Writing here from a hotel room in Toulouse, France, where the 33rd Congress of
the Association of Space Explorers just wrapped a week-long session of tech
seminars, media assaults, windy ceremonies and personal reunions. Almost two
hundred veteran astronauts and cosmonauts from twenty-odd countries attended,
some of them crewmates who hadn’t seen each other since being on orbit together.
You can’t become a member if you haven’t been on orbit, so only a few more than
500 people are eligible to join. Nearly all of them have, including a few pioneers
from the Mercury-Gemini and Vostok-Voshkod days. The Association didn’t exist
back then, but that’s when the fellowship began.
I’ve always been surprised that more of my space nerd peers aren’t familiar with
this important organization. It’s true their public face can be rather wonky and stiff,
all high-minded policy blather, but at heart and in person they’re a band of starry-
eyed dreamers. They’ve all circled the earth enough times to know it’s a bubble of
life in a cold black wasteland, fragile and special. They describe it that way in a
dozen languages. And they all believe humanity should keep reaching out, together,
to join the universe, and will tell it to anyone willing to listen. Their congresses are
the grad school version of Star Trek conventions.
I attended my first ASE congress back in 1987, their third, and I’ll never forget the
sight that forever defined the group for me. We were still waging the Cold War at the
time, the Soviet Union was the epicenter of what the American President was calling
“the Evil Empire”—yet before my eyes a three-star U.S. Air Force general was bear-
hugging a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union like a long lost brother. It gave me a
whole new and giddy perspective on what space exploration could achieve down
here on the ground.
Today that general and that hero—Tom Stafford and Alexei Leonov—have
grandchildren named for each other and the association they helped to launch has
hundreds more members than the handful who assembled back then. And the great
majority of those new space explorers became eligible thanks to the International
Space Station and its phase one precursor, the Shuttle-Mir program, neither of
which would have happened if Stafford and Leonov hadn’t vigorously lobbied their
respective rival governments to make it happen. The ASE was advocating space
cooperation long before any earthly politicians had given it a moment’s thought.
It was only natural then, that we should approach the ASE for their help in making
our ISS film. We’ve been talking about for a year and finally signed an agreement in
Toulouse, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier to partner with them. It will be a far
better film as a result.