They aren't the sort made for reunions, the men of Apollo.
"This is a classic group of what is known as superachievers," said former New Mexico senator and Apollo 17 crew member Harrison Schmitt as 17 other Apollo astronauts milled about him. "A lot of first sons or only sons. A lot more left-handed people than normal. They're more individual. They don't get together. Not very good joiners."
So it fell to a group called American Spaceweek 1986 to organize what may have been the largest Apollo reunion ever held.
Gathered together at the Bristol and J.W. Marriott hotels, the men who walked in space, who flew toward the moon and then landed on it, who leaped across the lunar surface and planted flags and played golf, who went on into industry and retirement, the men whose philosophical descendants died aboard Challenger posed for pictures, signed the inevitable autographs and reminisced, 17 years to the day after Apollo 11 was launched, destined for the first moon landing. But even if Buzz Aldrin and Alan Shepard and Alan Bean and James Lovell and Charles Conrad and Mike Collins were obviously having quite a pleasant time, don't think this event is a common occurrence.
"It is apparent when we get together that we really are close inside because of a shared experience and mutual respect," said Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham. But, he added, "nobody has had enough guts to have an annual reunion. We were in probably the most competitive business I can imagine, yet we had to work together. It was like when we left, the nuclear forces that held us together kind of flew apart. People went off on their own ways. Another five years, I expect they'll be ready for an annual reunion."
Aldrin said that for the last three years he had "been trying to be the catalyst" for such an event. A large group did gather at NASA's invitaton in 1977 -- "back in the days the shuttle hadn't flown," said Conrad. "Things were pretty grim with the budget, people had made some not-so-good comments. I guess they thought it would be good if we got together."
But, said Aldrin, "it sort of became a media event, and we lost the opportunity and the ability for the camaraderie."
Aldrin would like to see the Apollo astronauts join together more to help themselves and offer an organized voice of counsel to NASA. Aldrin has been something of an anomaly among the usually private astronauts, speaking openly over the years about the chronic depression and alcoholism from which he suffered.
"Notoriety in general is threatening," he said. "Anxiety. Things that caused me a lot of problems. These guys were never forced to reexamine everything that made up their life. In the process of recovery, I had to reexamine the entire fabric of my life."
Aldrin was in full dress Air Force uniform and wore his presidential Medal of Freedom. The others were in tuxedos, many with the small lapel pin worn by men and women in the "50-Mile Club." Middle-aged men reunited with old colleagues; they covered those topics generic to all reunions: the job, the kids, old times.
"We're all sort of double-dippers in our second careers," said Lovell, who made the first journey to the moon aboard Apollo 8. "So we talk about that."
And, of course, about other things, such as the way NASA and the space program have changed, the budgetary constraints many felt contributed to the shuttle disaster and the bureaucratic growth of the agency over the years.
"The massive structure is different," said Cunningham. "I can't imagine what happened on this particular mission, I can't imagine that in our time. We were so intimately involved in every detail. There's no way we wouldn't have known about the problem with the seal design."
Perhaps fittingly, the evening was an amalgam of Americana. The World Trade Center paid for the dinner, the Bristol for the astronauts' rooms, and no one was allowed to forget that. There was not one but two ice sculptures in the shape of space capsules. The music was provided by a group called Rocket Man Productions, with technicians wearing blue NASA jumpsuits. And Susan Akin, the current Miss America, was also in attendance, looking just a little bit lost.
"I really don't know the reason I'm here," said Akin. "My agent just sent me. The heroism, I guess, I'm interested in. To me, they're heroes I'm able to meet . . . I travel an average of 20,000 miles a month. It's almost good to let someone else be in the spotlight."
Among the other guests, there was much talk of "heroes." For $100 a person, about 300 mixed with the astronauts at the Marriott before a private dinner at the Bristol. The proceeds, which organizers couldn't estimate last night, will go to Spaceweek, a new nonprofit organization that intends to donate the evening's profits to assorted space education projects, including a projected children's book about the Apollo missions.
"Space is an unending interest," said the evening's cochair, Penny Schreiber. "It's here for eternity . . . The theme of the Apollos came about because we don't have any heroes any more. We did have the Challengers, but sorry to say, no more . . . "