Spacefest IX: A Weekend on Another World
My last article about Spacefest focused on the panels and lectures. Some of you are probably wondering why I purposely swerved past another aspect of what makes Spacefest truly unique - the personal connections you make with your heroes, and time spent enjoying those moments with friends. Here is the reason why! An entire piece dedicated to just that. It is one of my most in-depth Living Space writings yet:
Before the event started, even before reaching Arizona, the festivities were already beginning. In ATL (Atlanta Airport), four of us Space Hipsters were awaiting our flight to Tucson, joking around and eagerly anticipating the week to come. I found out later there were more of us on that plane than we initially thought, whom I would meet in the following days.
Upon arriving in Tucson, Jamie and I went to pick up our rental cars. The representative at the desk noticed my NASA shirt and asked if I was in Tucson for Spacefest. She told me her son is very interested in space, and they had been to a previous Spacefest to get Dave Scott’s autograph. This was a funny coincidence, as the people behind the desk last year also asked about visiting Spacefest; but I found out in conversation they were somehow under the impression that Scott Kelly had spent a year on the Moon, rather than the ISS. I encouraged them to visit the event.
After spending the next day decompressing from traveling and admiring the dry desert climate, I was ready to begin the festivities in earnest. By that evening, almost everyone had arrived at Starr Pass, and the patio was at-capacity with Space Hipsters, enthusiasts, and other guests. When I arrived on the scene, Space Hipsters founder Emily Carney was flipping through photographs from the Skylab program with Herb Baker, author Jonathan Ward was showing everyone his NASA badge collection, Jamie’s Vulcan salute was finding the cameras, and everyone was just having a right good time.
Minutes turned into hours as the food, drink, and space-talk flowed, the sun set, and the lights of Tucson became illuminated beneath us on the desert floor. As my friend Sue and I were discussing the legacy of astronauts and cultural attitudes towards the space race (and exploring the friendliest, almighty-est difference in opinion on a book), Independence Day fireworks at nearby Sentinel Peak brought all conversations to a halt - for a solid 20 minutes. When they finished, we picked up right from where we left off. Finally, I went back to my room, as lectures and panels began the next day.
Thursday started with a great conversation with a friend from the other side of the world, Mark Rigby, curator of the Brisbane Planetarium in Queensland. A story about Mark that really tests the odds - when I was in Australia last year, Mark and I ran into each other completely by accident. I was on the other side of the world (from the US) in Cairns, Qld, and he was up from Brisbane on a weekend trip. Neither knew of the other’s plans. When the host at the restaurant I had chosen seated him at a nearby table, I was in such disbelief I checked his Facebook on my phone to be sure it was actually him! Anyway, back at Spacefest, I enjoyed speaking with Mark about planetariums, air travel, and Australia; but was most impressed with his story about witnessing Apollo 10’s Trans-Lunar Injection with the naked eye as it occurred over the great southern land in 1969.
Who did I see at the first panel than some of last night’s crew! In a moment of spontaneous photographic shenanigans, Jamie created one for the ages:
After the panels was the VIP cocktail reception, celebrating the opening of the art gallery. It was exciting to see what the artists had created over the past year, as well as already-admired prints and pieces. First, however, Chris Boyd and I found an opportunity to speak with Sue and Amy Bean, ex-wife and daughter of Alan Bean, respectively. Seeing as Alan’s service had only occurred the previous week, we thanked them for being at Spacefest and organizing their panel. We also discussed how much Alan meant to Spacefest. It was touching to hear Amy say that he had been looking forward to being back at Starr Pass with everyone. His presence was missed deeply, but having his family there made it easier, and gave us something new to celebrate. For my Alan Bean memory, check out my prior piece Remembering Alan Bean.
Continuing through the art gallery, a group of us converged at artist Simon Kregar’s booth to admire his new series - paintings of Apollo astronauts as they appear today in EVA suits (spacesuits) from back then. I always joke with Emily that my photos of her become memes in Space Hipsters, such as the infamous photo with the Buran painting last year. Yet again, my shutter captured Emily making Hipsters-history with Simon’s portrait of a youthful Dave Scott.
While getting a round of drinks with Francis French and Jay Gallentine, another renowned space historian, I finally got the chance to speak with Francis about the conclusion of his book with Apollo 15’s Al Worden, Falling to Earth. Francis and Al’s conclusion is a beautifully written piece about looking at the Moon and thinking of the people who went there. Reading that paragraph was the first time I’d heard another description of the sensation I get looking at the Moon. The cocktail reception came to a close, and after a visit to the hot tub under the serene desert skies, the next day grew closer below the horizon.
Friday - the day of the Astronaut Luncheon! Each guest whose pass includes the luncheon sits at a round table with an astronaut and nine guests for a buffet-style lunch. This year, I chose to sit with Hoot Gibson, five-time shuttle astronaut (four of those times as commander) and an accomplished aviator. Hoot has flown high-performance jets, commercial airliners, raced at the Reno air show, constructed and flown drones, and achieved many other accomplishments. Charlie Bolden, former NASA administrator and Hoot’s STS-61-C crewmate, cites Hoot and John Young as the best pilots NASA ever recruited.
In line at the buffet, I was standing behind Ed Gibson, Skylab 4 astronaut. Astronaut nurse Dee O’Hara walked by and joked with him: “quit holding up the line!”. Behind me was astronaut Jerry Ross, who I noticed was wearing the same NASA shirt as myself and Charlie Duke. “Nice shirt, Jerry!” I smiled.
Back at Hoot’s table, the conversation, which astronauts usually allow to be guided by the others, ranged everywhere from his favorite airplane to fly (the MIG-21), to building drones, his STS-41-B spaceflight, his landmark Mir docking in the 90s, and the Soviet space shuttle Buran. Hoot mentioned that 41-B, his first flight, has many special memories for him; but the crew of 61-C, his first command, reunites often and gets along particularly well. He considers docking Atlantis to Mir on STS-71 to have been his greatest challenge in the space program.
In the midst of the luncheon, STS-27 crewmate Jerry Ross stopped by the table to tease him about being a Pilot astronaut. Hoot joked back to Jerry, a Mission Specialist and experienced spacewalker, “Yeah, those EVAs are really dull work!”
I had to ask Hoot why he hasn’t written a book yet. As one of NASA’s first group of Shuttle astronauts, the TFNGs (thirty-five new guys), and one of the most successful of that group, any contribution he could make to the narrative would be absolutely welcome. Shuttle history is still a frontier that relatively few have written about. I also stopped by his table the next day to remind him we would like to hear whatever he has to tell. Hoot is a typically “cool” pilot. He is collected, well-spoken, and has great coordination when it comes to himself and his attitudes. He is the kind of person you would trust with anything.
Yet he has that mischievous side some fighter jocks have. I asked him to verify a story in Mike Mullane’s book Riding Rockets. On one occasion when he was an astronaut-escort (a “guide” for an astronaut's family during a mission), he drove a family out in a van that KSC provided for transport on-center for some doughnuts... but not the baked pastry kind. The burned rubber kind. I found the story believable, as Hoot is probably the only person capable of doing doughnuts in a van! Hoot smirked and replied that it wasn’t a van. It was a Corvette. And yes, he did that.
After the luncheon, I went to catch up with Clayton Anderson, known for his book The Ordinary Spaceman. In the past year, I finally read it and was very impressed with the stories he chose to include. It contributes new information that other astronauts wouldn't necessarily write about. In addition to the relatability that makes Clay different, he spent five months onboard the International Space Station, completed EVAs there, flew in both the Shuttle and Soyuz spacecraft, and was an “aquanaut”, living at the bottom of the ocean as part of the NEEMO expedition. All of these experiences and more are told in his book.
Something caught my eye in the astronaut room, never before seen at Spacefest, was a full scale mockup of the Apollo command module’s panel! Named the Apollo Experience, it features realistic switches, computers, and window locations, which guests could be photographed inside. One of the windows even has a screen with the lunar surface passing by.
That Friday evening was the always-exciting Apollo panel, discussed in the prior article. On the way down to the auditorium, I was behind Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham and his wife on the escalator.
Herein lies perhaps the coolest thing about Spacefest that absolutely no other event can rival. For those few days, it becomes regular to see and interact with these “heroes” in ways other than asking questions about space. One infamous bit of Spacefest lore is the story of our friend Sam literally getting stuck in a lift with Al Worden. You will commonly see flight controllers like Chuck Dietrich or Dutch von Ehrenfried having drinks at their table on the patio, perhaps like they would after a shift in Mission Control. You may wait in line for lunch sandwiched between Ed Gibson and Jerry Ross when Dee O’Hara walks by and cracks a joke. Charlie Duke wears a backpack around the convention area. Al Worden likes a good laugh and would prefer not to be called the "most isolated man in history" (a record he achieved on the far side of the Moon during Apollo 15). At Spacefest, you briefly become part of this community that did these extraordinary things. You learn that they are people too, not much different from yourself. Yet, that makes them even more extraordinary somehow.
The panel ended, and a small group of us walked through the resort towards the patio with Skylab 3 and STS-3 astronaut Jack Lousma, making jokes about his alter ego “Bad Bobby”, before saying goodnight and parting ways for the next day.
Saturday. Before visiting the astronaut and artist room, I caught up with my friends Emily, Lois, Jean, and others. I'm so happy that Jean Wright got to experience her first Spacefest. As a “Sew Sister”, Jean put her artistic skills to work in the Shuttle program by fabricating (pun-intended) and installing the Orbiters’ thermal blankets and other TPS equipment. Now, she has a project called Sew Sisters Space Creations, in which she makes clothing, accessories, and other apparel out of *flown* shuttle fabrics custom-made per-order. My shirt in the photo below has a segment of STS-93 (Columbia) in the pocket, the first mission commanded by a woman, Eileen Collins.
That morning, I committed my time to the astronaut room, asking questions, having conversations, and overall hero-worshipping. To get started, I helped Richard Garner of The Space Collective have a beautiful panorama signed by Dave Scott of Apollo 15. I suppose my photos help authenticate it!
Then it was my turn to converse with Scott. Dave Scott flew on Gemini 8 alongside Neil Armstrong, was the first person to fly the command module solo on Apollo 9, and commanded Apollo 15 on its three day visit to the Hadley Basin, in a region of the Moon known as Palus Putredinis. Dave was the first astronaut in the corps to take a real shining to geology, enjoying the field trips they took around the world to train for spotting important rocks. 15 was the first mission to conduct extensive science at the Moon.
With Dave being at the forefront of these activities, as well as being the first person to drive a wheeled-vehicle on another planet (the Lunar Rover), I thought the following question was fitting to ask: it is easy to look back in retrospect and determine which piece of technology was ahead of its time; but in those days, in that era, which piece of technology did he think was cutting-edge and futuristic? Sometimes, in different contexts, these items can be different. For Dave, the AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer) is something he considered to be a remarkable invention, far ahead of its time in the 1960s. He told me of his amazement that the AGC could fit into a single room, let alone the small spacecraft that it navigated to and from the Moon. Dave said to learn more about the AGC, talk to Don Eyles, the engineer that actually wrote the code for the Lunar Module’s AGC.
Something else I asked - does the name David Carrier mean anything to him? He thought for a minute, then his face lit up. Yes! Dave remembered him. Carrier, a family friend, worked as a geologist in the Apollo program, including in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, and was on some of the geology field trips with astronauts. As our conversation ended and I was stepping away, Dave stopped me: “Give David my regards. Please say hello”. This was absolutely genuine, by the way. It is incredible how much these guys really do remember from years ago.
Yet, I often find myself wondering exactly how many details they remember vividly, versus how much they just know happened. Think of it this way - you are in your 80s, and somebody asks you about a job you did or a place you went 45 years ago when you were in your 30s. Even if that place was the Moon, aren’t we all subject to losing touch with certain happenings?
Who better to give me an honest answer than Al Worden? As one of Dave Scott's crewmates, Al spent six days orbiting the Moon, three of them by himself in the command module. As I walked by, Al shouted my name. Stopping at his table, we caught up and he recognized my Sew Sister shirt. I decided to ask him that question, which was playing on my mind. After thinking carefully, he replied that yes, there is some “redaction” of memories. He said that he is usually one to remember the good things in life more than the bad, and perhaps his trip to the Moon is not an exception.
Al is the only Apollo astronaut I know of who wrote poetry about his experience, so I asked another more personal question: has he dreamt about the Moon since returning to Earth? He gives a confident “no” answer to that one. Fair enough. Another good one: does he think that people these days hold a certain idealism about their visits to the Moon, particularly surrounding the purpose of the exploration? After all, Apollo was ultimately a front of the Cold War, despite all the incredible science and technology achieved by the project. Al thinks maybe there is a little idealism involved in the history. The Apollo program can, indeed, fall victim to romanticism. One last question for Al: what is the most important thing the space program can do for us? How do we sell all this to the budget-makers? He walked me through the answer. He asked me, “What is the prime purpose of all life?” I answered, “Survival.” Right, he said, spaceflight is part of that primal instinct to live. Earth will not last forever. Finding another Earth out there guarantees survival.
Thanking Al for his thoughtful insight, I went to speak with Charlie Duke of Apollo 16. Like Dave Scott, he spent three days living and working on the Moon, as lunar module pilot alongside John Young in the Moon's Descartes Highlands. One of Charlie’s great personal stories about his flight is a dream he had, in which he and Young find other peoples' tracks on the Moon. They follow the tracks to find duplicates of themselves sitting in a duplicate Rover. Eerie as it may be, I asked Charlie if he’s had any other dreams about the Moon. Like Al, Charlie hasn’t either. One thing I did learn - Charlie’s dream actually occurred before the mission, not during, as I had previously believed. The eerie-factor goes down for me after hearing that! Imagine dreaming that while you are sleeping on the Moon.
I told Charlie how enjoyable the premiere of the film Lunar Tribute was in New York, the film whose review became the first article I wrote for Living Space. We discussed how different it was, and how nice it is to have a change of style in Apollo documentaries. Charlie hinted that there is more to come from that director dealing with his family and Apollo.
Finally, I asked him a question inspired by the book Moondust by Andrew Smith, a question that beguiled Dick Gordon of Apollo 12 when Smith asked it. I know Charlie will have an answer: what have you learned? He's learned two things: on the mission, he learned just how fragile and beautiful our planet Earth is. He grew to appreciate the sheer awesomeness of that realization, from looking up at that "jewel of Earth, hung in the vacuum of space". In life, he’s learned to be a better husband, father, and man. In that moment, I remembered Charlie once mentioning a Psalm he heard upon coming back to Earth that reminded him of his trip to the Moon. He told me it is Psalm 19, specifically the NIV version. A religious man, Charlie most enjoys talking about his journey finding peace through Christianity. The first verse of that Psalm reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
These are some of the questions that had been accumulating in my head over the past year. There are so many more I did not get the chance to ask. After your chance is gone, you may kick yourself for being too starstruck to remember that one thing you were dying to know! Even after this, my third Spacefest, there are still so many conversations I would love to have with the VIPs. It can be frustrating at times to get the answer, but subsequently have even more questions. Sometimes the answer is not what you had in mind, and you want to keep digging. I could have spent all day with Dave, Al, Charlie, and the others. Ultimately, though, maybe an half-hour into that imaginary pestering of an astronaut, s/he would run out of ways to describe what you are interested in understanding, or feeling, as they do.
There is only so much you can understand about an experience that you yourself have not had. It’s like the difference between reading a menu and eating. Until I go to space or the Moon, my curiosity can not be entirely satisfied; but this experience is the next best thing. Even after three Spacefests and several other events attended by these figures, the impact of interacting with people who have left Earth and came back again never becomes ordinary.
After a couple more panels, it was time for the VIP reception before the Saturday night banquet. I rushed back to my room to change into a suit, then joined my fellow Space Hipsters for our first successful group photo at Spacefest.
Then, I was stoked to run into Josh Singer, Rick and Mark Armstrong. I congratulated Singer for his brilliant work screenwriting the film The Post, and made brief conversation about the Bradlees and the Kennedys. I also thanked the Armstrongs for being at Spacefest, as their mother Janet had passed in the prior week. Their comments in the panel were very insightful, and everyone got a kick out their stories - for example, when Mark took up dirt-biking as a kid, his mother insisted that Neil get him a helmet. Mark recalled that it was an awkward, white metal helmet, finding out much later that it was actually the helmet his Dad wore training in the LLTV (Lunar Landing Training Vehicle). Neil had ejected out of the LLTV wearing the helmet, so he knew it worked!
That evening I also caught up with Robert Brand, who is working on some revolutionary new technology for his company ThunderStruck Aerospace in Australia. Robert told me stories from when he worked in communications outside Sydney during Apollo 11. Few Americans know just how integral Australia’s role was in the early Space age. NASA relied on radio arrays and technology there to keep in touch with our spacecraft, while the Earth rotated North America out-of-view of the spacecraft. After learning more about potential opportunities in Australia, I ran into Pranvera Hyseni of Astronomy Outreach Kosovo. Pranvera is an inspiring figure who cares deeply about the future of Kosovo, and invests in that future with outreach programs to teach children there about the sky.
It was time for the banquet to begin. For the banquet, I chose to sit with Fred Haise of Apollo 13 and the Shuttle-ALT program. Fred is truly the first person to command a spacecraft named Enterprise (the Shuttle, that is); and as an active member of Space Hipsters, he attended our 2018 field trip to NASA Michoud, Stennis, and his own Infinity Science Museum in Mississippi. He is a down-to-Earth and good-hearted man. Our table’s conversation dealt largely with Fred’s post-astronaut career, something I had been curious about for some time. He told stories from going back to work at Grumman as an aerospace engineer, consulting on projects related to EVA, Delta wings, metal framework, and some classified projects as well. These days, he works with Infinity Science Center to secure displays, funding, and publicity. It appears the museum may very soon have enough money to restore their real Saturn V first stage.
This S-IC, the “business end” of the rocket that propelled the stack off the launchpad, is one of only three flight-intended Saturn V boosters left in existence. Had NASA's funding not been reduced in the 1960s, this very booster would have blasted Fred himself, Bill Pogue, and Gerry Carr to the Moon. You can donate to the restoration efforts and the museum at the link below:
A touching video tribute to those we’ve lost in the past year played after we ate dinner. This was a tragic year for the space community - too many good people passed on. Their presence was missed at Spacefest and will be for years to come. The banquet came to a positive close after a successful auction with proceeds towards the National Ataxia Foundation, seeking a cure to the disease that took the life of Spacefest founder Kim Poor. Some of us proceeded to the patio to celebrate another successful and fulfilling Spacefest. Staying up into the early hours of the morning getting to know fascinating people is one of life’s true delights.
Sunday was spent with good friends around the resort. I also enjoyed the lovely hiking trails at Starr Pass. The scene of Spacefest isn’t unlike the Moon - a harsh, rocky, and hot landscape. Except this place has a forest of Saguaro cactuses the size of telephone poles. It is incredible that some of them are over 200 years old; and fascinatingly bizarre to think that someone 200 years from now may also meet this same living being.
Coming back with a gnarly sunburn, I ran into Nick Howes in the lobby, and learned more about his literally otherworldly meteorites, as well as other tales from his career as an astronomer and engineer.
I spent that evening on the patio with my friends Shannon, Sue, Jonathan, Jane, Chris, and many others. We admired a lightning storm towards Phoenix, the mountains, and the rising planets over the Eastern horizon. As the sun set, we began spotting satellites overhead, and even a few shooting stars. There was no better way to enjoy that Sunday night.
Alas, though, it was over. The next day, I went back to the airport with the glum realization that it will be a whole year until Spacefest comes again. Now, as I sit here looking up at the night sky, thinking of all the people I met who have been there, I can’t help wondering if future astronauts were present at Spacefest as well.
Here's to Spacefest IX! Already can't wait for X.
Images and Videos Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise
Cover image - spacesuit replica artist Ryan Nagata and his family with Charlie Duke. (Photo: Ryan Nagata)
A special thank you to Novaspace, Spacefest staff, VIPs, guests, and friends who all make Spacefest possible.