Spacefest IX: Panels and Lectures
Last week, I had the privilege of attending Spacefest IX in Tucson, Arizona. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Spacefest, it is perhaps the largest annual gathering of astronauts, space workers, artists, writers, historians, journalists, and enthusiasts, held at the stunning JW Marriott Starr Pass resort. There is no better place to have a conversation with a moonwalker, connect with space advocates and enthusiasts, or attend unique panels and lectures on the past, present, and future of space exploration.
This piece will be the first in a series of articles inspired by the enormous amount of information and experiences gained at Spacefest. I’ll begin by giving an overview of the panels and lectures I chose to attend. Spacefest runs on a busy schedule, with at least two lectures occurring all-day-every-day, including panels and events.
Having arrived at the resort a couple days before Spacefest started on Thursday, I was well-rested and ready for a long weekend of positively intense space-ing. To kick off the event, the Space Exploration panel delved into the future of crewed and uncrewed spaceflight, and all the different possibilities and choices that exist in its execution. Moderated by author Rod Pyle, the panel featured experts in uncrewed exploration in particular. It was refreshing, to say the least, to hear actual experts discuss road maps for the future, instead of reading somewhat contentious comments on the internet.
Next came the highly anticipated panel “Friends to the Moon and Back” featuring the relatives of two Apollo moonwalkers and legends: Alan Bean and Gene Cernan. This panel was a Spacefest first. Though astronaut families have attended Spacefest before, they have almost never been the center of attention like this. Bean and Cernan’s ex-wives, the “original” wives (married during the spaceflights), and their daughters took control of the stage to tell the story from their point-of-view. Their panel was a unique insight into home life that came with having an active astronaut in the family. There were many laughs, many cries, and many heartwarming moments - so many that an encore was requested and given - another Spacefest first.
I began the next day with Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s lecture “Writing About and Working in the Space Program”. Milt Heflin, an engineer, flight director, and associate technical director at NASA Johnson told stories from his work, ranging from humorous anecdotes about testing Apollo equipment to the tragic day Columbia was lost. He ended his talk with a friendly invitation to approach him afterwards over a beer to share more stories. Rick Houston, whom I was previously acquainted with from the 2017 Space Hipsters visit to NASA Marshall, spoke about his journey into space history from the field of journalism. Rick is best known in the space community for his book Go Flight about Mission Control in the Apollo era, which he co-wrote with Heflin, as well as producing the subsequent documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. The way he explained the origins of his achievements in space history gave me hope that I could have a lucrative career as well, despite the niche nature of our field.
Up next was “Back to the Moon”, a presentation unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Al Worden, Apollo 15 CMP, re-explored the surface of the Moon with Carter Emmart, the director of astrovisualization at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Emmart was running a program called OpenSpace, which assembles orbital data from the Apollo program and lunar photography throughout the decades into one application. He demonstrated the program by exploring Al Worden’s 6-days orbiting the Moon, with Worden himself right there next to him! Al noted that this was the first time he had ever seen the photography his instruments captured while he orbited the Moon.
After “Back to the Moon” I decided to rest up for the always exciting Apollo Panel, featuring the people who flew the missions and those closely involved. I went to the patio and inevitably ran into a group of Space Hipsters. As the sun set over the city down below us, we talked about space, the event, and other fun times over dinner.
The respite helped refresh my brain, and I returned to the convention area early to get a good seat for the panel. There was already quite a line outside. Luckily, Universal passes get priority seating. I was in the second row!
The panel covered the general story of Apollo from the Apollo 1 fire through to Apollo-Soyuz, although there were constant interjections of humorous anecdotes and tangents by the legends on the stage. Sometimes, you learn little tidbits that you’d never hear elsewhere. For instance, Charlie Duke, who was CAPCOM during Apollo 11’s nerve-wracking descent to the lunar surface, divulged that only three people knew Neil Armstrong was going to use the term “Tranquility Base” upon landing - Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Duke himself. Jack Lousma, also CAPCOM during another harrowing moment (the Apollo 13 explosion), related his “say again” reply to the famous “Houston, we've had a problem” was because the distress call interrupted a conversation he was having with Gene Kranz. Fred Haise’s very first thought upon seeing the Oxygen gauge read empty onboard Odyssey was disappointment that they weren’t going to land on the Moon. Al Worden noted the inaccurate depiction of Jack Swigert in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Describing the film as doing a “disservice” to Swigert, Worden related that he spent over a year training on Command Module systems with him, and that Swigert knew the spacecraft better than any other astronaut, especially in an emergency situation. The panel concurred and a round of applause from the audience redeemed Swigert's legacy.
The panel began discussing later Apollo missions, and Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 told a story about he and John Young’s record-setting speed run down a hill in the Lunar Rover - a planetary ground-speed record they share jointly with Apollo 17. In describing the wild ride, Charlie used the fantastic phrase “we were really smokin’!” It’s moments like these that make Spacefest special.
The Apollo panel, as always, left a smile on everyone's face. After a visit to the swimming pool under the crystal clear desert sky, I slept well, arising to Saturday morning, which I reserved to wander about in the astronaut/art room. Following some fascinating conversations, it was time for more panels.
The first, On Station, may well have been the first time an MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) astronaut described the covert project publicly. The documents featured in Bo Bobko’s powerpoint were declassified only a few years ago. Bo joked that until recently, he’d have had to kill us after explaining the details of the secret cold war project, designed to spy on the USSR.
Also highlighted in this panel were the successes of Skylab, the US’ first space station, told by two of its crew: Jack Lousma and Ed Gibson. It is forgotten too often that until Skylab, the US did not know whether it was possible for the human body to live and work in space for more than a fortnight. The station proved to the American space sector that living and working in space is, indeed, possible, paving the way to future projects like the International Space Station. To Skylab 3 astronaut Jack Lousma, proof that complex tasks could be completed on long EVAs (spacewalks) was one of the program's most significant achievements.
Finally came the last panel of the day, which was of a different flavor. The First Man panel featured people involved in the same-named upcoming Hollywood film about Neil Armstrong. The film is based on Jim Hanson’s brilliantly researched and written biography, authorized by Armstrong himself. As a surprise, Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer was present and very active in the discussion. An historian by training, I am usually skeptical of Hollywood adaptations, as I previously felt towards this film. After being present at this panel, however, I feel confident that the crew did all they could to properly and accurately depict history, and do justice to the first person to stand on another world. There is a difference between a documentary and a film - one is for information and the other for entertainment. Despite First Man being in the latter category, an uncommon amount of time and energy was put into historical accuracy by Singer, director Damien Chazelle, and consultants such as Jim Hanson and the rest of the panel.
These are just some of the unique and remarkable lectures and panels that Spacefest organizes and hosts each year - it is next to impossible to attend every one of them, and take in all the information they have to offer, without being mentally overwhelmed by the sheer knowledge and expertise. Being present while true experts in spaceflight share their insight and experience is a privilege that the public, unfortunately, does not get to enjoy often. Spacefest is the best opportunity for that interaction to happen. As stated by Novaspace’s Kelsey Poor, PR agent and daughter of Spacefest-founder Kim Poor: “Our mission is to unite space fans and educate the public”. I am already eager to learn more next year.
More to come soon about Spacefest.
Images and Videos Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise
Amy Sue Bean, Sue Bean, Barbara Cernan Butler, and Tracy Cernan Woolie. "Friends to the Moon and Back." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 5, 2018.
Carney, Emily, John Charles, Jay Chladek, Karol Bobko, Edward Gibson, Al Hallonquist, Mike Jenne, and Jack Lousma. "On Station." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 7, 2018.
Emmart, Carter, and Alfred Worden. "Back to the Moon." Lecture, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 6, 2018.
French, Frances, Rick Armstrong, Vance Brand, Walter Cunningham, Charlie Duke, Fred Haise, Dee O'Hara, Jack Lousma, and Alfred Worden. "Apollo Panel." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 6, 2018.
Heflin, Milt, and Rick Houston. "Writing About and Working in the Space Program." Lecture, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 6, 2018.
Pearlman, Robert, Mark Armstrong, Rick Armstrong, Chris Calle, James Hansen, Rick Houston, Ryan Nagata, Josh Singer, and Alfred Worden. "First Man." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 7, 2018.
Pyle, Rod, Leonard David, Patrick Ford, Jay Gallentine, Michael Leinbach, Jani Radebaugh, and Marc Rayman. "Space Exploration." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 5, 2018.