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The Events

Doug Sanders

Spaceweek National Banquet

  Photo Credit:s Mine
Cover of the 1992 Spaceweek National Banquet Program
Program for 1992 Spaceweek National Banquet
1992 Spaceweek National Banquet Program Cover
 Spaceweek 1992 National Banquet Program
Front of Spaceweek 1992 National Banquet Admission Ticket
Front of 1992 Spaceweek National Banquet Admission Ticket
1992 National Banquet withBack of  Gene Kranz's handwritten NASA addrees
 Back of 1992 Spaceweek National Banquet ticket with Gene Kranz's handwritten NASA address

The 1992 Spaceweek Banquet was scheduled for Monday evening, July 20th.  One of my space enthusiast friends, Mark Shelton, and I decided to attend the banquet.   We drove the 4 plus hour drive that it takes to get to Houston.  Mark and I arrived in Houston at about 4:00 PM.

The banquet wasn't supposed to begin until 7:00 pm so we had some free time.  Mark suggested that we should try to find Gene Cernan's office and see if we could meet with him.  We went to a bookstore to inquire about getting a detailed map of the Houston Streets. They wanted $31 for this type of map which at the time seemed way too expensive.  So we didn't get the map. 

We did get an idea of where the street was for Cernan's company.  Off we went in search of the street.  This turned out to be more difficult than either of us imagined.  We stopped for directions twice and still had not found the street.  Finally we found an area by a shopping mall that was close to the right street name.  We found an address that was close to the write block number. The problem was that several streets in this area had similar names. 

Cernan's office was supposed to be on Town and Country Lane.   The shopping mall we found is called Town and Country Mall.  We found Town and Country Blvd., Town and Country Way, Town and Country something else but no Town and Country Lane.

We stopped several people on the street to ask them where Town and Country Lane might be. Everyone's response was "I'm new here” or “I don't really know where that street is” or “This is really confusing, isn't it?"  We finally had to abort the mission. It was still our belief that we were in the right area. 

We saw a company in the area that Cernan used to be affiliated with several years back.  Cernan left that company after they ran into financial difficulty but the company was still there.  This was also in the same area of Houston that Alan Bean had his art studio in at one time.  It was now time to head over to the hotel by Hobby Airport for the Spaceweek Banquet.

A cocktail reception was held before the banquet. Mark and I milled about looking for astronauts who might be in attendance.  The first astronaut spotted was Dr. Joe Kerwin of Skylab I fame.  This was good as neither of us had ever met him.  He was very nice and cordial and didn't mind signing an autograph at all. 

I was a little surprised by his receptiveness.  Other space collectors seemed to think that he was really difficult to get an autograph from through the mail.  Another thing that surprised me about Dr. Kerwin was his propensity to smoke cigarettes.  It seemed out of character for a medical doctor to be smoking. 

Paul Weitz from Skylab I was also at the cocktail reception.  I did not approach him because I had met him two years ago at the 1990 Spaceweek Banquet.  Since I already had his autograph he was not a high priority for me.  I must say though, that Mr. Weitz is a very nice individual.

Astronaut Joe Allen was also there.  I had also met Dr. Allen several times in the past. Again Dr. Allen was not a high priority contact at this banquet.

There is always a limited window of opportunity of contacts at these banquets so you have to set your priorities.  We noticed another person with an astronaut pin on his lapel.  Unfortunately we couldn't recognize him. Before we could approach him he had disappeared into the crowd.  We never did figure out who that was.

The time allotted for the cocktail reception was over and it was time to head into the banquet hall for dinner.  Mark and I found our table. We placed our books on our chairs at the table. 

I then went back to the car to get a book called Apollo: Race to the Moon.  That is a nice book that talks about the non-astronauts behind the Apollo program.  It included the people in the trenches like the flight controllers.  I wanted to get Flight Director Gene Kranz to sign this book.

I got back to our table after retrieving my book but Mark was nowhere to be seen.  I stood around the table for a while searching the room for Mark.  A gentleman with white hair and a very outlandish mustache asked me if I was attached to that copy of Home Planet.  I said that I was and that the chair with the other book was my friend's.  The gentleman then moved over a couple of chairs and sat down. 

Mark came back and said that he had been speaking with Gene Kranz and that he would be more than happy to sign our books.  We went over to where Kranz was seated and he said "Let's go out into the lobby, so I can have some room to sign these things."  Mark and I followed him out and sat down with him.  Kranz was nice of person as you would ever want to meet. 

Mark had mentioned that his family sends flowers to Mission Control for every shuttle mission since the Challenger accident.  Kranz was really happy to have a chance to meet Mark.  He said that the flowers are really well known at NASA. 

I handed him my book to sign.  He asked where I was from. I told him and explained that we had driven four and a half hours to get there. He said "Wow, you must really be a big space fan to come all the way to Houston for the banquet." 

I told him that there are not many supporters of the space program as devoted as Mark and myself.  We try to attend as many of the public functions.  It's our small way that we can to show our support for the program.  Kranz noticed that I had already had Christopher Kraft's signature in the book.  He asked if Kraft was here tonight.  I had not seen Kraft at the banquet.  I explained to Kranz that the place where I had gotten Kranz’s signature was at the 10th Anniversary Celebration for STS-1. 

Kranz said "Wow that's great!  Do you have a piece of paper I can write on?  I want to give you my address so you and Mark can write me a letter.  Mention this banquet and I'll make sure that we get a special package of stuff put together to send to you guys, a picture and some lapel pins.  We don't do this for everybody!" 

I was flushed with excitement. I thanked Kranz and told him that I didn't expect any special treatment. Just the opportunity to meet him was honor enough. (Later, I did write him a letter!)

To me, the image of Gene Kranz personified Mission Control.  Kranz was a warm, friendly and gung ho type of person.  He was the type of person that once he became your friend, he would be your friend for life.  At the same time I do not believe that he would tolerate second class performance on the job.

Mark and I went back to our table.  We were now the last people to get to our table.  Everyone one else was already seated. Mark and I introduced ourselves.  One of the guys at the table worked at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL).  He also collected autographs in the Apollo: Race for the Moon book.  He pointed out a couple of other people that we should get to sign it. 

Then the other people introduced themselves at the table.  There were four people from Martin Marietta.  One of the guys said, you really need to get his autograph.  He was pointing to the gentlemen with the white hair and mustache that I had spoken with earlier.  Now I was puzzled.

Then we learned that this man was none other than Bruce McCandless, first pilot of Manned Maneuvering Unit. Wow, Score!!!!  McCandless was at our table and sitting only two chairs away from me! He was going to eat dinner with us.  This event was turning out to be fantastic. To have an astronaut at our table took Mark and me totally by surprise.

I felt bad that I did not recognize McCandless. Mark thought that he sort of did but said that the handle bar mustache threw him.  What a special dinner that was.  We talked about lots of different things over the course of the meal.  Topics of our conversation included things about the MMU and the Soviet equivalent of the MMU which is called Icarius. 

One notable insight from McCandless regarded the Intelsat capture difficulty on STS-49.  In his opinion "The problem we ran into with the Intelsat capture was that the wrong person was to do the job.”  He continued “Nothing personal with Pierre Thuot, but they really needed to assign someone to this who had previous EVA experience.” 

McCandless said that on the ground it is just not possible to accurately simulate the forces and reactions that will occur in space.   During training the first thing that Thuot did was throw out the hair trigger option on the capture bar.  When he got into space Thuot found that even the act of manually triggering capture was too much of a perturbation of the satellite. 

The eventual capture of Intelsat did show however that NASA was able to improvise and get the job done. McCandless said mission also demonstrated the ability to do four EVAs and have a three person EVA on the shuttle.

All of this was tremendous insight from the first astronaut to fly the Manned Maneuvering Unit.  I asked McCandless if they were ever going to fly the MMU again.  He told me that they were ready and waiting in storage at Martin Marietta.  He asked me if I had any ideas for a mission.

The banquet lasted until about
11:00 PM.  With our 4 plus hour drive back home, I did not get to bed until after 3:30 AM.  After that I had to get up at 7:00 AM
to get ready for a full day of work.  It takes hard work, dedication, and sometime sleep deprivation to support the space program.

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UPDATED : May 4, 2009
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