Friday, July 9, 2021

The Day I Became an Astronaut

Although there are times in our lives that stand out clearly, none could possibly be clearer than the day one becomes an Astronaut, to officially fly into space where the curvature of the Earth is visible and the great sphere of our blue and white and brown planet spins serenely below while we risk all to touch the face of God (which He/She may or may not appreciate but He/She gave us the tools so hey). For me (and my wife Linda), that day was in 1999. During all my years of building and blowing up rockets, and working for NASA and training those folks who flew in the Space Shuttle (so-called), I had always hoped somehow and some day to become an Astronaut but, no, I had been so unfairly unable to reach my dream of space because the NASA Astronaut Office, with its snotty, elite, coal miner's son - phobic attitude, refused to pick me to join their astronaut program. True, I hadn't applied to be an astronaut with them, and I had awful grades at the Virginia Tech engineering school (in my defense, over 80% of my fellow students there in the 1960's were in the bottom half of our class), and I had terrible vision (20/400 in both eyes but I had good knees and legs and stuff), and a couple of the astronauts I knew kept trying to get me fired (because of offenses I may or may not have performed with and against them depending on your/their/my point of view) but otherwise it was entirely NASA's fault and tendency to want what they considered "the best" for their "Astronaut" program rather than folks like, well, "me." 

 But then it came as Kismet deemed it must that I became an Astronaut! My great opportunity to become one was - wait for it - all David Letterman's fault! While I was attending the Venice Film Festival (that would be Venice like in Italy, not California, ahem), and hanging out with Laura Dern and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, I was asked to come on David's show because he loved the book Rocket Boys and the movie October Sky and I also taught him how to scuba dive in 1989 (which is in my new memoir out this October, 2021, titled "Don't Blow Yourself Up," plug, plug), but it had to be the very next day and there I was in Venice boating around with Chris Cooper and a bunch of Universal Studio execs, and they said OH MY GOD HOMER YOU HAVE TO GET TO NEW YORK TO BE ON THE LETTERMAN SHOW SO WE CAN SELL OCTOBER SKY! So I said, oh so casually, "I guess I could get there if, you know, ha ha, I took the Concorde." And the Universal Studio pukes said, and I quote "OK!"

Linda just rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you pulled that one off, Hickam," she said and then gave it a little thought. "Yes, I do," she said in a somewhat unhappy tone. We were supposed to have coffee with Nicole whats-her-name the next morning and now we'd have to miss it. I don't know but I think Linda liked hanging around with Nicole more than blasting off into space, I swan.

 So the next thing I knew we were in Paris preparing for our journey to the stars. To gird ourselves for the flight, we were placed in a special holding room they called the "Concorde Lounge" and there fed us a variety of exotic foods and drinks while the countdown clock ticked down. From our vantage point, we could see our spacecraft with strange fumes emanating from a variety of its orifices—or it might have been the morning fog, I forget—while its ground crews went over every component to insure it might hold together during lift-off or, as as some of the other astronauts in the "lounge" called with a nod toward history, "take-off."

The Concorde Spacecraft

The moment finally came to don our flight suits (mine was a specially designed Hawaiian shirt and black jeans with jogging shoes) and then we made the famous "Astronaut walk" that required us to grin and wave to whatever journalists might appear which we did like professionals. Future Astronaut Linda (still complaining about missing breakfast with Nicole) and future Astronaut I (happy boy) filed on board through the specially-designed "ramp" and entered the long, narrow tube only eight and a half feet wide (an NBA basketball player could touch both sides, it was that small), that served as the "capsule" for our lunge skyward.

Inside Our Spacecraft Interior


 To offer at least some protection to my fellow soon come-astronaut Linda, I took the seat closest to the porthole (quaintly called a "window"), which was so tiny that I could cover it with two hands (but didn't as it had obviously recently been cleaned). Suddenly, and without warning, a member of the flight crew with an astonishing set of ... large champagne bottles ... approached us, leaned over Linda with her elbow in her face to show me her ... bottles... and asked if I would like to be served a "flute" of liquid medicine that bubbled with carbon dioxide that she assured me would keep me from being afflicted by Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) and would actually make me feel "quite good, Chérie") so, realizing now she was in fact the official space medicine physician aboard our spacecraft, much like my friend Dr. John Charles, the inventor of the rather marvelous (and somewhat infamous) Lower Body Negative Pressure device, that I also wrote about in "Don't Blow Yourself Up," plug, plug, I took her up on it and even might have said with nervy bravado, "Keep them coming!" while Linda's eyes continued to roll just as our spacecraft also began to roll while making a huge amount of noise and shaking as if Zeus himself had come awake inside the vast, complex, and amazingly powerful "engines" and wasn't happy about it, either.

 Lift-off was sudden. G-forces pressed us back against the narrow confines of the "Corinthian" leather-upholstered chairs and the nose of our Concorde spacecraft lifted higher and higher until it pointed toward the very stars. Up and up and up and up and up and up we rose, birds and clouds and atmosphere zipping past the porthole where my nose was all but pressed while I daintily held on to the "flute" of space medicine, now empty.

Our Spacecraft Porthole or "Window"


In front of us a retangular-shaped instrument panel began to count off our "velocity" that was measured in "Mach" numbers. Before I could be struck by SAS, more space medicine was offered by our "space doctor" who leaned over often and well while I greedily consumed the magic elixir (that should be offered up to all astronauts in my opinion). Up and up and up and, did I mention UP we continued, until we finally reached SPACE. The moment I looked out my porthole and saw the vast curvature of the planet from which we had left, I knew I had done it! I WAS ASTRONAUT HOMER! Mom would have been so proud. Dad would just sighed and walked up to the mine but that's OK. I'd done it! Linda had done it, too, although even as the "Mach" number on our instrument panel reached TWO and then some more, she wasn't able to entirely enjoy it as the space "medicine" had caused her to go to sleep although she did rouse herself for the petit fours and more flutes of anti-SAS meds from the marvelously equipped "space doctor" along later with a meal of special "space food" with bizarre connotations such as "Lobster" and "Fresh-caught Salmon" and "Truffles" and "Croquettes." It was strange food for this West Virginia boy but, in the interest of science I persevered.

Later, when I put my hand on the interior surface of the "capsule," it felt warm to my touch which I took to mean the horrific friction of the cosmos was wearing away at the thin metallic structure of our spacecraft. As we zoomed along, this was all that was between me and the empty reaches of space but yet I was not afraid! Fearlessly, I took the time to observe the planet passing below that I later determined was the part of its surface called the "North Atlantic" which was entirely covered with a silky fluffiness called, in space parlance, "clouds." Yet the curvature of the vast orb was obvious and I allowed myself, for just one moment, to be little "Sonny" Hickam, Rocket Boy of the Big Creek Missile Agency, who had finally been allowed to be a Star Voyager.

The Curvature of the Earth from our Spacecraft


Although entirely anti-climatic after becoming an "Astronaut," I did make the David Letterman show that very night. Before I went on, David's producers asked me if they could show a clip of me teaching him how to scuba dive in a New Jersey Red Roof Inn swimming pool even though that meant they wouldn't have time to show a clip from that movie called October Sky. After giving that idea some thought, I said, and I quote "OK!" And that's what happened! As I recall, the Universal Studios people who paid for me to fly the Concorde weren't entirely happy about that but, then again, I don't recall them particularly ever being happy about much I did. What mattered, of course, was that I had become an Astronaut and still am to this day! And Linda, too, of course, although I think she would still trade the title for breakfast with Nicole, go figure. 

 -- Concorde Astronaut Homer Hickam

PS - After the Letterman show, Bandleader Paul Schaeffer said my appearance was "Way Cosmic." This, of course, if nothing else, made my Astronaut status official. 

PPS: We actually flew the Concorde twice. This first one from Paris and the second from London. Both times to New York to make a deadline to publicize October Sky. Falling for the perfidy, Universal Studios paid for it both times.

PPPS: Just kidding on that "always wanted to be an Astronaut" thing. Not really for a variety of reasons, all told in that book titled, as you may recall, Don't Blow Yourself Up!