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Dick Covey
2nd Baptist

Challenger Center Gala

 At the top of Houston
Photo Credits: Mine
Program Cover from the 1990 Challenger Center Gala
Program for 1990 Challenger Center Gala
1990 Challenger Center Gala Program Cover
1990 Challenger Center Program
On  March 29th, 1990 the Challenger Center held a Gala Banquet as a fund raiser.  This event was black tie only.  Mark Shelton was able to secure invitations for himself, Andy Sheppard and me.  This is my recollection of that event.

Andy and I rode down to Houston together.   We took Andy's car.  Mark drove separately because he had his family with him even though they would not be attending the banquet.

We drove up to the hotel and could see that it was a very historic looking building.  The only parking near the hotel that we saw was valet parking.  Andy turned over the keys to his blue IROC-Z to the valet.  We had visions of Andy's IROC flying through the air like the scene from the movie “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

Andy and I checked into the hotel and took our bags to the room.  In a little while Mark called to say that he was at the hotel.  Mark came up to the room to drop off his books and tuxedo. 

I was surprised when I saw Mark.  He had an enormous full beard.  That was a new addition.  Mark explained that he was going to be portraying Jesus in an Easter pageant at his Church.  He certainly had the beard for the part.

The three of us went down to the hotel lobby and found the bar.  It was in view of the check in desk for the hotel.  Because of that view it was a strategic location to hang out.  We ordered drinks and swapped stories while keeping an eye on the comings and goings at the hotel desk.

In a little while, Andy noticed that Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin was in the line to check in to the hotel.  The line was probably five or six people deep at this point.  The check in process looked very chaotic.  We finished our drinks and walked over near the check in desk.

Buzz had finally gotten to the front of the line.  The clerk fumbled around. Finally, the hotel clerk asked Aldrin, “What was the name on that room?”  Incredulous, Aldrin responded, “That's Aldrin!!!”  Aldrin was very irritated at the ineptitude of the hotel staff.

It was an amazing scene.  Here was the second man to walk on the Moon and he couldn't even get his room at a hotel in Houston, Texas.  After Aldrin received his keys, we introduced ourselves and received a couple of autographs.  I had Aldrin sign a photo of his famous pose on the Moon.  I was going to give this to my girlfriend's son because he was unable to attend the gala with me.   I knew he would be thrilled to get the autograph of the second man to walk on the moon.

We also told Aldrin that we had copies of his book "Return To Earth" upstairs and asked him if he would mind signing them. He was Okay with that although, he was running late.  He told us that we should leave the books at the hotel desk for them and he would sign them after he got settled in.  That was fine with us.  We took the elevator back up to our room to retrieve the books to leave for Aldrin.

It was just a short time before the reception was supposed to start.  Andy, Mark, and I donned our tuxedos.  We all chuckled that none of our friends would believe it was us if they saw us.  Mark actually owned his own tuxedo.  Andy and I rented ours.

The reception was nice and had an added attraction.  There was a charity auction to benefit the Challenger Center.  A couple of items in that auction really caught my eye.  One was a Challenger Center patch that had flown on STS-26, the return to flight.  The second lot that intrigued me was a ride for 2 on a Goodyear blimp.  I debated on spending money on those things but finally gave in and placed bids on them.

The astronauts that we noticed in attendance were Buzz Aldrin, Walt Cunningham, and Charlie Bolden.  Bolden was assigned to the upcoming STS-31 shuttle mission that was to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope.  During the reception there really wasn't an opportunity to approach the astronauts.

After dinner the astronauts were approachable.  I took a copy of the book Astronaut Photography over to Walt Cunningham and asked him if he would sign the book in his section.  He was friendly and signed a great signature right over the rising sun on a photograph that he took on Apollo 7.  It turned out really nice.

I approached Buzz and asked him to sign a photograph of him standing on the Moon for my girlfriend's son Toby.  Toby couldn't be with us at this banquet, but I knew he would be excited about a Buzz Aldrin autograph.  Aldrin accommodated my request.

The last astronaut at the banquet for me to approach was Charlie Bolden.  He was there talking with some friends and drinking a Heineken beer!  First of all I was amazed that he was at this banquet since his targeted STS-31 launch was only a couple of weeks away.  Secondly I couldn't believe that he was drinking a beer that close to the launch.  Astronauts are just people, but you could not have convinced me of that in March of 1990.  I still revered them as heroes and not mortals.

I introduced myself to Bolden and asked him if he would mind signing a lithograph of the shuttle for me.  His friends that were talking to him stopped and chuckled.  Bolden acted embarrassed.   He told me, “You want my autograph???”  He was so humble.  He inscribed the photo, “To Jerry, Peace and Joy.  Best Wishes, Charlie Bolden.”

Mark and I checked at the auction desk to see if we had one any of the items that we had bid on.  Sadly none of our bids were successful.  In hindsight I should have placed stronger bids.  I was new to the charity auction circuit, so I really didn't know how the system worked.

The banquet was wrapping up and I thought our evening was coming to a close.  Mark came over and told Andy and I that he had gotten all three of us invited a post dinner private soiree at the top of the hotel.  This soiree was only available to high rollers who had donated $10,000 or more.  We did not meet that criteria, but that didn't stop Mark.  He made friends with the Challenger Center gala organizers and they extended the invitations.  For  that night, we would be virtual  high rollers.

Mark, Andy, and I got into the elevator to take it to the private party.  In the elevator, some of the women were there who worked for the Challenger Center.  The woman closed in on Mark.  All of them pleaded to touch his beard.  Mark was embarrassed but of course acquiesced.

The room on the top floor where the private party was had a view to behold.  There were huge glass windows that overlooked the city of Houston.

The only astronaut who came of for the party was Buzz Aldrin.  He and his wife Lois were alone in the center of the room.  Nobody and I mean nobody was bothering them.  They were having a private and casual conversation. Also at this party were several family members of the Challenger astronauts.

The bar tender was serving Irish coffees.  They looked very delectable so of course we could not turn them down.  Also there were tables with every desert imaginable.

We sat down at a table with Dick Scobee’s daughter Kathy Scobee Krause.  Mark is a master at conversation and this time was no exception.  We mentioned that we had driven over four hours just to attend the gala.

This got back to Dick Scobee’s widow June.  She was really impressed and came over to talk with us.  We talked about the Challenger Center and what good work it did educating children.  June told us that we needed a Challenger Center in our city.  The Challenger Center Organization was looking for some individuals to drive the project.  She encouraged us to be those individuals.

Wow, in the short span of a few hours we went from people on the outside looking in to movers and shakers on the inner circle.  It was an overwhelming feeling. We must have talked to June for nearly an hour.

I wasn't counting but if I had to hazard a guess, I think I had 3 Irish coffees that night.  I don't think they were decaf either.  After we got back to our hotel room after the party, we were wired.  It was late but the excitement and Irish coffees wouldn't allow us to sleep.

The next day Mark and his family were to receive a special tour of the Johnson Space Center.  His family had sent flowers to mission control for every mission since Challenger.  To thank the Sheltons, NASA extended an invitation to them for the special tour. 

Andy and I also drove down to JSC. We had an interesting encounter with Astronaut Dick Covey.  For my recollection of that encounter follow the Dick Covey link.

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UPDATED : February 20, 2007
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