George R. Stewart, as he often does for his readers, took me places I had only dreamed of when I was a lad. Stewart’s emphasis on Earth and its ecosystems encouraged me to become a ranger; and I did that for both one state park system and the National Park Service. Stewart’s Whole Earth vision, describing Earth from space in Ordeal By Hunger, Storm, and Earth Abides, encouraged me to seek work with NASA. Fortunately – thanks to Mary Valleau of NASA who had also worked for the NPS, and her boss Garth Hull – I was hired as a NASA “Aerospace Education Specialist” – a traveling field educator who helped teachers, students, and communities learn about STEAM – the social and natural science, technology, engineering, art, and math required for spaceflight. I worked at AESP for nearly ten years, first as State Representative for Southern California and Arizona; then as SR for Nevada and Montana. (I have a Secondary Credential, BA and MA, and worked as a teacher on secondary and college levels.)
There’s a book in that work.
It was wonderful to work with students and teachers. And working with astronauts and scientists to help develop educational material to teach about their missions was a milestone of my teaching career. There were many adventures – one thing we did was to go to Johnson Space Center to learn about upcoming missions, which included going through some small sample of astronaut training. So I practiced docking the shuttle to MIR station; and road along on the high-fidelity shuttle lift-off, abort, and landing simulator. That was an E ticket ride. I also met many of the Astronauts, including Barbara Morgan who was the first Mission Specialist with a teaching background. Barbara opened the door to space for teachers; several others have since gone up, full astronauts; two were spacewalkers. (Later members of the program would be known as Educator Astronauts)
But one of the most memorable encounters happened in the summer of 1997 at a bar near Johnson Space Center. The 40 or so of us in the program were at the Center to be educated about the upcoming International Space Station construction and missions. There were many briefings by Astronauts and astronaut crews who were to be involved. William “Shep” Shepard, who was to be Commander of Expedition I – the first manning of the ISS – spoke at JSC; then invited those of us who were interested to meet him at the legendary Outpost, an Astronaut and scientist watering hole for 30 years. (You’ve seen the place if you’ve seen Space Cowboys.)
Only a few of us went. I sat next to a very quiet man, who I didn’t know, and who had come there with Shep Shepard. I asked him how he knew Shepard. “I’m Sali,” he said, “The first Uzbekistani Cosmonaut. I go up on the Shuttle in January.” After I got over the surprise, I decided to try out some high school Russian on him. But he insisted on English: “Shep said if I want to learn English I should go to a bar.”
“Well, then – can I buy you a beer?”
And so I did.
The rest of the evening we listened to Shepard, a former Navy Seal, explain why we will not get to Mars without the Russians. “I used to fight these guys,” he said, “but when it comes to long-duration space exploration they’ve written the book. We need to work with them.” We went back to our hotel, they went back to the Astronaut quarters. I’d like to think that evening, and that beer, put a small stone in the cathedral of mankind.
Later that summer, I had the chance to work with high school students from the former Soviet Union. One of the girls was from Uzbekistan. “Sure. Sali.” “You know Sali?” she asked, in a wondering voice. “Bought him a beer.” My stock went very high; hers went higher with her companions.
Sali went up the next January; then went again, to spend nearly six months on the International Space Station. Click on the photo for more information:
All that from doors George R. Stewart opened.
I sometimes think of Sali, and his space explorer colleagues, looking out at Earth from orbit, and seeing the state of Nevada from space looking just like GRS described in Ordeal By Hunger – long before anyone had seen or photographed it. In fact, I was later to send up that passage, and ask Astronaut Ed Lu to photograph it from space – a way of honoring my old mentor GRS.
The Outpost, in a way, also reflected GRS’s work. In East of the Giants and Earth Abides, fires sweep through to provide closure to the tale. And thus it was with the Outpost: In 2010, after a landlord threatened the long-time owners, a mysterious fire burned it to the ground. Like Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club at Edwards Air Force Base, the mythical Judith Godoy’s ranch, and the post-apocalyptic University of California at Berkeley, the Outpost passed into legend. But it had done its job well. Certainly it did so, on the night that, inspired by George R. Stewart, I bought Cosmonaut Sali a beer.