May 17, 2015
— Chuck Norris Fact no. 905: Before NASA employed a 747 jetliner to ferry the space shuttles, Chuck Norris carried the orbiters on his back.
That may or may not be true, but Norris did help to land a punch of support for Space Center Houston's new exhibit of the historic original Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and replica orbiter Independence at a high society gala held on Friday (May 15) in Houston.
The martial artist and actor, who has inspired a popular list of satirical "facts" about his strength and masculinity, was among the celebrities, astronauts, aerospace executives, and Houston elite who attended the center's first "Galaxy Gala." In addition to Norris, actor Gary Sinise of "Apollo 13" and "Forrest Gump" fame, performed with his "Lt. Dan Band," closing out the jubilant evening.
"You know, I have played heroes in my movies and on my television series, but tonight you are going to meet some real-life heroes — heroes of our country's space program," Norris said.
NASA's original Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and replica Independence orbiter as seen at Space Center Houston in May 2015. (SCH)
Apollo 17 moonwalker Gene Cernan, shuttle commander Mark Kelly and astronaut Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, spoke during the evening during a panel discussion moderated by veteran science journalist Miles O'Brien. A number of other astronauts were seated among the gala's 700 guests.
The gala was organized as a fundraiser for Independence Plaza, Space Center Houston's $12 million, eight-story-tall attraction featuring NASA905, the modified Boeing 747 jet used to ferry the shuttles for 30 years, and Independence, a detailed mockup of the iconic orbiters. Slated to open to the public in the fall, guests will be able to tour inside both vehicles.
"I'm happy congratulate Space Center Houston on the new Independence Plaza," Norris told the gala attendees. "This new landmark exhibit of the space shuttle atop the 747 will be an interactive educational complex like no other in the world."
"Thousands of visitors every year, and especially young people, will be thrilled by the ability to explore through the exhibit, sitting in the cockpit of the shuttle, exploring the interactive exhibits in the 747, and so much more, bringing science to life," Norris continued. "These are the type of adventures that inspire our future leaders to be a part of science and math programs and to reach for the stars."
Moonwalker Gene Cernan (second from left) gestures as he talks with astronauts Mark Kelly and Ellen Ochoa, and journalist Miles O'Brien at the Galaxy Gala on May 15, 2015. (collectSPACE)
A pledge drive held during the gala quickly exceeded the evening's fundraising goal of $150,000.
"If Chuck Norris says to write a check, it is best for us to simply sign one blank and give it to him," O'Brien joked.
Richard Allen, the chief executive officer of Space Center Houston, said that the donations will go toward completing the Shuttle-747 project. Though the aircraft and shuttle are now in place and construction has begun on the tower that will provide visitors access to the vehicles, the center still needs to raise the funding for the exhibits to be installed inside the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
"We are still about $2 million away from finishing out the program." Allen said.
Space Center Houston, which serves as the official visitor center NASA's Johnson Space Center, is operated by the non-profit Manned Space Flight Education Foundation.
Actor Gary Sinise performs with his "Lt. Dan Band" to close out the Galaxy Gala at the Hilton Americas Houston. (collectSPACE)
"It's our responsibility to give our kids and grandkids the same opportunity, same inspiration, same encouragement that someone gave us," Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, stated. "The kids are out there, they're excited and enthusiastic. We just can't ignore that, we just have to give them something back."
Another astronaut agreed — from above.
"With eyes on the future, it's important that we are building on the achievements and lessons of the past," said Terry Virts, commander of the International Space Station, in a video that was recorded onboard the orbiting outpost. "The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, along with shuttle Independence, is an important historic landmark that is truly one of a kind in the world and a tribute to the legacy of the shuttle era."
"Thanks again for all your efforts to inspire all generations about the wonders of space exploration," Virts said.