London Cabby Saves US/Soviet Space Mission

By Richard Mains, Posted 10/12/09

1 comments

London Cab (1970s), Source: Google Images

London Cab (1970s), Source: Google Images

When we think about what really matters to us in being part of the space enterprise, it usually comes down to people.  The impacts can come from long-time colleagues, new collaborators, and international partners, but sometimes people who just cross our paths.  This story is about a total stranger to whom I owe a great deal.  Please add one of your own stories in the Comment field below to help remind us to appreciate the community that we are part of. 

In 1980 I left my research position at the UC Berkeley Environmental Physiology Lab and started working for NASA as a space physiologist.  Shortly after, I was asked to lead a three-person US delegation to Moscow to negotiate experiments to be flown on a Soviet biosatellite. The NASA Project Scientist provided me with a Nikon camera to document instrumentation, international equipment shipping forms, copies of existing agreements between the two “sides”, and notes on items to resolve during our three weeks of scheduled meetings. This critical material just fit into a leather briefcase I bought for the trip and intended to guard carefully.

We flew into London from California for an overnight stay with departure the next morning, Sunday, to Moscow. We woke early to breakfast at the hotel and I looked for my briefcase that also contained most of my money, my passport and visa. However, it wasn’t in my room and I panicked. My colleagues reminded me that when we arrived at Victoria Station on the shuttle bus from Heathrow, because the last cab was waiting, we grabbed each other’s bags sitting next to the bus, jumped in, and headed to the hotel. In spite of feeling jet-lagged, we stowed the luggage in our rooms, went right out to dinner and then a late night jazz club, to help shift our biorhythms. But why wasn’t my briefcase in one of their rooms? They didn’t have a clue.

I guessed it must have been left in the cab and ran to the stand outside the hotel and accosted the first in line. Was there a lost and found? Yes. Was it opened on Sunday? No. From where did I catch the cab to the hotel? Victoria Station. In desperation, I told the cabby that if I couldn’t retrieve the briefcase within a half-hour we would not only miss our plane, our entire trip to Moscow to negotiate a joint space flight, would collapse. He pulled me into his cab and headed for Victoria Station. I asked why, but he couldn’t explain. I knew Victoria Station was just a bus-to-cab transfer point in an unoccupied building with no doors. Of what possible use would it be to go there?

The cabby and I sprinted into the waiting room that contained a bare wooden counter. He jumped behind it and started flinging open cupboard doors and then reached in and pulled out my briefcase. I don't know who was more shocked, but we did a quick bear-hug dance of sorts, and ran back to his cab. Tears of relief and joy welled up in our eyes and as we raced back to the hotel, he assembled a likely story. The bus driver removed the briefcase from the back of the bus stowage compartment only after we had hopped into the cab, then he saw it sitting on the sidewalk after everyone had gone and figured someone would come right back to look for it.  He had to leave for the airport, so he put it in the cupboard, never thinking it would sit there overnight.

In spite of my protestations, the cabby wouldn’t accept a tip, claiming his reward was to know that the “system” had worked and international cooperation would continue unabated, even between the two Cold Warriors. Whenever I see a black English taxi I feel very thankful for a cabby’s faith in his fellow man.  In my experience, working on international collaborative space projects of the sort that also drive global space commerce, such stories emerge whenever people gather to share libations and discuss the incidents that make this work so incredibly addictive. 

Comments

Sheer Coincidence?

From: Eric Brachhausen, 10/14/09

My chance encounter involved a pivotal figure in NASA's history. About 10 years ago, while working with a nonprofit organization NASA had spun off, I had occasion to go to dinner with the Board of Directors. As they arrived at the restaurant, one particularly affable member approached me and introduced himself. He said simply, "I'm Paul Dembling. How are you this evening?" After another comment or two, he asked me where I was from. I answered,"I'm from a small town in New Jersey that you've probably never even heard of. It's called Rahway." Paul's eyes lit up and he pumped my hand, saying "I'm from Rahway, too!" I learned from my colleagues that he was the attorney who wrote the legislation that created NASA as an agency in July of 1958! Unbelievably, he and I had some of the same teachers in the Rahway school system, which tells you something about the longevity of teachers way back then. Paul became the person we turned to when we needed to persuade NASA that it actually did have the authority under its founding legislation to form broad collaborative agreements involving government, industry, and academia. These agreements led to many advances in UAVs, satellite technology, and general aviation aircraft. Meeting Paul was very special for me. He is a very down-to-earth person, and I often reflect on the fact that while I was learning about Sputnik on television, he was doing something to help the country leap into space. Having Paul to call on added a special "lever" for our efforts, and I have to believe more than coincidence was involved.

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