Houston Kidd, a self-proclaimed “astronomy nerd,” will soon have a brush with outer space.
On April 26, the Space X Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center to bring supplies to the International Space Station, and a children’s book written by Kidd will be on board. Some time after the book’s arrival, an astronaut will read it out loud for an intergalactic storytime for kids and classrooms on earth.
It’s a chance of a lifetime for the Durham resident, who is a recruiter for the U.S. Navy at NC State. And it’s something he never thought would be possible. The book, “Willow the Water Bear,” is the first and only book he has written.
“I had to take a moment, pull the phone away from my head, take a deep breath and attempt to let it sink in,” Kidd said, recalling the phone call notifying him that the book had been selected for the Story Time from Space program.
And, he added, he had to “try to keep my cool in between thanking her a million times.”
The Story Time from Space program is a nonprofit of the Global Space Education Foundation that routinely sends children’s books like Kidd’s to space. The astronauts are recorded reading the books so the videos can be seen at any time. Essentially, it’s a way for astronauts in space to connect with children on earth through educational stories.
Kidd’s book, illustrated by his childhood best friend, Eric L. Bates, is about a microscopic creature called a water bear. The water bear, known by its scientific name tardigrade, can live and survive in subzero temperatures and the vacuum of outer space.
Water bears are tan, lumpy creatures that look a bit like caterpillars from “Alice in Wonderland.” Kidd said he found them interesting because they possess characteristics unlike other creatures.
“Children, they already have this natural curiosity about them, and when I discovered this creature, it blew my mind,” Kidd said. “So, I knew it would blow kid’s minds. It’s essentially a real-life superhero.”
In Kidd’s book, Willow the Water Bear is more colorful than its real-life inspiration. She’s a curious creature who loves superheroes and wears a purple mask and cape. Although very small, she has the power to fly and the ability to travel and live in different climates, including some places that no other creatures can.
But she initially lacks the confidence to be the hero she’d like to be.
“I wish I was a superhero!” Willow exclaims early in the book. “I’d save people and everyone would know my name!”
A teacher responds, “What if I told you that you’re already a superhero? Be proud.”
Willow’s journey takes her to the forest, the “depths of the ocean,” the Antarctic Ocean and ultimately the moon. She comes to realize she has qualities, both inside and out, that make her unique, and that she is the hero she dreams of becoming.
Kidd worked with UNC biologist Thomas C. Boothby to fact-check his information on water bears. Boothby uses water bears in his research, according to his website, even studying the atmospheric effects of space on them at the International Space Station. Boothby contributes water bear facts at the end of the book.
“The most important thing for me was not to portray any false science,” Kidd said. “I wanted to write as factual as possible, I wanted to make sure that it was actually based off of the science of the creature.”
Kidd, who grew up in Virginia, served in the Navy for four years and is in the Navy Reserves. He has been a stunt double for productions on National Geographic and AMC.
But he drew on his experience working in the corporate world when making Willow a female water bear.
“I did that on purpose because, unfortunately, a lot of the science-based jobs are still male dominant,” Kidd said. “I saw the power behind having women in powerful positions.”
When he learned of the existence of the Story Time from Space program, he had to submit his book. After about a year, he learned the book had been picked from hundreds of applications.
He doesn’t know which astronaut will read his book, but if luck has it, it could be someone else with NC State ties. Christina Koch, a Jacksonville native and graduate of NC State, left for her mission aboard the International Space Station March 14 and embarked on her first spacewalk March 29.
The video of the book being read is expected to be available this summer. Kidd wants people who hear the story to realize the power of science — and teaching it.
“STEM education is focusing on facts, focusing on science,” he said. “I want to create a spark for young children to get into, to understand that there are things out there that they would never even know to think about, they can study these things and pursue an education in these fields. We advanced so quickly because we embraced science, and I’d hate to see that go away.”