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To the ends of the earth and beyond: astronaut Garrett Reisman (left) carried the commitment rings of his friends Tony Vanchu and Seamus Kraham (see photos below) into space in 2008, a first for NASA. The couple is used to making history—they were also the first same-sex couple to be joined in a ceremony at Rothko Chapel.

All part of a history-making same-sex commitment ceremony
by Marene Gustin

It was in 2001 that the board of directors of the Rothko Chapel, the progressive spiritual center of Montrose, voted to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies. But it wasn’t until October 25, 2008, when Seamus Kraham and Anthony “Tony” Vanchu exchanged rings, that a gay couple actually held a ceremony there.

“I thought the woman interviewing us was acting kind of odd,” says Kraham, a director and designer at Galveston’s The Frog at Home. “She seemed kind of nervous as she explained all the restrictions—no flowers, no photographers allowed in the chapel. We just kept saying yes, okay, because the Rothko Chapel had always been our favorite place in Houston. It meant a lot to us to do the ceremony there.”

Finally, after all the questions were answered and the date set, Kraham says the woman jumped up and excitedly congratulated them on being the first same-sex couple to use the chapel for a commitment ceremony.

“I guess she was afraid we’d change our minds because of all the limitations,” he laughs.

They didn’t, and history was made that day in 2008. And, as their friends Garrett Reisman and his wife handed the happy couple their matching silver James Avery bands, another likely milestone occurred. Reisman is a former NASA astronaut who has the distinction of being the first Jewish crew member of the International Space Station.

Tony Vanchu (left) and Seamus Kraham

As far as we know, it was the first time a gay couple exchanged rings that had been in outer space.

Let’s back up a bit. Kraham and Tony Vanchu met at a gym in Austin. They were friends at first, before becoming romantically involved. On October 4, 1992, they became an official couple, and that’s the date that is inscribed inside their rings.

Then in 1997, Vanchu accepted a job with TechTrans International, a subcontractor for NASA, where he taught astronauts headed to the space station to speak Russian.

One of his students for several years was Reisman, who became a close friend as well as a pupil—so close that Vanchu and Kraham often double-dated with the astronaut and his wife.

So when it was finally Reisman’s time to hit the shuttle launch pad and board the Endeavour for a ride to the space station, he had a question for Vanchu.

In addition to an official bag filled with souvenir items, astronauts are also allowed to carry personal items in their Personal Preference Kits (PPKs), about the size of a paperback novel. They’ve been taking all kinds of ➝ things into space for decades, as souvenirs for friends. Besides the patches, pins, and flags that wind up as gifts from NASA, astronauts have taken iPods and iPhones to the stars as well as the home plate from Shea Stadium, a roll of dimes, a Buzz Lightyear action figure, and the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. But wedding rings are quite popular for their PPKs, possibly because of the weight and size limits. The most famous case occurred last year when the final shuttle flight blasted off with commander Mark Kelly carrying his injured wife’s wedding ring with him.

“Garrett asked if he could take something [of mine to the space station],” says Vanchu. “And that’s when I thought of wedding rings. We had never exchanged rings, and we had just bought our first house, so I thought it would be really special to have rings sent to outer space and then have a ring exchange ceremony and an open house.”

The rings blasted off in the last shuttle nighttime launch, attended by Kraham and Vanchu, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:28 a.m., March 11, 2008. According to the official certificate, which states that the James Avery rings were for Kraham and Vanchu, the rings then spent 90 days in the space station during portions of Expedition 16 and 17. They traveled 40,153,970 miles and orbited the world 1,500 times before returning to Earth aboard the Discovery on June 14, 2008.

“It just meant so much to us to have those rings flown in space,” Vanchu says.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” says Kraham. “Not just to think that this ring I’m wearing was in space, but the whole space program is just so amazing. And to think that Garrett could do this, considering how conservative NASA was, just means so much to us. It’s wonderful to think about.”

Last month Kraham and Vanchu celebrated 20 years together as a couple, and they are thinking about visiting New York City, Kraham’s hometown, sometime to legally marry.

But it’s hard to imagine that any future ceremony could top the one in 2008 when they made history at the Rothko Chapel and exchanged rings that had been to space, floating in zero gravity aboard the international space station.

Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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