14 October 2009
360 Ground ControlWednesday 14th October 2009. Houston. Show day.
In a rare moment of non-U2-related activity I had lunch with a friend at a cafe in the nearby park. He's someone I met through Sun Microsystems who helped us with the texting gag on the Vertigo tour. These days he works with Dell computers and we're looking at an installation for the Photographers Gallery in London, with whom I'm loosely affiliated.
Later at the gig things were all running to plan so I had a bit of time to give a guided tour to some of our guests at the show. Both Shane Kimbrough and Mike Massimino had come to the show with their families, along with Dawn Kopra, Steffi Wakata and Chris Stott whose spouses are on (or have recently been on) the space station. One of the funny things about the 360 tour is that, by definition, there isn’t really a 'backstage' as such. There are the offices and dressing rooms of course, but in terms of looking behind the curtain and revealing the hive of technology, there's really nothing there.
I usually take people upstairs in the mix position to show off the extraordinary array of lighting and video control, plus a look under the stage but in the case even 'underworld' is a little underwhelming as it's so tiny (and almost entirely full of guitars). However, for very special guests, there's a magic trick I like to show off. Having walked around the stadium a little and watched their jaws drop at the scale of this incredible structure, I take people up onto the stage itself. The incredible thing is that when you stand on the stage and turn around, all you can see is people (or empty seats if it's early in the day). This whole giant 360 spaceship thing just disappears because it's all way up above your head. At this point it becomes clear why U2 have loved performing on this tour so much - for them it just feels like there's nothing in the way.
Team NASA just loved the tour and I was laughing with Mike Massimino at our role reversal from yesterday. One of us giving a tour of our home turf, which we find perhaps a little mundane, to the other whose world we thing is jaw-droppingly wonderful. Come show time, the NASA crew were all out at the mix position and I had Mike come upstairs to be the guest fog-cue-button pusher, which starts the show by making smoke pour out of the giant pylon above the stage during the David Bowie 'Space Oddity' intro tape. It was the oddest of experiences to listen to that song, with its lyrics 'commencing countdown, engines on' and 'take your protein pills and put your helmet on', whilst standing next to a man who has actually done that. I also had to laugh - this is a man who has visited the space station and the Hubble telescope and has walked in space at least three times, yet he described pushing the smoke button to launch our show as 'the coolest thing ever.' The grass truly is always greener on the other side.
Happily it was a great show with Bono name-checking more astronauts than you could shake a stick at. There was a great crowd and a very good time was had by all. We did a runner after the show and I was surprised to find myself feeling rather sad to leave these people. I'd been noticing a great many strange and perhaps non-obvious parallels between our two worlds. On the one hand there's the experience of working with these very high-budget, extremely high profile projects which make the papers all over the world, but on the other hand there's the very real and little appreciated aspects of hard work, family separation and risk-taking. Plus of course the time spent in isolation, plus living, sleeping and eating with your colleagues, the highly irregular hours and the traveling long distances in small, uncomfortable vehicles (though, as I said to Mike, on this last point I concede that they have us beaten.)
Most of all though, it was something Mike pointed out which is the greatest parallel - a sense of not being quite able to believe that you've ended up doing this at all. This unbelievable 'job' of being part of something so extraordinary and so fulfilling. I still can't imagine how I got here from Sheffield - I guess we must be doing something right.
Our aftershow journey was something of an epic. In fact I'm sure we could have comfortably got up to the space station with less upheaval. At Houston airport, our 'Air 360' plane was waiting to take us on a long flight into Mexico. Our destination was, I knew, about an hour from Cancun, but having no clue where Cancun is, this wasn't a great deal of help. I'd slept on the plane so felt pretty groggy when we got off at the Mexican airport and piled into vans for a long drive, during which I slept again. Consequently, I was really out of it when we got to our destination, feeling a little sick and more than anything else in the world just wanting a room key and a bed. We turned off the main road and appeared to be driving through dense jungle at dead of night (4am now, maybe?) arriving at a large smart modern building that was apparently our hotel. Getting out of the van we were greeted by short men in uniform proffering not room keys but trays of cocktails. Apparently, getting to our rooms involved the use of maps and jungle golf carts, and being so many of us, this might take time.
Head reeling, I was taken with the others to a poolside outdoor restaurant surrounded by waterfalls, flaming torches, swaying plalm trees and swamp flora. An extensive buffet was laid out consisting partly of Mexican dishes and partly of breakfast, again with many waitstaff on hand proffering exotic beverages of all hues. It may not surprise you to learn that by this time I was desperately struggling to keep a grip on reality. The last conscious memory I had was of being in the Apollo 11 control room and now it seemed I'd been teleported to Jurassic Park.
I couldn't face eating, but wrapped up a couple of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels to take with me in case of emergency. Finally, my golf cart arrived and took me through the jungle to what seemed to be a stone bungalow. Entering and finding a light switch, I was startled to find myself in a very pleasant looking residence. I didn't have the energy to explore fully but in my quest to find a bed it became clear that I had a lot of room. A lot of rooms, in fact. As I finally drifted off to sleep, all I could think was 'if this is my room, what the hell does Bono's room look like...'