Spirit of space pioneers shines brightly at Astronaut Memorial Grove

Each winter around Christmastime you see the usual sights at JSC: grazing deer, holiday garland and ornaments scattered about the workplace, white elephant gifts and festive desserts at office parties, and the tasteful—and tacky—results from the annual door decorating contests.

But one tradition—the yearly lighting of the memorial trees—has a special and spiritual significance at JSC.

Pete Conrad's tree is the only one in the grove with red Christmas lights.
Pete Conrad's tree is the only one in the grove with red Christmas lights.
“But why the lone red one?” You may have asked yourself while driving by the main gate.

It’s a question often posed to Ginger Gibson, support services specialist for Center Operations, who oversees the tree lighting project.

First, a little history...

According to Gibson, the idea for the Astronaut Memorial Grove was spearheaded in 1996 by George Abbey, JSC director at the time, and then became a reality when seven live oak trees were planted in memory of the STS-51L crewmembers who perished 10 years earlier during the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

From that moment on, tree dedication ceremonies have been held in honor of every astronaut who has since departed this life.

In the book “Rocket Man” by Howard Klausner and Nancy Conrad, wife of late astronaut Pete Conrad, astronaut Buzz Aldrin said when Pete's tree was dedicated, his close friend and Apollo 12 crewmate Alan Bean took the podium and “channeled” the spirit of his departed comrade.

Although Pete’s ceremony at the grove was seven years ago, Alan Bean remembers that day well—and always with a smile.

Click for larger imager
Twinkling lights in the Astronaut Memorial Grove.
Like the Oracle of Apollo delivering messages from the great beyond, Bean paused and looked skyward for about 10 seconds, looked down at the hundreds of JSC employees assembled, and quipped, “As I fell asleep last night, I was thinking about what I might say today. I woke up in the middle of the night and Pete was at the foot of my bed, saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, Beano, I’ll tell you what to say tomorrow!’”

Again, Bean paused and looked to the sky. “Okay Pete... Okay... I can do that.”

Bean looked back at the crowd and said, “Pete wanted everyone to know he appreciates their being here today.” Then he turned his attention to Abbey: “George, Pete says that while he was here he was always the shortest astronaut, but he doesn’t want his tree to be the smallest tree. Pete wants his tree to be special—the most colorful tree—because his motto is, ‘When you can’t be good, be colorful.’”

The crowd found this highly amusing at a normally somber event. “My whole idea was to make it a little more fun,” said Bean. “Pete would have loved it—he would have loved anything to lighten up the day.”

And Mrs. Conrad won’t forget that day either. “We all arrived at the tree-planting ceremony filled with pride and pathos… So sad that Pete was no longer with us, and so proud of all he had accomplished. Alan’s ‘conversation’ with Pete was a real show stopper. It was such a beautiful way for Pete’s dear friend to reach out to all of us...to comfort us and to make us laugh. It was awesome!”

Aldrin’s recollection in the book is that “Pete” had a message to transmit from across the universal divide through Alan—for George Abbey to light those trees at Christmastime. And, reminding everyone of his motto, further insisted that all those lights be white—except his.

Getting in the spirit...
Getting in the spirit...
Abbey and JSC Center Operations have kept the promise to this day, and if you drive by JSC around the holidays, you’ll see all 40 astronaut trees in the grove twinkling white, except for one—Pete’s—which is red.

“Every year I get an e-mail—usually several—from folks at NASA with the image of Pete's tree. And every year it puts a big smile on my face. It means the world to me that NASA takes the time to remember,” said Mrs. Conrad.

As the years pass, surely the grove will become brighter at Christmas. But these and future trees will serve as a shining and poignant reminder of the service to our space program given by our fallen astronauts.

Laura Rochon
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Updated: 12/12/2007