The Bedford Talk: Journey from Bedford, Indiana to ‘Bold They Rise’


I had the opportunity to give a Bold They Rise talk recently in the community where I spent the bulk of my print journalism career. It was important to me to go back there and offer a book talk because my time there was very instrumental in me ending up working on Bold They Rise and I wanted to go back and tell them that.

So I titled my talk “From Here to There” and filled in the missing 11-year timeline from the time I left the community and the newspaper in 2003 until now.

The highlight was bringing with me their hometown astronaut Charlie Walker. His missions are included in Bold They Rise, so it was a privilege and an honor to do this talk with him.

So my talk started with this picture of Charlie Walker on the space shuttle in 1984.

charlie walker 84

I told the people that while Charlie was doing this, I was doing this.

heather 84

In 1984 I was 4 years old and more into Minnie Mouse than I was astronauts and space.

It was important that people “get” that yes, I grew up in Huntsville, Ala., the Rocket City and home to Space Camp and Wernher von Braun and NASA, but I didn’t learn to appreciate space exploration because of that upbringing. If anything that upbringing caused me to take astronauts and space travel for granted.

It wasn’t until I moved to southern Indiana, to Lawrence County Indiana specifically, that I saw how the rest of the world viewed space. Three astronauts hail from this little southern Indiana community — more than any other county in the U.S. — and the people there are very proud of that. Their pride made its way into the newsroom where I worked as the paper covered space-related news and kept up with the comings and going of these space heroes and their legacies.

Writing about space-related things gave me a hearty set of clippings with which, upon my return to Huntsville,  I used to apply for a writing position at NASA.

I think those clips made a difference in my getting the job. My Bold They Rise co-author says they didn’t — he should know, he made the hiring recommendation — however I might not have even applied had I not felt that I had dappled enough in space writing to be able to do the job.

So in my talk, I told the audience that I went from here, my old Times-mail mug shot

tm mug

to here

nasa mug

my semi-official NASA mug shot; this photo accompanied a blog I wrote for NASA during my time there.

I briefly told stories of getting to do this, a reduced gravity flight

heather flying

and this, attending Space Camp,

heather space camp

and then writing Bold They Rise.

It was important to me that the people of Bedford, Mitchell and Lawrence County know that their community played a role in this book, and I wanted to bring it to them and share the book and its story as it relates to them.

After that I introduced Charlie who told his own “from here to there” stories about growing up in Bedford with his fellow “rocket boys” friends and his journey from Bedford to Purdue to McDonnell Douglas and to space as NASA’s first payload specialist astronaut.

walker rocket boys

We’re all travelers, traveling from here to there, we just don’t know always know where “there” is until we get there.

This is a story of what it’s like for something to come full circle, because that’s exactly what happened. Extremely grateful I got to go back and finish the loop.

Violence & Video Games


At the science writers conference I just got back from, I heard this really interesting science lecture on violence and video games. What I write here is by no means a case for or against the playing of violent video games, but just some things I learned and a few opinions I have based on what I learned.

To start the lecture, the psychologist went up to the podium and asked half the room to close their eyes and the other half to silently watch a slide show of images and then fill in the missing letters from the following words

k i _ _

g u _

h a _ _

r_ p e.

The group with their eyes open (of which I was a part) saw images of guns, knives and other weapons, and of military and police using weapons.

I, and the majority of my half of the room, filled in the blanks with

k i l l

g u n

h a t e

r a p e.

Then he had my half of the room close out eyes and he showed the other half of the room a different set of images and fill in the blanks. We found out later that the other side of the room saw non-violent images. Not necessarily happy images but just regular things. Office supplies. The outdoors. People smiling.

The majority of that half of the room filled in the blanks with

k i t e

g u m

h a n d

r o p e.

Hmm…

Interesting, isn’t it?

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate what the psychologist called the “weapons affect,” or the idea that the mere presence of weapons can make people more aggressive.

They did more tests where they assessed people’s moods and feelings before and after playing certain kinds of video games, and they found that after playing even just 20 minutes of a violent video game people report a tendency toward more violent or negative response in real life.

For example, a person who played a non-violent video game for 20 minutes was asked afterward how they would respond if they were in a fender bender on the way home. They responded much more calmly than the person who played a violent game for the same amount of time, who said things like they’d yell at the person or want to crush their skull in.

The most shocking to me was the revelation that violent graphic images, like those in video games, are used to de-sensitize military special forces to being able to kill without question or hesitation. I didn’t know that.

Also shocking was that we tell ourselves it’s OK just for 20 minutes or just for a few hours, it won’t affect our behavior. But if a 30 second commercial can persuade our behavior to buy a certain product, how much more will 20 minutes plus of shooting people in video games persuade our behavior as well?

Now I don’t know if I fully believe that playing these games will cause players to go out and shoot people. But I think the research supports that watching violence and playing out violence affects how we feel and may cause to react more aggressively just in general.

I kinda have to ask myself the question, why do people find it so entertaining to pretend to be violent in games, whether it be shooting a gun or fighting like ninja warriors? Is it a power trip? Do we feel stronger, more powerful, in control if we can outlive or kill? And if we do, then does playing violent video games create a false sense of strength, power and invincibility, all of which are sure to boost our ego, too, right? Do we then cross over how confident we feel in the game into real life, sometimes blurring the lines, so that if provoked to tap into our “violent side” this side of us is trained and ready to respond? Video game-like virtual reality simulators are used to train astronauts for space travel and soldiers for war, so it makes sense that our minds perceive the video game experience as a sort of training.

I don’t have the answers, and neither did this psychologist on this day. But he’s studying it and drawing interesting conclusions, conclusions that made me think, thus why I’m sharing it here to maybe make you think too.

Rainbow, Hold the Rain


IMG_5023.JPG

I woke up late. Like the kind of late where the time I woke up was the time I should’ve been leaving.

I had had a disturbing dream, and it was still bothering me as I went rushing about getting ready.

I woke up the boys, took a quick shower, threw on clothes, and went to take the dog out when I saw it.

The most gorgeous surprise.

The most gorgeous rainbow, end to end in a complete arch.

What was most surprising, though, is that it wasn’t even raining. It wasn’t even rain-y looking. It was a clear day at sunrise.

Any time I see a rainbow I’m reminded that God makes promises, and God keeps the promises he makes.

It had been a stressful morning already so this was a reminder I really needed.

Not Your Mother’s High School


IMG_4941.JPG

My sons attend the school from which I graduated, so on the one hand there’s this unique connection between my past  as a student, my present  as a parent and their presence there as students now.

For example, a few of the teachers that taught me in middle school 20 something years ago are now teaching them. And I’ve talked before about how some of the students when I was there are now their friends’ parents and the youth league basketball coaches. My past touches their present.

But on the other hand, the school they are experiencing is nothing at all like the school I experienced.

Today, WCA is bigger and has fancy new facilities, but more than that the growth in the student body has facilitated the addition of new programs, namely football. I wasn’t around when football was added but I have a feeling that it was football that changed everything.

There were always the rumors of us getting football way back then, but the size of the student body wasn’t large enough to support a team. It was kind’ve a cart before the horse problem in that you had to have a certain number of students to sustain a football team, but without a football team the school was less attractive an option for some families. I mean, we are in the south; people here love their football.

At some point after I left the school the school started a team and the first thing built on the new campus wasn’t classrooms but — you guessed it — a football stadium. One could say the priorities were skewed, but I don’t think so. I think the success of competitive sports, especially football, was an important factor in growing the school to the size where the leaders wanted it, where it could sustain all of the beneficial things the school wanted.

With football came a marching band, a flag corps, a dance team, pep rallies, bonfires, and the annual homecoming celebration  moved from basketball, which was previously the largest sports program, to the more traditional football.

This means that when I go back to my alma mater for “homecoming” it doesn’t feel like going back. It feels new, at the same it feels familiar.

I was there for homecoming events last week and as the marching band played and the bonfire raged, I commented to several of the other alums who are now also parents of students that this isn’t anything like the school we went to. Oh, no, of course not, they agreed.

The school we went to was good. But this is better. I’m a little jealous for what I didn’t have, but glad my sons get to experience the best of both worlds and that I can be along for the ride.

Social Listening


I’ve acquired a new skill at work.

Actually, a skill I’ve always had has a new name, a name that sounds better than oh, being nosy or reading the Internet.

This new skill is “social listening.”

I had never heard of the term until several months ago but it describes well a very valuable asset that I bring to the table at my job and other areas in life too.

So what is it?

Well, it’s listening to the world around you by reading, monitoring, observing all the “noise” and gleaning the usable parts.

The cool thing? I love doing it, I’m a natural at it, and it’s pretty much something I’ve been doing my whole life just without the fancy name.

In my career story of how I became a writer I tend to start the story around 10th grade when my English teacher asked me to join the high school yearbook staff. It had a little to do with my ability to write a good essay so seems like a good place to start, and being on yearbook staff in high school certainly set me on track for a career in communications.

But what shaped me to be able to write a good essay by 10th grade was more than just education or a natural knack or God-given talent, though all of those are there too; it was that I loved reading. And not just reading books — although I read a lot as a youngster and still do — but reading periodicals.

I enjoyed reading newspapers and magazines and learning interesting things about the world around me. I would clip out articles about a new can design from Coke or some other new attraction or product … I was social listening, listening to the world around me, which at that time was a world in black and white, in print. Today’s “world around me” is via a screen and there’s so much to listen to, but there are amazing gems if we make it a priority to not just hear but listen.

I’ll be honest too, I have a little help — there’s lots of tools out there to help with this, right? Google alerts, hash tags, services.  Those are good and I use some of them.

But my best social listening has been just paying attention with good old fashioned investigative reporting, with a natural nosiness, and with time. Not a lot of time, but a little time dedicated to actually reading what comes through on the Twitter feed and having my ears perked up in all the listening situations, whether I’m reading, listening to radio or TV or mingling/networking.

Social listening is two things to me:

Fun — Like I said, I’m kinda good at it. I desire to know breaking news, to know new things and to share them, and social listening fits that to a T. It’s the satisfaction of learning about something, being the first to tell someone else, and then seeing them react and get excited too.

Valuable — This stuff works. I have story after story of good things that have started or happened because I heard about something, shared it with the right person and they were able to act on it or make good use of the information.

So there you have it. Social listening. Who knew?!

One of the Best Storytellers in Bold They Rise


Image Credit: collectspace

Astronaut Hank Hartsfield died last week.

He was 80 years old. That’s a long life.

He was Alabama’s first astronaut, which as a native Alabamian is something I care about.

He flew three missions on the space shuttle and his role in the space shuttle program is prominently featured in my book, Bold They Rise.

He was Pilot of the only all-Auburn space shuttle crew. Note: If you’re reading this Victoria, that fact is for you.

I never met him, I never talked to him, although I wish I had. And I’m not just saying that either.

Technically “we” talked tor him for Bold They Rise — I didn’t; I wasn’t an author on the book at that time — so I was surprised when my co-author posted online that Hartsfield was one of the first astronauts “we” interviewed for the book. He was?! I didn’t know that. Cool!

So I asked David to tell me the story:

“When I went to Houston with (astronaut) Bo Bobko in … April 2007, I think, we called him (Hartsfield) up and asked if we could talk to him, he invited us over. … We talked to him at his house. … His stories were fresh and engaging and entertaining, and he had the delivery of a storyteller who likes his stories; the memories of flying with Wubbo (Ockels) or doing pre-flight work in Germany genuinely amused him.

He seemed like he would have been a great commander to fly with, especially for a MS-centric mission like a Spacelab, a leader confident enough to facilitate capable people doing their jobs.”

So, in tribute to Hartsfield, a few of my favorite Hartsfield stories, from Bold They Rise:

Waiting 16 Years To Fly

After sixteen years in the Air Force and NASA astronaut corps, he was finally about to fly. “To me, it was kind of an emotional thing. I remember when we were going out to the pad in the van, and just before we got up to the pad to get out and go to get in the bird, it just sort of hit me, and I said something to Ken (Mattingly), I said, ‘Ken, I can’t believe it. I think we’ll really get to do this.’ It hit me emotionally, because tears started welling up in my eyes. You know, I had to wipe me eyes. It just, to me, was an emotional thought, after all that time, I was finally going to get to fly, it appeared. And I did.”

Tab November

STS-4 was the first Shuttle mission to include a classified military aspect to the mission. “Because it was highly classified, the work we were doing on this one experiment, they had a classified checklist,” Hartsfield said. “Because we didn’t have secure comm, we had the checklist divided up in sections that we just had letter names like Bravo Charlie, Tab Charlie, Tab Bravo that they could call out. When we talked to Sunnyvale to Blue Cube out there, military control, they said, ‘Do Tab Charlie,’ or something. We had one drawer, one locker that was where we kept all the classified material, and it was padlocked. So once we got on orbit, there was nobody going to steal it because we didn’t have to worry about it. We unlocked it and did what we had to. When we finished the last part of that thing, and I remember I finally got it all stowed, I told Ken, I said, ‘I got all the classified stuff put away. It’s all locked up.’ He said, ‘Great.’

“It wasn’t thirty minutes, and they said that the military folks needed to talk to us. So the Capcom came on, the military guy, and says he wanted me to do Tab November. Ken said, ‘What’s Tab November?’   I said, ‘I ain’t got the foggiest idea. I’m going to have to get the checklist out to see.’ So I got the padlock off and got the drawer and dug down and got the checklist out and went to Tab November, and it says, ‘Put everything away and secure it.’ Ken and I really laughed about it.”

Who Moved Ate My Cheese?

Wubbo brought a big bag of gouda cheese with him. I like gouda; everybody likes gouda, nearly. The coolest place in the Orbiter was in the tunnel. It was velcroed up to the side of the tunnel. Which is a great area, you would go floating through, and grab yourself a piece of the gouda. Good Lord, it was good stuff.

“It was so convenient. Anybody that went back there, on the way back and forth, your reached in. About the second or third day, ‘Who’s been eating my cheese!?’ He was upset because about two-thirds of his cheese was already gone.”

These are just a few of the many Hartsfield anecdotes included in the book. Moments like this made me proud that Bold They Rise exists as a permanent collection of stories from great storytellers with many the great story to tell.

Thanks, Hank, for sharing your stories.