my improv troupe came up to me, and, with a shocked expression, noted, “You were actually funny!” Um, thanks, I think?

If you can’t make it tonight, I’ll be giving another talk on Saturday, August 13, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.


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