When he was sleeping in his car at the track trying to break into writing about NASCAR, Rick Houston never imagined he would author a book or be part of a film. “I just think that a guy from Yadkinville, N.C., having the opportunity to work with a team from England on a film like Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is pretty much the definition of a miracle,” Houston said, “just how everything came together and how beautiful a film it is.”
After writing Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, Houston became an associate producer and consultant for Mission Control, a documentary inspired by his book written with Milt Heflin, a former flight director and retired chief of the flight director’s office for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“He has become the greatest long distance mentor I could have ever imagined,” Houston said of Heflin. “He has become a true friend.”
Houston described Heflin’s assistance on Go Flight as “absolutely invaluable.” Heflin made himself available for procedural or technical questions. “He really made that book far better than it would have ever been had he not been involved,” Houston said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how well the film came out and how proud I am of the team that put it together.”
In the book, Houston shares stories of the early race to space between the United States and the Soviet Union. The men who worked in mission control were students straight out of college, soldiers toughened by their service and even blue collar workers. The movie is directed by David Fairhead and produced by Keith Haviland and Gareth Dodds.
Houston hosted screenings May 25-26 of Mission Control at the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center’s Willingham Theater. About 300 people came to see the film and participated in a question and answer time with Houston.
“Ever since this whole process started, I would run by the theater where the showing was held,” Houston said, dreaming of the day when he would be able to show this movie to his hometown. “This town means a lot to me. It’s home now.”
Although Houston is a Nashville, Tenn., native, he has called Yadkinville home for many years.
“This is where my family is; this is where my friends are; this is where my home is. I just wanted to do something for them because they had supported me for so long. To see it finally happen was a huge blessing.”
Houston, who is a member of Maplewood Baptist Church in Yadkinville, is a freelance writer as well, including some articles for the Biblical Recorder, North Carolina’s Baptist news journal.
Houston found his first space-writing job in the message board of collectspace.com. An author had backed out of a book deal with University of Nebraska Press and an editor was looking for individuals with space knowledge to divide the chapters for the project. Houston’s writing ex-perience ratcheted him to the top of the list. He was given the lead chapter of the book on Apollo 11.
“I really didn’t want to take it,” Houston said. “That was a story that had been told a million times. I really didn’t know how to do it in a way that would be fresh and interesting. But I jumped into it.”
Not long after that project – Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo – Houston was asked if he would like to do a book on the space shuttle program, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, 1986-2011. That led to Man on a Mission, a children’s biography about David Hilmers, an astronaut, which then led to Go Flight.
“Once I got my foot in the door, I kind of kicked the door down,” he said. “That’s what any writer has to do. They take advantage of every opportunity they can get.”
When Houston was working on Wheels Stop, he had the opportunity to operate an actual shuttle simulator but his weight kept the buckle from being able to fasten. That started him on a journey of weight loss and wellness. Although his weight has fluctuated, he has lost about 100 pounds and strives to exercise on a regular basis.
The astronaut helping him was “really nice” about the awkward situation, but “to this day, almost seven years to the day later, that memory still drives me,” Houston said. “I’m not skinny now. I’ll never be skinny, but when I’m out walking or running or working out, I’ll flash back to that, and I’ll keep going.”
Houston’s next book comes out in August. He’s back to his National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) roots with Dale vs. Daytona: The Intimidator’s Quest to Conquer the Great American Race.
“I really enjoy the process,” Houston said.
Another book is expected late this year or early 2018 on the 2001 Daytona 500 race where Dale Earnhardt was killed. “It is a much different beast to write a book than to write a news story,” Houston explained. With a news story, you get the quotes, you get the interview, you write it and you’re done. To put 140,000 words down on paper or on computer is a much different beast. It requires planning; it requires a lot of thought.”
While it is a big leap from news writing to penning a book, Houston said, “I think any ink-stained wretch, as most journalists would call themselves, dreams of the day where they can expand their horizons and write a book.”
His first two to three books were written while he was still covering NASCAR.
Although Houston did have a niche in NASCAR and now in NASA, as a writer, he just wants to tell the story.
“That’s the thing that I love about being a journalist,” Houston said. “Everybody has a testimony. Everybody has a story.”
In the introduction of NASCAR’s Greatest Race: The 1992 Hooters 500, Houston shared a bit about his own story. He shared about sleeping in his car, stockpiling food from the press box for later meals.
“I cannot begin to tell you how frightened and alone I felt,” Houston said of his divorce around that time. “I had no money. I had zero to my name. That was rock bottom.”
His child was calling another man “daddy,” and it hurt Houston to his core.
He asked a friend for money to make a phone call, and the friend provided him $2, an amount Houston used to buy a bag of chips and a candy bar. “It was by far the worst moment in my life,” he said. “I prayed harder and more sincerely that night than I ever did before.”
Houston’s friend told him about a job at a local newspaper the next day. Houston applied and worked there two years before moving on to a full-time job with a racing newspaper.
Houston, 49, has since remarried (1996) and has twin boys, age 16.
Having grown up in the church, Houston received a degree in religion from Belmont College (now university) in Nashville. “I was going to be the next Billy Graham,” he said.
But he quickly found he was “far more comfortable behind a keyboard than I was in a pulpit.”
Email Houston at [email protected]. Visit missioncontrol.movie.