HOUSTON – Joanne King Herring is the Houston socialite, political activist and former TV talk show host who influenced policy alongside U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson.
Actress Julia Roberts portrayed Herring in the Hollywood movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
But as a native Houstonian, Herring was also influential in the space community.
“They sort of called them space cowboys. I guess Texans wanted to think of everybody as a cowboy of some kind," Herring said.
When the Johnson Space Center opened in 1963, Herring remembers hearing about the new guys in town. The men putting Houston on the space map: astronauts.
“They were trying to introduce them to people that they might like, and so for some incredible reason they thought I fit that, and so I met them and they looked like a bunch of ordinary men to me,” she said.
Her opinion quickly changed.
“When I met them, I changed and I’m thinking, were they normal guys? Yes, but with special qualities and each one was different," she said.
They were qualities, Herring said, that was crucial for the Apollo mission.
“We were very excited and, of course, since the Russians had done so well, the whole objective was to get to the moon before they did, and the whole country was intent on having that happen,” Herring said.
Herring continued to work with the space community throughout the years. She even hosted a reunion of the Mercury astronauts on the 25th anniversary of the first U.S. manned space flight in 1986.
She became friends with some of the astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin and Alan Shepard.
“Alan Shepard was very smart, and he became quite a good businessman. All of them did well, I think, later in life, but Alan stayed in Houston,” Herring said. “And when we think about it, they went with the technology of a toaster compared to what we have today.”
Herring celebrated her 90th birthday July 3.