Ever since he was a child, renowned photographer Steve Pyke has been fascinated with space travel. "I've been wanting to photograph astronauts for years and years and years," he said. "Astronauts are amazing. As a kid, we were told there would be a way to go up into space and orbit the earth. That was something that I always really wanted to do. Realizing that that wasn't going to be possible, meeting astronauts was the next best thing."
So Pyke, who has photographed notables from Henry Kissinger to Michael J. Fox in portrait-style close-ups that have become his trademark, embarked on a mission to snap many of the astronauts who walked on the moon. His travels also took him to the Johnson Space Center, where he photograph artifacts of the era to chronicle the Apollo space program that so many people have forgotten.
Over the last 15 years, his former life partner, British filmmaker Nichola Bruce, captured much of Pyke's quest on film. On a shoestring budget that largely depended on the largess of friends, she edited it into a movie, Moonbug, and hurriedly entered it into competition at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, just barely making the deadline.
The movie received a warm reception Friday night and garnered a special jury prize for documentary filmmaking Sunday night.
"What's so exciting about this piece of work is that it shows how important these endeavors are. You carry the world when you have a dream like that," Bruce said. "We've forgotten how important those aspirations are."
Bruce and Pyke's fascination with the space program is so infectious that it got me excited just talking to them. It also made me wonder, is there anyone in Houston who has the same spirit?
Ever since NASA announced where it will be parceling out the four space shuttles and Houston's bid wasn't on the list, there's been a lot of wailing, chest beating and gnashing of teeth. Officials have been searching for someone to blame in simplistic terms (the Obama administration doesn't care about red state Texas; the president loves blue states New York and California more — an argument that makes little sense, because if that were the case a shuttle would be headed to swing state Ohio) and screaming that it is our inherent right to have a shuttle here.
If only that passion had been channeled into the enthusiasm about space travel that Pyke and Bruce have, then I bet the shuttle would be on its way here permanently.
Here's the problem: Most civic boosters seem more worried about the loss of potential tourist revenue rather than transmitting the sheer wonder and fascination about sending humans into space. In more than 30 years, I haven't heard anyone in Houston articulate what the space program means to them, other than jobs.
One dejected Houston businessman says a year ago, he suggested that organizers of the campaign to land a space shuttle encourage school children in the Clear Lake area to write letters about what the space program means to them and what it's like to live amid astronauts and their families who live in the area. The idea would be to "flood" shuttle decision makers with those letters in order to show Houston's enthusiasm about the project.
He was told it was a nice idea — and nothing happened.
When he contacted his city councilman to see what could be done to land the shuttle, he was shuttled off to Mike Sullivan, whose district encompassed the Johnson Space Center. Such a lack of city-wide enthusiasm for the project doomed it to failure, despite a furious last-minute full-court press by Mayor Annise Parker and other officials.
The simple truth appears to be that more recognized, serious museums in other cities had a better plan.
It's too late to secure a shuttle for Houston, but there's still time to make honoring the space program a top priority. Just as president Renu Khator has changed perceptions of the University of Houston with her incessant cheerleading, we need someone who really believes in the space program and what it means to Houston to talk about it with the same zeal as Bruce and Pyke.
Such a mission needs the formation of a team to explore ways to upgrade the experience at Space Center Houston and come up with unique collaborations with the Museum of Natural Science and other heavyweight Houston institutions to the explain the thrill of space exploration. And it needs needs enthusiastic support from the Greater Houston Partnership.
Maybe we've become so blasé about space travel that nobody cares about it anymore. But I believe there's an audience of young people who continue to in revel in space fantasies of the future and could be persuaded that moon travel was the start of space exploration, not the end.
Bruce points out "lovely things about space stuff," both big and small (like, if you get a cold in space and your nose doesn't run but stays in your head because there's no gravity) that make it endlessly fascinating.
"I think theres a huge enthusiasm among today's youth for understanding the universe and space. It's not being recognized and I don't think enough investment is going into our understanding of astronomy and astrophysics," Bruce said. "You only have talk to any young mind. They are full of wonder about the universe and (believe) space is out there to be explored."
The magic of space exploration is missing. Let's bring it back before it's too late.
See the trailer for Moonbug: