“How’s The Book Coming?”

Printed draft of "Bold They Rise." Photo by Heather R. Smith

A friend of mine sent me an e-mail recently asking how things were coming on the book Heather and I are writing. The fact that it took me almost a week to respond is part of the answer. This, though, is what came out when I tried to answer the question.

How is the book coming? The book is a harsh mistress that consumes everything, wants everything, is jealous of everything. More and more work goes into the book, and yet the end remains ever elusive. The book requires sacrifice of so much of my time, and every moment not spent on the book it lurks there in my mind, reminding me that it hungers for more of my time, and that whatever else I’m doing, it’s there, waiting, and won’t go away until it’s taken what it needs of me. It’s beginning to take shape, gradually becoming less of a collection of disparate parts to be cobbled together, and more of a thing unto itself, with its own form and arc and personality. Watching it take shape is eminently rewarding, but more rewarding still will be finally seeing it through, finishing the race, fighting the good fight, and, at last, at long last, being free of its tyranny, free of its demands, and, for the first time in way too long, knowing peace and rest without the awful specter of obligation.

That’s how the book’s coming.

Making History

I’ve made the occasional reference on this blog to Homesteading Space,my first book, co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.

I haven’t talked as much about Bold They Rise.

Back in the day, even long before Homesteading was published, I used to include in my online profiles that I was working on my second book, but I finally decided I should take it off until it was closer to being done. Plus, I got tired of people asking about it, and not having anything to report. I really don’t remember when I started working on it, but I know I went out to Houston over three years ago with astronaut Bo Bobko, who was briefly attached as co-author on the project. Since then it’s been through more than one turn-around and contract change.

The biggest change came around the beginning of the year, when my friend and NASA co-worker Heather R. Smith (using her byline here since it’s an official writer context) came on as co-author. Heather has proved invaluable, bringing not only her substantial talent and wealth of space knowledge to the project, but also the motivation and accountability to bring out better work from me as well. We spent a little while getting things organized and turned around, but now as we’re entering the deadline stretch, it’s really cool to see the project come together.

After a long period of working on it solo and answering questions about it with a grumbled, “yeah, I’d rather not talk about it,” I’m really excited about it. Both the process and the product. BTR is going to be a very different book than Homesteading, and the process of writing it is very different, as well. To be honest, for those reasons, it was much harder for me to get invested in this book the way I did my first one (which is probably another reason in itself). I really feared for a while this would be sort of a contractual-obligation project; a book I wrote because I had to. And I felt bad about that, because I love the shuttle. It’s the only American human spacecraft that’s flown during my lifetime, so it’s personal. And that love wasn’t carrying over into the project.

But, yeah, today, I’m having fun. I’m having fun writing. In a way, that’s silly. I write at work. I write in my journal. I write on this blog. And BTR is probably less free-form writing than any of them. But, nonetheless, it’s different. It feels so right. The cool thing is, it feels like writing a book, even more than Homesteading did. The first time around, I had no frame of reference; I’d never written a book before. This time, it’s familiar. It’s comfortable. And that’s nice. I do this because this is what I do. I’m a writer. In fact, I’m an author.

I’m also having fun working on this particular project. It’s a great story. The shuttle is, let me point out, amazing. The astronauts who flew it are also, for the record, amazing. And they have great stories. And it’s an honor to tell them.

This book, like Homesteading and perhaps even moreso, is going to be the human story of the program, and the shuttle story has never been told the way we’re telling it. It’s an awesome thing to be doing. So, yeah, I’m invested in it emotionally. Just a little bit, you know. Ever so slightly. (Those who know me can probably picture the big grin as I type that.)

And it’s fun collaborating. I realized this weekend that I’ve not done one single worthwhile thing on this Earth by myself. From Spare Time, the paper I started in college, to Hippie and the Black Guy with Lain and Jesse, and later Hatbag with Lain, to Face2Face to Homesteading and even to The Leonardo Code, all my best work has been done working with other people. Writing BTR with Heather is very different than working on Homesteading with Owen and Joe, and it’s neat having a very different collaborative experience. It’s fun. And, like I said, she not only brings a lot to the table herself, she really brings out the best in me, too.

So what’s the book about? On the surface level, the space shuttle program from inception through Challenger. It’s part of the Outward Odyssey series that also includes Homesteading, and will be followed by another book (written by someone else) that will pick up where this one leaves off and continue through the end of the program. On the literary level, it’s about ambition and accomplishment and hubris. But, ultimately, it’s about the experience. It’s about the human story of the shuttle. It’s about the people. It’s about what it was like.

I may try to include some teasers between now and publication next year, but I came across a couple of stories this weekend that sort of captured a little bit of the spirit of the book.

T.K. Mattingly, possibly best known as the Gary Sinise character in Apollo 13, helped design the cockpit of the shuttle, drawing on his experience as a test pilot before coming to NASA.

Early in the process, they realized that there was one particular area of prime real estate — the center console area. The commander sits in the left seat in the cockpit; the pilot in the right. Each has controls in front of him or her that they each can use. The center console, on the other hand, could be reached by either. Put a control or instrument there, and you have a sort of safeguard — if one astronaut can’t get to it, the other can.

Mattingly and his team realized the value of that, and that you didn’t want to waste it on just anything. Unless there’s a need for both commander and pilot to be able to use something, it should go only in front of the one who needs it. Meetings would be held where controls or instruments were suggested for inclusion and shot down as not really being worthy of the spot.

In the end, they were succesful — mostly: “Well, after working on this thing for years, there’s practically nothing that’s important on the center console. We kept relegating everything to somewhere else, and it’s now the place where you set your coffee when you’re in the [simulator].”

Mattingly’s first shuttle flight, STS-4, was scheduled to land on the Fourth of July. “It was no uncertain terms that we were going to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off. Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the Fourth. That meant, if you didn’t do any of your test mission, that’s okay, as long as you just land on the Fourth, because the president is going to be there. We thought that was kind of interesting.

“The administrator met us for lunch the day before flight, and as he walked out, he said, ‘Oh, by the way.’ He says, ‘You know, with the president going to be there and all, you might give a couple of minutes thought on something that’d be appropriate to say, like ‘A small step for man,’ or something like that,’ and he left.

“Hank and I looked at each other and he says, ‘He wants us to come up with this?’ And we had a good time. We never came up with something we could say, but we came up with a whole lot of humor that we didn’t dare say. But that was an interesting experience.”

They did come up with an idea in case the president wanted to come aboard the vehicle. “We built a little sign that says ‘Welcome to Columbia. Thirty minutes ago, this was in space.'”

Hank Hartsfield, the pilot, on the other hand, was inspired with great ideas for what Mattingly could say to the president after the commander, not readjusted from weightlessness, pushed out of his seat zero-g-style and hit his head so hard it started bleeding.

“Hank said, ‘Well, let’s see. If you do it like you did getting out of your chair, you’ll go down the stairs and you’re going to fall down … Why don’t you just look up at the president and say, ‘Mr. President, those are beautiful shoes.'”

Godspeed, Atlantis

The flagpoles in the picture above are outside of the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall Space Flight Center. There’s a row of several flagpoles — flying the U.S. flag, the NASA flag, the space station flag, flags for NASA’s international partner agencies. And then, there’s the flagpole at the end.

After I’d been working here for half a year, the flagpole on the end sat empty for two and a half years. Each of the orbiters has a flag, and the flagpole is used only to fly those flags when an orbiter is in space. Right now, the Atlantis flag is flying on the flagpole on the end.

Just days from now, that flag will be taken down. And will never fly again.

I’ve been debating what to say in this blog post. I watched the launch Friday, and wanted to write about it. But doing so requires addressing the elephant in the room. This is the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. Or, it’s not. There’s still talk of another flight of Atlantis next June, but the decision won’t be made until next month, after the current flight is over. Too late to pay respects to Atlantis timely to her last mission, if that’s what STS-132 is.

And doing it now is just being honest. When I watched Atlantis launch on Friday, it was very much on my mind that it could be for the last time.

Launch was an interesting experience. I went down and watched the last two in person, and had thought I might finish out the program that way. But my brother’s graduation precluded a Florida trip this past weekend, so I watched from work. And I was glad that’s how it worked out.

Seeing a launch in person is an amazing experience, and I recommend everyone go down for one of the last two (or three). But the way I saw it Friday really wasn’t so much a better or worse thing as an entirely different thing. Watching it on a big screen meant that you get to see detail that you just don’t from the Causeway at Kennedy. But the best part was watching it in a roomful of Marshall team members. For many of these people, this is their life’s work. It’s not simply powerful, it’s personal. And it’s an honor stand amongst them for that moment. I’ve said it before, but it’s a huge huge privilege to be even a tiny tiny part of this team. I’m blessed.

And it was a beautiful launch.

But the thing that made the biggest impression was just a tiny detail. They had small versions of the Atlantis flag decorating the tables. And those flags bear a weird association for me — my friend and coworker Heather received a flown Endeavour flag for a story she did about the student contest that named that orbiter. Since, obviously, Endeavour didn’t have a name when the naming contest started, it was the OV-105 naming project, referring to the Orbiter Vehicle designation. As a result, even though the flags have the names on them, when I see them, the number pops into my head instead. I see the flag at the top, and think not Atlantis, but OV-104.

I did a quick mental calculation — is that right? 104? Yeah, ’cause OV-103 is Discovery, and OV-102 is …

OV-102. That designation was used a lot seven years ago, after she was lost on re-entry over Texas. A good bit of the official investigation work referred to her by that officlal designation, instead of the better known name, Columbia.

OV-102 didn’t get to retire. Her career ended tragically and abruptly on February 1, 2003. And she wasn’t the first. OV-099 met an untimely end as well, on January 28, 1986.

Each of those flew for a last time. Not by choice, not in the way anyone would have wanted or dreamed. But utterly final nonetheless. And in the line of duty, doing what they were built for.

If STS-132 is in fact Atlantis’ last mission, she will be only the third orbiter to have a final flight. And unlike her sisters, it will be planned, it will be because she survived until the end.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Godspeed, Atlantis! Come home to us safely. As sad as it is to see your career come to an end, it is a far, far better rest that you go to than you have ever known.