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.

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!

Various and Sundry, Part Something


Things going on in my life lately that aren’t worth entire posts:

— I have a few buy-one-get-one-free tickets to Saturday’s Face2Face Improv show for people that have not been to see us before, and would like to. That said, I won’t be in the show, which might actually be a plus in some people’s book. I will be in a show Friday at Kenny Mango’s Coffee Shop in Madison. I will not be in tomorrow night’s show at Sam & Greg’s, but should be back next Tuesday.

— After writing that post a few weeks back about Apple’s recent successes, etc., I decided that I should be an Apple stockholder again, so now I am. And, yes, I’ve already lost money. Wheee!

— I forget if I blogged about the contest that was being held as a collaboration between NASA and craft site Etsy to create space-themed art projects, but the finalists have been posted in the three categories, and include an awesome space-Western shirt designed by my friend Melissa Meek, so you should go vote for her.

— The book I co-wrote with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin,  Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,has been selected for a paperback edition. It won’t be available for another year, however, so don’t let that stop you from buying the slightly-more-expensive-but-better-quality hardcover edition in the meantime. But, hey, I’ll be a paperback writer, paperback writer.

— I wrote a post earlier this year about wanting to participate in The Jonah Project, in which people with differing viewpoints read The Unlikely Disciple and then discuss it. Well, I found my nemesis, applied for the project, got selected, and, finally, after a very lengthy delay, received the books, and finished reading it. I’m participating in the project with my good friend Joe Gurner, and the resulting discussions have been very interesting. Joe and I had a general idea where the other stood on a lot of issues (to wit, as far from the other as possible), but I think this may be the first time we’ve actually really discussed a lot of those things, and it’s been fascinating. I’m blessed (can I say that? lucky?) to have a friend with whom I can have such an enjoyable conversation about such loaded topics.

— After our unsuccessful attempt to watch the space shuttle launch, I took Heather’s sons out this weekend to launch model rockets, as an attempt to capture some of the excitement the scrub didn’t inspire. Needless to say, I was utterly unable to put anything in the air. Sigh. Rather embarrassing to be such a poor space pitchman to a sympathetic audience. They were really good sports about it, however, and we’ll probably try again soon.

— ADDENDUM: Welcome to the world, Baxter Hughes. Hope you enjoy it! You’ve got a good tour guide to start you out, kid.