Long before I came to work at NASA, I was enamored with space travel. On flickering black and white television we watched the Ranger shots, the Mariner 4 pictures of Mars roll in, Alan Shepard on the skinny Redstone, John Glenn, all the Gemini/Titan launches and even the puppeteers that were the special effects of the day as they mimicked the early space walks. Science Fiction was the largest component of my reading material, much to my teacher’s dismay, and I avidly watched all the great movies of the time: Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, the Day the Earth Stood Still, and many more.
Television influenced all our thinking about space travel. Not only were there the wonderful Disney shows about mounting expeditions to the moon and beyond, but there were dreadful science fiction series like Lost In Space. But the most important show of all time, at least for us space cadets, was Star Trek.
Gene Roddenberry was the creator and initiator of that famous and influential fictional universe which echoes down to our current time. As many commentators have noted, the issues that his characters faced were not really issues of aliens and space but the issues facing each of us in America in the 1960. And there was a basic foundation of hope: hope that the future would be better, where everyone had a chance at fulfillment, where all sorts of folks had learned to work and live together. In the 1960’s that did not seem like a certain outcome; over 40 years later we are much closer to that universe than many thought possible.
As any good fan knows, the original Star Trek series was cancelled after only three years and it took nearly a decade before the first Star Trek movie was made and another decade before the series was revived with the “next generation.” So the early 1970’s was a disappointing era for science fiction fans. But that “gap” gave me the opportunity to meet Gene Roddenberry in person.
While I was an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, one of my extracurricular activities was as chairman of a committee which was to bring different speakers to the university. We were able to bring Congresswoman Barbara Jordan to speak; what a moving experience that was!
In those long ago days, different companies that provided speakers would send out picture catalogs of various folks that you could contract to speak at your event for a fee. While leafing through the catalog, one picture jumped out at me: Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek was on the speaker’s circuit – and the price was well within our budget.
With warp speed, we made the arrangements for him to come. On the fateful day, I drove my roommate and his girlfriend to Houston’s big airport and we met Mr. Roddenberry at the gate. He turned out to be a really interesting guy with a lot of stories and very gregarious. It was at lunch we learned how he got his nickname (Great Bird of the Galaxy). It was a magical afternoon. We took him to lunch at the nicest place the student associate could afford (at the Galleria) and then to his hotel for some rest. That evening I had pressed several classmates into service to collect money at the door (we had to pay for it somehow!) and the main auditorium of the student center was packed to capacity.
Roddenberry had brought a film real of outtakes (“bloopers”) from the TV show and we started the program with that film. After the film ended, applause echoed in the hall and I got to make the introduction. The next hour and a half was filled with a discussion of his philosophy, the entertainment business, and everything under the sun. Ending the program I escorted the great man to one of the college professor’s house where a reception was held in his honor.
At this point, things started going awry. First of all, my college buddies wanted to know what to do with the cash box filled with over $1,000 in small bills. I hadn’t thought about that – it was a lot of money to a college kid in 1974! We hid it in my dorm room since the bursar’s office was closed. Then the ‘blooper’ reel had disappeared. I had to hunt all over campus until I found it being projected in another theater on campus. Confiscating the film, I headed back to the reception where Mr. Roddenberry was ready to leave. A female student begged me to let her ride with me while I delivered him to the hotel. That was a mistake. Let’s just say that she gave every indication that she wanted to be dropped off there as well! Nevertheless, I got him to his hotel room and her back to campus.
The following morning I collected Mr. Roddenberry and whisked him to the airport. Quite a busy 24 hours! Not one I will forget soon. Then the long wait until Monday morning and I could turn the money into the campus business office. Nobody guarded their dorm room more closely than I did until 8:00 Monday morning. Whew.
So that is my story. After a couple of weeks, I got an envelope in the mail from Mr. Roddenberry’s secretary. The note said how much he had enjoyed the trip and there was a certificate: I was named a Star Fleet Officer with the signature endorsements (which looked strikingly similar) of Captain James T. Kirk and Admiral Eugene Roddenberry. Needless to say it is one of my most prized possessions!
And that is the story of how I met the Great Bird of the Galaxy and learned how the future would be filled with wonders, optimism, and the exploration of the universe!
And you wonder why I always wanted to work in space.