On the eve of the last shuttle launch, a space junkie talks about his lifelong obsession

Solar System Ambassador Joe Bruce - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Solar System Ambassador Joe Bruce

Captain's Log, Stardate 64976.2. We have made landing on a strange surface in the South Hill sector of Spokane. Although only 20 minutes from the USS Inlander, we’ve entered a universe that seems light years away.

There are signs of life down here in this cluttered basement — a man who introduces himself as Joe Bruce, a 55-year-old children’s minister and lifelong space junkie.

Bruce’s basement, and, well, the rest of his house, is packed with enough space gear for a mission to the moon. As we step into a temperature-controlled, well-lit room in his basement, beeping noises announce our arrival and multicolored lights flicker across the ceiling.

“I don’t dust as often as I should, as you can see on the top of some of the display cases,” he says after warning that some of the things in the room should not be touched.

The room is immaculate. There’s a space suit from mid-1970s Russia in the middle of the room. Bruce introduces him as Sergei. There’s a flight plan from the Apollo 13 mission, signed by flight commander Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz. A meal from the Apollo 15 mission, pieces of the moon and Mars, tires from moon landers. The rest of the basement is covered in model-making equipment, telescopes taller than I am and artwork done by Bruce himself, depicting images from space. His current favorite is a piece of the Hubble Telescope.

“The photos that came back from Hubble were literally works of art,” he says with stars in his eyes.

Bruce says his collection started in 1975, when after graduating from high school he met Apollo 15 pilot Jim Irwin, the eighth person to ever walk on the moon, at a book signing in Wenatchee. Irwin’s To Rule the Night became the first item in Bruce’s museum. Bruce then went on to college at Central Washington University for a degree in science education. He has spent the last 20 years expanding his collection, visiting Cape Canaveral periodically for shopping expeditions, and scouring eBay for gems.

Bruce says his wife understands. The couple spent their first anniversary sleeping in the bed of a Datsun B210 pickup truck, waiting for the fourth launch of the Columbia space shuttle.

“You feel it, as much as you see it,” Bruce says of the space launches he’s been to. “It’s like thunder going over and over again. You experience this for about two minutes as the vehicle moves away from you, and then all of a sudden the party’s over.”

Today, Bruce likes to share his passion with others.

Ever since 1990, when his son mentioned the basement collection to his first-grade teacher, Bruce has been visiting Moran Prairie Elementary School with his space souvenirs, and over the last three years, he has participated in the NASA Solar System Ambassador Program, which sends volunteers throughout the region to teach about the program.

“I enjoy passing that love and interest on to kids, because to me, if I am going into a school and talk to the kids about the space program and I can ignite just one little student and get them interested, who knows where that child might go?” he asks.

Bruce’s eyes twinkle as he points to each item in his collection and talks about the kids he’s met over the years. He speaks of meeting astronauts, including Spokane resident Michael P. Anderson, who was killed in the Columbia shuttle mission in 2003. He mentions the hundreds of letters he’s received over the years thanking him for his work. And he mentions gazing into the southern sky in winter and seeing Orion the Hunter.

“There’s just something about it that draws me to it,” he says dreamily.

Friday's launch of the shuttle Atlantis marks the end of the United States space shuttle program, due to a shift in NASA’s programming. President Obama’s 2010 budget proposal called for $18 billion dollars for fueling spacecraft in orbit, the development of new engines and fuel — effectively ending the moon program.

But Bruce speaks hopefully of the future of space travel, mentioning inflatable hotels and missions to Mars, and of encouraging children to be explorers for the future.

“That child might be the first person to walk on Mars,” he says. “That would be the equivalent of the modern-day Christopher Columbus.”

And it’s not the end of the road for Bruce’s role as an ambassador.

“I think our kids are still going to be fascinated about it,” he says. “We’re a curious creature. If it weren’t for our human curiosity, we’d still be sitting somewhere on a rock opening our food with a stick.”

Follow the River: Portraits of the Columbia Plateau @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

Mondays-Saturdays. Continues through Aug. 14
  • or