A Night With the Stars
Interviews With Crew Members of The Space Shuttle Discover
by Michelle Hauser
I burst through the front door of my house, throwing my things onto the dining room table as I passed, and stepped into the living room. My husband, Manny, was already home from work and seated comfortably in his recliner. He looked up from his newspaper and his eyebrows shot up in surprise when he saw my flushed cheeks and wide grin.
"What's with you?" he inquired, curiosity obvious in his tone.
"You'll never guess what we're doing next Monday," I bubbled. "Never!"
Manny put the newspaper down and regarded me with a suspicious smile. "I don't have a say in it? What if I don't want to go?" he asked teasingly.
"Impossible. When I tell you, you're going to, to . . . "
"So tell me, already! What's up?"
I paused for effect, wanting to relish the moment. You see, aside from the general excitement my news would produce, my husband's a big space aficionado. Loves Star Trek, is a member of the Planetary Society, and owns novels by Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. I just knew he was going to flip when I told him.
I dropped the bomb.
"We're going to meet the crew of the space shuttle Discovery!" I announced, barely able to contain my glee.
My husband blinked. Obviously, he was stunned into silence by this wonderful news. I waited impatiently for him to react.
"Oh," he said.
My face fell. "Oh? That's all you can say? Oh?" Surely there was a delayed reaction in there somewhere. "Hello! Did you hear me? I said space shuttle. You know, the thing that goes up into space every so often costing millions of taxpayer dollars?"
Manny frowned at me. "Ha, ha. Of course I heard you. It's nice."
It started to dawn on me. Someone had come into the house and replaced my husband with an apathetic robot.
"Nice?" I sputtered.
He picked up the paper and resumed his reading. "Well, you know, it's not like John Glenn's going to be there or anything."
He couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out, it was the crew with John Glenn. The crew from the mission called STS-95, to be exact. The historical mission in which John Glenn made his last foray into space after an absence from the space program of over thirty years.
Sure, the mission was important for many other reasons. The first Spanish and Japanese astronauts to ride in a space shuttle took part in the mission, and several experiments took place on board, although I couldn't explain exactly what they were. All I knew was that I was going to meet the man who had made the first orbit around the earth in 1962, eight years before I was even born. He'd also been one of Ohio's senators for many years. I would be meeting one of the most prominent figures in American history. I could hardly believe it.
The crew was on an eight-day tour of Spain because of the Spanish crew member, Pedro Duque. My husband and I live in Madrid, and he works at the American Embassy. At the time, I was also employed by the embassy as editor of its weekly newsletter. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! One of the secretaries to the ambassador, His Excellency Edward Romero, had been kind enough to remember me on the guest list for a reception being held in the ambassador's residence on January 11, 1999. It would have been enough just to meet these brave men and one woman, but I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity and ask as many questions of them as possible. This proved to be quite a challenge.
Upon arriving at the residence, I was surprised to see two television news trucks parked outside, satellite dishes deployed, cables snaking all over the ground. After appearing at one of the palaces in Madrid, the crew would be the focus of a small press conference inside the residence before making the rounds and meeting the invited guests.
We entered the palatial home (I don't know why they call it a "residence"; it should be called a "mansion.") and signed the guest book. Making our way into one of the warmly lit rooms prepared for guests, we found a couple of familiar faces. We chatted and enjoyed drinks provided by the residence staff circulating with trays while we waited for the event to begin.
The longer we waited, the more people arrived. Several Americans and Spaniards employed by the embassy were there, as well as many diplomats and dignitaries from the local government and military. The three rooms designated for the reception filled quickly with men in suits or uniforms and women in suits or cocktail dresses. It was as if no one knew exactly how to dress for such an unusual event. In one room, a podium, camera and several lights were set up. Obviously, this was where most of the action would take place. As a result, this room filled up to the point where my husband and I could hardly move. We found a small, empty spot in which to stand, and then didn't move for fear of losing it to the pushing, eager crowd. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long.
As the group of astronauts filed into the room led by Ambassador Romero, they were completely mobbed. Hands were thrust out from every direction to try to shake those of the astronauts. People began smoothing out napkins and tearing sheets from daily planners to collect autographs. Of course, the two busiest members of the crew were John Glenn and Pedro Duque. Mr. Duque had waded through the crowd almost to the back of the room when the ambassador began to speak, and had to wend his way back through the throng.
Ambassador Romero made a short speech and the crew commander, Curt Brown, presented the ambassador with a collage of mission photos signed by each member of the crew. After the applause died down, the ambassador turned the crew loose to mingle with the crowd.
Manny and I made our way into the largest of the three rooms to get a bit of air and something cool to drink. The crowd and lights had heated the area quite a bit. As we sipped bottled water from crystal glasses, I waited for the moment when I could approach Senator Glenn. I didn't have to wait long. He had also come into the room in search of a drink. I decided to make my move in spite of the people following him and surrounding him whenever he stood still for more than a second. Pad and pen in hand, I introduced myself to Senator Glenn and asked him if he would mind answering a few questions. He grinned and said, "Of course!" He was very pleasant and receptive to my questions. I decided not to ask him more than three so as not to monopolize his time and give those who hadn't yet spoken with him a chance to do so.
"Can you describe your feelings as you viewed the earth from
"The first time I went into space was 1962, and it was just terrific; an impressive sight. You see whole countries, the curvature of the earth, the sun rising and setting, and the thin film of air in which we live. Back then I didn't have much time to gaze out the windowthis time I had more time to look out the window and enjoy it."
"How has the space program changed for women over the years?"
"There have been tremendous changes for women. Every year, the percentage of women in the program increases. For example, the Japanese woman on our crew was the first Japanese to fly on the space shuttle, but it was her second trip into space. One of the missions coming up, in April, I believe, will have a woman as crew commander."
"I think it's fine. Whoever is the best qualified should have the job."
Next, I spotted Pedro Duque. He was surrounded by even more
"We know the scientific benefits of space travel--what did this mission mean to you personally?"
"It was very important to me. I spent six years preparing to be the best astronaut I could be. This mission gave me the chance to prove myself and to know that I hadn't wasted six years. I feel it also promoted cooperation between our two countries, and I'm glad to be a part of that."
Curt Brown, the crew commander, was free for a moment and seemed genuinely glad to answer a question.
"How have your experiences in space changed your views on humankind's place in the universe?"
"Boy, you asked a tough question right off! Well, I've been in space five times now, and I think the most unique thing about it is to look down and see our beautiful planet below. When you see the planet from orbit, there are no borders in the countries, you can't see the troubles we're having down here, and I wonder why we can't all just get along. When I'm up there, I look out into the vastness of space and realize that humans are very insignificant in the grand scheme of things. When I look up into space from the earth and see all those stars, I figure there are two possibilities: It either goes on forever, which is a hard concept for humans to understand, or there's a boundary out there somewhere, and I wonder what that boundary is and what's on the other side of it."
As the evening wound down, I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to speak with the one woman crew member, Chiaki Mukai of Japan. However, there was one more treat in store. Annie Glenn, Senator Glenn's wife of several decades, appeared. As I approached her, Senator Glenn nudged his wife with his elbow and said, grinning, "She writes for the newspaper!" After having spoken with so many people that night, I was flattered that he remembered me and didn't argue with his not-quite-accurate description. Mrs. Glenn turned to me with a smile and kindly answered my last few questions.
"What is your most treasured memory of the time your husband has been in the space program?"
"Well, it's very hard to pinpoint just one thing that stands out over so many years. From the beginning in 1962, John has made a special effort to let me know what to expect. Back then, I was able to see the training and I felt included. This time, I went to Texas with John, and Curt invited me to attend the classes with them so I could understand what they would be doing, which I appreciated very much."
"Were you more nervous this time or the first time your husband went into space?"
"Definitely the first time. I had watched the Atlas explode twice, and everything was unknown back then. Now the program is much better and they know so much more. So, I was more nervous the first time."
"What was your reaction when your husband told you of his intention to go into space again?"
"So, he had to talk you into it?"
"Oh, no! I thought you meant if he wanted to go again after this. No way! I already told him there's no way he's going again!"
Soon afterward, Manny and I thanked the ambassador for having us in his home and made for the door. As we stepped out onto the front driveway, I asked my husband, "So?"
He looked at me innocently. "What?"
"Come on," I cajoled. "You had fun."
We linked arms as he smiled and confessed. "OK, it was pretty cool."
And that was the understatement of the year.
M. D. Hauser is a writer from Texas currently living in Madrid, Spain.
This Season's Nonfiction articles
A Fire in my Heart
House of History
Housework, Children and Writing: A Balancing Act