How a Rocket Scientist Becomes a Writer by author Stephanie Osborn
How a Rocket Scientist Becomes a Writer
By Stephanie Osborn
My first published novel was a SF mystery (I seem to have a fondness for combining those two genres) published by Twilight Times Books back in 2009. BURNOUT: THE MYSTERY OF SPACE SHUTTLE STS-281 is a techno-thriller about a Space Shuttle disaster that turns out to be no accident.
There’s a loooong story behind the writing of BURNOUT. For one thing, it took me between 10-15 years from the conception of the idea, and the published book.
I was too close to it.
Let’s back up a couple decades.
I’d just started working in the field when the Challenger disaster occurred. The program I worked at the time of the disaster was to have led to a Shuttle mission, and I would have been a Payload Specialist candidate. Shortly thereafter, the next phase of my project was cancelled due to the grounding of the Shuttle Fleet. So I moved into the payload flight control area.
Over a couple of decades I worked seven Space Shuttle missions, at least four increments on the International Space Station, and a number of space defense programs. You get into some interesting conversations from time to time.
The seeds of BURNOUT began as a conversation concerning certain abilities of the Shuttle. It does have an autopilot, and a very limited remote control capability. We discussed under what circumstances a Shuttle could be damaged on orbit and still manage a reasonably safe descent.
Sounds morbid. But the first step to preventing a disaster is to figure out what might cause one, then develop preventive measures and recovery procedures. This means talking about it, working out the details of the malfunction, then working backwards to “fix” it.
And yes, this required considerable knowledge of the guts of a Shuttle. Betwixt us all, we possessed the requisite knowledge. I don’t know that we ever did decide whether it was possible.
But that was the birth of the idea. What if I wrote a story about a Shuttle accident, and the ensuing investigation? What sort of accident should it be? Should it cause merely a dangerous, or a catastrophic, malfunction?
And then the idea hit: What if it WASN’T an accident?
And that was when BURNOUT was born.
My first Shuttle mission was the first Spacelab flight after the post-Challenger Return To Flight. So my research for BURNOUT included all of the investigative reports and such for that disaster. But I didn’t want anyone thinking I was playing off a tragedy, so I changed the scenario. Whereas Challenger blew during the ascent phase, I’d make my fictional disaster occur during re-entry. I started writing.
So here I was, squarely in the middle of a career in the Shuttle program, writing about a Shuttle disaster. The exact thing that I, as a payload flight controller, did NOT want to see, at least in real life. Certainly not on my watch.
It messes with your head, that.
So I’d write on it awhile, then put it aside when it got to me. I wouldn’t look at it again for months. Then the “plot bunny” would bite again, and I’d pull it out and go at it for awhile.
Somewhere in there, my husband Darrell introduced me to Travis “Doc” Taylor, best-selling science fiction author, TV star of National Geographic’s When Aliens Attack and Rocket City Rednecks and at that time, my husband’s co-worker. Darrell is a graphics artist and does all of the artwork for my book covers, and had done some cover concepts for one of Travis’ books. So when Darrell told Travis I was trying to get published, Travis suggested he introduce us. Darrell did, we clicked, and I acquired a writing mentor.
With that encouragement, I pushed on. Darrell got used to stomping up to me when I was writing: A husband suddenly materializing at my shoulder and saying something is apt to end up with him peeling me from the ceiling.
Eventually I finished a rough draft and sent it to Travis, who’d promised to read it and give me a helpful critique. When he felt it was polished enough, he’d help me further by submitting it to one of his publisher friends. He said he’d been helped like that, and he intended to pass it forward. I promised him I would, too.
So I sent him the Word file and sat back, glad I’d finally gotten the thing finished.
And then, the unthinkable happened.
Columbia went down. And I had a friend aboard.
By that time, I was into military work, or my emotional response might have been even worse. As it was, I put the manuscript away for six months or so. I’d lost TWO friends at one go: KC, and Columbia; because that was the Shuttle with which I’d worked the most.
I talked to Travis later; he said it kinda freaked him too. He went over the whole manuscript in detail, and sent me back a list of compliments, critiques, and suggestions. Unfortunately I wasn’t in any kind of emotional condition to use them. And wouldn’t be for nearly a year.
I seriously considered trashing the manuscript. I downloaded the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report and studied it, looking to see if I was way off in left field with my scenario. If I was, then I should probably trash the manuscript anyway. If I wasn’t…
I wasn’t. I didn’t have to change a word.
In the end, I went forward and dedicated the novel to Kalpana and the Columbia crew. I dug up Travis’ notes and printed them out. I had to double the size of the manuscript, which meant essentially writing a whole ‘nother story. So I wrote several stories, and intertwined them in a series of subplots.
I also wrote an afterward in which I basically swore up and down that the book was written BEFORE the accident. I didn’t want anyone prone to conspiracy theories thinking that, as a NASA insider, I’d written the real story of Columbia under the guise of fiction.
And THEN… I sent it to Travis.
The first publisher he sent it to rejected it. Not for any particular flaws in the book; it turns out that 1) they weren’t taking on newbie authors at that time, 2) it didn’t fit the type of book they usually published. That was hard. But I was thankful I had a mentor, because Trav wouldn’t let me get down about it. Instead he sent it to Twilight Times Books. I clearly remember his email going out on a Thursday. On Sunday, the editor in chief, Lida Quillen, sent me an email outlining the standard contract for accepting a book. By Monday, I had my very first book contract in my hands. I was about to become a published author!
Next came a year of reviewing, editing, honing, adding, subtracting, finding a rather large plot hole and plugging it, galley proofs, and being asked to write a book with another author. THE Y FACTOR, co-authored with Darrell Bain, the 2nd book of the Cresperia Saga begun by Bain and Travis with the award-winning HUMAN BY CHOICE, came out in ebook the same day BURNOUT came out in ebook and print – Tax Day, 2009. Both hit best-seller lists with various sales groups, and both were favorably reviewed by a syndicated columnist in the New York Times.
BURNOUT has done rather well in the time it’s been in publication. It’s been nominated for awards in four different genres – ebook, science fiction, mystery, and thriller – and has garnered some interest from Los Angeles. I already have the contract in hand for the sequel, and a screenplay is written for a feature film project.
BURNOUT’s sequel, tentatively titled ESCAPE VELOCITY, is in work. The master script is nearly finished (though the shooting script isn’t even begun), and hopefully some producers will be interested in bringing my imagination to cinematic life in the near future. THE Y FACTOR’S sequel, THE CRESPERIAN ALLIANCE, is out; I’ve written a book with Travis titled EXTRACTION POINT. And I have an entire series, the Displaced Detective saga, in work, with the first story in two volumes, THE CASE OF THE DISPLACED DETECTIVE: THE ARRIVAL and AT SPEED, just released.
I left the space program shortly before Travis submitted BURNOUT for me. Now I write full time, and have 10 books, novel and anthology, under my belt. From rocket scientist to author in a couple of years’ time.
Not too shabby, I suppose.
About Stephanie Osborn
Few can claim the varied background of Stephanie Osborn, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery.
Veteran of more than 20 years in the civilian space program, as well as various military space defense programs, she worked on numerous space shuttle flights and the International Space Station, and counts the training of astronauts on her resumé. Her space experience also includes Spacelab and ISS operations, variable star astrophysics, Martian aeolian geophysics, radiation physics, and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons effects.
Stephanie holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in four sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics, and she is “fluent” in several more, including geology and anatomy.
In addition she possesses a license of ministry, has been a duly sworn, certified police officer, and is a National Weather Service certified storm spotter.
Her travels have taken her to the top of Pikes Peak, across the world’s highest suspension bridge, down gold mines, in the footsteps of dinosaurs, through groves of giant Sequoias, and even to the volcanoes of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest, where she was present for several phreatic eruptions of Mount St. Helens.
Now retired from space work, Stephanie has trained her sights on writing. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to more than 20 books, including the celebrated science-fiction mystery, Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281. She is the co-author of the “Cresperian Saga,” book series, and currently writes the critically acclaimed “Displaced Detective” series, described as “Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files.” She recently released the paranormal/horror novella El Vengador, based on a true story, as an ebook.
In addition to her writing work, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery now happily “pays it forward,” teaching math and science through numerous media including radio, podcasting and public speaking, as well as working with SIGMA, the science-fiction think tank.
The Mystery continues.
You can visit Stephanie Osborn’s website at http://www.stephanie-osborn.com.