Tony Taylor brings his wisdom as an Interplanetary Navigator, Pilot, and Author to the forefront, as he talks about war, racism, taking risks, navigating to all of the planets in our solar system, using fiction to write “the bigger picture of truth,” seeing the world from a wider perspective, and so much more.
Tony's website: www.blackskyvoyages.com
Tony's Inspirations -
Ernie Pyle's WWII war correspondent articles - http://mediaschool.indiana.edu/erniepyle/wartime-columns/2/
Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
George Orwell's 1984
Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End
Walt Whitman's Song of Myself
Tony Taylor was a space cadet before there was a space program—meaning that his mind was in space while his body walked the earth. He decided early on that he wanted to be an astronaut. Fortunately, the space age came along with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 while he was still in high school, and his dream entered the realm of the possible.
Knowing that astronauts usually start as pilots, he went to the US Air Force Academy, followed by pilot training, and eventually found himself in Vietnam flying 100 combat missions over North Vietnam through some of the best air defenses the world had ever seen. During that time, he became a war correspondent for his hometown newspaper. The articles he wrote would later lay the foundation for his first published novel, Counters, in 2008: a tale of young pilots, the Red Baron, and a collie named Sub-Lieutenant Sam. After returning home and spending a few more years in the Air Force, he resigned to go to graduate school, finishing with an M.S. in physics.
These experiences equipped him, he believed, to follow through with his astronaut dream, which included becoming the first person to walk around on Mars. After several applications to NASA, followed by several rejections, he decided this was not to be, so he consoled himself with the next best thing: working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and KinetX Aerospace, Inc. to navigate unmanned NASA spacecraft through the solar system. He visited (metaphorically) all eight planets over the course of a thirty-year career, navigating spacecraft on projects Voyager, Cassini, Mars Polar Lander, Galileo, and MESSENGER among others. As a capstone, he also helped navigate the New Horizons spacecraft to minor planet Pluto.
These experiences helped provide underpinnings for his second novel, The Darkest Side of Saturn, in 2014: a story of an asteroid, a preacher, a reluctant prophet of doom, and a ballerina—things that naturally go together. His third novel, Black Sky Voyage, is targeted for release later this year (2018). It provides a vicarious substitute for his astronaut dream; instead of walking around on Mars, he writes of the first colonists on Mars in a tale that includes a president, nuclear annihilation, and a polite alien.
A scientific and objective realist, he nevertheless enjoys evoking the mystical in his novels, salting liberally with whimsical humor. His published works have collected several honors, including the international Eric Hoffer Award: First Place Winner for Genre Fiction, and Short List for the Grand Prize; the Arizona Literary Contest: Book of the Year Award; the Books and Author Award: Winner for Science Fiction; the Global Ebook Award: Silver Medal Winner for Science Fiction; and various Honorable Mentions and Finalist awards.
Tony lives with his wife Jan in Sedona, Arizona. He is proud of his two daughters and two grandsons. Between travels and tennis he hopes to produce a few more novels before launching on a black sky voyage into the great unknown. He may not be the only interplanetary navigator in Sedona—land of vortices and UFO enthusiasts—but he’s probably the only one who actually worked for NASA.
I remember seeing a replay of an eighties movie called "Space Camp" as a very little girl and wanting to be an astronaut, although I've never pursued it like you did. Do you remember what inspired you to want to get into space exploration?
As a child, Tony used to have dreams of flying and always wanted to know what it was like to be weightless. He became a pilot, but not an astronaut, and describes it as one of those tiny little things you start off with that sticks around and somehow guides the rest of your life.
You were a combat pilot and war correspondent during Vietnam. What was it like for you, at the time, and what are your thoughts about war now, as a veteran?
He says the flying was exciting and scary, and that in Vietnam, it was probably 50% boredom and 50% stark terror – the kind of thing that you're glad you did but didn't like it at all while you were there. As for being a war correspondent, he had read the articles from Ernie Pyle's WWII correspondence, because his uncle had been talked about in one of Ernie Pyle's encounters. He tried to emulate him. As for his thoughts on war, he thinks although some people like it, most normal people don't. Although it's part of the human condition, it's always a waste. He says we haven't yet evolved enough to avoid it and, while he's not optimistic about the short term, he doesn't believe we'll ever completely wipe ourselves out and believes the long term over the course of hundreds of years is rosy. Believing we could nearly wipe ourselves out in the meantime possibly several times, he talks about a book by Arthur Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, about the aftermath of a nuclear war and the dark ages that lasted for a hundred years or so, after which the technology builds up again, and there's another nuclear war. One of Tony's own books was favorably compared to it.
I've also recently been singing in a workshop of an opera about the story of Emmett Till, the black child from Chicago who was brutally murdered in the segregated South. You grew up in South Carolina during segregation. What was that like for you?
It was bad. His family was the only family he knew that was pro-integration. He remembers segregated bathrooms, water fountains, schools, and swimming pools. By the time he returned from Vietnam in 1967, he remembers that at least a lot of the overt signs of racism were gone, and he began to become prouder of the South at that point.
What are your thoughts about the recent visible resurgence of racially-related riots and demonstrations?
Although in the sixties and seventies, the overt signs of racism were not as strong, the feelings were still there and just went underground. Recently, he believes political partisanship has allowed it to fester and grow, and he's unfortunately not surprised by the problem.
You mentioned coming back from Vietnam, and your career's been through some huge transitions. What was it like for you, going back to school for Physics after Vietnam?
Going back to school was scary, because he'd left the Air Force and had no income aside from his savings and modest GI bill income. With a wife and two kids and no job prospect in sight, he says it was like stepping off of a cliff into the unknown. He felt that if he didn't get his degree, he was going to be doomed, career-wise. He says it might have been good for him to worry about it, because he worked hard, knowing that failure wasn't an option. Tony stayed at the University of Arizona in Tuscon for another year after receiving his degree, working at the lunar planetary laboratory there.
Do you have any advice for anyone who's thinking about making a big or scary change in their direction in life?
Basically, go for it. If it's something you really like and really want to do, and if you can play with it and have fun, despite the risks. “You might fail – that's part of the process – but if you don't do it, and if you stick with something you're not happy with, I think you might feel like a bigger failure later on for not taking an opportunity that you had.” Tony says to strive and work hard to succeed, and “the best work that you ever do comes from playing at it, not working at it.”
For me, I'm trying a lot of new things involving play, and there are some learning pains, but it's worth it.
So you're first person to navigate to all eight planets of the solar system, working as an interplanetary navigator - how exciting! I know we all want to hear about your experience with that.
Paul worked on a lot of NASA projects while he was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, starting on Voyager, which was launched in the late seventies and went by Jupiter first. He started working there in 1980, after it had already passed Jupiter, and they navigated two spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They sent one directly after the other as a bit of an insurance policy, because it was such an expensive flagship project and didn't want to fail. After he joined the project, they completed the first flyby of Saturn in 1982, then Uranus in 1986, and then Neptune in 1989 – it took a long time to get to the outer planets. After that, Tony went on to the Cassini project, which was on its way to Saturn but had to go by Venus and Earth in order to pick up enough energy to get there. He says Earth is probably one of the most interesting planets. ;)
Then, Tony picked up Jupiter on the Galileo mission and Mars on the Mars Polar Lander mission. On that mission, he was part of a team that was trying to avoid a navigational disaster. They did avoid a navigational disaster but suffered another one when the spacecraft crashed somewhere around the South Pole of Mars. Despite the English to metric conversion error that caused the crash (not related to Tony's navigation team), it still counts. He got Mercury on the Messenger mission, which they launched in 2004, and it made its first flyby of Mercury in 2008. When he got Mercury, he realized he had all 8 planets and could retire and write books full time.
Pluto had been demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006, and Tony wanted to make sure he had all of his bases covered in case it was promoted again to full planet status. He got that one in 2015 during the flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft, when they asked him to return to help out on the navigation. He says NASA had it pretty well in hand, but he had some part in that.
Did you have any exciting experiences or interesting revelations while you were traveling, metaphorically, to these planets?
The title of one of his books, The Darkest Side of Saturn, popped into his head while he was watching the first pictures come in from Voyager of Saturn. About ten years later, Tony started a novel based on nothing more than that title and experience and finally came out with it in 2014. He says it takes him a long time to finish a novel, because he has a one track mind. Tony explains how everything falls away for him when he's working on a project, and we discuss how focusing and multitasking come with different challenges.
And your first novel, that started from your experience as a war correspondent?
Something popped into Tony's head while he was on his way to Vietnam. Having traveled from England to NJ, an idea came to him while he was stepping onto a bus, and it dug its roots in by the time he found his seat. The idea, of course, was that he'd become a war correspondent. He wrote a journal about his experiences and submitted articles to his hometown newspaper. They printed them, and he collected them when he went home. Years later, around 1995, he decided to fictionalize them and weave them into a story, half of which were real experiences.
Tony goes on to say that fiction can sometimes tell “the bigger picture of truth,” without having to worry about political correctness or about whom you might offend. We discuss how especially science fiction writers are able to muse from a distance about current or potential future events based on current trends. Tony calls them the “navigators for our species,” looking far into the future and pointing toward where we're going if we don't change our path. He talks about the novels, Brave New World and 1984, both warnings for where the future could go. Seeing parallels between 1984 and today's society, Tony sees George Orwell as “one of those longterm navigators of who we are and where we're going.”
Did you always enjoy writing, and did you think that's what you might be doing when you retired?
One of Tony's favorite quotes in life is "I do not like to write, I like to have written," by Gloria Steinem. He says this is also true of flying in Vietnam. He first got the notion that he could write in fourth grade. His teacher, Mrs. Lacroix, assigned him an essay, into which he says he threw everything he knew. Long sentences, big words (like manifest), and sappy and sentimental, it seems to have somehow impressed her. Her red paragraph of praise made him think for the first time, “Wow! I can write, what do you know?!” After that, he got into a science fiction reading phase, reading books like Brave New World, 1984, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. He started writing novels back in the 1980's, but then devoted himself to his work. Even though he'd written them sooner, he published Counters in 2008, The Darkest Side of Saturn in 2014, and now Black Sky Voyage, for which he's looking for a publisher this year. He also says he'd be happy to entertain any movie offers out there. ;)
Do you have a favorite book you've written, and why?
The Darkest Side of Saturn. Basically, he “pulled out all the stops.” An asteroid, a preacher, two astronomers, a “geek” chorus, global disasters, hymns, and pseudo bible verses. He put in speculations on consciousness and evolution, religion and beliefs. Along with the misery, he had fun, designing a realistic asteroid orbit and researching the nature of hymns, the structure of Greek choruses, and even ancient Polynesian sea navigation.
Where can we find or purchase your writings? Tony Taylor's books: Counters, The Darkest Side of Saturn, and Black Sky Voyage (to be published later this year)
Do you think there's a value to doing things that "make you miserable?"
He refers to the title of the show – that the value is found in persistence, in “the doing of things,” something that's ahead of you. There's always some goal or deadline, and it's the doing to get to those points that he finds valuable.
The nature of space travel is changing so much, and there's so much to look forward to, especially after the recent successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. What are your thoughts about its future, and do you think you'll ever get to be a space tourist?
Tony would like to be a space tourist, and though he doesn't expect space tourism to happen in his lifetime, he likes the idea of Elon Musk's SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Tony believes we're in a race to put more of our eggs into another basket – Mars – before we destroy ourselves, and Elon Musk has said he wants to put someone on Mars by 2023 (which Tony finds optimistic but laudable).
Tony says he has some ideas for him, including a space station design by engineer Oliver Harwood. He thinks Elon Musk would like it, so he's written it into his next book, Black Sky Voyage, about the first colonists on Mars. If anyone wants to connect Tony to Elon Musk, let us know how at [email protected]!
So, other than hanging out with Elon Musk and working with Oliver Harwood's space station designs, what are your next goals and dreams?
Tony would like to write a few more books but wonders if it may take too long – we discuss how it may happen sooner, with fewer distractions now, and plan on our next interview.
You've accomplished so much. Have you always been motivated, and what motivates you in life?
Tony has always been motivated, while marching to his own music. He's curious and likes to explore. At a young age, he explored physical things, but in later life, it's mainly ideas: concepts of evolution, consciousness, and artificial intelligence fascinate him. Why are we here, why now, why me - when compared to the 14 billion year span of the universe? He muses about the shortness of our lives and the probability that we are exactly who we are at this time and place. Tony doesn't believe it's all coincidence but can't explain it, except to adopt Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. In it, Whitman's version of “myself” is the universal eye, or the consciousness of every living being in the world, and how we're all connected. That's what he likes to think about, and maybe he'll write more about it too.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you've had to overcome?
Tony's shy, introverted, and not very self-confident. He has a deathly fear of public speaking, though he has done it and will need to do it again. He doesn't believe the fears and insecurities are all bad and says you can “use them as a spur.” If you're going to give a speech, for example, it makes you work harder, prepare, and get ready, so that by the time you're ready to give it, you've built up self-confidence by working hard, and it's better for having done the work.
What gives you the greatest joy, at this moment in your life?
Having written, having a great and smart wife who keeps him on his toes, two great daughters, two wonderful grandsons, and a few good years to go.
Do you have any habits or traits that have contributed to your happiness and success?
“The secret is in the doing and always having ahead, something that you plan towards and work for.” Tony doesn't believe in happiness as a goal but rather a by-product. “We're all on our own journeys... Actually, the destination is superfluous. The journey is all there is.” He says that if you do things and have things to look forward to, the happiness will come out of it, if you're in the right frame of mind. He says we're looking for the persistent pursuit of goals. Tony recommends I bring my short film to Sedona so we can meet in person and have tea.
If you could help the world see one thing differently, through your eyes, what would it be?
He wants the world to have some perspective and take the long view – away from tribalism and partisanship, seeing the whole of life and how everything fits together. It's one of the themes from one of his books, and Tony talks about that photo of Saturn – the one with the shadow on the backside of the rings – and how seeing it that way made it truly three-dimensional for the first time in space, rather than just the 2 dimensional view we have from Earth. He wants us all to be able to pull back and see how everything fits together, but he believes we'll have to do some more evolving to get there.
Do you have any other advice for us?
Always keep on striving, always be curious, and use your fear of failure as a driver. Everybody has their limitations and fears, but you just have to work at it, keep on doing.
Patreon supporters, thank you so much for your continued support and encouragement. I so appreciate you. If you want to go the extra mile, just head on over to Apple Podcasts, search for The Peace of Persistence in the iTunes store, and leave us a review. Thanks again for joining us as always - stay tuned next Thursday for another great interview to help all of us find more happiness and success in our lives.