Nothing will be bigger in 2017 for me and all other North Americans than the Great American Eclipse—which might include meeting Australia’s shining star, astronomy popularizer Dave Reneke!
Aussie Dave and I have befriended each other in the past year and he’s headed to the States to see the Sun wink at the USA on an Aug. 21st afternoon.
I can’t wait to meet my star hero from Down Under as we’re both on a parallel path of stellar insanity since our youth. I have loved astronomy since a young boy in Ohio. And have shared my passion as a speaker on the star conference circuit for 30-plus years, as well as writing my weekly “Stargazer” column for more than 20 years.
But I don’t think anyone in the world can keep up with Dave Reneke and his efforts to turn heads skyward, just like American astronomy popularizer Carl Sagan did in the 1970s and ‘80s. THAT makes Aussie Dave MY astro hero! Check out his award-winning website that for 15 years has informed Australians about the stars: David Reneke’s World of Space and Astronomy.
So when Stargazer Dave emailed me that he was coming to the “States” for the Great American Eclipse—and that his odyssey was going to include as many space places as he can manage during his USA visit—I felt it my astro-buddy duty to share a few of my favorite outer space haunts.
I started my retirement life last year with some “must-see” as well as “off-beat” spacey places on my “bucket list.” So, in 2016 I managed to visit more than 10 astronomy or space program facilities, a couple of which I hope Aussie Dave can take in.
Of course any foreign visitor to America will want to see the Space Coast of Florida and the Kennedy Space Center. Or how about one of the great observatories like Kitt Peak or Percival Lowell’s Mars-probing 24-inch Clark refractor, both in Arizona?
Then there’s the Smithsonian, Wright-Patterson, and Johnson Space Center. Or how about the classic Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin? Or the huge radio dish at Green Bank, West Virginia?
I hope someday Stargazer Dave gets to all those places. But I have a few hidden gems that are off the beaten path where I hope he has time to visit.
And I hope YOU, fellow stargazer, can someday make the trip!
First stop is the Gen. Thomas Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, Oklahoma. This is the home of one of NASA’s unsung astronaut heroes. Tom Stafford’s first three space missions rank up there as among the integral parts of America winning the Moon Race of the 1960s. And his astronaut career ended by shaking the hand of a Russian cosmonaut in space. Stafford, now 86 years old, clearly had the “Right Stuff.”
Stafford’s two Gemini flights were important test missions: the first rendezvous with another vehicle, Gemini VI with Wally Schirra when they met up with Gemini VII; and Gemini IX with its dangerous space walk by his best friend, Gene Cernan (the last man on the Moon).
It was Stafford and Cernan who flew their Apollo 10 moonship “Snoopy” within 10 miles to the surface in an all-out dress rehearsal for the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Years later Stafford was commander of the Apollo spacecraft that docked three Americans with the two-man Russian Soyuz spaceship for the historic handshake in space by his counterpart Alexi Leonov.
Stafford, and Leonov, 86, have remained close friends since that 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight. And the fabulous Stafford Air & Space Museum reflects that close bond of the spacemen. There are lots of rare, Soviet space paraphernalia you won’t see anywhere else right there in the middle of Oklahoma.
I want Aussie Dave to see the Apollo-Soyuz docking collar used in training; the flight clothes of both Stafford and Leonov; a Soyuz triple-barreled survival pistol (the once secret TP-82); all kinds of cool Russian space-theme gifts: and plenty of signed Gin and Vodka bottles from the subsequent celebrations of the Apollo-Soyuz anniversary milestones!
But the Stafford Air & Space Museum is so much more. It is truly an aerospace learning center that is Smithsonian Institute affiliate in the heartland of America.
There’s an entire room of the Wright Brothers Era infant flight machines; replicas of World War I fighter, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, Yeager’s Glamorous Glenna, and many jets fighters like those flown by Gen. Stafford.
Show cases are filled every kind of space paraphernalia. That includes scale model replicas of every rocket ever made; space gloves, food, cameras and equipment used in orbit; real space suits, a Shuttle Booster Rocket segment and Shuttle experiment pallet; a NASA mission room console, a trainer manned maneuvering unit; and lots more!
I loved the polished floors with beautiful rocket engines propped everywhere—even a rare V-2!; I loved the only restored Gemini Titan II rocket (a former Cold War missile) lying on its 103-foot side; but I really love, love, love that beautiful Moon rock from Apollo 17 on display beside General Stafford’s Congressional Space Medal of Honor, a rare and highly prestigious award.
Hey, Aussie Dave, one incredible fact I came away with from the Stafford Air & Space Museum is this:
A native Oklahoman has been in every manned spacecraft ever built! None of the other States can claim that. The list includes: Leroy “Gordo” Cooper (Mercury & Gemini); Stafford (Gemini, Apollo and Russian Soyuz); Fred Haise (Apollo 13); Stu Rosa (Apollo 14); Dr. Owen Garriott (Skylab 3); William Pogue (Skylab 4); Dr. Shannon Lucid (Shuttle & Russian MIR space station); and Dr. John Herrington (Shuttle & International Space Station).
This truly amazing facility heaven for any space nut—like you and me Dave! From the Warholian panorama of Stafford and statue of the brave astronaut out front, to the work gloves Story Musgrave used to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is a shining jewel of America’s conquest of outer space.
Hey, Stargazer Dave…you’re not gonna believe this place! And it’s easy to find right off Interstate-40, 20 miles west of Oklahoma City. And the best part…only $7 bucks to get in! Such a deal.
Now over in “OK City” is another sweet space spot—the Oklahoma Science Museum. It has a planetarium and some rare space items, like an Air Force astronaut suit from the scrapped Manned Orbital Laboratory. And it has the actual Apollo module trainer called the “Train Wreck” used to rehearse procedures to save the Apollo 13 crew from their aborted Moon mission.
I’ll tell you all about that next time, Astro buddy Dave!