Closing out the Book Launch – Part I!

Wow, what a rush! I can’t believe how energizing—and exhausting—the past four weeks on the road have been! And that was on top of the month spent preparing for the book’s rollout.

You may have heard that marketing a book is harder work than writing a book. I will tell you from first-hand experience that it’s true.

Recall that Mike and I met in St. Augustine, Florida on December 18 and 19, where we signed 350 books and mailed more than 200 of them to people who had placed pre-orders. The other 100 copies went out in the mail over the course of the next several weeks.

Our official book launch tour started off with our talk at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on January 16. We followed that with events in the Kennedy Space Center area on January 25, 26, and 27. Then it was on to Houston and Mike’s panel discussion on January 31.

We drove to Hemphill that afternoon and spent a deeply moving couple of days with the people who had worked so hard to search for Columbia‘s crew and to support the NASA family after the accident. Signing our books in Hemphill’s Remembering Columbia museum on the 15th anniversary of the accident was the culmination of all that we had been working for over the past three years.

Then it was back to Houston for another talk on February 3. We had a couple of days back at home to recover, and then it was on to Virginia for our events at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on February 11 and 12.

Ciannilli intro OSB2
Mike Ciannilli introduces us at KSC on February 15. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Our final events for this tour were on February 15. First was a talk and book signing at lunchtime at the OSB2 building, for KSC employees. We had time for a quick bite afterward at Crackerjacks in Titusville before heading to our next stop—a presentation and signing at The Great Outdoors, an RV and golf resort west of Titusville. We had a packed house of very attentive people who asked a lot of great questions!

TGO talk
A very engaged crowd at The Great Outdoors! (Photo by Bob Root)

Our final event was a celebratory dinner at Zarella’s Italian restaurant in Cape Canaveral. We were joined by retired CNN reporter John Zarella (his sons own the restaurant) and several members of the Space Hipsters Facebook community. John is a larger-than-life personality, and he entertained us with many behind-the-scenes tales of shenanigans at Kennedy Space Center. It was the perfect celebration and a wonderful way to end a very, very tiring month on the road.

Dinner at Zarella’s! From left: Mark Usciak, Carleton Bailie, Jean Wright, Ken Kremer, John Zarella, Matt Haskell, John Gould, Jonathan Ward, and Mike Leinbach. (Photo courtesy Mark Usciak)

Recapping the Rollout

I neglected to keep exact measurements, but here are some estimated summary stats for what we’ve been up to since we received the books in mid-December:

  • Books signed: 850+
  • Public appearances: 15 (3 memorial services, 4 panel discussions, 3 presentations, 5 book signings)—about 3,000 people saw us in person
  • Miles flown (Jonathan): 4,897
  • Miles driven (Jonathan): 3,250
  • Recorded audio interviews: 2
  • Taped TV interviews: 4
  • Newspaper and other interviews: 5+
  • Live broadcasts (TV, radio, webcast, podcast): 5

Numbers, of course, don’t tell the real story. I have more than enough fond memories from this trip to last a lifetime. Witnessing a tearful hug between Belinda Gay and one of the NASA men who searched for Columbia in the Hemphill area. Meeting the spouses of some of Columbia‘s crew. Introducing Mike to the heroes of the recovery operations. Having friends and family on hand for the National Air and Space Museum interview. Seeing the good people of East Texas smile with delight at receiving their copy of the book containing their stories. Hanging out with Greg Cohrs and his family. Sharing the legacy of Columbia and her crew with people who had no prior knowledge of the scope of the recovery operations. Receiving so many expressions of thanks and encouragement.

And not least, spending countless hours with The People’s Launch Director, who I am honored to call my friend and colleague.

This is just the end of Part I. We’ll have more appearances in the coming months. And there are exciting things in the works!


At the National Air and Space Museum

Mike and I were invited to speak at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on February 12. While I always feel honored to speak to groups, this venue held a special place in my heart. I worked as a volunteer tour guide at the NASM back in the summers of 1971 and 1972, while I was a student in high school. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be back again in the capacity of a subject matter expert!

We began our Washington, DC weekend with a signing at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Sunday, February 11. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s vast hangar holds planes and space vehicles that are too large to display in a more traditional museum. Here you’ll find everything from a World War I “Spad” to the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the Hiroshima bomb to a Concorde SST to an SR-71 to the space shuttle Discovery!

Mike and I walked around Discovery before our book signing. Mike remarked that the last time he stood under Discovery, she was still radiating heat from re-entry. That was after the conclusion of the STS-133 mission on March 9, 2011.

I was fascinated to hear Mike point out several things that I might not have otherwise noticed. For example, take a look at the discolored streaks marked by the arrows in the photo below. Those give you an indication of the angle of attack—how steeply “nose-up” the space shuttle flies when it is re-entering the atmosphere.

Mike and me with Discovery, February 11, 2018. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Mike also pointed out to me some of the newer, high-density “FRCI” insulation tiles on various spots along the orbiter. These newer-technology tiles replaced some tiles along the orbiter’s belly and under its wings. You can see some of them in the photo above, as they are darker black than the older tiles.

I never cease to be amazed at how large a vehcile the space shuttle orbiter was—and Mike points out that it was the smallest part of the shuttle “stack” at launch.

It’s doubly hard to imagine that a one-pound piece of foam could bring down such a mighty ship, as it did with Columbia.

As a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, before I moved to North Carolina seven years ago, I really enjoyed seeing many friends of mine who came by to say hi at the museum. My son and daughter also brought their families to share the day with me. My middle granddaughter Samantha wore her astronaut garb and she fit right in!

My family! My wife Jane and me; granddaughters Molly (pink coat), astronaut Samantha, and baby Charlotte; my daughter Rosey (dark coat) and her husband Jason; and my son Ken (blue shirt) and his wife Valerie. And Mike off in the corner, hopelessly outnumbered.

That night, we met for dinner with former shuttle commander Pam Melroy and Robert Hanley of NASA. Pam was in charge of the Columbia crew module reconstruction effort back in 2003, and she was instrumental in writing the crew survivability report that was key to several important equipment redesigns for future crewed spacecraft. Robert was a member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team in 2003, and he also played a very important role in the crew module reconstruction. Both Pam and Robert were key contributors for Bringing Columbia Home, and although I’d spoken with them extensively on the phone, I’d never met them in person.

Astronauts always have tons of wonderful stories to relate! I was thrilled to hear Pam give us some peaks behind the scenes of what it was like to work as a “Cape Crusader” to prepare shuttles for other crews, as well as her own experiences during missions. For example, she said that you get used to making very small and very slow movements when you’re in zero-G; she said you could always tell who the rookie astronauts were because they were covered with bruises after the first day or two. But it was critical for the shuttle’s commander and pilot to prepare for the larger, more forceful actions that would be needed to control the shuttle during reentry. So the pilots had a hand controller hooked to a laptop that enabled them to simulate the actual hand and arm motions required for reentry and landing beginning a day before the end of the mission. Pam said she really needed that reminder, because she blew the first simulated landing!

Pam also mentioned that she always had a particularly hard time adjusting from zero-G back to Earth’s gravity. It was doubly hard for her when she had to fly the shuttle back home as commander when “my gyros were pegged” and she felt physically awful from the transition back to gravity.

Robert had been the personal interface between Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle team on the ground at Kennedy. He shared some wonderful reminiscences—touching and funny—of his time with the crew of STS-107.

Not looking too bad, considering we had just spent 3-1/2 hours eating, drinking, and talking at Maggiano’s! Mike, “Pambo,” Robert, and me. 

Monday, February 12 was our day at the NASM’s main building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. We were hosted by Dr. Valerie Neal, chair of the Smithsonian’s Space History Department and curator of the NASM’s space artifacts. Mike taped a brief segment with Marty Kelsey for the Smithsonian’s STEM-in-30 program, talking about how the slidewire escape system worked at the launch pad. Mike also taped a short segment for middle school students about his educational and career path and what he liked about his job.

Then it was time for the “What’s New in Aerospace?” program, hosted by Dr. Neal. I can’t describe for you how amazing it felt to be in that wonderful space, with my family in the front row of the audience—and my guidance counselor from high school sitting right behind them! I hadn’t seen her in person for 35 years, but we have kept in touch since 1974. She was instrumental in helping me sort out my educational path when I was a confused teenager, and even after I went off to college. It was such an honor to have her there to share the culmination of my life’s work (so far).

Mike flashes a “thumbs up” to a colleague just before we go live.

I can’t believe how fast the program time flew by. Dr. Neal’s easygoing demeanor made this feel much more like a conversation with a friend than a presentation to a worldwide audience. It seemed like we were just scratching the surface of our stories about the recovery effort, and suddenly we saw the PA holding up a sign that it was 2:28 pm, meaning the show was only supposed to go another two minutes longer! There was so much more we wanted to talk about, but no time in which to do it.

Afterward, we learned that over 3,600 people had watched the program on Facebook Live! And the recording of the show is now posted here for your viewing pleasure.

I should also point out that the Smithsonian asked us to write a blog post for their website about the Columbia accident and its aftermath, and you can find it at this link.

We signed books at the NASM gift shop afterward. It’s always a pleasure to sign books for people who are interested in learning more about the story, and it’s always interesting to hear what parts of the book people found most absorbing. It’s sometimes difficult for authors to judge how their book will resonate with people, especially in a book like this that has technical aspects but also deeply emotional moments. As Mike says about the reconstruction, “If you can separate out the emotions, it was a fascinating engineering exercise…but you can’t separate out the emotions.”



After the signing, we met up with former Shuttle Test Director Al Sofge and his wife Suzanne, a retired director from NOAA. Mike, his wife Charlotte, and Al and Suzanne shared a lot of laughs about the life of a test director during the shuttle program. Mike noted that Al was notorious for walking so briskly through the hallways that he created a gust of wind when he strode by. People gave the strength of that wind gust the unit of measure “1 Al.” If he was in a hurry for something particularly important, he might create a gust of 1.2 Al or even 1.4 Al! We also talked about the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and possible paths that NASA and the commercial crew companies might take.

Charlotte and Mike Leinbach, and Suzanne and Al Sofge (Jonathan Ward photo)

All too quickly, our time in DC was over. We said our goodbyes at our hotel in Virginia this morning, and laughed when we said—seriously—”See you tomorrow in Florida!” We have two more signings on Thursday, February 15 in the KSC area.

Stay tuned!

Future astronaut Samantha. What will she be flying in 20 years? (Ken Ward photo)
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