Recharging the Spirit

My routine during much of this COVID-19 pandemic has involved getting up early in the morning and taking a three-mile walk in my neighborhood before settling in for work at home for the rest of the day. This month, I have returned to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in a mode, we hope, is as safe as possible. When I returned to work, it was amazing to have the sense of little time passing and working in spaces just as familiar as those at home. As someone who enjoys traveling and seeing new things, this has been a challenging time.

Because of this, my wife gave me a terrific birthday present. As soon as my first shift at Kitt Peak finished, we made plans to visit the Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. I have driven just north of the monument on I-10 to and from work for a little over twelve years and I’ve passed the turnoff to the monument many times. However, I have never before taken the time to visit. In a pandemic when we we’re discouraged from gathering and where outdoor spaces are safer than indoor, this seemed an ideal time to visit. I’m glad we did. We started our visit at Massai Point, which gave us a wonderful view not only of the rock formations the Chiricahua Mountains are noted for, but a look back into New Mexico.

Massai Point Overlook, Chiricahua National Monument

On the recommendation of the ranger, we decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, when we drove over to the parking lot, we found it full. After a quick look at the map, my wife and I realized the Massai Nature Trail connects to the Echo Canyon Loop trail. So we returned to Massai Point and started our hike.

Rhyolite pillars

The distinctive pillar formations of the Chiricahua began their life when a volcano erupted in the region 27 million years ago and spewed ash over 1200 square miles. The ash compressed and has been weathered by wind and rain. The Echo Canyon loop trail gives a good view of these pillars and takes you through countryside where you can see grottoes looking into and through rocks. With our little addition, we ended up hiking 4.3 miles. It wasn’t bad in light of my routine 3-mile hikes in the neighborhood, but still a little challenge since there was more up and down than my nice circuitous path through the neighborhood.

Because we were in the area, we decided to visit some nearby historical sites as well. We stopped by the grave site of gunman John Ringo, most famous for his involvement as a member of the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, Arizona in the events leading up to and after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We also took time to visit Fort Bowie. This was my second visit, but my wife’s first. When I first visited, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit on my way to work one shift. It was also monsoon season, so I ended up making the hike very fast. This time, we were better able to take our time and take the ridge trail that gave us a good overview of the site. As it turns out, Fort Bowie had two locations, which you can see in the photo below. You can likely make out the foundations of the later Fort Bowie on the left in the photo below. A little harder to see is the smaller, original encampment, only used for six years, on the hill to the right.

Both Fort Bowie Locations

Fort Bowie features in my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, I imagine the Chiricahua Apaches end up capturing a mining machine from the Clantons, also famous from their involvement in Tombstone, Arizona. With the help of machinists in Mexico, they replicate the mining machine and turn them into war wagons. Using them, they’re able to capture Fort Bowie, putting them into a position where the United States government is forced to negotiate with them. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

Election Day

Today is election day in the United States. I hope by now you have already voted if you’re legally entitled to do so. If you haven’t voted, I hope you’re able to get out and safely cast your ballot today.

I don’t spend much time here or on other social media networks talking politics. That’s not because I don’t think elections are important. Quite the contrary, I think they’re very important and I pay careful attention to what elected officials are doing from the local to national levels. One reason I don’t discuss politics much on social media is that as an employee of the national observatory, I’m asked to assure that there’s no implication that the observatory endorses my personal beliefs. Because I do spend time on the web as something of an unofficial ambassador for the national observatory, I feel I must be especially careful.

Another reason I don’t share much about my personal political beliefs on social media is that it’s far too easy for people to lash out with a knee-jerk response the minute they see something they disagree with. I’m generally happy to discuss politics with you face to face and have a thoughtful dialog. I’m less interested in a shouting match from the relative anonymity of a keyboard and screen where no one seriously considers the other person’s point of view.

I am also somewhat reluctant to share personal political beliefs online because I have encountered situations where I have shared an opinion about a particular political issue and someone immediately assumes they understand what I believe about everything. I think this is a symptom of the lock the Democratic and Republican parties have on American democracy.

At a theoretical level, I can understand how a strict two-party system could work well. First, imagine two parties who each hold the country’s well-being first and foremost in their hearts. Each of them brings solutions to issues they care about to the table. They discuss those issues and come up with a compromise that may not be perfect and may not even satisfy everyone, but moves things forward and, at least, improves things for everyone.

The problem is that a feedback loop has arisen. As a legislator, one states a position. If everyone understands that position is an ideal that may move toward a more moderate position, things are fine. However, when people feel betrayed by compromise, they expect legislators to fight tooth and nail to get exactly what they promised and no different. The legislators are then backed into a corner and don’t feel they can compromise.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a clear path out of this feedback loop, at least in the near future. While I think it would help to have a couple more parties in the mix to put more ideas on the table, I think the ultimate issue is that people have to realize that government’s job is not to give one set of people their way all the time. Government’s job is probably best stated in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’ve just gone through annual job performance reviews. In a sense, elections are a performance review. We do not work for the president or our legislators. They work for us. As their managers, we need to keep in mind their job is not to do exactly what I tell them, or you tell them, or our neighbor down the street tells them. Their job is to do the best they can for all of us. Your job is to be a responsible manager and let them know how they’re doing by voting.

Rhythms and Transitions in Life

This pandemic year of 2020 brought us a long, hot, dry summer in Southern New Mexico. Usually we get some relief when the monsoon rains come in July and August, but this year, the monsoon only made a few fleeting attempts at getting started. During the long, hot summer, I fell into a regular daily rhythm. I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast and checked my email, then took a three-mile walk through the neighborhood where I plotted out my goals for the day before the temperatures climbed back over 100 degrees. I would then come home and set to work. I usually wrapped up in the late afternoon when dinnertime rolled around. Dinnertime was generally enforced by my daughter who had just graduated from high school.

All in all, this has been a healthy life rhythm. I’ve been getting regular sleep and exercise and I’ve been making a real effort to make healthy diet choices. This has paid off for me. According to the scale at home, I’ve dropped fifteen pounds this summer.

The campus observatory at Northern Arizona University

As the summer comes to an end, I find myself going through several transitions. My daughter has moved away to college. So far, her school, Northern Arizona University, has done admirably well at keeping any COVID-19 outbreaks from occurring on campus, so it looks like she’ll be away until winter break, which begins this year starting on Thanksgiving weekend. A cold front moved through, breaking the streak of hot weather. The forecast indicates temperatures will heat up again, but right now, we’re looking at 80s and not 100s. Also, I’m writing a new longer work, plus starting edits on another novel. What’s more, there’s word that Kitt Peak National Observatory plans to transition to having more staff on site as soon as local authorities give approval, so I’m on alert that I may begin shifts at the observatory again soon.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I often do my best writing first thing in the morning before I’ve had any significant interaction with other people. In short, the story flows without the clutter of other life business getting in the way. If I wake up, have breakfast, then sit down and write about 500 words, I have a much higher chance of continuing writing later in the day. Even if I don’t, I at least have the satisfaction that I completed that much. Once that’s done, I then check my mail. From there, I usually get at least one work task done and then go for my walk. All in all, it’s still a healthy rhythm, but one that may shift if I do indeed add observatory shifts into the rhythm.

These thoughts about life rhythms and transitions at a time I’m starting new writing and editing projects also has me thinking about rhythms and transitions in storytelling. I’ll dive into that subject in Tuesday’s blog post. In the meantime, remember that you can learn about my books by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak

Earlier this week, I rang in the new year while on the job, helping observers commission the DESI spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Looking back, I see I rang in eight years of the last decade at the observatory. So, working on New Year’s Eve is getting to be something of a tradition for me.

Working at the observatory on New Year’s Eve is much like working on any other night of the year. It all starts out with me evaluating the weather. In the photo, I’m standing in front of the Mayall, watching the sunset. Throughout the week I had watched a forecasted storm for the night get downgraded to the point that we expected reasonable observing conditions. The night actually arrived with dark clouds and light snow. Not only was this unwelcome for observing, but New Year’s Eve was the last night of my shift and I didn’t relish the idea of driving on snowy roads.

The poor weather didn’t keep us from our commissioning work. On an instrument where 5000-robotic fibers must be precisely aligned with targets on the sky and then send the light from those targets to ten spectrographs, there’s still plenty of work that may be accomplished with the dome closed. We started with some spectrograph calibration tests, trying to answer whether it matters where the telescope is pointed when we calibrate the instrument. There was some concern about whether or not twisting of fibers at different telescope orientations might make subtle changes to the light going through them and affect the measurements we hope to make. This is important to understand and characterize before we start making measurements.

Another job we had was to test a camera that looks at the fibers on the telescope. That’s how we know the fibers are on the correct objects. We can test this camera because DESI includes some fibers that can be illuminated. This means the fiber view camera can see the position of some fibers even when we’re not looking at the sky. The telescope itself is big and flexes as it points around the sky. Understanding how objects appear on the fiber view camera depending on where we point is also an important job. We can do a lot by pointing the telescope in the closed dome with the test fibers illuminated.

Testing a new, complex system also uncovers software bugs and errors in procedure. The lead software developer on this project is fond of using barnyard sounds like a chicken clucking or a cow mooing when an error occurs. So, these sounds do occasionally intrude into our work, which means the software people need to debug code or help observers refine procedures. This is also productive work for a cloudy, snowy night. I’m also convinced that I need to find a way to work barnyard noises into some future high-tech science fiction space opera!

At 10pm, we tuned into the live feed from Times Square in New York to watch the ball drop while we worked. At midnight, we took enough of a break to toast the new year with mugs of coffee. Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham, so no alcohol is allowed, even if we weren’t working.

When the decade started, I thought of myself as “the temp” on the operations staff at Kitt Peak. I returned to Kitt Peak after nearly fifteen years to help the observatory with a staffing challenge and stabilize my income long enough to achieve some personal goals. Ten years later, I’ve achieved most of my goals, but I still think of myself as “the temp.” It’s an attitude that serves me well.

In the current political climate, I can’t guarantee my job will always be funded so I don’t take for granted I’ll have this job for an indefinite period of time. More importantly having the attitude of being “the temp” assures that I always feel free to speak my mind when needed and avoid self censorship, which is important in a job where I’m responsible for the safety of visitors. Also like any good temporary employee, I want to stay in the good graces of my employers, so it assures that I always try to do my best and constantly hone my craft.

As one decade finishes and another begins, I’m thankful to have a good and interesting job expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe, but I also stand ready to take on whatever challenges that universe decides to throw at me in the coming decade.

My Time in the Collective

About four months ago, my primary care physician referred me to my cardiologist because he was routinely detecting premature ventricular contractions. When my cardiologist examined me six weeks ago, he ran an EKG and could detect none of these so-called PVCs. So, he decided I should wear a “Mobile Cardiac Outpatient Telemetry” monitor or MCOT for a month. The MCOT is a rechargeable sensor that plugs into a bandage with electrodes. The whole thing connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone that in turn sends data back to BioTelemetry, the company that makes the device. To be honest, I spent the month feeling like Jean-Luc Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they made him part of the Borg Collective.

August was a challenging month to wear this thing. Because I had traded shifts at Kitt Peak with a co-worker, I was scheduled to be there two weeks in a row. What’s more, that was the time I traveled to Bisbee for the Steampunk Invasion. A week after that, I traveled to Albuquerque for Bubonicon where I worked at the booth and spoke on panels.

The monitor I wore needed to be recharged every five days. When that happened, I removed the electrode bandage, shaved that part of my chest anew, and put on a new bandage. A bigger logistical challenge was the monitor’s requirement to stay in cell phone connection with BioTelemetry. This was the part that really made me feel like part of the “collective.”

It never ceases to amaze me how much it’s now taken for granted that we will always be in cell phone communication range. The problem is, I work on a remote observatory with radio telescopes. We don’t have cell towers close to the observatory because they interfere with radio observations. We do have some limited WiFi capability now, but the MCOT monitor didn’t give me the option of utilizing that. So, I got to spend much of my two weeks finding places where I could get it to connect to its data server and transmit its data before the phone complained at me that I had been out of cell range for too long.

The most emotionally challenging part of wearing this monitor when I did was that it happened right around the time I reached the very same age my dad was when he died of heart disease.

While wearing the monitor, I got to learn how far these devices have come in the last fifteen or so years. One of my co-workers had to wear an early version of a cardiac monitor when she was a child and the whole thing was like a body suit. I imagine she felt even more like a member of the Borg Collective when she wore it than when I did!

Earlier this week, I learned the results of the monitoring. In short, I do seem to have the occasional premature ventricular contraction. They seem to occur most often when I’m under stress. This would imply that my primary care doctor is more stressful for me to visit than my cardiologist! By themselves, at the rate they occur for me, PVCs are not especially dangerous. I did learn by paying attention and comparing notes with my cardiologist how to recognize them, so I can alert a doctor if I notice their rate increase or become more severe. The experience of speaking to my co-worker about her cardiac monitor experience reminds me how far heart care really has come in the last few decades.

Still, I’m glad to be free of the collective and hope I don’t get assimilated again any time in the near future.

Of course, paying attention to technology like this helps me think about technological change as I write my science fiction and my science fiction-infused steampunk. If you find this blog of interest or just want to help support my writing endeavors, I encourage you to support my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

One Day Older…

At the very end of September in 1980, I had just started my freshman year of high school. I remember waking up to a voice calling out. I followed the voice from my bedroom to the living room, where I found my dad on the couch, calling for my mom, who was sound asleep. He told me he thought he was having a heart attack. I ran in and woke my mom who called the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my brothers and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. I just remember being in a hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and talked to us. My dad hadn’t lived to see another sunrise.

As of this morning, I’m one day older than my dad ever was. I find myself thinking of all the things he was and all the things he did. He was a general foreman for the Santa Fe railroad, a lifelong Boy Scout leader, a talented painter, and a model railroad hobbyist who made sure the toy trains were as accurate as he could make them. He was a Marine at the end of World War II, a church elder, and a Mason. From him, I gained a love of history, nature, genealogy, and so much more. Now that I’m one day older than he ever was, I find myself wondering what he would think of the man I became.

This last year during the DESI installation at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing a hard hat at work. My dad almost always wore his hard hat at work. While it’s a superficial comparison, the image of him in his hard hat is indelibly burned into my memory. I know he would find the observatory fascinating and would love to see behind the scenes of everything we do, just as he enjoyed giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Santa Fe shops in San Bernardino, California. I suspect he’d be mystified by my love of science fiction but interested in how I play with “what if” questions in my alternate history. I know my dad would be proud of my daughters and interested in the things they’ve accomplished.

The date of my dad’s death has hung over me like a specter these last four decades. The rational part of my mind has known that barring accidents, there’s no particular reason I wouldn’t outlive my dad. Then again, doctors talking genetics have a way of keeping his early demise closer to the forefront of my mind than I would like. I’ve often felt the urge to accomplish as much as I can before this date, to assure that if I died young, I would have lived as full a life as possible. I’m glad I’ve made it to this point and I’m glad I have more life to live to share with my friends and loved ones. I know life is finite and I have no idea how much longer I have. What I do know is that the rest of my life is an open book and I plan to fill the pages with as much fun, action, and wonder as I possibly can.

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.

A Culture of Outrage

Last Friday, I was browsing the web and I read a headline about a group being outraged at a public person’s words. I found myself thinking the person’s words weren’t the brightest, but I wasn’t quite sure they warranted “outrage.” Then I noticed another headline about people being outraged at something else and then there was another headline about outrage. I made an offhand comment to my wife that it’s no wonder with all this outrage that certain frustrated young men who don’t handle their emotions well start shooting people. The only emotion that seems to get validation by politicians and the media is outrage. Little did I know that in less than 24 hours, a young man would open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, not all that far from where I live.

It may not be altogether clear from the map, but the borderland communities of Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico are pretty tight knit. I used to do contract work for El Paso Community College and spent some of my time at the Valle Verde Campus not far from the Walmart where the shooting took place. I go to El Paso from time to time to see movies and, of course, I’ve been a guest author at El Paso Comic Con a few times. El Paso is also a safe town in this modern world. More people were killed in Saturday’s mass shooting than in the twelve months before that. These are people I consider my neighbors and this tragedy saddens me.

I know many are outraged in the wake of these events and I have my moments of outrage as well. Already there is renewed talk of gun control and that has triggered the outrage of gun control advocates. I fear that all this will go nowhere as it has in the wake of so many recent incidents. The challenge is that people need to move beyond the outrage and actually talk compromise and think about creative solutions. People need to understand what causes a person to take such hate-filled action as opening fire on families in a store, shopping for school supplies, then discourage that from happening.

It seems that the shooting in El Paso was fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric. This rhetoric is poisonous nonsense. I’ve recently been looking into my own family’s history. As far as I can tell, every one of my ancestors was in this country before 1800. The current President of the United States is the grandson of immigrants who came in 1885. From my family’s perspective, his family looks no different than those coming across the border today. I know that from the perspective of Native Americans, my family looks no different than any other immigrants.

This brings us back to the culture of outrage. Outrage is a momentary reaction. News reporters like it because it’s a raw emotion and it draws people to the narrative being told. Politicians like it because it keeps votes rolling in as they stoke the fires. However, outrage is only sustained by finding a new outrage. Eventually, the old outrage drains away as the families of the victims mourn and find ways to move forward after their losses. Instead of looking for new outrages, we need to actually talk to each other about possible solutions and find ways to implement them. In that way, we may just stand a chance of breaking out of the culture of outrage.

The Last Apollo

My wife and I spent two weeks in July on the road. We paid a visit to my older daughter in Kansas City and then visited some colleges that my younger daughter is considering after she graduates from high school in the spring. On the way to Kansas City, we stopped in to visit my wife’s aunt in Hutchinson, Kansas. While there, she took us to see the Cosmosphere.

As interested as I am in space exploration, it may come as a surprise that I’d never heard of this place. It turns out the Cosmosphere houses the world’s largest combined exhibition of US and Russian space vehicles anywhere in the world. As I understand, the Cosmosphere grew from a planetarium established on the Kansas State fairgrounds in 1962. It houses artifacts from Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, Russian Vostok and Vokhod space capsules and the Odyssey command module from Apollo 13. It also has the training mock-up for the last Apollo flight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

This mission holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. As I mentioned in my post on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I was too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around on the moon live, but I did sit glued to the television set watching the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the famous handshake in space between American Thomas P. Stafford and Russian Alexei Leonov.

One element of this mission that fascinated me was that after years of hearing about the famous “space race” between the Americans and the Russians, this was the first time I’d had a chance to really see pictures of a Soyuz space capsule. It was so different from the American craft and it was green! It was the first time I could remember seeing a spaceship that wasn’t white, gray, or silver.

The project would lay the foundation for the working relationship that would ultimately lead to projects like the International Space Station. In fact, to this day, Soyuz space craft are still the workhorses that take people to and from the space station. I recently learned that during training for the project and during the mission itself, all the Americans spoke Russian while all the Soviet cosmonauts spoke English.

In later life, I’ve come to appreciate astronaut Deke Slayton’s story from this mission. Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, immortalized in the movie, The Right Stuff. However, Slayton was grounded and never flew during the Mercury program because of an abnormal heart rhythm. As I understand, his condition is not dissimilar from my own. Slayton went on to become a manager of the senior manager of NASA’s astronaut office. Watching footage from Apollo 11, we see Deke Slayton helping Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins aboard their famous flight. At long last, Slayton was cleared for flight status in the 1970s and the Apollo-Soyuz test project was his chance to go to space.

Soon after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project I enrolled in a model of the month club. The company would send you a new model every month to build. One of the models I remember depicted the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in space. I hurried through the build, excited to make it. I remember globbing on paint and glue. Even my peers at the time said I did a terrible job. The model was ultimately lost to time. After returning home from our travels, I discovered an old kit of that model for sale online. I bought it for old time’s sake and put it together much more carefully. I even took extra care to make sure I matched the colors to what I saw in the Cosmosphere as best as I could.

This model is a keeper. Apollo-Soyuz reminds me that first steps toward cooperation can build dividends in the long run. It reminds me of Deke Slayton and that he would eventually overcome a health problem that grounded him. It reminds me of a visit to a cool museum with my family. The model itself reminds me that you can fail the first time you try something and then be satisfied when you learn from your mistakes and try again.