Willie Nelson's Accidental Astronaut Cameo

Astronaut Biography: Benjamin Alvin Drew, Jr.
NASA astronaut Benjamin Alvin Drew, Jr, who goes by his middle name, poses for a mission specialist portrait. (Image credit: NASA)

Whencountry music legend Willie Nelson set out to make a video for his song,"You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore," premiering this Saturday on MTV,he invited some of his celebrity friends, including Woody Harrelson, OwenWilson, Jessica Simpson, and even veteran anchor Dan Rather to appear alongsidehim.

He did nothowever, invite Alvin Drew.

For thatmatter, when NASA astronaut Alvin Drew visited Austin last November, his planwas to go running with a friend. That he ended the day not only on the set of,but appearing in Nelson's music video came as unexpected.

[Click here to seeAlvin Drew on the set of Willie Nelson's music video.]

"I dolisten to Willie Nelson's music, but I wouldn't call myself a rabid fan, whereI would go out and look for places to go check Willie Nelson out,"explained Drew, who logged 13 days in space as a mission specialist on shuttleEndeavour's August 2007 STS-118 flightto the International Space Station. "I was over in Austin visiting afriend of mine, a LifeFlight helicopter pilot over there and one of my formercommanders in the Air Force," he told collectSPACE.comduring a telephone interview from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston,Texas.

His friendhad invited him to join him at his running club, where they met another regular,a friend of the singer.

"So weget all done running and cleaned up, and he says, 'Hey, you want us to go overand spend some time at Willie Nelson's bar?' The friend I was with in Austin is a huge Willie Nelson fan, so he said, 'Why don't you come with us. It would be agreat thing to go do. We'll go over to Willie Nelson's bar and have a beer,meet Willie Nelson and then have a relaxing afternoon.'," recalled Drew.

But as thethree arrived at Nelson's ranch, they were met by guards.

"There'ssecurity at the front gate, which kind of surprised me because I didn't thinkof Willie Nelson as someone who keeps security at his front gate," saidDrew. "It turns out because they were shooting a video."

The guardswere there, of course, because of Nelson's invited guests. Little did theyknow, they had someone who reached for the stars of a different type waitingjust outside.

Thatdiscovery however, would need to wait. They didn't need astronauts. For now,they needed extras.

"Itturns out they needed extras for the final scene when they are giving outawards," recounted Drew. "They were looking for people to be extras,especially people with flash cameras. So, that is why I got recruited to go outthere with a flash camera."

"Atthat point, I was just part of the general public that was out there."

Drew'sscene appears toward the end of the video as Dan Rather hands out a trophyfollowing "some kind of power mower race. I am in the crowd of cheeringpeople, behind Owen WIlson and Woody Harrelson."

It wasNelson's friend, the one from the running club, who finally introduced Drew tothe singer and let his "day job" be known.

"Itwas only after they were all done and it was a wrap, and we were sitting aroundin Willie Nelson's bar, that it came up," Drew said with a laugh. "Isat there and had a good long chat with Willie Nelson."

"Hethought it was pretty interesting."

"I hada really interesting chat with Dan Rather about the Apollo space program, aboutsome of his firsthand eyewitness accounts of that whole thing. And of course, Igot to chat with Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, who were kind of fascinatedwith what it would be like to be weightless in space for a couple ofweeks," shared Drew.

There wasone aspect of the encounter that Drew found a tad unreal. For his role in thevideo, he donned a bandana with a pair of Nelson's trademark braids.

"It'sjust a little bit surreal to be talking to Willie Nelson while I am wearing hisbandana and braids," he said while laughing. "He didn't seem to mind,though."

"I gotto keep them," Drew admitted of his 'costume'. "As a souvenir of thewhole thing, I've got it hanging up in my van over the mirror."

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.