By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Nov. 13, 2008 – New Mexico science fiction author Walter Jon Williams talked to a being in outer space recently.
From the distance education studio at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, Williams had a 30-minute conversation with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on Monday, Nov. 10.
Williams, who has written 30 works of fiction and won two Nebula Awards, said the conversation was a thrilling experience. His wife, Kathy Hedges, is an editor and writer at New Mexico Tech and helped facilitate the long-distance conversation.
Col. Michael Fincke, the mission commander, is an avid fan of Williams’ novels. In fact, Fincke took a copy of Williams’ latest novel, Implied Spaces, into space for a bit of zero-gravity reading.
“Apparently he’s read quite a few,” Williams said. “I heard from a senior person at NASA that Lt. Fincke was a big fan and that they wanted to set up a surprise conversation.” Williams offered to send the astronaut a copy of his next book, This is Not a Game, which will be published next spring.
Williams said he and Fincke discussed books, science, the mission, space travel training and space tourism. Per NASA’s request, the conversation was private and Williams had the studio to himself.
“We started off talking about my books,” Williams said. “He encouraged me to write more books in my Praxis series. He said he read them when training and that it helped him in dealing with aliens.”
Umm … that’s a little astronaut joke! (The Praxis series is comprised of three books: The Praxis, The Sundering, and Conventions of War.)
Williams also asked about Fincke’s fellow astronaut, space tourist Richard Garriot, who made his fortune in the computer game industry. Williams has also worked in the computer game industry, most recently on the game Spore.
Fincke periodically turned zero-gravity cartwheels while talking, Williams said. He also offered to move his computer and camera to the window to give Williams a view of Earth from above, but the NASA decision-makers quashed that idea.
The conversation was facilitated by Rob Hepler, distance education technology director at New Mexico Tech. Hepler said the connection wasn’t much of a challenge for him because he only had to link the Socorro studio to NASA mission command center in Houston. Nevertheless, the conversation was the first time he had linked New Mexico Tech to the International Space Station.
Williams said he was thrilled to be invited to talk to an astronaut.
“I was astounded and delighted,” he said. “I was too delighted to have a thought. The little neurons in my brain were going, ‘Yippee, Hooray, Weeee’.”
“My friends think I talk to space all the time,” he said. “This time I really did.”
– NMT –