“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” – Graham Greene
The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s (ASF) Astronaut Autograph and Memorabilia Show (AAMS) weekend, which took place from Saturday, Nov. 8, to Sunday, Nov. 9, brought together not just space buffs and astronauts, but also showcased the scholars at the heart of the program who will bring spaceflight into the future and beyond: to Earth’s orbit, Mars, and deep space.
In addition, the show featured other significant figures including authors, collectors, and vendors (with an emphasis on local Brevard County vendors) who contribute to the space community, further telling the story of spaceflight’s past, present, and future. This year’s show and activities further celebrated the foundation’s 30th year; ASF was founded in 1984 by the Mercury 7 astronauts to further the education of college students, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.
While the acronyms “ASF AAMS” are usually associated with astronaut autographs, auctions of unique space artifacts, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet up with astronauts from the Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle eras, this year’s “Pioneers of Space” gala, which took place on the evening of Nov. 8 at the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, underscored the foundation’s ultimate mission: enriching the education of space-hooked students who will undoubtedly make a difference in the field.
This year’s panel featured not just legendary astronauts Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, ASF Chairman Daniel Brandenstein, and Sandra Magnus, but also two young aerospace engineers and past ASF scholars: Matthew McKeown, who works with SpaceX, and Emily Boster, a Lockheed Martin engineer currently contributing to the Mars InSight mission due to launch in 2016. The panel was moderated by space shuttle astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson.
In an article published previously on AmericaSpace previewing this year’s events, it was emphasized that the astronaut scholars benefited by ASF’s scholarship truly know no limits, as past ASF scholar Christina Hammock was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 2013. The article stated, “ … [B]efore being named as an astronaut candidate, [Hammock] was a station chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) in American Samoa, among many other ventures. Her selection from a pool of thousands shows that with education, anything (and going anywhere) is possible for students.”
McKeown discussed the role the astronauts—space’s past generations—play in inspiring the newer generations of space pioneers. “Being someone who grew up reading books and watching Apollo 13 a million times, and just really wanting to be a part of the adventure that is the space program, [it’s] not only the financial support and scholarship, but also the encouragement I’ve gotten and received … It has just been amazing. I really want to thank [ASF] sincerely. I can’t imagine any program which motivated me the way this program does,” he enthused.
Boster added, “I want to thank the foundation for everything they’ve done to support me, and now they ask me to events like this—sitting with my heroes to support this organization is really mind-blowing.” She also added the vitality of representing STEM fields during a time when NASA is not launching human spaceflight missions from U.S. spaceports: “When I was in college … when people found out I was in aerospace engineering, they’d say, ‘What are you going to do about it, now that NASA’s shutting down?’ That was around the time the space shuttle program was ending … I had internships first at SpaceX and then at Lockheed Martin. I really began to understand and see the excitement, and how alive the space program still is, in spite of the shuttle finishing up.”
Gene Cernan, famous for being the last human to walk upon the Moon’s surface in December 1972, discussed the importance of inspiring newer generations—perhaps some who haven’t yet been born. “I knew we were the last [Apollo] mission to go to the Moon. As I looked down at those last footsteps and I knew I wouldn’t be coming back this way … but somebody would,” he said with emotion.
Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE, was present at the show and gala, and discussed the weekend’s running theme of “past and future”: “This whole event, especially the dinner to mark 30 years of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which gives out scholarships and inspires the next generation of space explorers – the theme of the dinner was history, but they were able to incorporate the future by having scholars who are actively working in the space field talk about what they are doing, and where they’re leading all of us further into space. It was great to see the interaction between the Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle-era astronauts with these scholars who were representing the next generation of commercial crew and exploration, both robotic and manned.”
Another vital part of the weekend was a diverse mix of space vendors being featured for collectors and fans alike. Tim Gagnon, a mainstay of the space community in Florida’s Space Coast, artist, and space patch designer responsible many designs for NASA missions since 2005’s Expedition 11, discussed his enthusiasm for the future, his gratefulness for being featured, and the event’s powerful message:
“I feel fortunate I was born in a time where I could witness the first explorations off the planet. I’ve been inspired by that my whole life. I spent 20 years as a volunteer with the Young Astronauts program trying to inspire the next generation about that. I’ve been very fortunate to work with the flight crews to design patches, and do the commemorative work as a result of that. Anything I can do to help a child realize they can reach for whatever dream they have is worth it. It only took me 31 years for an astronaut to say, ‘Yes, you can design my patch.’ If anything I can teach perseverance. You hang onto your dream, and never let go of it.”
As this weekend begins to recede leaving warm memories of meeting spaceflight legends and listening to their lives’ stories and histories, those with a passion for space can be reassured that the legends of Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle are joined by the present and future pioneers of commercial space, low-Earth orbit, deep space, and, someday, perhaps the first person to step on Mars. It can truly be said that in our past, we plant the seeds for our future.