Two Days With Two Chris Krafts


It took hundreds of thousands of people to send humans to the moon in the 1960s.

Of those, there are a handful without whom NASA as we know it doesn’t exist; giants that stand above the rest. The late Christopher Columbus Kraft, who passed away yesterday, is one of that small number.

Mission Control is such an intrinsic part of the character of human spaceflight that it’s easy to forget sometimes that it had to be invented, that it didn’t just spring naturally from the idea of astronauts and spaceships.

Inventing Mission Control was just Chris Kraft’s first act at NASA, in a career that shaped the Johnson Space Center and the agency itself.

A few years ago, Rick Houston, who wrote Wheels Stop, the companion to my shuttle book sent me a picture of a copy of Homesteading Space setting on a shelf, next to books by John Glenn and Gene Cernan. He said he took the picture somewhere interesting, but would have to wait to tell me where. A year later, he said I could share where it was – Chris Kraft’s house. It remains one of my favorite places I’ve seen the book end up.

I had two opportunities to talk with Chris Kraft.

The first was when I was working on Homesteading Space. I was heading out to Houston, and I had plans to have dinner after I arrived with Joe Kerwin, one of my coauthors on the book, and his wife. I showed up at Joe’s house, and he asked if it was all right that he invited the Krafts to join us.

In a word, yes. Dinner with one of the legends of NASA history? Yes, that was perfectly all right.

I ate rather agreeable steak that night with the Kerwins and the Krafts. It was a wonderful dinner. Kraft was friendly and interesting and amiable. There was a bit of space conversation, but there was more talk about things they were involved in today; nonprofits they worked with to make the world a better place. An utterly pleasant evening with a delightful man.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

The stories I’d heard of Kraft were not stories of a pleasant and delightful man.

This is the man who famously wrote of being the Flight Director in Mission Control, “While the mission is under way, I’m Flight. And Flight is God.”

The man I’d heard about was a force of nature, with opinions so strong they functioned as fact, with no tolerance for fools, who was adamant things be done the right way, and the right way was the way that ensured mission success.

Not, in other words, the man I had dinner with.

The next time I met Kraft was at his home. This visit was not a social call; it was business. I was working on my second book, the shuttle history Bold They Rise. I was in Houston talking to astronaut Bo Bobko, and Kraft invited us over to talk to him.

Kraft shared his recollections of the development and operations of the shuttle. He shared his opinions of the decisions made during shuttle’s inception, and his opinions of the decisions NASA was making as we talked. He lambasted every mistake that was made, past and present. He demonized the numerous sins of Marshall Space Flight Center, where I worked. He recounted the painstaking labor he expected from his teams to ensure the shuttle worked as it should.

There was nothing disappointing about this visit.

This was the man I’d heard about.

I’m glad I got both visits. I’m glad I got to see the man I’d heard about, but I’m also glad I met the one I hadn’t.

While the world is eulogizing the man I interviewed about shuttle, they were both Chris Kraft.

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.

My Name, Writ, Across the Sky


This is a story about the most memorable time I watched the International Space Station fly overhead, but it’s also a story about the Soviet Union and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So before I talk about standing in an empty field early one morning ten years ago today, I need to jump back about twenty years before that, too.

My friend Jason Smith introduced me to Ultima about three decades ago, initially on his household Commodore 64. We didn’t have a C64 at my house, but when Ultima IV came out for the Nintendo, I had to have it.

I’ve not played it in years, but it’s stuck in my head as a favorite of its class of role playing games, an innovative take on the medium less about fighting monsters than about character. The realm of the Ultima games was ruled by Lord British, a character who coexisted as both fictional and real, ruler of realms of Brittania in the Ultima games and nom de plum of the creator of those realms in real life.

For who grew up in the last 26 years or so, it’s worth noting that these were the waning days of the Cold War, even if the average person didn’t fully appreciate that yet. However frightening the specter of Russian interference may be today, it doesn’t hold a candle to the fear of a Soviet Union nuclear attack that loomed over life.

When I was growing up, the Space Race mentality of the ‘60s was a thing of the past, but space also was not defined by the international cooperation of today. Space was still very much an us-versus-them thing, the United States with its shuttles and the Soviet Union with its Soyuz and space stations.

Lord British, in real life, is a man by the name of Richard Garriott. His father is Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. I’d heard of the former before I heard of the latter.

When Owen and I signed the contract with the University of Nebraska Press to write Homesteading Space together, I called my dad and told him I was writing a book with a Skylab astronaut. I called my friend Jason and told him I was writing a book with Lord British’s dad.

I came very close to not even trying to write that book because it seemed absurd. It’s not the sort of thing people like me got to do. Better and better-known writers got to do things like that. Not people like me.

Two significant Garriott milestones just passed their tenth anniversaries.

Ten years and a week ago, we received the first copies of Homesteading Space.

Ten years and ten days ago, Richard Garriott launched into space.

Richard visited the International Space Station as a paid spaceflight participant, purchasing a seat on a Russian spacecraft, accompanying a NASA and Russian crew to conduct a personal mission in space.

Earlier that year, Richard had noticed the close timing of those two events, and asked if Owen if he would like to fly something related to the book into space. The book wouldn’t be out, and really was kind of large to pack, so we decided to make photo prints of the cover.

It was a last-minute opportunity, so we needed to get them made quickly. I took a digital image of the file, and processed it through Target’s instant printing.

I’ve loved ever since being able to mark the anniversary of the day I bought a spaceflight payload at Target. Today, working with payload integration as my day job, it amuses me even more. I sit in meetings about all the PIPs and ICDs and EOMPs and ODARs and IDRDs needed to put something in space, and the one time I’ve had something flown of my own, I bought it at Target.

The three authors signed the prints and Owen got them to Richard.

Which brings us to ten years ago today.

It was early that morning when the International Space Station flew over Huntsville, but I wasn’t going to miss it. I stood in an empty field, as far from lights as I could easily get, and watched as the bright dot, carrying Richard Garriott and his Soyuz and my Target payload and my signature, crossed the sky.

It’s a moment I’ll spend my life being grateful for.

It’s a moment, amazing in its own right, made all the richer for the absurdity of it.

It’s made me wish I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me about it.

“You know Lord British, right? Many years from now, the video game character you like is going to be in one of those Soyuz spaceships the Soviet Union uses.

“And with him he’s going to have a picture of a book given to him by your astronaut friend, his dad, and it’s going to have your handwritten name on it.

“And you’re going to see it fly overhead in space.”

I’m not sure what 15-year-old me would have thought.

Maybe he would have been quicker to jump on the opportunity to write that book when the time came, even if he wasn’t a better or better-known writer.

Either he would have believed it was absurd, that it was impossible. Or he would have had to believe that anything is possible.

That’s not a bad lesson to learn.

Free Advice for Writers, Worth Exactly That


I posted on Facebook yesterday that it was the 10th anniversary of my first book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, with a picture from the day I got my first copies.
And I looked at that picture of a thinner, darker-haired version of me proudly holding his first copy of his first book, and I thought:
“I’m glad that kid wrote a book and put my name on it. ‘Cause I sure couldn’t do that.”
For people who say they want to write a book, or even just write more, it’s easy to think there will be a better time.
My life is different because the guy in that picture knew better.
I wrote an actual post once of My Bad Advice On Book Publishing, but I’ll add two bits of worthless free advice for writers:
1) The only way to do it is to do it.
2) There will never be a better time than now.

“I’m Going to Paint the Moon for You” Godspeed, Alan Bean


“And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me

I’m going to paint the moon for you”

Captain Alan Bean passed away today. He was a Navy test pilot, an astronaut who served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 12 and as commander of Skylab II, and a painter unlike any other.

He was a great man, and a man who was greater for not appreciating how great he was. I don’t know that I’ve met any who have accomplished more, nor any more driven to better themselves.

History will remember him as the fourth man on the moon, or, more commonly, will remember forgetting him as the fourth man on the moon. The band Hefner many years ago released a song title “Alan Bean,” which while generally a beautiful tribute, contains the line “Everyone will forget soon/ the fourth man on the moon.” In a Twitter war between Wendy’s and Hardee’s a couple of years ago, Wendy’s claimed nobody cared if you were first to do something – “Tell us the fourth person to walk on the moon without googling it.”

Remember Alan Bean.

Twelve human beings have walked on the moon. Someday there will be more; a someday that is both soon and not soon enough. I am proud to be part of a team working to put them there. 

Alan Bean is the embodiment of why I believe that is important.

Right now there are two rovers driving on Mars, among other robots surveilling the planet. They are our vanguard on the Red Planet; they are our proxy scientists, our proxy explorers. They do the things we need to be doing on Mars, and they do it well.

Soon, much sooner than there are humans, there will be new robots on the surface of the moon. They, too, will conduct science and exploration on our behalf on the rocky regolith of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Some believe they should suffice. Some believe that we should spare the cost and risk of sending humans to other worlds in light of the able accomplishments of our mechanical surrogates.

They are, with all respect, wrong. Part of the reason is that as capable as these robots are, a human being is more capable still, and, more importantly, better able to improvise, to respond in real-time to his or her surroundings.

For me, however, that argument is wrong because of Alan Bean.

I had the opportunity to meet Alan Bean. I saw him in person multiple times, but the moments that will stay with me always are the ones I spent with Alan and my Homesteading Space co-author Owen Garriott at Bean’s Houston home.

Alan Bean was an amazing man, and it was incredible to sit with him and hear him tell stories. We were there to talk Skylab, and his Skylab stories were captivating. And even though it’s not what we were there to discuss, the moon was mentioned more than once. 

It was an unforgettable experience to be there with him and Owen, two men who had shared decades before an experience unlike any other, to see them not as heroes in the spotlight, but as two friends who had known each other far longer than I’d been alive. I hope to have friends like that when I’m that age.

We sat in his kitchen, adjoining his studio, surrounded by in-progress paintings. His skill with a paintbrush was impressive in its own merit, but almost shocking in the context of who it was painting – it seemed somehow unlikely – and certainly unfair –  for a man of unparalleled left-brain accomplishment to  be a right-brain virtuoso as well.

Owen asked when he was finally going to paint Skylab. We tried to get him to time a Skylab painting for the release of the book. Every time we asked, it was always just over the horizon. It’s a painting I would have loved to have seen, and one we now never will.

Being a fan of history, his studio area for one reason made me debate whether I was annoyed. There, hanging from his walls, were presentations of patches he had flown to and worn on the moon. Or, more accurately, of portions of patches, gradually stripped apart thread by thread til only half-artifacts remained.

Bean went out of his way to help us. He shared his stories, he reviewed what we’d written to make sure it was accurate. In one of the conversations, he mentioned that he’d kept a diary while on Skylab, something not even Owen had known before. “Would you like to use it in your book?” … Yes. Yes, we would. As if any other answer to that were possible.

It was a fun challenge transcribing the diary; when I first saw it, I didn’t immediately recognize it was English writing. Bean seems to have a very distinctive autograph, but, the reality is, he doesn’t sign his name, he just writes it normally. It’s his normal writing that’s distinctive, to the point of appearing almost heiroglyphic to the untrained observer.

I’m proud we were able to do that; to share such an important historic document, to make it available to the public, to preserve it for future generations.

To make sure no one will forget soon the fourth man on the moon.

One of my most prized possessions is an early draft of Homesteading Space with Bean’s handwritten edits in it. A man who walked on the moon took the time to read something I’d helped write, and in his own hand marked it up to make it better. My answer to the icebreaker “if you’re house were on fire, what item would you save” is easy.

I’ll never meet the Curiosity rover. I’ll never eat cookies in Opportunity’s kitchen. I’ll never hear InSight’s stories of being on another world.

But, even if I could, they couldn’t tell me what it was like. They provide us with endless valuable data, but they can’t shared what it is to experience it, what it means to be the only ones on a distant orb.

Alan Bean did.

I was blessed to have that that personal experience, to have met the man, talked with him, spent time with him, eaten spaghetti with him, to get some slightest vicarious sense of what it was like, how it felt.

Twelve men walked on the moon. Eight have already left this Earth again. Four – Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Jack Schmitt – remain. The dark day will come when none are left. The youngest of them were born in 1935. If it takes another decade to return to the moon, they would be 92. It’s possible this planet will never again be without moonwalkers. It’s possible it will. If so, when there is no one left who can tell what it was like to be there, the best we will have are those who heard and carry their stories; a somber burden.

Not everyone will get to meet a moonwalker. Not everyone will have that experience. Alan Bean knew that, and that knowledge drove so much of his life after his return to Earth.

He realized that he had in combination two things no other human being combined – the experience of what it was to walk on the moon, and the ability to capture it visually. And so he did.

For the rest of his life, he painted. He painted the moon, but in a way that was less driven by photographic truth than by emotional truth; he wanted to paint not what the moon looked like, but what the moon felt like.

To make that connection more visceral, he put something of the moon in his paintings. He took his moon boots and pressed them into the fresh paint, giving it texture. Those half-stripped-apart patches I mentioned? Taken apart thread by thread so that he could place those strands, with whatever slight particles of moon dust they contained, in his original paintings, embedding the actual moon in his paintings of it.

““And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me”

He brought the moon home, and he spent his life sharing it.

Someday men and women will walk on the moon again. It’s not impossible it will be people I know before they leave, and it’s a goal to talk to them when they get back. But when they do, they’ll tour the world, and they’ll tell their stories. They’ll share their experiences.

And Alan Bean is why I believe that’s vital.

Godspeed, Commander.

Godspeed, John Young


I was born about a week after the end of the Apollo era. John Young and Bob Crippen were the first US astronauts to fly in my lifetime, and by then I was old enough to be excited about it. To me, they were like real-life Captain Kirks. It was not until decades later that I realized he had walked also on the moon, but even then it impressed me less than flying that first space shuttle into the heavens.

I still have what may well be the first space writing I ever did, a science fiction story from over 35 years ago about John Young in the Year 1999. I’ve written more than a few words about him since, but he inspired me from the beginning.
 
He had a reputation for being … strong-willed. To the best of my recollection, I only saw him in person once, and my two memories of that occasion are him talking, as he did frequently, about how we needed to explore space because single-planet species don’t survive, and him cussing at my then-wife.
 
When I first began working on Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, a fellow astronaut contacted Young about talking to me for the book. He politely declined; he was working on his own book, Forever Young, at the time, and understandably wanted to save his stories for that.
 
Nonetheless, through the words of others, he looms large over the book; you couldn’t write a history of the early shuttle without the presence of John Young being strongly felt. One of my favorite stories in the book is from my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Owen Garriott; recounting Young landing the shuttle on their STS-9 mission, discovering that the auxiliary power unit was on fire, and calmly noting “I’ve never seen it do that before.”
 
It was amazing to me that he was still an active duty astronaut when I first began working as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, a very real connection between “my NASA” and the earliest days of the agency.
 
Young was one of a kind. He’s left this world six times before, but leaves it a little less colorful this time.
 
Godspeed, commander.
 
 
 

A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.