My Lucky Day!

SANTA MARIA, CA — When I got to my mini rocket in Los Angeles this morning to blast off to Santa Maria near the Vandenberg Air Force Base . . . IMG_9239I nearly tripped a gentleman with a cane. Bad me. He’s at the center of the photograph above.

Later, I noticed that his shirt was embroidered with the NASA globe insignia. So I had to ask — “Are you going to the launch?” When you’re an author it’s usually a good idea to talk to strangers. You could learn something.

He turned out to be James O. Norman, Director, Launch Services. He’s the guy in charge of the rocket!!! It was my lucky day! Normally, Mr. Norman works at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. But today, since he’s the BOSS of the team of scientists working on the Delta II rocket, he had come to oversee the pre-launch testing (not open to the media). Oh, I should have told him I was a member of the top-secret military unit responsible for the new paint job, or something like that, when he asked what OCO-2 unit I work in. He thought I was a rocket scientist! And so did the car rental guys!

I digress.

Anyway, this is what I learned from Mr. Norman: when the Delta II blasts off, it goes from zero to Mach22 in eight minutes. That’s 22 times faster than the speed of sound!!! The speed of sound is 761.207051 miles per hour. So the Delta II goes from 0 to 16,746.5551 miles per hour in eight minutes.

And I thought that race car I drove in Tucson was badass.

I have NO CONCEPT of this power. None.

But in about 28 hours, I will find out.

For those of you who want to know everything-you-need-to-know about the OCO-2-before I take the tour tomorrow, here’s the pre-launch press briefing that they gave us via an Internet live-feed today:


OCO-2: Quick Facts from @IamOCO2, @NASASocial, @NASAJPL

Quick facts about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory:images-7


Length: 6.96 ft (2.12 meters) — approximately the same as the typical wing span of the American Bald Eagle 1.8 -2.3 meters (5.9 – 7.5 ft).

Width (stowed): 3.08 ft (0.94 meters) — a little wider than the girth of the typical American refrigerator.

Weight (spacecraft and science instrument): 499.5 killer rabbits — or 454 kilograms (999 pounds).

Power: 815 watts — runs a small waffle iron, coffee maker, or toaster, but not enough to run a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner or air conditioner — in other words, you could make breakfast, but not look very good while doing it.

Primary science instrument: three-channel grating spectrometer. Don’t ask me what that is.  I have no idea. But maybe it has something to do with the solar panel-looking arms sticking out from it.

Instrument Dimensions: 5.3 feet by 1.3 feet by 2 feet (1.6 meters by 0.4 meters by 0.6 meters) — hey, that’s an exact description of me in my golf shoes! Yikes!!! In case of malfunction…

Instrument Weight: One Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, or two gorillas — 288 pounds (131 kilograms). Whew! Not a description of me, not even close.


Launch: No earlier than July 1, 2014, at 2:56:44 a.m. PDT (5:56:44 a.m. EDT) — and no later than 2:57:14 a.m. PDT (5:57:14 a.m. EDT) — from Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W), Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Launch Window: 30 seconds daily — this means that if they miss the 30-second window, they must wait for the same 30 seconds the next day to attempt it again. This is because the OCO-2 has a precise place along the “A-train” of 17 satellites passing a certain point of the earth at an exact time each day. This is not a random firing, people! This is 30 seconds of man’s highest intelligence and the poetry of the universe coming together.


Launch Vehicle: United Launch Alliance Delta II 7320-10.CONE

Primary Mission: Two years Orbit Path: Near-polar, sun-synchronous, 438 miles (705 kilometers), orbiting Earth once every 98.8 minutes and repeating the same ground track every 16 days.

Orbital Inclination: 98.2 degrees — don’t ask. I don’t know what this means.

NASA Investment: $467.7 million (design, development, launch and operations) — the same price as the Paris Marriott Hotel Champs-Elysees, which a Chinese investor recently agreed to buy for 344.5 million euros ($648 million).

Wow. That’s a lot of money.

If I had $648 million, I would . . .

Well, I wouldn’t be leaving my house at 3:45 a.m. tomorrow morning to sit in coach class without any food for six hours on a commercial flight to California, that’s for sure! I’d blast off in my own private Delta II rocket!!!

See you at the launch 🙂 !!!






OCO-2: Watching Earth Breathe

In three days I will be at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California to watch NASA launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite!!!!


I was chosen as one of seventy social media users (and one of only two children’s authors) to attend the event and to blog, tweet, post photos, etc., about it. The other children’s author is Robin Dobson, who writes non-fiction. We’ll be meeting with scientists and NASA officials and getting a grand tour of the facilities on Monday, June 30. Then BLAST OFF! on July 1 at 2:56 a.m.!!!

Here’s what the Delta II rocket launcher looks like: CONE

The mission of the OCO-2 is “watching the planet breathe,” from space. Carbon dioxide (CO2), as everyone knows, traps gases in our atmosphere and prevents the earth from breathing properly, which deprives our plants, and ultimately ourselves, of vital nutrients. The OCO-2 will be able to tell us where the earth is breathing, and where its suffocating.

It’s like I learned in yoga — breath is all you have.

Here’s a peek at the OCO-2:

I welcome questions from my readers — if there’s anything you’d like me to ask the scientists and NASA officials, please send it as a comment below!

Stay tuned for posts/tweets from the Vandenberg Air Force Base! I’m SOOOO EXCITED!!!!!


The Denise McCoy Legacy Award

ALBANY, NY — I won an AWARD!!!IMG_9063The Denise McCoy Legacy Award for humorous children’s literature was given to Alvin Ho Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals and Other Fatal Circumstances. Woohoo!!! Yay!!! Hooray!!!

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’ve struggled for more than a month to tell you about it.

Worse, I’m still struggling.

How hard could it be to tell you about winning an award?

Not hard at all, I thought. It’s the first award I’d ever won in which I was invited to a special dinner, signed a sqillion books, sat on a stage while someone made a speech about my work, got a super-duper trophy plus a huge check!

It’s very author’s dream come true!

So why couldn’t I just come out with it?

Was I dazed? A deer caught in the flashbulbs?

Yes and no. To tell you the details of what happened would have been no problem. The problem is not the accounting of facts, but the rendering of something that cannot easily be explained, or fully known.

So let me start with the facts, the easy part.

Denise McCoy, who spelled her name with a little d, was a bookseller in Albany. She sold many books. She especially sold many children’s books. If you had a homework assignment and didn’t know which book to use, she could tell you exactly what you needed. Her favorite books were the funny ones which made you laugh. She herself liked to laugh and to make people laugh. She was little and fat. She could ride a horse, no problem. Once she slipped a little and rode a horse upside-down and laughed as though that were the normal way of riding a horse. Her friends are still laughing about it. That’s only one of many funny stories about denise. Her biggest talent was making friends. Very, very good friends.

Denise died in 2003. But her friends are still her friends, and they are friends with one another. Every year for the past nine years they’ve gotten together and continued denise’s work. They read a bunch of children’s books and they pick the funniest one and give it the Denise McCoy Legacy Award (formerly the Little d Award). They invite the author to dinner. They present the award at a ceremony. They arrange for the author to visit an inner city school. They give away hundreds of autographed copies of the winning book to young readers throughout the capitol city.

Denise’s oldest very, very good friend friend is Lynn Derry, from first grade. Lynn picked me up from my hotel and brought me to dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant. The room was filled with denise’s closest friends and relatives.

This is where it gets hard.

I don’t have a photo of Lynn, but here is a photo of her husband, George Chelius:IMG_9048George said he was “accidentally in the restaurant,” as he greeted the ladies around the table. When he got to me, he started to read from this letter that he wrote to the Boston Red Sox outfielder, Jim Rice.IMG_9052In it, he says that he is sending Rice a silver dollar that he always keeps in his pocket. He is continuing his father’s tradition of giving it to a stranger having a special occasion. He says that not only will the silver dollar bring him luck, but it will assure him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following year.

And presto! Rice is inducted into the Hall of Fame the next year (2009), and sends autographed balls and a photo to George;IMG_9053With that, George reached into his pocket and presents me with a silver dollar!

I’m struck speechless.

Then he reaches into a bag and gives me something else —

His own treasured baseball — signed by Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

Just because he knew I’m a Red Sox fan (see Alvin books!).

Something inside me explodes, like a little cup unable to hold the sun.

How else do you describe the transformation that happens when you receive such unselfish kindness and generosity from a complete stranger? All I could think of was the scene in Victor’s Hugo’s Les Miserable where the monsignor gives Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks that he had intended to steal. It changes Valjean forever. I felt like that. Changed.

Here I am holding my newly bestowed treasures:IMG_9050 Thank you, George!!! You didn’t stay for dinner, but your gesture was repeated over and over again that evening.

As I sat at the table with denise’s friends, the room filled with kind words. Memories. Funny stories. Laughter. Their long-treasured friendships surrounded me on all sides and pressed me in.

I marveled. I wondered.

Were it not for denise, none of us would have been there. Her friends would be going home from their jobs. George would have kept his silver dollar in his pocket and his baseball in a safe place.

And the next day I would not have gone to the Griffen School in downtown Albany, where Ms. Derry presented me with the award and I gave an author presentation. The young authors at the school would not have had a yummy pizza lunch while I held a writers’ workshop.IMG_9061I never would have met Shareem, who was filled with all sorts of wonderful ideas for his writing:IMG_9058And wonderful ideas for his pizza too!!!

I wouldn’t have signed a sqillion books for Shareem’s school:IMG_9043 Or signed a sqillion more for the young readers and their families who came to the annual book giveaway at the offices of 15Love, started by the tennis great Arthur Ashe, which teaches life skills to youths through tennis and educational programs. IMG_9076Nor would I have this beautiful trophy:IMG_9083 Do you see the word, “legacy” above? It means a gift from the past — in this case, a gift of friendship that continues to inspire, to be life-giving, and life-changing.

Thank you, denise.

And many thanks to her friends and family at the dinner who shared with me a side of life that is so hard to describe because it is both poetic and sacred:  Lynn Derry, Gail Donovan, Joann Hoose, Eleanor McCoy, Katherine McCoy, Mary Williams, Allyson Shea and Amber Marino. It was a real honor to sit among you.

And a special thank you to Tom O’Brien, denise’s brother, who first notified me of their award.

And thank you again to George, whose lucky silver dollar I carry with me everywhere.

Past recipients of the Little d:

Bruce Hale Murder, My Tweet
Christopher Paul Curtis, Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money
Sara Pennypacker, Clementine
Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Lois Lowry, The Willoughbys
Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute
Tom Angleberger, The Strange Case for Origami Yoda
Tommy Greenwald, Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading