Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lunch with an astronaut

If you have a curiosity about the space program, the words in the title of this posting ought to suck you right in.

For those visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, lunch with an astronaut is an option. I recently took part in such a session. First, the basics: a good-sized tour of the Center (there are a couple of options available) costs a bit more than $30 each. If you throw in an extra $22 or so on a weekday, you can meet an astronaut.

The session starts with lunch, naturally. It's a basic, decent enough buffet, complete with salad and dessert. The room probably can hold a couple of hundred people when crowded. When I was there, we only had about 55 diners. Three times that were coming later in the week, so we were on the lucky side. You might want to consider doing this in a non-holiday time period. During the meal, a short film was played on large screens. It showed astronauts conducting several stunts in space, such as doing push-ups with two men on their backs. Each diner was given an autographed picture of the guest speaker.

Near the end of the meal, you might notice someone sitting by himself near the back of the room. A public relations person introduced the astronaut. In our case it was Mark Lee, who rode four shuttle missions. Lee obviously had done this a few times before, and was good at it. He had the laugh lines down pretty well.

Then Lee took questions from the audience. They were about what you'd expect under the circumstances. What do you wear in space? (Golf shirts and shorts work well.) What is it like being weightless? (Try going underwater.) How do you go the bathroom up there? (That's a little complicated, but picture a vacuum cleaner helping out.)

After about 20 minutes, Lee headed for the adjoining room. There he posed for pictures with all of the family groups in attendance. The p.r. person even was willing to take pictures with your camera so no one would be left out; there was the option of buying a canned picture for $10 taken automatically, I think, but there was no pressure to do so. It's a nice setting, complete with flags, and Lee was pretty enthusiastic about it ... which couldn't have been easy after doing a few times. I waited until the end of the line, and asked him a few questions about running in the space shuttle for a newspaper column. He was good about answering my questions.

If you don't feel like paying the extra $22, there is something called an astronaut encounter in a central meeting area in the visitors' center. Lee made a couple of appearances there as well, taking questions. He did pose for some photos, but didn't sign autographs.

The astronauts alternate during the course of the year; a schedule is available on line. No, John Glenn doesn't pop up, but once in a great while someone takes part "that you've heard of," which is how most people put it when I tell them about the program.

Is it worth it? Well, it was to me. Only 500 or so people have ever been in space, and I got to shake hands with one of them. It was the highlight of a very nice, entertaining day at the Space Center.

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