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.

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.

Best Book Launch Ever!


The Bold They Rise book launch, for me, was the high point of everything it took to write and publish this book.

It was a day to bask in the feeling of accomplishment, first that it was done. It feels amazing that it’s just done.

But beyond that, I could bask also that it’s a good work.

A few months ago, I was scared for people to read it. What readers thought would be the true test as to whether or not we did well what we set out to do. But we’ve had nothing but good reviews so far, which has added to my confidence that we did a good thing.

The epitome of that, though, is that the astronauts who spoke at the launch — Robert “Hoot” Gibson and his wife Rhea Seddon — had heard of Bold They Rise even before I contacted them to come talk for us. Not only had they heard about it, they’d pre-ordered a copy and by the time of our event Hoot had read most of it.

He read words that I/we wrote about his experiences and he liked  the words that he read.

That’s a HUGE compliment.

It’s great that the lay reader likes it. But when the person who lived the story likes it, that’s something else all together.

I loved hearing them talk. Both of them, but especially Rhea Seddon.

Below is her sharing the story and photo of her first spaceflight and the giant hug her son gave her upon her return. Isn’t this photo just precious?


I was fascinated that this couple both pursued very demanding careers yet also had a family, and even after retiring as astronauts continued to have very full careers, she as a doctor and he as a pilot and businessman. They were the first astronaut couple, and 30-plus years later they’re still together. The accomplishments of the space shuttle is an amazing story, but so are the accomplishments of these individuals and the family they represent.

It was fun, during the down time, to ask Rhea about her children and grandchildren and what they were doing now, about their love story — “did he ask you out?” — and even silly things like “do you call him Hoot at home?” The answer is no; she calls him Robert.

Having them headline the release of Bold They Rise was as good as I could make it, and a satisfying point on which to to end this journey.


Meeting Astros at Spacefest VI


I went to Spacefest VI in May to promote Bold They Rise. Our publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, had organized to have many of the series authors at the event to speak on the series and to be available for book signings.

Our talk was early on the first day of the conference, and a handful of folks came. It was actually great, in my opinion, to have a smaller more intimate audience; it allowed us to make it more of a conversation and less “lecture.”

I was very, VERY fortunate that my friend Andrea went with me on the trip. Not only was she a HUGE help when I was busy with book things, she helped me keep my sanity when I started to stress out. Plus we had fun exploring SoCal and talking it up all weekend long!

The best moments of the trip, though, were two casual encounters with two pretty famous astronauts.

Both of these happened on the ride between Pasadena and LAX on the Super Shuttle.

First, on the way out to Pasadena, a group of three or so people were in the shuttle van with us. The woman in the group commented to a man in her party that Edgar had lost his cell phone. Poor Edgar I thought. I think she wanted the man to call it and help find it. They went to the same hotel as us and ended up in line with us to checkin. Andrea asked me if I thought they were going Spacefest too. I nosily eyed the luggage tag of the man who had lost his phone and saw his full name. Edgar Mitchell, as in the sixth man to walk on the moon. I whispered this to Andrea and then it was like what do we do? Do we say something? Do we let him go in front of us? Do we treat him like a regular person and wait his turn in line? We ultimately did nothing, opting to let him just be a regular guy and letting us just be in awe that at “regular” he seemed for someone who once walked around on the moon.

The second close encounter with an astronaut was on the ride back to LAX early Sunday morning. By early I mean, the shuttle van was picking us up at 5:15 a.m. The last passenger arrived after the rest of us had already piled in the van. I heard the driver at the rear of the car ask, “Last name Collins?” at which point Andrea and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Could it be? Collins? As in, Eileen Collins?” Sure enough, it was her. Once she as in the car, we let her know that we knew who she was and talked about why I was at Spacefest, about Bold They Rise, how the event was for her, etc. She was a delight to talk to and so down to earth. She even said she had wished she could’ve left her area and come to get my book and see my talk and get me to sign a copy. Maybe she was just being nice, but it was sweet and flattering all the same.


Let’s Launch a Book


I am SO looking forward to Saturday’s book event with astronauts Hoot Gibson and Rhea Seddon, and I want to tell you why.

First, though, do you guys know who Hoot Gibson and Rhea Seddon are? There’s multiple bios on the web but the gist is this: They were part of the first class of astronauts selected specifically for the space shuttle program. Seddon is one of the first six women chosen by NASA to be astronauts, which is quite an honor. Hoot Gibson is her husband. They met and married while in the astronaut corps — the first astronaut couple, actually — raised a family and are still together, all while pursuing pretty demanding careers, not just as astronauts but after leaving the corps, Seddon returned to her career as a medical doctor and Gibson as a pilot.

Do you feel like you know a little more about these two now? Good. Are you starting to catch on to why I’m so excited? Even better.

So, here’s some of the things that excites me about having these two astronauts in particular talking and signing books with us:

First, Rhea Seddon doesn’t do a lot of speaking events — has anyone reading this heard her speak before? — I haven’t, so this will be new to me. Her website is fascinating so I have high hopes for what she has to say.

Two, she and Hoot are doing this talk together, which is another rarity. Hoot does a lot of public speaking, but having these two together is such a treat!

Three — These guys lived the story we tell in Bold They Rise. They were in the first class of space shuttle astronauts. They were on the development teams that developed the shuttle hardware and software. They experienced the first flights. They lost friends when Challenger exploded. We just tell the story in Bold They Rise, but these two astronauts lived the story we tell. We can re-tell stories we’ve read about. They can tell stories they remember. Big difference. I can’t wait to hear their recollections.

Four — when I talked with their representative about having them come talk at the event, I offered to send to Hoot a complimentary copy of Bold The Rise so they could be familiar with the book. But the woman I was working with said she believed he already had a copy of the book, that when they first talked about our event he had heard of Bold They Rise, had placed a pre-order some time ago, and had just been notified that his copy had shipped. How about that?!?

If you’re in the Huntsville area I hope you’ll come out. The talk is included with regular admission the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is graciously loaning us their facility and will be handling book sales. Books will be available for purchase. NOTE: Astronaut signing will only be available to book holders purchasing books at the event.

How Mike Brown Killed Pluto


The man who killed Pluto grew up in my hometown.

Strangely enough, I’m kinda proud of that.

I’ve been privileged to hear him speak twice, both times getting autographs — one in his book and one on a nine-planet solar system litho on which he X’d out Pluto.

Brown is an excellent speaker, both extremely knowledgeable in the subject matter but also an interesting and dynamic speaker. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is written in the same way. I could practically hear Brown speaking as I read because the written stories are presented much like stories told in his presentations.

The book is not just about Pluto or the discoveries that led to Pluto’s deplanetization. Brown blends in much of what was going on in his personal life at the time, namely meeting and marrying his wife (for which he later named a moon — can’t get much more romantic than that), and the birth of their daughter Lilah. These personal aspects of Brown’s life I find to be very relevant to what happened with the planets, and I’m glad he included them.

How I Killed Pluto is not a scientific volume but rather a story, and in it is described the many emotions and feelings of this time in Brown’s life. In that way, how could he possibly exclude that he was falling in love, getting married and having a daughter while discovering planets as his day job (well, technically night job).

The book follows Brown’s journey from his early interest in astronomy, to how it came about that he started searching for planets, through the many technological issues and advances that at times both helped and hindered his search. It also follows the controversy that resulted when Brown discovered what he hoped, initially, would be the solar system’s 10th planet. This discovery caused the biggest astronomy shake up in decades, and ultimately resulted in the redefinition of a planet.

This book and it’s story was interest of me mainly because of Brown’s connection to my hometown and because of hearing his lectures. However the subject of Pluto was also interesting to me because a few years ago I wrote the student article “What Is Pluto?” for NASA. I experienced a little bit of the controversy myself, having to carefully select the correct words and phrases as to not upset the Pluto-lovers who were not happy about its demotion and yet accurately inform the student audience for which I was writing about Pluto, it’s history and it’s controversy.

As a word person, I also find it quite funny that since all of this the English language has adopted a whole new word: plutoed, which means to demote or devalue someone or something. Plutoed was even named the 2006 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

See why I think it’s cool that Mike Brown hails of Huntsville? A guy who grew up in the same place that I did — in the same place that my kids are growing up now — discovered new objects in space that led to the redefinition of a planet, a worldwide controversy, and the coining of a new word that became the Word of the Year!

I can only aspire to be a fraction as cool as that.


Take Time to Look Out the Window

Astronaut Doug Wheelock gave a presentation at work this week about his time on the International Space Station and as the station’s commander. He was a great story teller and had all kinds of humorous stories. But the thing that stood out most was his one regret. His only regret was the three or four days that he got too busy and forgot to look out the window.

His advice that he had just told the current ISS crew prior to his presentation was “don’t let a day go by that you don’t look out the window.”

The view of Earth from space must be spectacular and breath-taking. The images certainly are; I can only imagine how much better it is in 3D. Wouldn’t you just love to lounge there like astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the above photo (taken by Doug Wheelock) literally watching the world go by? It would be a struggle, I imagine, to keep the astronauts from doing that all the time because it would so enjoyable.

During the research and writing of Bold They Rise (the space shuttle book David and I wrote, due out next year) and in present-day astronaut interviews, astronaut after astronaut name both viewing and photographing Earth as a favorite space pastime.

But like here, life up there is busy too. Work, meals, exercise, housekeeping, downtime, and so on. Wheelock said on the handful of days he didn’t look out at Earth he worked all day and when he went to bed realized “I didn’t even look out the window today.”

What struck me is — don’t we do the same down here? Sometimes the view of Earth is pretty spectacular from right where we are. We don’t have to be in space to appreciate it. But we miss it all because we just go to work, go about our business, and go to bed.

Great advice, Doug. To astronauts on Earthlings alike.