Twenty-four years ago, while orbiting about 200 miles above Earth at some 17,500 mph, mission specialist Bill Shepherd made a choice on a whim that would help change the course of traditional sea voyaging in Hawaii.
Shepherd, working aboard the space shuttle Columbia, roused fellow mission specialist and Punahou School graduate Charles Lacy Veach — peeling him off the Velcro wall where he slept in zero gravity so that Veach could observe Hawaii in the predawn light. The sight took Veach’s breath away, as those who knew the Hawaii astronaut have recounted: an island chain isolated in the vast Pacific, and Earth isolated in the vast vacuum of space.
For Veach it was a revelation of how special the planet is — and that humanity should ensure it remains sustainable for future generations.
Today, as part of their first visit to the East Coast, crews of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a will visit Kennedy Space Center in Florida to pay tribute to Veach and his vision from space of “island Earth.” Veach died of cancer in 1995.
The concept helped shape Hokule‘a’s current “Malama Honua” (“Care for the Earth”) sail around the globe. The voyage, organized by the Oahu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, has relied on thousands of volunteers, including several hundred crew members.
“I think he was impacted in ways I didn’t realize he would be. Part of that was realizing how fragile our planet is and how important it is we take care of that and educate our next generation,” Veach’s widow, Alice Veach, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m sure he’s looking down on this and smiling.”
Alice Veach will join the couple’s daughter, Maile Chatlos, several other family members, NASA officials and Hokule‘a crews at a private gathering at the space center, as the canoe rests about a dozen miles from the launchpad where Veach took off on that pivotal 1992 Columbia mission.
The event will also honor another important astronaut from Hawaii: Ellison Onizuka, who died in the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.
It will feature traditional Hawaiian elements, such as the blowing of the pu, or conch; and mele, or special chants. On Thursday, Veach’s friend and fellow explorer and Punahou graduate Nainoa Thompson is slated to lead sessions with NASA employees on traditional wayfinding navigation techniques used on the canoe.
“Lacy has had an enormous impact on how I see the world, through his teachings,” Thompson, a Hokule‘a captain and “pwo” (master) navigator, said in 2014, several weeks before the canoe left Oahu for its around-the-world journey. “You got one island, called Earth. It’s exceptionally beautiful. It’s infinitely complex. And it’s all that we got. Why not take care of it?”
THOMPSON and Veach became fast friends in the early 1990s — like “two old-wisdom soul mates,” Alice Veach said. “They just had a connection that I’ve never seen Lacy have with anyone. They became brothers.”
The pair often discussed ideas to improve childhood education and engage students, Thompson said. That culminated in an event during Veach’s 1992 spaceflight, while Hokule‘a simultaneously sailed home to Hawaii from Rarotonga, in which the shuttle and canoe crews radioed each other as some 30,000 students listened in.
One of the students listening from her Kahala Elementary School cafeteria on Oahu was Shaaroni Leionaona Wong.
“I feel like nothing sparks the imagination like a good voyage, you know? To see these two adventurers talking about their trips and their travels sort of opened my eyes to what was possible,” Wong, who’s now a seventh-grade world cultures teacher at Punahou, recounted Monday. “I think that was a moment when I as a kid realized that people traveled for something more. Ever since then I wanted to be a part of it.”
In 2014 Wong sailed aboard Hokule‘a’s original escort vessel for the voyage, the similar double-hulled canoe Hikianalia, along New Zealand’s North Island to help do educational outreach at various ports. “Lacy still sounded like someone who had grown up in Hawaii and was connected to those ties. The idea that you can take your home with you changed the way I saw travel,” she said.
In 1992, several weeks after Columbia had landed and Veach was on Oahu, he met with Thompson and his father, the late community leader Myron “Pinky” Thompson.
“You’ve got to take Hokule‘a around the world,” Thompson recalled Veach telling them. “You know, the canoe needs to meet the earth, and the earth needs to meet Hokule‘a.”
Alice Veach said her husband would have been impressed by the canoe’s “unbelievable accomplishment” so far. “I can’t think of any honor that has been bestowed on Lacy or me that’s more poignant than this.”
Hokule‘a will venture farther up the East Coast this spring and summer.