What a whirlwind this past week has been!
Mike and I finished the final events (*so far) of the Texas portion of our book tour this week.
We drove back from Hemphill on Friday morning, to be greeted by a Texas-sized traffic slowdown on I-10 near Baytown as we rushed to reach our noon appointment at Johnson Space Center. We were only a few minutes late meeting Lori Wheaton of JSC External Affairs who whisked us away to the Sonny Carter neutral buoyancy lab north of JSC.
The size of the facility defies description. The pool is so deep (40 feet) that the water make it appear that the bottom is curved in a concave vault shape! The size of the modules in the water showed just how large the International Space Station really is, and how hard it must have been for the astronauts fo We arrived just after a training session. Two people walked by us wearing astronaut cooling garments, and we saw technicians preparing one of the astronaut EVA suits to be carted away.
Back at Johnson, we set up in Building 3’s cafeteria for a book signing starting at 3:00 p.m. It was an unusual time for them to host a signing, as the employee store normally closes at 3:00, and this being a Friday, it was uncertain just how many employees would want to come by. Much to our surprise and relief, we had quite a turnout. More than 80 people had books signed. Many people told us about their personal experiences with the search and recovery effort.
On Saturday, I took advantage of a generous offer that Tracy Lamm of Space Center Houston to take me around the visitor center before our scheduled presentation. I enjoyed seeing “the other Columbia,” the Command Module from Apollo 11, in the central part of the main room. Tracy also took me out to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and the Space Shuttle. I hadn’t been inside the SCA before, and I had forgotten just how big a 747 is inside! I was particularly impressed with the video about the gentleman who used radio controlled airplanes to model how the SCA would have to perform in order to lift the shuttle.
I had the rare good fortune to have a quiet meal with Tom Jones in the conference room in between two of Tom’s appearances that day. Tom had just finished an in-depth reading of “Bringing Columbia Home.” I was flattered that he had so many nice things to say about the book and the anecdotes that had most impressed him. Tom’s always been one of my favorite astronauts, and I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to know him over the years since we used to run into each other at one of our favorite hangouts, Cafe Sano in Reston.
Mike arrived after lunch. Tracy took Mike around for a short tour. While they were in the Apollo 11 exhibit, I ran into Belinda Gay, who was attending the Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC) at the space center. While I was talking to her, Rene Arriens also came by. Rene was on the closeout crew in the shuttle White Room. He was also a searcher in Sabine County during the Columbia recovery. He’d never met Belinda before. When he started to recall his experiences in Sabine County, his emotions began to bubble to the surface. It didn’t help that I told him that Belinda had been responsible for the meals he ate in Hemphill’s VFW hall. The two of them shared a tearful hug. What a powerful moment that was, and I felt privileged to witness it.
Mike and I delivered our presentation to the SEEC as the keynote speakers for the last day. We were in an IMAX-size theater, and they had opened it up to any visitors who wanted to attend. Our audience was therefore a mix of educators and the public. But everyone seemed very interested in what we had to say about that remarkable time in history. Mike and I pointed out Belinda in the audience when we talked about the volunteer effort, and she got a big round of applause. We had some great questions, such as how educators might petition to use Columbia debris in the classroom. Mike encouraged them to submit applications. I concluded with a few comments about the divisive mood of the country during the accident recovery, and that if we could put differences aside then, we could certainly do so now to accomplish important work.
After the talk, we signed books in front of the gift shop. In the course of 1-1/2 hours, we signed more than 120 books for some very enthusiastic educators. I met several fellow Solar System Ambassadors, which I enjoyed very much. Many families also came through. One young fellow at the end asked for advice on how to become an astronomer. He thought I was an astronaut! I set him straight—but I did feel compelled to show him some photos from my zero-G flight in 2016!
And so concluded the Texas leg(s) of our book tour. What a magical time it’s been. I have really enjoyed the enthusiastic reception the book has gotten, and it’s been a real thrill to meet so many interested people. I heard a lot of stories about what it was like to witness the accident and live through the aftermath. It all just goes to deepen my respect for the people who took part in this incredible time in our nation’s history.
Mike and I fly to our respective homes on Monday to catch our breath and relax in familiar surroundings. But we’ll be back on the road later on in the week. We’ll be signing books at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia next Sunday (February 11) from 12:00-3:00. Our presentation at the NASM in downtown Washington, DC will be on Monday, February 12 from 2:00-2:30.