Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
Truths about Texas' history took center stage in "Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth," a book released last month, which reminds anyone who cares to remember that Gen. Santa Anna—well, the whole country of Mexico if you want to get technical about it—was very much against slavery at the time of the Texas Revolution and that Davy Crockett and his slave-trading cohorts Jim Bowie and William B. Travis were in fact fighting for the right to treat people as property.
The myth (more suitable to comic books than Texas History classrooms) is that Crockett would not surrender and died in a blaze of glory for the cause of freedom; however, the book underscores the truth that Crockett's surrender and execution were widely reported in 1836 and only morphed into martyrdom in the popular imagination thanks to Walt Disney's 1954-1955 miniseries.
The authors of "Forget the Alamo" maintain (and back up their findings with copious footnotes that will supply any skeptic with a serious summer reading list) that the myth of the freedom fighters standing their ground in the Alamo, or Misión San Antonio de Valero," has been used to promote a number of reactionary causes, from Nixon-era anti-communism to post-9/11 anti-Arab drum-beating. But primarily the authors argue the Alamo has been employed to foster a narrative of white supremacy for the right.
"The Alamo, long used in a myth that demonized and gaslit Mexican-Americans and Indigenous people, might as well be a Confederate monument in the minds of conservative adherents to the Heroic Anglo Myth," the authors stress. "We must recognize that the Battle of the Alamo was as much about slavery as the Civil War was about slavery," they write.
Describing themselves as "proud Texans," the authors of "Forget the Alamo" (Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford) are a trio of veteran journalists who "don't believe knowing the truth about Texas history makes the state any less unique or important."
The authors (whose byline bona fides extend from Texas Monthly to Vanity Fair) don't ask for much, really, just to open a conversation involving some obvious truths that might make for a more nuanced, factual account of the "cradle of Texas liberty."
This conversation has proven to be a difficult one to have in public.
On July 1., Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the cancellation of a "Forget the Alamo" book event at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Patrick tweeted out his motivation the next day, saying: "As a member of the Preservation Board, I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it... this fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place."
As a member of the Preservation Board, I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it. Like efforts to move the Cenotaph, which I also stopped, this fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place @BullockMuseum. #txlege https://t.co/ua1aSFxHCk
— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) July 2, 2021
Much to GOP officials' dismay, the book's authors have called for some honesty to be injected into the education system rather than let Texas schools keep teaching what they call "the whitewashed story." "To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis and Crockett," they write. "Bowie was a murderer, slaver, and con man; Travis was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was captive to his own myth."
Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbot have a vested interest in controlling any dialogue that emerges from "Forget the Alamo."
In June, the governor established the "1836 Project," a nine-member advisory committee crafted for the promotion of a "patriotic education" to the residents of Texas, regarding the state's secession from Mexico in 1836. The project aims to ensure that "future generations understand TX values."
Abbot's 1836 project—following Trump's now-canceled 1776 Commission -- is a not-so-subtle attempt to counter The New York Times' 1619 Project: which seeks to shine a light on the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. while offering an easily accessible curriculum for interested educators.
In recent months 22 states have put forth legislation designed to limit educators' ability to reference the 1619 Project, and states such as Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, have signed those limits into law.
The facts about the Alamo made prominent in "Forget the Alamo" would no doubt make Abbott's not-yet compulsory "patriotic education" more complicated. For, regarding the heroes of the Alamo, the authors note: "They fought for freedom, just not everybody's freedom."
The Texas Book Festival is kicking off virtually for its 25th anniversary, featuring more than 125 guests including none other than actor, UT professor, Austin resident and now author, Matthew McConaughey.
The Texas Book Festival will take place entirely online from Oct. 31 to Nov. 15. All events will be available to the public for free, featuring content for readers of all ages.
"The 25th Anniversary Texas Book Festival will be one for the record books, and not only because we will be all virtual," said TBF executive director Lois Kim in a press release. "The authors we are hosting are so talented, and we can't wait to share dozens of unforgettable conversations with everyone, everywhere."
This year the event will feature plenty of prominent figures in addition to McConaughey, including chef David Chang presenting his book "Eat a Peach: A Memoir;" Kevin Kwan, who is famously known for the novel-turned-movie "Crazy Rich Asians," presenting his new book, "Sex and Vanity;" Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson presenting "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents;" and National Book Award winner Sigrid Nunez with her new novel "What Are You Going Through," among many other authors, poets, journalists artists and illustrators.
We're so excited to share the lineup for the 2020 Virtual Texas Book Festival featuring @McConaughey, @davidchang,… https://t.co/jKls0YTrpQ— Texas Book Festival (@Texas Book Festival)1600268521.0
McConaughey will discuss his new memoir "Greenlights," which he describes as his "sights and scenes, nices and means, successes and failures," and was derived from a lifetime of the actor's own journals.
The festival was originally started in 1995 by former First Lady Laura W. Bush and Mary Margaret Farabee with the goal of connecting readers and authors to one another and promoting a lifetime love of reading.
The nonprofit event helps bring authors to elementary schools, gifts thousands of books to students and has awarded more than $3 million worth of grants to more than 600 libraries.
This year The Texas Teen Book Festival will take place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, followed by children's programming from Nov. 2-6, with adult programming for the remainder of the festival.
A full schedule of events can be found here.
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Former Longhorn and NFL star Emmanuel Acho is taking his hit social media series from the internet to the page in "Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man," the new book he's putting out with his partner—Oprah Winfrey.
The series—and now book—explores difficult conversations on race to "mend the racial divide in our world."
The announcement came Tuesday evening and has received much support on social media. It is already an Amazon bestseller.
Lotta y’all tweeting congrats. But, where are the receipts? I’m looking forward to the book going deeper than the s… https://t.co/DiFlSkGYkt— Domonique Foxworth (@Domonique Foxworth)1594825787.0
The book comes out Nov. 10 but can be preordered today at uncomfortableconvos.com.
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