Space Advocate Discusses His Vision for Exploration
Marc Wessels is known as the Space Man, and for good reason.
By vocation he is a social scientist, ethicist and ordained minister (UCC) but his avocation is all things space. He is an avid collector of space and space-related artifacts - his collection numbers in the thousands - and he is the founder of the Space Exploration Archive. One of his dreams is to start a space museum in Louisville.
Given the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing with humans and that unforgettable first "small step" and "giant leap," Wessels shares his take on the moon and space and where we should be in regard to both.
Question: You're a social scientist and an ethicist, and you're an ordained minister, and you're a space enthusiast.
Answer: Space advocate.
Q: OK, space advocate. Where does space fit into all this and why?
A: Space is where we're from and where we're going. I grew up in the '60s, and as a child of the '60s I was attracted to the space program. I just think space is the future.
Q: Does it bother you that you're in the minority? Not a lot of people pay attention to it.
A: Being in a minority is not necessarily a bad place to be. It gives you a platform, an opportunity, to speak to people who may not be aware. I'm an educator, so I love educating people about the history of space and about the possibilities for our future. As we celebrate this 40th anniversary, it's a great opportunity to educate the public about what we've achieved, but also what we have lost by not pursuing it.
For the last 40 years, we've been just orbiting around the Earth in terms of manned space flight. I think seeing the astronauts gather, as they will in a few weeks in Washington, is a reminder not only to my generation but to the new generation that we have had great achievements in space and that space is a very important aspect of life on Earth, and will be important to us as we move toward the future.
How old were you when you knew you were hooked?
Watching the black-and-white images on TV of the very first astronauts climbing into those Mercury capsules probably was the seed, knowing there had been failures before.
Do you think people have any idea how brave they were?
Exactly, you watch one film after another and see how dangerous it was and for those original seven to say, yes, strap me to that, I'm willing to sacrifice myself for the good of the nation. And it was a matter of national security, it wasn't just a matter of national prestige. They were thinking in terms of the long-term future.
People today probably don't have an understanding of how dangerous that job actually was. Think about Gus Grissom, Chafee and White, the three astronauts who were lost in Apollo 1, a tragic fire, never should have happened. NASA wasn't doing the job, they were doing a sloppy job, and unfortunately these three men were sacrificed for that. Those three men knew what they were doing was important and they were willing to take the risk.
When you heard we were going to the Moon, what did you think?
I was really excited. I'd read Jules Verne, and "War of the Worlds," H.G. Wells. I would say I had an interest in science fiction, but I was interested in the reality that was taking place and in the possibilities.
The dream (of going to the moon) goes back to very ancient history, and not in just one culture. One of the pieces I have in the artifacts is an aboriginal painting from Australia, an aboriginal dreamtime myth which has to do with space travel. Space travel has been part of cultures throughout ancient history, so we're seeing something take place in our own lifetime, getting off the planet.
Do you remember what kind of TV you watched for the moon mission?
It was a color TV set in my parents' living room and we gathered around and we were watching with a great deal of awe.
Were you whooping and hollering, or was it more like church?
It was more serene and reflective.
Do you remember holding your breath?
I was uncertain as to how it was going to turn out because at that time there were some breaks in transmission and there were the issues of when they went behind the moon -
Remember how tense that was?
And we were just waiting and waiting and waiting.
And there was all that crackling staticky stuff when they came back around.
It was a tremendous moment. How do you feel about Pluto?
(Laughs) Oh, poor Pluto. That was a rip-off. To me, Pluto is always a planet.
How many pieces are in your collection?
I'd have to say conservatively thousands. I have hundreds of pieces of art work. One of the emphases I had early on was collecting editorial cartoons related to the space program but I also have images from movies, stills, full insurance covers signed by three astronauts before they went up, so if something went wrong their families would have something to sell on the market, because they didn't have any massive retirement programs, they were regular military folks with military insurance and pensions.
Books, tapes, records, various relics, pieces of the Vehicle Assembly building, pieces of Gus Grissom's boyhood home.
You have a shingle.
I have a full shingle.
You're proud of that shingle.
I am. To me, that represents a young boy, an ordinary Hoosier, who achieved great success as a military pilot, who served his nation proudly in Korea, who was a test pilot and went on to be one of the first seven American astronauts, who prepared to go to the moon.
You want to start a museum?
My goal is to do that. With Mitch McConnell and John Yarmuth in their positions of authority now, I think it would be a great time. I'm going to contact them, and the gentleman who started the Frazier museum.
One of the reasons is, when I first came to Louisville I went to the science museum and they had the Apollo 13 command module. I went back a couple of years later to look for it and it was nowhere to be found.
What is your favorite memento in your collection?
I would have to say it's that Christian flag carried in the Gemini mission. I also have a Christian flag that was carried to the International Space Station. That's special to me because it's signed by both the Americans and the Russians. It was carried up on a Soyuz, a Russian spacecraft, carried in the International Space Station and was brought back to Earth on the space shuttle. That's very special, especially for people from the '50s and '60s and Russia being seen as this atheistic enemy.
What's the best book you've read about space?
There's a book I really like called "Hello, Earth! Greetings from Endeavour!" that Al Worden wrote. He was a command module pilot and while he was doing his lonely sentry tour, had a lot of time to think and he wrote this book of poetry.
What's your favorite space movie?
"In the Shadow of the Moon," but I also loved "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Which astronauts have you met?
John Glenn, Edgar Mitchell, Buzz Aldrin, Roy Bridges.
Who's your favorite astronaut?
John Glenn. He seems so authentic, so genuine. And he's a person who has served his country well. He deserved the second ride. If they put it in historical perspective, he was told after his first ride we don't want to put you back up there because you're a national icon.
One of the reasons to go back to the moon is for our ultimate survival. It's not pie in the sky. Stephen Hawking talks about how we need another portion of humanity living permanently outside of our solar system because in a few billion years the sun's gonna go and we can sit here and watch it or we can be somewhere else. Even though not everyone wants to go, there's a need for part of us to go.