At my 25th Air Force Academy reunion, I caught up with my astronaut classmate "Bim" Boe. The only member of our class to pilot the Space Shuttle, Bim had been out of a job ever since NASA mothballed the shuttle program the year before. He and I flew together at Columbus when Bim transferred from his first flying assignment as a fighter pilot to be a T-38 instructor.
I had watched the astronauts' melancholy press conference on NASA TV with my oldest son after their final shuttle mission. As cool as astronauts are, they all looked and acted like the family puppy had just died. Bim, too.
We traded a few stories as a group of friends grew around us. Everyone wanted to hear Bim talk about outer space. We had all grown up watching Apollo missions and Space Shuttle launches and landings.
"What are you going to do now?" someone asked.
"I don't know. I need to find a job," Bim said.
"No, you don't," I told him. "Here's what you do to raise money...," and I detailed for him my idea of a space-themed chain of Mexican restaurants: Casa NASA.
"Have you trademarked that?" Bim asked. "Can I use it?"
"If you and your space buddies keep the dream alive for our children and for future generations," I said, "it's yours.
While I reference my idea for Casa NASA in IF YOU AIN'T A PILOT, I deleted the scene that tells of its origin. I am happy to share it here.
In July of 2015, Bim was selected as one of four American astronauts to train for test flights into space on commercial spacecraft that will bring manned launches back to the United States. Casa NASA may have to wait for now, but I'm okay with that. The dream is alive once again.
Kurt and I met up in the morning in the flight planning room at the Base Operations building on the northwest side of the Columbus flight line.
“Blue Falcon says we’re going to Ellington Field in Houston,” Kurt said, referring to Lieutenant Furmon by the cartoon character nickname the students had given him because his initials were “B.F.”
“Yeah, man,” I replied excitedly. “This is going to be great. I told Ooh Baby Baiber that I wanted to get a Shuttle Chase Team patch, like the one he has on his desk, and he planned for us to do this out-and-back to Houston today.”
“Is that the patch with the T-38 and the Space Shuttle?” Kurt asked.
“Yeah,” I acknowledged. Then, thinking back to the rules and restrictions that our T-37 Class Commander Billy Mike Sims put around the design of our own class patch, I asked Kurt, “Do you think that the Class Commander at NASA told the astronauts that if they put a T-38 on their patch, they also had to put a Space Shuttle? I mean, the Space Shuttle hasn’t flown in a year and a half. Who knows when it’s going to fly again? Ever since the Challenger disaster, the only astronauts who have gotten to fly are the ones that fly the T-38. Do you think the shuttle is kind of like the Tweet?”
“No way,” Kurt said, shaking his shuttle-sized head, “the Space Shuttle is not like the Tweet. You can’t practice spin recoveries in the Space Shuttle, can you?”
“I suppose you’re right,” I agreed. “You can’t practice anything in the Space Shuttle these days.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Kurt said.
We got the weather forecast for Houston, read the Notices to Airmen to see if there were any problems at the Johnson Space Center, and we called the Base Operations desk there to see if we could bring our T-38s to their base for gas. Then, we went about planning our flights to Houston.
“Hey, Kurtie, do you like Mexican food?” I asked my big buddy as we worked on our route across Mississippi, Louisiana, and into Texas.
“Of course I do. Why? Are you going to cook for Malia and me? The baby can’t have Mexican food, you know,” he said.
“No, man. Ooh Baby Baiber said that after we land and go to the Gift Shop, we’re going to get some Mexican food at a place right outside the main gate. You and Lieutenant Furmon should meet us there,” I told him.
“Sounds good. What’s the name of the restaurant?” Kurt wanted to know. “We can try to get a ride there after we land.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Ooh Baby said that it’s right outside the front gate. Just have the crew bus take you out of the front gate, and look for the first Mexican restaurant you see.”
“What if we go to the wrong place? Don’t you think there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in Texas? How are we going to know if we’re at the right one?” Kurt asked, concerned that he and Lieutenant Furmon might not meet up with us outside of the gate in Houston.
“Kurt, Lieutenant Baiber said it’s right outside the gate. I don’t know the name of it,” I said, shaking my head. I’d never been to the Johnson Space Center. I had no idea what the name of this Mexican restaurant was.
“Ray,” Kurt persisted, “just call Eagle, and ask Ooh Baby to give you the name of the restaurant so Blue Falcon and I can meet you there. I’m sure your IP is in the flight room.”
Kurt watched me from the big flight planning table where we had been working to make sure I called Eagle from the phone in Base Ops. Even though nobody answered and there was no answering machine, I pretended like I spoke to Lieutenant Baiber so that Kurt would stop asking me about the name of the stupid restaurant.
“We’re all set. Lieutenant Baiber’s got everything worked out,” I said, having written a note to myself while the phone rang without being picked up on the other end. “I’ve got the name of the Mexican restaurant outside the gate at the Johnson Space Center.”
“Okay, then,” Kurt said, “what is it?”
“Casa NASA,” I answered, staring at Kurt with a straight face and waiting to see if he believed me.
“Casa NASA?!” Kurt started laughing. “Casa NASA! You’re kidding, right?”
I was, but I wasn’t about to admit it.
“No,” I said, still straight-faced. “I’m not kidding. I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Casa NASA. Lieutenant Baiber says it’s out of this world. He likes the Burrito Orbito, but I’m looking forward to trying the Pollo Apollo.”
Kurt laughed and started to lean to one side. “Casa NASA!” he repeated.
“Perhaps you’d like to try the Flautas Astronautas?” I asked. Big Kurt was having trouble catching his breath now, and on the occasion that he did, he’d just say “Casa NASA” and laugh some more.
“Lieutenant Baiber says that all of these dishes come with a side of Refreeze-dried beans,” I continued. Kurt staggered backwards a little and grabbed for the big flight planning table to hold himself up, because his laughing was sapping him of his strength.
“Casa NASA,” Kurt laughed on and weakly dropped to one knee.
“You get free refills on Tang,” I said, now firing one bad joke after another, “but don’t drink the water.”
I had stumbled upon Big Kurt’s Kryptonite, and I wasn’t about to let him regain his powers.
“Casa NASA,” Kurt wheezed, clutching the side of his stomach, still with one knee of the floor of the flight planning room.
“Kurt, I know you’re going to feel right at home at Casa NASA. Do you know how I know that?” I asked rhetorically, “Because at Casa NASA, someone will meet you at the airlock and say, ‘Que pasa! Mi casa su NASA.’”
“Casa NASA,” Kurt gasped from the floor.