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.

“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.

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.

Everything I Need to Know About Rescuing Chilean Miners I Learned On Skylab


I wrote this a while back at work, but it wasn’t really an education feature, so I shopped it around a bit to see if it could find a home. For a while, it looked like it had, but now it’s looking like it’s not going to be published, so I’m sharing it here.


Photo: Gabriel Ortega/Government of Chile

From the capsule that was used to rescue 33 Chilean miners trapped underground to the food they ate while awaiting help, NASA provided expert advice to the Chilean rescue team.

The miners spent over two months trapped almost half a mile underground after an access tunnel caved in. NASA sent a four-man team, including an engineer, two doctors and a psychologist, to Chile after the Chilean government approached the United States Department of State seeking assistance. The agency provided consultation on the design for a capsule that could be sent down a small shaft to return the miners to the surface. It also advised in areas  such as diet and exercise to keep the miners healthy while they awaited rescue. (NASA wasn’t the only space agency to contribute — the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent specially designed “space underwear” designed to alleviate discomfort and reduce odors.)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the agency’s contributions to the rescue effort were a great example of an Earth-bound application of lessons from spaceflight. “For decades, the people of this agency have learned to live, work and survive in the hostile environment of space,” Bolden said. “Our expertise in maintaining physiological and psychological health, and our technical and engineering experience in spacecraft design all proved to be valuable in a situation that is far from our traditional scope of work. I am proud of the people of this agency who were able to bring the experience of spaceflight down to Earth when it was needed most.”

One person who saw a strong parallel between living space and the experiences of the miners was Skylab II astronaut Owen Garriott. Failures in two of the thrusters in his crew’s Apollo command module during a 1973 mission to the Skylab space station called into question whether the vehicle could be used to return the astronauts safely to Earth and led to a rescue investigation into how best to bring them home.

Garriott said that several aspects of the mine rescue operation echoed aspects of his Skylab experience, and provide a good blueprint for dealing with similar crises:

–Establish communications with home. A communications link used to allow each miner to talk to loved ones on the surface was similar to a system used on Skylab. Garriott said that this provided a “very positive connection to things at home.” In the case of Skylab, it was a turning point in space-to-ground communications, which in the past had been more tightly controlled. “Now, it is a very obvious positive morale booster and also keeps the control center very ‘honest,”” he said.

–Establish a leader. Strong leadership is invaluable in dealing with a situation like this, Garriott said. The NASA training and military background of many astronauts make this a natural process in the agency, and Garriott said the role of leaders both in the mine and on the ground was important in the Chilean rescue operation.

–Provide good food. “The miners were just about to run out of the stored rations, and topside rescuers very promptly started sending them down more and better food, eventually even hot meals,” Garriott said. “On Skylab, all meals were planned beforehand, but were very positive for morale and well-being. Skylab [had] the best food ever flown!”

–Give everyone responsibilities. Rather than focusing on the concerns over their spacecraft, Garriott’s crew, which also included Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean as commander and Jack Lousma as pilot, poured their energy and attention into their work. Upon their return, they were dubbed the “supercrew” for accomplishing 150 percent of their mission objectives. Similarily, Garriott said, shifts were set up in the mine so someone was always working, and miners were given tasks like cleaning, preparing the tunnels for the rescue and exercise, vitally important when activity is limited. “Everyone needs real work to do,” Garriott said.

–Train a medical officer. “I was it on our Skylab mission, but everyone wanted to participate and was trained for it,” Garriott said. And, also as on Skylab, Garriott said the medical miner was helped by the communication link providing “telemedicine” connections with experts on the ground.

–Pay close attention to the morale. “Seems like they did this well, following much of the ‘common sense’ procedures first employed on Skylab,” Garriott said of the Chilean rescue.

For The Person Who Has Everything


(Bagged and Bored shown here is only a working cover; actual cover can be seen on Amazon.com)

The holidays are coming, and if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling with what to get that person that’s so hard to buy for, the person who has everything. Well, here’s your big opportunity to get them something that it’s pretty much guaranteed that they don’t have, unless they’re Richie Younce. Or Lain Hughes.

First, of course, there’s Homesteading Space,the book I co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin. Homesteading Space is the story of the Skylab space station from the point of view of the people that made it happen, and is written to give readers an idea of what’s it’s really like to live and work in space.

Of course, since Homesteading has sold thousands of copies, it may be that the person you’re wanting to buy for already has a copy. For that person, you can get them another copy of Homesteading, just in case. (Heck, on Abebooks.com, you can even pick up a signed copy for only $350.) Or … you can dig a little deeper into my oeuvre with David Pogue’s The World According to Twitter,for which I wrote 13 words, or one word, depending on how you count. (I get nothing from the sale of this book, of course, but it is pretty entertaining.)

But those are both books that are pretty mainstream; real books, published by actual publishers, that you could buy at your local Barnes & Noble, as long as your local Barnes & Noble is in Huntsville. Let’s talk about the stuff that they’re really unlikely to have. For that person, there’s Bagged & Boredand Mayor Of Awesometown,the first two collections of the Hatbag comic strip I create(d?) with Lain. The collections are full-color, and each include a year’s worth of the strip, plus all sorts of bonus stuff. Amazon even has the “Look Inside” feature turned on, so you can check them out.

And, then, for the person who has everything, including an appreciation of really bad books, there’s the best bad novel ever written, The Leonardo Code (The Broken Triad – Book Two),which was team-written on my old blog by me and some friends. There’s flying robot death monkeys, nanite-laced mind-controlling ribs, a hidden paramilitary bunker under Graceland, enough celebrity cameos to earn us several cease-and-desist letters if anyone but us ever read the thing, and much much more. And the cover looks perfectly legitimate sitting on your shelf. (You can read a preview here.)

Floored Again


I wrote a post a while back about how Skylab’s distinctive triangle-grid floor pattern continues to resurface in spacecraft design as NASA works on new vehicles and concepts.

treadmill on triangular Skylab floor

Scientist-astronaut Bill Thornton demonstrates a treadmill designed for the Skylab 4 crew in a mock-up of the space station. Skylab's distinctive triangular grid floor can be seen. Photo Credit: NASA

Today, I was looking at pictures from the recovery of the SpaceX Dragon capsule that orbited Earth yesterday, and saw this:

dragon floor

Mystery "Secret Payload" aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, with spacecraft floor visible. Photo from collectSPACE.com.

I have no idea how Dragon ended up with a triangular floor pattern, or what purpose it serves on the spacecraft. From the picture, it looks like it’s modified from the Skylab version, with a hard surface below the grid instead of just being open. But nonetheless, there it is — a little bit of Skylab was in orbit again yesterday. This makes me happy.

For the source of the picture, and to find out what was in the secret payload, visit collectSPACE.com. And, of course, to learn more about the awesomeness of Skylab, read Homesteading Space,co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.

“Help Wanted,” or “Your Name In Print”


printed manuscript for Homesteading space

Printed manuscript for my first book -- NOT what we're asking for help reading.

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about the book Heather and I are writing, “Bold They Rise.”

The book is a history of the space shuttle program, to be published by University of Nebraska Press as part of the same Outward Odyssey series that included my first book, Homesteading Space,co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.

We’re now rapidly approaching our deadline, and we need your help!

We would love to have some volunteers read over chapters as we wrap them up, and give us some feedback. It would be great to have a variety of people — space buffs, people who know nothing about space, grammar nazis, history fans, whatever.

There’s no monetary pay, however, but if you help us, we’ll include your name in the acknowledgements, and you’ll have the benefit of knowing that you have helped share an important part of our nation’s history. And, a handful of people who give us the most help with get a small bonus token that I shan’t mention here.

If you’re interested, let us know either by posting a comment here or by contacting one of us directly. Depending on what the response looks like, we may not need everyone, since we’re trying to keep the readers diverse, but we would really appreciate anyone willing to step up!