Have you ever met a real-live astronaut? I have, last Saturday night, in fact.
I'm going to struggle to keep the names and places out of this post--This was a guy who piloted the Space Shuttle on one of its early missions. He's retired now from NASA but still does public appearances, for a fee, I am told. (Did he get appearance fees when he still worked for NASA? Is being an astronaut a money-making gig? I wonder.) He gave a talk, with a slide show, at a fundraising event at a science museum in my town.
It was a polished presentation that I'm sure he's given a hundred times. He summarized his career, the selection process for becoming an astronaut, the history and future of the space program. He included some human-interest details about what it's like to spend several days in zero-gravity conditions: for instance, he got about 1.5 inches taller in space, because without gravity your spinal column de-compresses. The Astronaut says it's great if you have back trouble. He displayed some humorous, nonchalant bravado; he said you pull 3 G's during a shuttle lift-off, "no problem for an old Navy pilot like me, a little rough on the Air Force guys." When he spoke of the astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents, he was respectful but matter-of-fact and still a little nonchalant. Those men and women understood the risks, and understood that the program was bigger than themselves, he said; words to that effect anyway.
Then there was a brief question-and-answer period, then The Astronaut got a standing ovation. Many people become star-struck little kids in the presence of an astronaut. The Astronaut's talk had been 30 or 40 minutes long, then we moved to the evening's other activities, eating and having cocktails and dancing (there was a live band). The Astronaut stayed for the party. Most men were in dark suits and ties, while the Astronaut wore his bright blue and yellow NASA flightsuit. You could say that he stood out in the crowd.
The Astronaut is in his 60's (a few years younger than my dad; I know this because in chatting with him I learned he went to the same high school as my dad, a few years behind) but ruddy-faced and just a little thick around the middle and thin up top. He invited us to call him by his first name, for which I was grateful because I wasn't sure how to address him (Commander?) Imagine Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, 30 years older but still the cocky test-pilot: holding court with a cluster of men and even more women hanging on his every word, smiling, winking, NASA patch on his breast, telling stories of missions accomplished and deaths defied. It was a good party, and I for one don't get enough chances anymore to dress up and have a few drinks too many and try to remember how to dance. People were looking their best and the liquor was flowing, and while nobody made a royal ass of him- or herself, I felt it was something of a workout for dormant middle-aged libidos. I don't know if the Astronaut achieved liftoff that night, but it sure looked like he could have.