Spacefest IX was held July 5th through 8th, 2018, at the JW Marriott Starr Pass in Tuscon, Arizona.
Going to Spacefest was a different experience for me in many ways. Over the last 20 years this website has focused primarily on anime conventions with a number of SciFi & Fantasy and general fandom conventions on the side. As part of my day job, I also attend large corporate conventions. Spacefest wasn't really like either of these. It is a fandom convention, though, with a clear emphasis on letting fans of space, space travel, and space exploration meet and mingle. It was mostly like anime conventions around the year 2000, with fairy small attendance numbers (I'd estimate around 900) and a very strong community feel. I did find one cosplayer, and heard of another; seems like it doesn't matter what fandom you're in, dressup is fun!
The venue was also unlike any other convention I've been to. The Starr Pass resort is a genuine resort with tons of amenities, services, and opportunities. This can make it difficult to choose between convention events and resort options, which includes three pools, a lazy-river inner tube floating course, a spa, plenty of bars and restaurants, and (when the clouds cooperate) beautiful stargazing. The resort is located right next to Saguaro National Park and has a few trails leading into the park directly from the front of the hotel -- plus a 6 am morning guided tour for those interested. And on top of that, Tuscon itself has a number of interesting tourist destinations.
Convention Events and Programming
Much like anime conventions of the 90s, Spacefest had one exhibition hall for all vendors, artists, and celebrity signings. All in all there were probably about 50 booths set up with another 20 or so non-profit groups set up on tables outside. Many of the astronauts there were available to sign, with signing fees ranging from around $50 to $200 for a few of the Apollo program astronauts.
Programming was split into free panels and a-la-carte paid panels. The standard weekend membership fee was $60 per person but a few more expensive options were available for those who wanted full access to all panels and events. Movies were also shown in the a-la-carte fashion. Most panels were $10 individually and movies $12, though the highlight panel, with all the Apollo program guests, was $50 -- and worth every penny.
I ended up spending a lot of time enjoying Tuscon and the resort, but caught a great panel on the history of the space suits, hosted by my girlfriend's co-worker, Bill Ayrey. Ayray is an engineer and historian at ILC, where the space suit assembly is produced for extravehicular activities. His talk focused a lot of the Apollo program bidding efforts and how ILC's flexible design beat out other proposals for the Apollo missions. Though ILC would go on to build the SSA for NASA's shuttle missions, at the end of the Apollo program a lot of the ILC-owned equipment was sold off in a parking lot. Space suit helmets were sold off as covers for tomato plants. A full suit was sold for $100 (about $600 in 2018 USD), but the owner has kept it in fairly good condition since.
The Apollo panel is the main event of the weekend and the biggest attraction for most people. The panel included Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Fred Haise (Apollo 13), Ed Gibson (multiple), Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), Dave Scott (Apollo 9, 15), Al Worden (Apollo 15), and Dee O'Hara, who served as medical staff to the astronauts upon return to earth. They had a few amazing stories to share, some of which may have been elaborated on with creative license for dramatic purposes.
The panel started just a few minutes late. The MC joked that the last guest to arrive, Fred Haise, wanted to keep watching the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 in order to find out how it ended. For those who weren't going to the Apollo panel, the movie version of one of the missions as introduced by one of the main characters was a nice alternative.
Dee O'Hara had a story about Alan Shepard's return to earth after being the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule. She started off explaining a bit of the backstory. The approximate landing zone around the Bahamas was known and Ms O'Hara had helped set up a temporary hospital on an island to examine Shepard after the flight. The nearby island was small and remote, but populated. After his recovery from the mission, and after being examined on land, he wanted a scotch and water. Luckily for him, there was a bar on the island, and they (plus some number of other officials) went for his drink. The TV in the bar was tuned into the news, which was broadcasting live to the nation on the success of Shepard's mission. Reportedly, the newscaster said Shepard was relaxing in his tent with some iced tea at the time. Ms O'Hara ended the story with, "and that's the first case of fake news."
Charlie Duke recounted the story of a missing wedding ring on the Apollo 16 mission. Ken Mattingly, command module pilot, had lost his wedding ring inside the command module on their way back to earth. Part of Apollo 16 included a space walk, which meant opening the hatch to space and exiting to perform scientific experiments. Perhaps freed by the change in pressure, Duke recounted seeing the wedding ring float out of the hatch, ever so slowly, and into his grasp. But as he tried to grab it, he missed and knocked it towards Mattingly, who was also outside the capsule performing another experiment. The ring bounced off his helmet, but instead of going off on virtually any trajectory that would take it into deep space to be lost forever, it bounced right back towards the hatch. Duke grabbed it when it was inside and secured it, the tiny object that had eluded them for days. As a joke, he put the ring on his own finger while getting out of the spacesuits and asked, "looking for this?"
I'm not sure if I'll be back next year for Spacefest, or if there will be an Apollo panel. But if there is, I certainly intend to be there.
Tuscon and Starr Pass Resort
Since this is mainly a convention report and photos website I'll keep the travel blog part short. But since it's a major draw for the convention it's worth mentioning. Tuscon during July is very hot but also very dry. A high of 108℉ with very low humidity is rather plesant though you'll need to be careful about avoiding sun burn. As mentioned, the resort is right next to Saguaro National Park (not to be confused with Saguaro National Park East, which is usually the source of a lot of cactus photographs) and the drive to the resort takes you through some very beautiful landscape -- and golf courses. Tuscon itself is only about 10 minutes away by car, and about 15 to downtown.
The University of Arizona is located in Tuscon and with 43,000 students around there's a lot of what you'd expect in a university town: cheap bars and restaurants, lots of second-hand and thrift stores, and in particular, no lack of "medical" cannabis dispensaries. Other parts of Tuscon are also easily accessible and most shopping or exploring can be done easily.
San Xavier del Bac is a Jusuit mission still in operation. Built around 1800 it's a fine example of Spanish Colonial architecture. For me, that meant it felt like walking into a real life western film. The church is active, with visitors in addition to the tourists. We visited before sunrise to get photos of the structure and the surrounding gardens and courtyard.
Some of the features of the resort itself are listed above, but as a vacation spot it really has a lot of attractions. I'd consider going back just to stay there for a few days. It's located a ways outside of Tuscon proper and is part of a much larger development called Starr Pass. Homeowners and renters in the development get access to the resort facilities. The entranceway is rather grand, with a large atrium that has floor to ceiling (that's three stories up) windows with a view of the pools, the desert, and then Tuscon below mountains on the horizon. The hotel is mostly to the right, the convention space to the left, and the resort on the levels below.
Two pools are front and center in the resort area with the lazy-river area nestled between two branches of the hotel area. There's restaurants and bars in the resort which serve on the multi-level patio which features some gas fireplaces operating at night. The restaurant features a breakfast buffet which while quite tasty was about what you'd expect from a resort, both in terms of price and quality. Its good food and the convenience can't be beat, but if you have some time to spare, more interesting local fare is only a few minutes' drive away. The only difficulty with the location is the parking. There's very limited on-street parking next to the resort and the two small garages inside the resort fill up very quickly.
Spacefest X has not yet been announced but is expected to take place in July 2019