Roy Bridges's memoir, An Improbable Astronaut, launched on May 17, 2022. In this interview, we talk about everything from parenting to religion, and from Earth to space! Enjoy!
HA: Why did you choose to work with Heart Ally Books?
RB: I had originally contacted commercial and university publishing organizations but could not find a good fit for my memoir. I started asking around about other options. A family member told me about an independent publishing company they’d learned of through a friend who worked at a local bookstore. I checked it out, and it turned out to be Heart Ally Books. After some discussions with Lisa Norman, I determined it was a perfect fit for my book and signed a contract. I have been 100% pleased throughout the several-years-long process from my first rough draft through the final publication of my book.
HA: Bookstores generally don’t contact publishers to pitch books. Covered Treasures, in Monument, Colorado, is a fantastic indie bookstore. They carry Without Warning, another Heart Ally book, so they know the quality that we provide. When they contacted me to make the introduction, I started very politely explaining that I do reject most books that come to me. But then they told me who you were, and there was very little chance, at that point, that I would reject your book. I’m a NASA geek. I loved everything about the space shuttle program. When they told me about your memoir, it felt like your book had come to the perfect home.
What was the most surprising experience you had during the process of becoming an author?
RB: I had had a lot of experience writing technical and professional papers and speeches. I found out that writing a memoir requires a whole different set of skills about which I was clueless. Lisa Norman and her crew at Heart Ally Books were very patient with me as they recommended different training to sharpen my skills, followed by extensive developmental editing sessions under three different editors as the book matured in three different iterations. The book improved from a boring narrative into something that captured the underlying passion and emotion involved in pursuing my dream from childhood to retirement.
HA: I remember talking about this with one of the editors early on. You were trained to contain your emotions. That’s a skill that has probably kept you alive on more than one occasion. It gives rise to quotes like, “Houston, we have a problem.” But readers want to see the emotions, they want to relate to you as a human. Your story is powerful, and you were incredibly brave to let us delve into the adventures to give readers a sense of what it was like to live those moments.
Do you have a favorite or least favorite part of being an author?
RB: I was surprised about how many things that I needed to learn and practice to be successful after a rather successful career. There were many bad habits such as how frequently I used the word “very” in my narrative. My writing was also absent emotion since that is discouraged in professional documents—just the facts. Realizing that I had much to learn was a little discouraging. The editors exercised amazing patience, and we eventually succeeded.
HA: You didn’t just succeed. You wrote something that is (sic) VERY powerful. I love how this book turned out. I’m a big believer that even memoirs need to be entertaining. You brought us a story of adventure.
One thing I love about this book, that I didn’t expect when we first met, is how much power there is in the parts of your career that are in some ways administrative. Sure, you’re just dealing with management issues: things like dealing with SuperFund sites, a term I’d never heard before working on this book, security of nuclear facilities, and the behind-the-scenes moments of the heartbreaking loss of Columbia. You also went into deep personal losses as well.
If people could take one theme away from the book, what would you wish that to be?
RB: To understand that with persistence and hard work, a person can successfully pursue a dream—even an improbable one—to a successful conclusion, despite obstacles along the way. Life can be more fun and satisfying when pursuing your passion.
HA: Your book gave me new insight into the commercialization of NASA. Why do you feel that was necessary? How has that helped the space industry?
RB: While the process of making the transition was a painful, existential chapter in the organization that I was leading, the Kennedy Space Center, it was necessary to build a space economy. In our economic system, we need government and public entity partnerships to become and remain the best. Government organizations are often best at developing technologies that are missing and demonstrating them, as it is difficult for public entities to raise capital for risky technology development. Then transferring this technology to public corporations can lead to a vibrant industrial enterprise. The government can be a first customer for the resulting services, such as flying astronauts to Earth orbit.
A good example is the evolution of space launch vehicles from a totally government-financed-and-operated enterprise to one owned and financed by private companies. Now NASA astronauts are traveling to the space station on launch vehicles and crew capsules owned and operated by a public company, Space X. Space X has demonstrated the ability to return launch vehicles to landing pads and reuse them many times. This, over time, will significantly reduce the cost of access to orbit and grow the industry. While NASA showed that this could be done with the space shuttle, the technology was experimental at best. It took a public company to take this technology to the next level. They are making money supporting this growing industry, and even making it possible for anybody to fly into space. While that is still too expensive for most people, it is still a big step forward. There have already been two space missions with private citizens footing the bill. The technology is much more robust and so automated that space flyers need not spend many years building the skills to fly into space safely.
HA: I have to tell you that until I read your book, I was mourning the loss of the Space Shuttle Program. Now I understand the power of the changes that were made, and I’m excited for the future.
What do you see as the future of our exploration of space?
RB: Some exciting events that have just begun include what we will learn about the universe from the recently launched James Webb telescope that can see to near the dawn of the universe. We also may get a better idea about whether there was ever life on Mars through the return to Earth of samples being collected now by the rover on Mars. What if we found out that there is or was life somewhere else in the universe? That would literally upset the apple cart of all that we think we know. There are many other possibilities that are underway. For example, will it be possible to capture the energy of the sun from a station in Earth orbit and send it to receivers on Earth to provide the ultimate in renewable energy. There are demonstrations of on-orbit services such as a space vehicle to refuel a spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit. Other demonstrations are space vehicles to remove hazardous debris from orbit, which would be a valuable service over time. It is already getting somewhat crowded up there.
HA: I’ve heard people say that we need to focus on Earth before space. I know that space exploration has done a lot of good for Earth. Would you like to list just a few of those benefits?
RB: I can think of a number of examples where we benefitted from learning to use space as a resource. Our ability to forecast the weather is one that we experience daily. More accurately forecasting dangerous weather conditions using information from satellites has saved countless lives.
Using location information from the Global Positioning System (GPS) helps many industries and people every minute of every day. For example, aircraft can travel shorter paths to their destinations than before.
Other things have not come to fruition yet but promise exciting capabilities. For example, using space-based installations to capture and send energy from the sun to Earth 24/7 would be an extraordinary capability in our battle against climate change.
We are working on capabilities to spot a dangerous asteroid in time to take action to prevent it from striking the Earth, and we need to develop that as soon as possible. An asteroid wiped out much of life millions of years ago and could do so again if we don’t continue to develop this capability.
HA: In the book, you talk about the peace dividend. How has this helped us to be prepared for current situations? Or did it hurt us?
RB: The massive military that we were forced to field during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union to deter aggression in Europe was not needed after it collapsed. The money could be reinvested in other pressing needs, so in that sense it was good for the nation at the time and for decades afterwards. Unfortunately, Russia’s current conduct is an indication that we must constantly reevaluate the security needs of the nation and invest accordingly. The current administration’s recommitment to a strong NATO is one move that is strengthening our security environment in Europe. We need to strengthen relationships with other allies that are critical to maintaining peace in the future. For example, it is important to improve our relationships with our Pacific/Asian allies to deter any aggressions by China, which is investing in building a very strong military capability in the region and has been acting aggressively toward Taiwan. The overall prime objective is to deter war.
HA: Care to comment on what a brighter future could look like from your perspective of the way we’ve invested that dividend?
RB: Until we can come together as a civilization and eliminate terrorist elements in our society, we will have to maintain strong law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. The same applies to our military as long as there are despots who would attack us or other innocent countries, as evident in Russia’s barbaric actions against the Ukrainian people. The more that we can bring international groups together as we have with NATO to make such actions very costly for the aggressor, the better we will be. We are stronger together, which reduces the burden on all of us since we are not standing alone against such threats. We are desperate to free up resources to attack other existential threats such as climate change. We must never give up in our quest to make the Earth a more peaceful and hospitable place for all of us now and in the future.
HA: These last years of working together on the space station have reinforced that we are stronger together.
A common theme of your book shows respect for individuals. In these huge organizations where you were making sweeping decisions that would affect so many people, how did you keep this as a focus?
RB: When leading an organization, it is most important from day one to be accessible to everyone. The techniques for doing that are numerous but can be summed up by “management by walking around,” i.e., being seen and being approachable to all levels of the organization. I went through a lot of additional leadership training as well to be sure that my style of leadership was not offensive to my employees. This involved years of coaching and feedback to correct issues in my management style, which can be summed up as “ego-free leadership.” I also included all of my direct reports in the same training to assure that we were all effective individually as well as a team. In addition, I used a system of employee engagement created by Gallup to measure and improve the number of fully engaged employees, which extensive research has shown results in a more effective organization. This approach gets all supervisors and managers involved in improving employee engagement. The survey shows which of them are improving and which need help in achieving high employee engagement.
To effect change in an organization, the leader has to go beyond developing leaders, being accessible, and improving employee engagement as described above. It is necessary to get the organization at all levels to agree on goals to achieve the desired change, strategies and actions to achieve the goals, and metrics to assure that the actions are resulting in desired improvements. It will take more than one strategic planning session to pull this together. It will take many to get everyone on the same page. Then you have to get all of the stakeholders on board so that they are supportive of the direction of the transition. All of this can take a lot of energy and time, during which you still have to keep the “trains running on time.” Staying the course can result in amazing improvements in the organization that will benefit all employees and stakeholders.
HA: This book could be a leadership textbook if it wasn’t such a fun read. “Ego-free” is one of the things I admire about your writing style as well as your leadership. You did amazing things, but that’s not how you talk about them. Throughout it all, I still hear the voice of the Georgia farm boy, and that is one of the most delightful parts of the story.
One of the many minor themes in the book involves parenting. Your parents — with all of the challenges of their lives — still managed to give you the tools and encouragement that you needed, right down to letting you explore how to make rockets and rocket fuel! You’re also a parent and now a grandparent. Are there lessons there that you don’t want people to miss?
RB: Successfully parenting kids is one of the most complex challenges an adult encounters in life. For one thing, every kid is different. My wife and I had a daughter and a son. They were very different in terms of personality and approaches to life. Adapting a process of parenting for each of them required us to recognize their differences and adjust our approach to each to help them do well as they matured. One size does not fit all kids.
My parents and grandparents gave me a lot of room to explore, which was an early motivation, and it continued throughout my life. They set boundaries to help ensure my safety. Those were necessary. I was reprimanded when I violated them. I didn’t tell my parents about my rocket fuel experiment because I knew it was out of bounds. Fortunately, I survived that one. I also had mentors and teachers in school who helped me to develop talents that I didn’t even know I had, such as public speaking, which terrified me early in life but became a strength in high school with help from mentors. Another example is the chemistry set that my parents gave to me in the sixth grade. I loved that and excelled in it in school and college. The love of the sciences eventually migrated to a love of science and engineering, which were critical to my success in my chosen profession.
HA: As a parent of high-energy kids, I suspect your parents knew you’d use that chemistry set to do something dangerous. And they gave it to you anyway. They had faith in you to get yourself into trouble and get yourself out of it. Do you think that’s possible?
RB: We were home alone a lot since both of my parents worked after Dad gave up on farming. I think that they trusted me to be careful as well as keep my sisters out of danger while they were away. One thing about growing up on the farm is that I learned how to practice safety, and my parents observed how I did that. For example, my folks trusted me to operate a tractor safely, and I never got into trouble doing that. I honestly think that they saw the chemistry set as somewhat less of a danger than many of the other things that I did on the farm.
HA: Your faith is a big part of your journey. People talk about finding God in space. You found God as a boy. How do you feel that your faith helped you in your career?
RB: I was raised as a young person in the church by parents and grandparents. They were not outwardly religious but lived the values of the religion and expected the same of me. I put off publicly declaring my conversion experience for quite a while because of my youthful shyness, but eventually did it. As an adult, I married a woman who also was a believer. She got involved in an adult Bible study and continued it for years. She eventually talked me into doing it. It helped me understand my faith better, and I wish I had started sooner.
In my earlier flying career, I served for a year in combat in Vietnam, flying a fighter aircraft. I came face to face with death many times. My faith helped me to survive those events without becoming traumatized by them or tempting me to leave my chosen profession to avoid the associated dangers. I summed up my motto of how important faith is to being successful in life as follows: you can’t live fully until you have faced death. This helped me as a fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut to relish my profession with confidence. After my space flight, I was asked a few times whether I had found God in space. I answered that I recommended that one should find God before strapping into a rocket and launching into space. Then you can focus on the job of completing the flight and experiencing the joy of seeing the Earth from space without fear.
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