Gala Occassion

OK, so as not to annoy Heather, I try to keep book-related posting on my other blog, All These Worlds. But this one’s a bit more personal, so it’s going here, instead. Sorry, Heather.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center here in Huntsville held its second annual Gala in the new Davidson Center, which holds the restored test article Saturn V. Last year’s Gala, which I was unable to attend due to being in Houston, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the launch of Explorer I. This year’s honored the “Year of Apollo” beginning with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8 back in December and continuing through the anniversary of the first lunar landing on Apollo 11 this coming June and on to 40th anniversary of Apollo 12 in November.

Owen and I had been interested in holding a booksigning at the Davidson Center for a while, and, in discussing it, had come up with a couple of ideas we were proud of. We should use the booksigning as fundraiser for the Skylab Trainer restoration project, of which I’ve been a long-time advocate, both financially and in early-Saturday-morning-sweat-equity. And, we should not only tie it to the Gala, but convince USSRC to bring in some of the other guys for the event so they could sign, too.

As a result, Owen, Joe and I were joined by Alan Bean, who donated his diary to the book; Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys” (aka “October Sky”), who wrote the foreword; and Jack Lousma, who served on the II/3 crew with Owen and Al.

Also as a result, the books were being sold by USSRC for — get this — $80. Which is insane, but the money was going for a great cause. (And, to be honest, was actually a good price for what people were getting for reasons that had nothing to do with me. Getting anything signed now by the entire Skylab II crew for $80 would be a good deal. [Which is why I suspected that some of the bulk no-inscription purchases may well end up on eBay before too long, and indeed two are listed for $179 today.])

I have been to a pretty fair number of book signings over the years, and a few astronaut signings as well. (Ever try to get your astronaut signed? Not always easy.) So to be sitting at the table myself? Alongside that sort of company? Amazing. Just amazing. Definitely a sense that I was an imposter or something. But it was still an honor to be there.

The sense that I was an imposter was helped by the guy who skipped me in the signing line for my book. He collects books signed by astronauts. ONLY signed by astronauts. Um, OK. On the flip side, there were people who didn’t buy the book, but wanted my autograph on stuff anyway … other books, postcards, etc., so that more than made up for the other guy, who amused me more than anything.

Some museum officials told me that evening that it was the biggest booksigning they’d ever hosted. I don’t know how many books we signed, but the line stretched all the way to the back of the new auditorium at the Davidson Center, across half the back, and then halfway back down the side. My hand was approaching tiredness by the end.

Along with getting to sign alongside such distinguished company, it was also a huge honor for me to get my book signed during the event. There were a couple of people who talked to me as I was signing their book about their work on Skylab, and I would pull out my copy, and have them sign it. They, after all, are the true authors of this story.

And I have to also mention how appreciative I was and am of my incredible fiancée. Generally at astronaut events, they have handlers for the astronauts who keep the line moving expediently os the astros can get done and move on as quickly as possible. The most efficient of these can limit interaction to a bare minimum, and have earned the affectionate tag “Astro-nazis.” Saturday, I had my own personal Astro-nazi. With no one at the line to help us, Susanna stepped in and helped keep things moving — taking people’s books, making sure they were turned to the right page, finding out if they wanted them inscribed and, if so, how the names were spelled, and then telling people what they needed to do. It was a huge help, and almost certainly made a huge difference in keeping the line moving. Thanks!

OK, let me point out again that I was sick all day, and had really been unsure as to whether I would come back for the actual Gala. I felt obligation to go to the signing, the Gala would be pure pleasure. Fortunately, by the end of the signing, drugs and excitement had deluded me into thinking I was doing much better than I was (I ended up drooling in front of an astronaut before the evening was over, and not for usual space-awe reasons) and so we decided to continue on to the Gala.

And I am so glad we did. The Gala was amazing. If they had planned it for me personally, they couldn’t have done a better job.

First, they put me at a table with Bob Schwinghamer. I could try to explain to you how cool that is (and I may have mentioned him in my recent library lecture post), but couldn’t do it justice. Just read the book. The man is amazing. At one point during the dinner, they asked people to stand if they had been involved in supporting NASA missions — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, etc. I technically could have — I was mission-involved for STS-118 — but standing next to Bob Schwinghamer? I would have been a fraud. I was just as proud to sit.

The first speaker was moonwalker Alan Bean, who, as I said, contributed a lot to the book, and whom I really like, so it was great to hear him speak. To say nothing of the fact that the man is just a great speaker, and so NASA-positive. Hearing him talk, I was overwhelmed by how proud I am — how incredibly proud I am — to wear this badge. It’s something I always know, but it’s wonderfully when the occassional opportunity comes along to be reminded just what, exactly, this agency I work for is. It’s easy to focus on my little corner of it, and lose perspective of its true scope and heritage.

Also that night, an award was presented to George Mueller, who was head of manned spaceflight during Apollo. Mueller has helped me with both the Skylab and shuttle books, and is brilliant. Skylab was in a very real way his baby, and showed a lot of foresight on his part. He’s also just a neat guy, and fun to talk to. So very cool getting to see him receive an award. Added bonus: Guess who they got to present the award to him? My co-author, Owen.

Plus, while Owen was up there, he presented two new displays to the musuem. The first was the closest I will come to being Indiana Jones; I got to have my “This belongs in a museum!” moment. (Of course, it rarely actually worked out for Indy, but that’s beside the point. I think he managed to successfully recover one item in four movies.) When we interviewed Lee Belew, the program manager for Skylab at Marshall, I noticed that he had the original flipchart sketch of Skylab — very likely the single most important Skylab document — framed on his wall. When I heard of his passing, I suggested that Owen contact the family, let them know what they had, and see if they would be willing to donate it. So it was very rewarding to see that come to fruition, and to see it being prepared for display here in Huntsville. (Where it should be, and where, per his family, Lee would have wanted it.) I also got to talk to Lee’s grandchildren, who were really great themselves.

The other new display was a bit of more recent spaceflight history. Before Owen’s son Richard flew to the International Space Station back in October, we printed up some photo reproductions of the cover of our book and signed them. Richard carried them with him to the Station, and stamped them with the Russian ISS postmark. Owen donated one of the signed, flown and canceled book cover photos to the museum; earning my signature a place in spaceflight history. Again, kind of cool.

And, after the program, I humored my very patient and supportive fiancée by quote-dancing-unquote afterwards.

Like I said, all in all, just amazing. Truly amazing.

Only three regrets:

1) I wasn’t able to take the picture Susanna wanted of her with Alan Bean.

2) I wasn’t able to catch up with Ed Gibson to get him to sign my book; the one person who hasn’t signed yet but most deserves a spot, given his substantial contributions to the work.

3) I didn’t get a photograph of Susanna and I together in our fancy Gala duds. She looked fantastic. I mean, just stunning. Seriously.

One Response

  1. No apologies needed. And we could have took a picture of you guys! I actually thought to myself later I should have had one of you take a picture of us, and visa versa. It’s not like we all didn’t have iPhones on us or anything.

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