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.

“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.

If You Have To Choose Between History And Vampires…


Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This past weekend, I went down to Tuscaloosa to interview my friend Jeff Weddle, whom I’d not seen in way too long, about his latest book, When Giraffes Flew.

We met up at a Barnes and Noble, and, out of curiosity, I went over to their search computer, and typed in some names.

Jeff, Jesse J. Holland, Claudia Gray and I were all at Ole Miss within a year or so of each other, and we all had our first books come out during a similar span back in 2007-2008. I, of course, with space history tome Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story; Jesse with Washington, D.C., African American history/tour guide Black Men Built the Capitol; Jeff with a non-fiction look at a unique chapter of publishing in Bohemian New Orleans; and Claudia with YA vampire romance Evernight.

Turns out, if you type all four of our names into the search computer at the Barnes & Noble in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they currently only have books by one of us in stock. Guess who?

She’s outsold us, her books are in way more everyday venues, and, in an odd thing for me to be slightly jealous of, can be commonly found remaindered, which to me is the ultimate level of authorial success.

And, then, earlier this year, it was announced that she’d be writing one of the first new-continuity Star Wars books pre-The Force Awakens. Like, somebody who worked at my college newspaper is now writing actual, real, canon Star Wars stuff, which is kind of mind-blowing.

So the morals of this story, kids, are:

1) I know some pretty awesome people.

2) Ole Miss produces some pretty awesome alum.

3) The latest from these talented authors, in addition to Gray’s Star Wars book Lost Stars, are Weddle’s southern gothic short story collection When Giraffes Flew and Holland’s The Invisibles, available in early 2016. Collect them all.

4) If you want to be successful as an author, and are debating between history and vampires, always go with vampires.

5) I love Star Wars, and, yeah, the idea of actually getting to be part of the story is unfathomable.

But, then, so is the story I do get to be part of. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

That One Decade That One Time


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Exactly ten years ago today, I decided that I should write a book. Today, the final edits to my second book arrived at the publisher. What a long, strange decade it’s been.

The idea that became “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” came while I was at Space Center Houston, attending the International Space Station Educators Conference. (The conference is now known as the Space Exploration Educator Conference, but at that time, the idea of human space exploration being taken seriously was less than a month old. To further date this moment, while I had no idea at the time, TheFacebook had just been launched two days earlier.)

I was walking through the incredible Skylab trainer exhibit at SCH, when I decided to actually pursue an idea that had been in the back of my head for months. I went home, contacted Owen Garriott to see if he would be interested in writing a book, and was amazed when he agreed. Thanks to author and editor Colin Burgess, our notional volume soon had a home as part of the Outward Odyssey series on spaceflight history.

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“Homesteading Space” took up slightly less than half of that decade, roughly four and a half years from the day I was in the Skylab trainer until I held the book in my hand. “Bold They Rise” took a bit longer, for various reasons. The opportunity came along at just the right moment as I was finishing “Homesteading” — I was basically finished, so a lot of the stress was gone, but I hadn’t completely finished, so I wasn’t to the point of enjoying being done.

All told, “Bold They Rise” took more than seven years, with a lot of start and stops in between. (The time between original manuscript submission and publication alone was longer than the actual “Homesteading” writing process.) It’s been a long road, for both myself and my coauthor Heather R. Smith, which makes reaching this point all the more rewarding.

It has been an amazing journey, filled with unforgettable and incredibly rare experiences. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to my “Homesteading” co-authors Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin for the help they gave me and the doors they opened on both books. It’s a strange feeling looking around a room full of people and realizing only two of you have never left the Earth. Or sitting down to dinner with a man who is basically one of the inventors of what NASA has come to be. Seeing half-finished paintings by a man who walked on the moon. Bouncing off walls in zero-G. I have been truly, amazingly, incredibly blessed, and am extremely grateful.

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For the first time in 10 years, I am no longer contractually obligated to provide any book pages to anyone. And that’s not a bad feeling either. I’ve greatly enjoyed the process, but I plan to enjoy a moment of freedom as well.

I’m not going to say there won’t be another book. I have an idea that keeps insisting I should turn it into words. Maybe I will. But not today.

And, of course, I’m in the incredibly interesting situation of living out the sort of story I’ve been writing. Each of my two books has chapters dedicated to the development of a spacecraft, and now I’m a member of a spacecraft development team. It’s a strange experience, going from studying history to being a part of it. When the time comes for that book to be written, maybe I’ll want to write it. But, at the moment, I’m far t0o focused on getting the program through this chapter and into the next.

And, of course, edited page proofs are not the same as a published book. The writing process of “Bold They Rise” is completed, but that just means that a new phase begins. Writing a book can range from grueling to enjoyable, sometimes in the same day, but there’s a lot to be said for having written a book, as well. Soon, the book will be released into the world, and I’ll accompany it for some of that voyage.

Maybe I’ll see you out there.

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Several Orbits Later


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All in all, it was a beautiful coda to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to record, and to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to live.

Last week, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosted its annual Space Exploration Gala, and this year the event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program. The eight living Skylab astronauts all came back to Huntsville for the event.

A similar night, almost 10 years ago, helped plant the seeds in me for a life-changing adventure. The eight were in Huntsville for the 30th anniversary, and it was one of the times I started to think seriously about what it would be like to work on a book telling the Skylab story. I was still a little ways out from having the nerve to actually step out and stop thinking about it and start doing something about it, but that night brought me a little closer.

So it was an incredible experience, on the other side of that adventure, to see the guys gathered in Huntsville once more, to see them and the program being celebrated, and to be a little more involved this time.

I had the chance to see most of the crew members the night before the event as we signed books to be sold the next night as a fundraiser for the museum. It was good getting to have a little time to visit and catch up, and even better to get to be present while they visited and caught up. I’ve been blessed to be in some amazing situations through the book, and this was one of them. I try to always appreciate what a blessing and responsibility it is; the legends will long live in history, the men behind them will only be known as long as there are people to talk about them.

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Five of the Skylab crewmembers came to Marshall the next day to talk about their experiences with the workforce. The event started with an awesome video overview of the program. I’ve always wondered if you could make a good movie about Skylab; certainly, that video showed you could make a great trailer for one. It was a little odd watching the video; I know the guys more as they are now, it was fun and a little odd seeing them looking so young. I ended up watching them watch the video more than watching it myself; it was fun watching their reactions to their younger days.

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It was also neat for me seeing my friend Andy Herron watching their talk from the front row. Andy’s a young NASA engineer working on SLS, and it was encouraging to see one of the team members who are taking on the torch appreciating the value of the experiences and wisdom of those who have paved the way.

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Afterwards, there was a reception at which I ate Skylab cake …

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… and photo-bombed astronauts. (Unintentionally, of course.)

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It was a fun combination of past and present, getting to be there with both the past NASA team I worked with on the book, and the present NASA team I work with today. That’s my former NASA boss in education, Jeff Ehmen, talking to Joe Kerwin. If you work at Marshall, you are the heir of an incredible legacy, and events like this really drive that home.

I was talking with my team lead after the talk about the fact that is a big part of why we do what we do — someday, I’m going to go to an event at Morris auditorium and hear astronauts tell about their experiences flying atop a rocket I was part of. And that will be a good day.

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The Space & Rocket Center used the occasion for another exciting Skylab milestone — the Skylab trainer that had been deteriorating in the parking lot for years was brought inside the Davidson Center for display. What the public didn’t realize is that not only had they fixed up the outside to bring it inside, they had actually also done a substantial amount of work on the inside, and the interior was ready for display also, if not complete. I was amazed at the work they had done. Very very exciting!

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Skylab trivia: Differently colored Snoopy stickers were used by each astronaut to mark his property.

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The Skylab display was particularly exciting to me because that was actually how I began my years as a Space & Rocket Center volunteer, by participating in a volunteer effort to fix up the exhibit many years ago. We made some progress, but it fell apart long before the trainer was display ready again. But we did reverse some damage and laid the foundation for the recent professional effort, and, for me, it was a great experience to be able to spend time inside a Skylab mock-up while working on the book. At one point, we closed the airlock door on the trainer, which was a Gemini hatch that was repurposed for Skylab. How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to close a Gemini hatch? So it was very exciting for me to be inside the trainer for the first time in a long time. Not nearly as many years as it had been since the crew members had been aboard Skylab, but still a nice homecoming for me as well. Before the volunteer effort ended, we all were given the opportunity to sign an out-of-sight wall, and it was a neat experience to see my name still there.

I don’t have good pictures of the talk, but it was great as well. The guys did a good job of telling the old stories, and they have some great ones.

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“Here Comes Skylab!”


@jeff_foust noted that the news about the impending re-entry of the large UARS satellite is bringing back memories of the return of Skylab, and shared this insightful video on that event by “esteemed science journalist J. Belushi.”

(In retrospect, the mental image of Skylab striking the World Trade Center is rather disturbing.)

Spacecraft Past, Spacecraft Future


So about two weeks ago, I went and gave a talk in Decatur. And it was fun.

The Friends of the Library group for the Decatur Public Library invited me to come talk about my book, Homesteading Space. Which, in large part, I did. However, I gave the short version of the Homesteading lecture that I put together when I spoke at the International Space Developers Conference earlier this year, and which turned out not to be all that short.

It was short enough, however, that I was able to use the audience as guinea pigs to update my talk a bit, jumping forward 40 years from Skylab to talk about the current and future state of human space exploration. As a member of the policy committee of the National Space Society, and just as someone who is passionate about spaceflight, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the topic of “now what,” and I now have a bit more freedom to discuss that openly than I have before.

What surprised me was how much fun it was. In retrospect, I just don’t have as many opportunities to have in-depth discussions about space as I used to, and I think I’m in a bit of withdrawal. I hadn’t been having a terribly good day, to be honest, before the talk, but I was in a great mood by the time I finished it. I’d gotten my fix.

Point of all of this being, I’ll be doing it again on Saturday at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Davidson Center at 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and I’ll have a few copies of the book to sign. And this time, I’ve actually practiced the new part of the talk, so it should be even better.

Join me, won’t you?