The final frontier

George Diller, the voice of NASA’s launch control, provided the commentary for many of NASA’s missions, from the space shuttle to the probes to Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. I interviewed the former Sarasota, Florida resident in 1978 and again a few years ago, just as the shuttle program was ending. This week, Diller announced he has embarked on his final frontier–retirement. Here is my latest interview with him.

He is the voice of launch control. When the space shuttle takes off in a blaze of fire, the sound you hear over the roar of the rockets is George Diller, a former radio journalist turned spokesperson for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I met Diller nearly forty years ago on a runway at the Kennedy Space Center, at the dawn of the space shuttle program, when women and men dreamed of space flight as routine as taking the train to work. As a journalist I’d landed in Florida to cover the construction of the first shuttle that would fly into space, the orbiter Columbia. Diller, a contract public relations specialist assigned to show me the inner workings of KSC, gave me a glimpse at that future, and the vehicle that would take us there.

After thirty years we met again, this time by phone, for an interview about the legacy of the space shuttle program and the future of human space flight.

JW: When people write the history of the space shuttle program, what will they say?

GD: I think it will be recalled as a storied program because the space shuttle has had so many different roles and mission objectives during the thirty years it’s been flying. Initially we looked at it as something that would take everything into space, both commercial payloads as well as NASA’s planetary spacecraft. At that time the International Space Station was still on the drawing boards.

The shuttle started by taking a combination of payloads, commercial payloads on a cost-reimbursable basis and then the other things that NASA wanted to put in low-earth orbit. As a stepping stone to the International Space Station we had Spacelab, designed to lay the groundwork for the space station. Some of our most historic payloads were deployed from the space shuttle bay, and they included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo probe to Jupiter, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Ulysses mission to the sun.

After we resumed flying after the Challenger accident we had a very different objective. We looked to one day commercializing the space shuttle. We would move to the moon or Mars, leaving the private sector to do the lower-orbit missions. That is almost exactly what will happen under President Barack Obama’s mission. The Columbia accident also caused us to think of what the long term mission of the shuttle would be. We divested ourselves of the idea that the shuttle would be a commercial vehicle we could launch every two weeks, more as a delivery truck, and doing space science missions as well. We took it back to being a research-and-development spacecraft.

There are three more launches, including the one on May 14. The final launch will be in November but we’re still talking about one after that.

JW: What is the legacy of the shuttle program?

GD: The space shuttle gave NASA and human space flight the flexibility to do things that no other vehicle had done. Because of the size of the shuttle and the volume of payloads it could take into space, nothing else we can see can haul things that weight as much or are as outsized. The shuttle gave us a capability that we never had before and won’t have in the future.

JW: What has the shuttle program contributed to science and society?

GD: That’s what Spacelab was all about. We wanted to prove the kind of science we wanted to do on the International Space Station, in terms of developing new pharmaceuticals, computer substrates and metals. We were also testing whether humans could survive in space for long periods of time—six months or more. That has spun off to us here on the ground. We can take full advantage of that scientific and commercial innovation.

JW: You’re one of the voices of the launch of the shuttle. How do you feel when it takes off?

GD: For me it’s not much different than it was thirty years ago when we launched the first one. It is such an awesome feeling to see that power, to hear the sound and feel its effect on your chest. The visual effect is particularly alluring during a night launch. It is still thrilling to watch, fascinating and breathtaking.

JW: How do you feel when it’s coming in for a landing?

GD: It’s pretty neat to watch if it’s in the daytime. You see it coming overhead like a silver streak. It’s dropping like a rock, extremely fast. As the wheels come down and the parachute comes out you’re dropping from thousands of miles an hour to about 200 miles an hour in a few minutes. When it goes by it sounds just like a jet.

JW: Do you get anxious when the shuttle comes in for a landing?

GD: I feel like we have a capability since the Columbia accident to know whether we have anything to be concerned about. I have a little apprehension in the launch control center while we’re waiting for Kennedy to make contact. We don’t have communications until 500 miles out and 12 minutes before landing. When we had Columbia going over Texas we were waiting for that contact to happen. We were having communications problems. We know in reentry there can be brief blackout periods. None of the acquisition systems here at the Cape could pick it up.

JW: What’s next for NASA?

GD: It’s still a little hazy. We know that President Obama has cancelled the Constellation program, which offered a smaller version of the shuttle to go back and forth to the space station and a larger version to go back to the moon. Obama has penciled out the craft to the moon. Astronauts will go on commercial rockets in about five years. Since the moon is not in the president’s vision for the agency, we might be going to an asteroid. But we have to have a vehicle different from the one that would go to the moon.

We’re developing technologies that that would go beyond the moon, and that’s going to take about five years to do. We have to decide what kind of rocket that is going to be, who is going to design it and who is going to build it. We need to develop new propulsion technologies.

The rockets that go to the space station will be owned by commercial interests. In the long term all things will be commercially launched by commercial space taxis. It’s not far from NASA’s mission of twenty-five years ago. It wanted to move on to higher programs. It can’t own and maintain all launch vehicles. Commercial rockets will be reconfigured so they can carry astronauts back and forth to the space station. We’re going to reconfigure Complex 39 and Cape Canaveral Air Force station for commercial low-earth orbits.

JW: What’s the future of human space flight?

GD: In the near term the International Space Station is where it’s at. The capabilities that NASA is going to help the private sector develop will create more human potential in low-earth orbit. Beyond that it’s a little hard for me to see. This change in direction from what we’ve be doing over the past five years is a 180, a completely different approach. You have to design and build a new propulsion system. You have to have funding. The legislative process has to weigh in. The Congress feels we need more answers. We’re going to need more time to see. In the meantime our geophysics loads will continue to be launched on unmanned vehicles. We’ve got some exciting planetary flights and earth observation satellite launches planned. That will all continue without missing a beat.

JW: You were there at the inception of America’s space shuttle program. How do you feel when you look back on it?

GD: I feel like I’m privileged to be with NASA. At some point in history we’ll look back at the shuttle much as we did the Apollo program. I was there for the first one and I’ll be there for the last one.

JW: Thanks. I’ll see you in another thirty years.


Out with the in crowd

For CW McCoy, appearance aren’t just deceptive. They’re deadly. Which is why the former detective turned real estate agent can trust no one, including herself, in Curb Appeal, her third adventure exploring the dark side of the Sunshine State.

While showing a mansion on tony Spanish Key, CW discovers the naked body of a rival real estate agent, a black bra wrapped around her neck.

It’s the least of CW’s problems. The hot new cop she’s dating may face assault charges. Relations with both her best friend and mentor have frayed. And back-to-back hurricanes threaten to flatten the coast.

As the deception and bodies mount, CW must uncover the truth about her friends, her lover and a serial killer bent on murdering fellow agents . . . before she becomes a victim herself.

Curb Appeal will be published on June 7 but you can preorder the e-book version through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo.


In search of the real McCoy

UK blogger Natalie Rowe, who gave Peak Season four stars, thinks Mila Kunis should play CW McCoy . . . if Candace and her crew ever make it to the big screen.

Natalie writes, “The thing that is most memorable to me about CW is her quick wit. To me, there is no other person that could give CW this unique sarcasm like Mila Kunis can in her roles. She can play the bad-ass independent lady but also add in a little sass and seductiveness.”

Sassy and seductive. . . . Is that how you see the young former detective who faces down kidnappers, assassins and tourists on a daily basis? And here I was thinking Scarlett Johansson on a motorcycle. Or Six Feet Under’s Rachel Anne Griffiths, or is that over the top?

Who do you think should play CW? Leave your comments here and we’ll revisit the question, with photos, in another post.


Mila Kunis


Scarlett Johansson


Rachel Griffiths

Author Anna Schmidt on why she writes

“There is only one reason to write,” says Sarasota author Anna Schmidt. “That is because you can’t not write.”

Anna, known to her friends as Jo, has written for therapy, but for most of her career, she’s written for publication. She is the author of several series of inspiration and romance, including ones set during World War II (All God’s Children), in Sarasota’s Pinecraft Mennonite community (A Sister’s Forgiveness) and in the Southwest (The Lawman).

She shared her experience this week with members of Sarasota Fiction Writers.

Her advice for emerging authors?

  • Build a track record in your genre and develop a following
  • Don’t chase trends (unless your agent and editor tell you to)
  • During dry spells, attend events and conferences outside your area of expertise (for Jo, that’s mystery and suspense)
  • Join book clubs and writers’ groups
  • Read outside your genre.

She ended the program by giving away copies of her latest book. Surprised by her generosity, the moderator asked why. With a sly smile she said, “The publisher sent me forty copies. What else am I going to do with them?”

For the love of a good woman

Brinker’s gone soft.

The man who once turned a serial killer into a national brand is ready to chuck it all for the love of a good woman. If he doesn’t get her fired . . . or worse.

By day, Carly is director of marketing at a bank in the Lehigh Valley and one of Brinker’s agency clients. By night, she’s an aspiring thespian with a nomadic troupe of actors. More than anything, she wants to give them a home and has her hopes set on buying a theater in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

But Brinker’s boss wants to expand his ad agency and won’t let anything as useless as ethics stand in his way. And Carly stands in his way.

Can Brinker kick his addictions, win Carly’s trust and neutralize his boss? Find out if the defrocked journalist can get his mojo back in Mr. Magic, available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.

And don’t miss Brinker’s debut in the cutthroat world of PR in Mr. Mayhem.


Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

In the News

I’m pleased that Erika Liodice included me in her latest post “Why Do Some Writers Choose to Go ‘Indie’?” on the Writers Unboxed site.

As Erika writes, “For me, independent publishing felt like a natural next step in my career. But what about other indie authors? I reached out to a handful and asked them how their publishing journeys came to be. Not surprisingly, they were happy to share their stories.”

Here’s what she learned.


Back to the Future

Working on Curb Appeal, the third novel in the CW McCoy series (after Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise), I realize that I write backwards.

In school, we learned to organize our material using an outline. I’ve adopted that technique to sort large amounts of material when writing nonfiction. The tool came in handy when I worked for Mack Trucks and had to find a lead buried in hours of interviews. I used a highlighter and flagged passages that were important to the telling of the story, writing subheads for those highlights and prioritizing them so they flowed in a logical way.

curb-appeal-summary-editsDigging out the nuggets from a pile of information seemed a more organic process than writing an outline. The process allowed the structure of the piece to grow from the material, the research and interviews from primary sources. But when it comes to fiction, I seem unable to follow that scholarly advice.

I write backwards.

Yes, I have a solid idea of the nature of the characters and the arc of the story, but I don’t know the exact scope and sequence of the work. I discover that as I write.

And then I write the outline. In fiction, it’s called a synopsis, a summary that’s written with the same flavor as the novel. It’s longer than a logline and shorter than a chapter-by-chapter description of character and action. But, like a GPS device, it can keep me on track.

Do you write forward or backwards?

Behind the scenes

Location plays a vital part in any novel, especially novels of mystery and suspense. I’ve written about place as character several times but now, thanks to author and blogger Lorna Holland of Northamptonshire UK, my musings on crime scenes in sunny Florida have made it to the other side of the pond.

The marina in Sarasota, Florida provided the inspiration for the CW McCoy novels

The marina in Sarasota, Florida provided the inspiration for the CW McCoy novels


Return of the Sybarite5

Sybarite5, the rock stars of the classical world, return to the home of their founder with a week-long residency in Sarasota, Florida. For me, the highlight will be an 8 p.m. concert Thursday, Nov. 10, in the Goldstein Cabaret of Florida Studio Theatre. In honor of their return, I’m reposting a piece I wrote in April of 2013. Enjoy.

Someone left the radio tuned to a station that programs NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings. As I reached for the dial to switch to a classical music station, Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, cued up Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” by the string quintet Sybarite5, recorded live in Holley Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

My wife and I had just seen a series of bracing concerts there, and so I stepped into the shower . . . and back a lifetime to a concert by the Guarneri Quartet, who played Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 with an intensity that shredded their bows. And here was a quintet whose founder came from Sarasota and who could play with the same nuance and fervor. Not what you would expect from a laid-back city by the sea.

Then Child announced that Sybarite5 had recently recorded an album of Radiohead covers. Time to step out the shower and learn a bit more about the group.

Named after the ancient Greek city in southern Italy now identified with seekers of pleasure and luxury, Sybarite5 is the first string quintet ever selected as winners of Concert Artists Guild International Competition in its 60 year history. The media have compared the group to rock stars who play with missionary zeal. Its members have performed in traditional venues (Carnegie Hall) as well as nontraditional ones (the CBS Early Show).

And while their repertoire includes composers known in the classical world, such as Piazzolla and Mozart, the quartet released a recording of covers of the music of Radiohead called “Everything in its Right Place,” following in the wake of another musical pioneer, pianist Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s From the Top, who has released several transcriptions of Radiohead music.

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 was founded by double bassist and former Sarasota resident Louis Levitt. In addition to his work with Sybarite5, Levitt has been featured on chamber music appearances that have included the Aspen Music Festival as well as performances with Grammy winning composer Bob James. He has also performed with the Sarasota Orchestra. He recently became the first ever double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition.

As for the other members of the quintet, many have a foot in both classical and contemporary worlds:

  • Laura Metcalf, cello, was featured as a soloist with the One World Symphony playing an arrangement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
  • Sarah Whitney, violin, led the Cleveland Central Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster on tour to Carnegie Hall.
  • Angela Pickett, viola, performs with the Princeton Symphony and has played the fiddle with numerous ensembles, including the Chieftains.
  • Sami Merdinian, an Argentinian violinist, has received worldwide recognition for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician, including his work with the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop, which holds a winter residency in Sarasota.

I’m downloading another of the group’s recordings now, the EP “Disturb the Silence.” It features music by Radiohead and Piazzolla, plus two original works written for the quintet, and made its debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart.

It’s a good way to start your weekend.


The Candidate

As an antidote to the election season, I’d like to share an excerpt from my new suspense/thriller, Mr. Magic. You can read the full-tilt lunacy of the role public relations plays in elections and other marketing campaigns at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.

Be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

And now, Brinker, the defrocked journalist turned PR whiz, will demonstrate how sausage is made:

On a blustery day in early April, Mary Margaret Paulson stood in an open hanger with the snow swirling like dust devils and gazed at the adoring masses. She looked every bit the presidential candidate. Perfect cheekbones, glossy red lips and a bushel of rich brown hair. Long legs in a black pencil skirt, lacy blouse and a red power jacket with shoulders big enough to carry half the states to the nominating convention.

On the campaign trail she’d been called Chillbilly and Bible Spice for her passionate if uninformed defense of religious freedom. The media mocked her. The pundits hated her. But Brinker knew one thing that many had forgotten: the woman oozed sex from every pore, and men and women alike would sacrifice their firstborn to share the air with her.

The scene resembled a campaign rally. An American flag hung behind two corporate jets emblazoned with the cement company’s logo. Paulson stood on a wooden A-Treat box behind a lectern decorated with patriotic bunting and waved like the queen on parade. A crowd of at least a thousand swelled around her, a line of police officers in reflective vests keeping protesters and supporters on opposite sides of the concrete apron. Sitting in rows of folding chairs under space heaters were local and state dignitaries, representatives from the governor’s office, county council members and the mayors of every city within a fifty-mile radius. The rest of the rabble stood in the cold, their hats declaring allegiance to Garth Brooks, the Phillies and the NRA.

palin-legs-from-backBrinker focused on Paulson’s speech. In an effort to cut costs, the cement company wanted to burn hazardous waste. Residents weren’t convinced by the company’s health studies, which showed emissions would remain below EPA thresholds. His position paper had dealt with the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth. He’d reduced it to three bullet points. Paulson hadn’t gotten through the first when she veered off-message like a bike that had lost its training wheels. She ranted about liberals and intellectuals, the elite and the effete, people who were ruining the country with their bleeding hearts and costly regulations, stifling growth and free enterprise and everything that made America great.

The crowd cheered and Brinker, the PR whiz who’d turned a serial killer into a national brand, started to worry that the stunt wouldn’t backfire, that it wouldn’t create the chaos that guaranteed national coverage. Then, from across the tarmac, he heard the sound of grinding gears and smelled the belch of diesel exhaust as an ancient blue school bus tottered around the corner of the hanger and four dozen Korean woman dressed in hot pink jumpsuits piled out, Buddha at the fore, the notes of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” throbbing from a speaker on the roof.

Buddha, AKA Benjamin Kwon, community organizer and ace travel agent who helped the pursued disappear from the grid. Handing signs to the women—he’d economized by printing both sides, “Feel the Burn” on the front and, on the back, “Burn, Baby, Burn”—he marched the women through the crowd, the Koreans forming a wall between supporters and protesters. As they twirled their signs and waved to the camera, Buddha broke away and headed for the perimeter.

Brinker sidled up to him. “How’s it going?”

“’Oppa oppa Gangnam style.’”

“You should run for office.”

Realizing that reinforcements had arrived, Paulson pointed at the ground with a sharply manicured finger and shouted, “This is it! Right here in little old Allentown, PA! The front lines of the battle, the home of concrete and steel that made this nation great!”

The crowd surged, one half cheering, the other half waving signs mounted on wooden stakes the size of baseball bats. Brinker could smell the blood lust as it raced through them, flaring nostrils, pumping muscles, raking their skin until they began to howl.

The handlers must have felt the massive animal coiling for a strike because two of them flanked the lectern as Paulson finished her speech with the pump of a fist and the cry of “Burn, baby, burn!”

The audience exploded, the police line collapsed. Protesters wielded their signs like clubs. Politicians ducked behind the flag. The cement company’s security force, standing respectfully at attention during the remarks, formed a firewall while the handlers hustled Paulson through the back of the hanger.

As police rushed in with batons, Buddha pulled Brinker to the sidelines. Above the roar of sirens, he said, “We have failed you, my friend.”

Brinker smiled as video crews captured the melee. “It’s all good.”