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Excerpt: The Return
by Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

"So how are you planning to top this mission? Are you sending the Pope next time?"

All the reporters laughed. Of course the question wasn't serious, but it did give me a chance to work in a sound bite that my PR coach had suggested. "Eventually, we'll send everybody. But one step at a time, please."

Outside, it was seven in the morning on the kind of pleasant, clear Wednesday in October that makes you think of football, or a long drive someplace where the leaves are turning -- the sort of day that whispers "too good to waste." Inside, the press conference room was just like its equivalent at any Washington hotel -- plastic "crystalware," stiffbacked chairs, lots of room down front for cameras, a long table on folding platforms with all the legs concealed by fabric velcroed to the edges. I sat at one end of the long table, answering questions before the person the reporters wanted to talk to got here.

"Mr. Blackstone," the man from CBS asked, "We all know that you originally hoped to fly civilian tourist flights yourself, as pilot. Is there any chance that you'll be doing that any time in the next few Citizen Observer flights?"

"Of course I'd like to go," I said. "But it took some pretty generous offers to get ASU to let us put people into empty seats. My next spaceflight, pilot or passenger, is a few years away, I'm sure."

"Would you fly a shuttle again if ASU invited you to?" This reporter, for some reason, didn't seem to want to give the question up. "You've been very careful about keeping your qualification to fly a shuttle."

"I keep my pilot's license, too," I pointed out. "You really shouldn't read any more into it than that."

After that, the questions were less personal. I didn't mind the attention, particularly, but as CEO of ShareSpace, I'd rather it went to my company.

Then we went into the usual ritual questions -- the reporters in the room already knew the answers, but their editors might need footage of someone saying those things.

"What kind of mission is this?"

"Like most of the ones Columbia flies nowadays. A general, mixed-bag deal -- a little science, a little tech, a little business, a little promotion. You all know I can't talk about anything classified, but sometimes they do classified work, as well, for a defense or intelligence agency."

"Do you know what factors influenced Pegasus Corporation's decision about who to send?" It was the same guy from NBC who had needled me before.

"They wanted maximum publicity, I'd guess. Hard to find a more famous person who would get more attention and be better identified with their shoes. Or maybe the Pope wasn't available." That got a laugh; I had just time to wonder if I'd crossed over one of those invisible boundaries that my PR people were always warning me about, before the next question. The reporter from the Times had me explain that the seats ShareSpace was selling were available because the International Space Station (ISS) was behind schedule, and so some shuttle flights had been released to other projects.

Then the tall woman from MSNBC walked me through a detailed review of who the first two Citizen Observers had been, in case somehow anyone watching the news now, in October, had managed to miss all the news in the previous May, or October a year ago. That seemed especially silly because "well, the first one is in the room," I said. "Why don't you tell us all about it, Fred?"

Fred Gernsback had been anchor for the Federal Broadcasting Network for almost two decades, and due to his enthusiasm for the space program, his voice had become more identified with space flight than that of any broadcaster since Walter Cronkite. He looked around the room, smiling broadly, and I wondered if anyone ever gets tired of being made the center of attention. "Well, it's not complicated and it's not all that interesting. The way it works is that ShareSpace is a private business, like a travel agency except that Scott Blackstone only sells two or three tickets a year. ASU operates spacecraft, like an airline operates airplanes, because NASA got out of direct operation, for the most part, a few years ago. ASU bought Columbia from the government, and most of the time they lease the other three shuttles. So what happened was that FBN bought my ticket, from ShareSpace, which got me onto a flight on the Columbia, operated by ASU. No different from what happens when they buy me an airline ticket from Amex Travel Services to get me onto a 747 operated by United. Dull as dishwater."

Everyone groaned and laughed; Fred's irony was even more heavy-handed than usual. For ten days in October last year, millions of people had hurried home to catch Gernsback's evening broadcast from orbit. The American public's jaundiced perception of space travel -- routine as airplanes and ancient as railroads -- had been flipped right back over into wide-eyed wonder by Gernsback's babbling joy about everything connected with the mission.

Gernsback went on. "And so it's the same deal with this next Citizen Observer. Pegasus wanted publicity for their shoes, so they had to get publicity for their guy, so they went to Scott, Scott sold them a ticket, ASU is honoring the ticket, and tonight we're going to witness a new space record -- the tallest man ever sent into orbit. Just an ordinary business deal."

"What does a company have to do to get someone on the shuttle, Mr. Blackstone?" a tall, slim black woman asked. "Officially for the record, and also because for all I know Pacific States Network might want to do that for me."

It took me a moment to realize who it was -- Nikki Earl, radio correspondent for a little shoestring network that mostly ran very liberal commentary and covered social welfare issues. Normally they weren't big fans of the space program, so if she was here at all, it meant either they were gunning for us, or it was a slow news day. I answered, carefully, "I hope they can afford to send you," I said, "but for the moment it's pretty expensive. It starts with a corporation becoming one of ShareSpace's corporate partners, for one million dollars -- or more, if you want to be near the top of the list.

"For your million you get a nice-looking plaque inside the shuttle, plus a turn at buying a ticket. When your turn comes up, we ask you for a five million dollar seat charge. Once you pay that, you can send anyone who can pass a medical exam and a security clearance. Your five million dollars does include meals and clothes for the trip." There were a few chuckles at that. "There's also a required commitment to devote at least eight million dollars to publicity -- primarily about the sponsor itself, of course, but it also has to be clearly tied to ShareSpace and the orbital flight. So the real price of the cheapest ticket is about fourteen million, at the moment. We hope that within a decade we can be down under a million."

...what was about to happen would trump every bit of past publicity ShareSpace had gotten, and make all our past triumphs mere prologue. Now that I had teased the room enough, "I think the time has come to meet the crew." I nodded toward the door, and Naomi, my secretary nodded back and pushed it open.

Seven people came into the room and joined me on the dais, but for all practical purposes, there was only one person in the room -- Michael James, or MJ, as pretty much the whole planet called him.

He was over seven feet tall, and graceful, which would have been impressive even if he had been just a random stranger. Knowing his accomplishments, you felt awe -- he had presence enough for some ancient king or legendary hero.

Two years earlier, when MJ had retired after more than a dozen years as the top center in the NBA, every newsmagazine had put him on the cover, and Time had found an excuse to feature him twice.

After the success of the journalist in space, since we had the second Citizen Observer contract already nailed down, it was time to reach for something even bigger. I put all my effort into hustling a contact with MJ, and to persuade Pegasus -- maker of the most famous athletic shoes in the world, which were the most famous largely thanks to the autograph "MJ Michael James" stamped on the side of every one -- to sponsor him as the the third Citizen Observer.

He was perfect for more reasons than just his fame, or his immediate recognition. MJ was a widely admired role model for American kids, known for his polite good sportsmanship and his advocacy of excellence in all fields. He was bright, articulate, spontaneously funny, but also thoughtful and serious when the occasion called for it. Best of all he was a space enthusiast, and had been ever since he was small. (We had some wonderful footage of his mother, AnnaBeth James, reminiscing about when "Mikey" was ten, and unhappy because he was already too tall to be an astronaut by the NASA rules of the day.)

ShareSpace had announced MJ's selection nine days after David Calderon returned from orbit. Ever since, everything MJ had done had shown us that the idea was even more brilliant than we had thought. In the last four months, his appearances on kids' shows and news and talk shows had been the best of all possible publicity for everyone -- himself, Pegasus, ShareSpace, ASU, NASA -- and for that matter, me.

It was an extra hassle to fly the crew up from Canaveral the evening before, then back to Kennedy Space Center for an evening launch today, but that was another public relations maneuver that I felt was paying off pretty well. If you hold your big events at or near KSC, you get a mix of second-string reporters and older ones who want a quick trip to somewhere warm. But if you hold the same events in one of the cities where the media's first string is located, that's who covers you -- and those cities, basically, are New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. Washington was the shortest flight to Florida, ShareSpace corporate headquarters was here, and best of all, Washington was the major media city with the most predictable schedule -- in NY or LA you could be pushed right out of the evening news slot by any freak local story, but in DC only a war or a sex scandal could steal your coverage.

MJ made a few introductory remarks, and everyone relaxed and settled in as if the press conference had just become a group of friends sitting around the living room. "Let me introduce the rest of the crew," MJ said, spreading his arms as if to embrace all of them. "This man to my far right, next to Scott Blackstone, is Billy Kingston, the commander. During the mission, he's the guy who we all have to listen to. And if any kids are watching this -- "

"They better be," said Samantha Carter, who headed the special team for Nickleodeon, and everyone laughed.

" -- like I said, if there's any kids watching out there, something for you to pay attention to -- Billy knows what he's doing and knows how the ship works and everything else, a hundred times more than I do. He has all the knowledge and experience. Just like your mom and dad and your teachers know more than you do. So when he says to do something, I do it, and I don't give him backtalk and I do it right away. When we're up in space, my ten thousand field goals are just ten thousand of nothing compared to his knowledge and skill and experience. Listening to him and respecting his authority is part of keeping me safe and out of trouble, because there's all kinds of trouble that can happen up there. Even MJ has to do what people who know more tell him to do. It was the same way when I was little and Mama wanted me to do something."

In his deep Gulf Coast drawl, Kingston said, "In that case, your mission commander says to get the rest of the introductions done so we can get back to KSC."

"Yes, sir! -- you see how I did that? -- now, next to Major Kingston is Wes Packard, from West Virginia by way of West Point. He's the pilot, the one who actually flies Columbia, and the father of Kati and Mary Lou, who are watching this morning, I bet. This guy next to me is Josh Pritkin, mission specialist in electronics -- " he gestured to the tall, thin man, who nodded to the cameras "-- and he also plays pretty good ragtime piano, or at least he's good enough to fool a basketball player. Lorena Charette here -- " he gestured to a short, stocky black woman on his left " -- is from Baltimore, is a medical doctor, is an air force major, and has had a much more exciting and interesting life than any professional athlete ever did, and if you media folks had any sense you'd be interviewing her instead of me."

Actually, thanks to MJ's quiet pressure, there had been a number of interviews with and features about Lorena, and she was on her way to becoming something of a celebrity in her own right.

"Now, the nervous looking dude to Lorena's left, who is wondering what embarrassing personal facts I'm going to bring up, is Marc Clement, astronomy mission specialist and my roommate during training." MJ winked and said, "But with a nice, good-looking guy like that, all I have to do is ask what his mother would have asked -- 'why is he still single?'" Clement blushed, everyone laughed, and MJ added, "I've done all I can, man, now it's up to you. And, finally, not at all least, all the way to the left, our military payload specialist and our poker wizard, Damian Agustino -- " he nodded to the short, square-built man -- "my fellow Texan on the flight, so you know with two Texans on board, ain't nothin' to worry about."

MJ was from Dallas, a fact that you couldn't help knowing within ten minutes of meeting him. There wasn't much about him you didn't know pretty quickly. We'd vetted him thoroughly. As far as we could tell his biggest personal vice was a liking for mystery novels and his biggest problem was the difficulty of meeting women who might think about him as a serious romantic possibility, rather than as a trophy. He really was as nice as he seemed on TV -- it drove the detectives crazy.

The first question was from a short, balding man, way in the back. "I just wondered if you'd like to comment on the fact that while you're doing very well, and people will spend fourteen million dollars to send you to orbit, just this morning the House chopped twenty million out of the US Department of Education."

My heart stopped. Michael was a world-class nice guy, but he had a temper, and he wasn't used to being challenged about much of anything; I'd had a run-in or three with him over various things.

He stared at the man. "Well," MJ said, finally, "You know, I'm sure, that Pegasus will spend the money to send me to orbit, but they also give around a hundred million a year to schools around the country. They have to, in a country that's too damn cheap to take care of its own schoolchildren."

Great, I thought to myself, we just lost ten more friends in the House.

"And of course I'm going to go if I get the chance. Any human being with a soul would want to, you know. That's part of why questions like yours ... " he looked down and shook his head. "Dude, where do you come up with something that dumb? You think I don't know that we need more and better education, and hospitals, and food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless? You think that's a surprise to your viewers? You think, maybe, you're going to make me ashamed of where I came from, or ashamed to be rich from my success? I'll tell you this. I know very well that I am a very lucky man. I know that I didn't 'deserve' my chances in life. But I also tell you this. I got those chances, I took them, I'm taking them, and that's the way it is. And more than that -- because I do what people dream about, I give other people the power and the right to dream. And children -- and grownups -- all human beings need those dreams, the way they need oxygen and food and shelter. You tell me some people are poor? That's a damn shame and I'm sorry, but I gave more to charity last year than you make in ten. You tell me my country, the best place on Earth, is robbing its own children? I'll remember that when I vote. You tell me I ought to hang my head and feel bad about the greatest moment of my life? Chump, you can go to hell."

One part of me wanted to hug him, and another part wanted to run out and issue a denial that he'd ever been in the room. Balanced between the urges, I stood there for a second, before Naomi loudly said, "Hey, he isn't wearing a press badge!"

Hotel security closed in on the little man, who rushed out the door and down the hallway. I never heard whether they caught him or not.

After that, the questioning was a lot more routine.

My third time through a ShareSpace Citizen Observer launch, I had the drill down cold. When I got to the office, I signed what had to be signed right then, looked at everything vital, and then sat down on the couch in the office, with the phone, and told Naomi I was in to all press and media calls. By the time I did that she had them stacked about ten deep, and after that I was on the phone, continually, with only brief breaks, for seven hours. I answered the same simple questions over and over, did my best to sound as if the question were a pleasant surprise each time, and kept firmly in mind that you never know when you're going out live from some big-transmitter station in the middle of the country, so you can't afford to sound like a jerk to anybody.

At 7:30, about two hours before launch time, I ducked into the small shower in the building, got clean and changed clothes, and went down to our press buffet, where we had set up a row of big-screen TV's and an array of food for the reporters who would be covering the event from our headquarters. I circulated around, shaking hands and talking to each of them.

A reporter is either eating from your hand, or eating you alive. For the moment, our diligent PR campaign and our cultivation of the press was paying off, and the media people were acting like I was doing them a favor, instead of vice versa.

The TV reporters were all sort of half-there, with one eye on the screen, lost in the audio feed from their earpieces; they mostly kept an eye on their own organization's coverage, so that, if they were suddenly called to speak to the viewing audience, they would know their context.

The screen that drew the newspaper reporters was tuned to the feed from inside the shuttle, which let you watch MJ lick his lips, squirm to get more comfortable, and occasionally answer a question, probably from someone running through a checklist. I was glad he was smiling frequently, and still looked more excited than bored or frustrated; I didn't need another display of that temper today. (Naomi had been monitoring the news coverage, and it looked like Michael's dressing down of the gatecrasher with the rude question had not made it onto any major network news by that evening -- which meant it probably never would). That last hour of countdown was never my favorite part -- everything was either dull, or trouble.

We had a "capture" button for the press, so that they could record a still off the video whenever they liked. When MJ looked at the camera and grinned at the same moment, one reporter slapped the capture button. "Got it," he said. "Page one everywhere tomorrow, eh?"

"Right under the big slug headline, unless something big breaks between now and one a.m.," the woman beside him agreed. "Great smile, with lots of hardware in the background."

Nodding at the still shot still hanging there on the monitor, with MJ beaming like a kid at Christmas, Naomi said to me, "That's been missing from space for a long time -- that feeling that this is something great to do."

"Maybe it's been missing from everything for a while," I said. "Just the idea of doing something because it's beautiful and fun and hard. How's the food holding up?"

"The reporters are nibbling and the crews are pounding it down, same as ever," Naomi said. "We'll be fine, Mr. Blackstone. The press reception is going just fine."

I kept circulating. Reporters kept soaking up free food and watching their own channels. The countdown crept downward. It was a publicity-perfect night launch, with a chance for some terrific photos.

Now all the screens showed Columbia in the harsh glare of the artificial lights, clouds of cold vapor rising around it. The gantry pulled back. The white glare burst from underneath the rocket as it began, slowly, to climb.

It never got old for me, and it never got completely comfortable, either. Having made three liftoffs myself, and seen more than I could easily remember, I stood there making sure I was grinning confidently, in case of any cameras pointed my way, but privately checking off each place where something could go wrong.

Nothing did. They stayed on trajectory. They rolled over on time. The solid boosters separated properly. All three SSME's, the main engines, kept running at the appropriate 104% power, carrying them right through each abort point. Finally, as they reached orbit, the SSMEs shut down on the dot. It was a perfect launch. I didn't have to fake the grin anymore.

I became aware of a noise in the background -- clapping and cheering. I accepted handshakes and pats on the back just as if I'd flown the shuttle myself, and made sure that everyone got as much champagne as they'd take.

The media had wanted to book every second of MJ's time from liftoff to landing. ShareSpace and Pegasus had often had to remind the more aggressive ones that ASU and ShareSpace were private companies and therefore there was no "public right to know" involved. If they wanted some of Mr. James's time while he was in orbit, and he wanted to give it to them or sell it to them, he could do so, but even if we could compel him to provide them with endless free footage, we wouldn't.

MJ declared that for his first orbit, he would not talk to the media; he said he was going to spend as much of that time as possible looking out the window. In retrospect, I've always been glad he did. Billy Kingston said he'd never seen anyone more excited and happy in all his life, or anyone who took to weightlessness more easily.

Meanwhile, down on Earth, I was keeping the press amused with as jolly a party as the budget of a small company allows. We had a teleconferencing uplink arranged so that MJ could talk to all these people at once, but that wasn't scheduled till 11:30 p.m., still almost two hours away -- time enough for him to have his first orbit, compose himself for the conference, and even get started on a his official mission duty, taking photographs.

Our first two Citizen Observers had demonstrated that if a person shoots enough pictures, a few of them are bound to be interesting, and those few can then be sold as posters, rented to advertisers, distributed to the press, and so forth. A picture taken by Michael James, with his signature printed on the poster, should sell well, making us all some money, and a good set of slides could give him things to talk about, back on Earth, for decades of lectures.

You can't just shoot photographs through the window of the shuttle with a Wal-Mart disposable camera and expect to get much. The special glass is extremely thick, so that anything not directly in line with the camera lens appears distorted; glare is severe; contrasts between bright and dark are far greater than anything on Earth. Most of all, it's hard to know what you're seeing -- one tall snow-peaked mountain, one blue winding river in a deep green plain, one shimmering white-brown desert streaked with shadows by the sunset, tends to look very much like another.

Thus we'd had to commission one piece of new technology, the only one so far that ShareSpace had had to develop for itself. The "CO camera" was a small miracle of self-correcting lens trains, adjusting polarizers, GPS and IR receivers, and gyrocompasses, plus a dedicated microprocessor that constantly knew the position of the camera in space, and the direction it was pointing, so that as the shutter clicked, the camera wrote a slugline at the bottom: time; altitude, latitude, and longitude of the shuttle; and latitude and longitude of the center of the picture. The camera always knew and recorded what you had photographed, from where, and when.

During the second orbit, before his conference with the reporters, MJ was supposed to use the CO camera to take two practice shots through the front window, so that the first shots on the roll would be dramatic. Then Marc Clement was supposed to take two pictures of MJ floating by each corporate plaque inside the shuttle, so that the sponsors got what they had paid for.

A modest complication was added while I was at the reception -- Perry Lager, my customer service guy, called me and said that he'd had a request from many of the sponsors for the very first picture on the roll to be a shot of MJ floating beside the wall of plaques, instead. At the rate they were paying, some of them were anxious to make sure that their logo got the full treatment, and it was no problem to do it.

I went into the bathroom, where I hoped no one would notice I had a phone contact going on with MJ, and called the patch-through number at Houston. In a minute, I had Michael on the line, and I relayed the request.

"No problem, man, no problem at all." His voice was full of pure glee; if there were a drug that could get you as high as he sounded, we'd all be addicts.

"Are you having a good time, Michael?"

"The best. The absolute best. I love it up here and I love all of you. Thanks for calling -- we'll get you that shot."

"Thank you, MJ," I said, and we hung up.

As I came out of the stall, a short, balding darkhaired man in a blue suit emerged from the next stall. "I bet you came in here so that we wouldn't all jump at your phone and shout questions."

"That's right."

"Well, I didn't. But I did eavesdrop. Would you mind telling me what he said when you asked if he was having a good time?"

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