Monthly Archives: February 2012

Collecting Astronauts

Since I was five years old, I’ve collected astronauts.  I never intended to do that; I just find them without really trying.

My collection isn’t large, but it has some interesting coincidences.  Here are the statistics:

  • I’ve collected five astronauts.
  • I’ve had a few “near misses” as we say in the rocket business.
  • I’ve had a few Kevin Bacon-like connections to astronauts.
  • Three of the rocketeers are among the 12 humans who have walked on the Moon
  • One is known for barfing a lot on the Space Shuttle.

I thought my daughter might one day be in my collection.  For 20 years I’ve been suggesting she attend astronaut school.  When she was about 10, I’d frequently tell her, “If you start now, study your math and science, and become a pilot, you could be the first woman commander on a Mars mission when you’re about 40.”   She never liked that idea.

John Glenn is not in my collection yet either.  As I write this, we note the 50th anniversary of America’s first orbital flight made by Glenn on February 20, 1962.  If my math is correct, he’s now 90 and I’m 54, so there’s not much time left for me to run into him.

A “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon” type incident:  Alan Shepard took America’s first space flight—a sub-orbital flight in April, 1961.  In the early 1990’s I was in a line at a pizza joint in Phoenix, where I started a conversation with two elderly twin sisters.  I learned that one sister had been Alan Shepherd’s secretary in his test flight days at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, probably back in the late 1950’s.  About fifteen years later Shepard walked on the Moon as the Apollo 14 mission commander.

Remember Buzz Aldrin?  We’ve all seen him on TV literally dancing with figurative stars, but who remembers that he figuratively danced with literal stars back in 1969 as the second man to walk on the moon?  I never got him in my collection either.  But I did meet his Apollo 11 colleague, Michael Collins.

I followed Collin’s Apollo 11 flight carefully in July, 1969 when I was 12.  At the time, I was flying my own cross-country mission with my father in his Navion airplane.  At every evening stop I’d find a black and white TV to get Apollo updates.  I saw the moon walk on a grainy black and white TV picture in a Boise, Idaho hotel room.  Collins was in his room on Moon orbit, but he didn’t have any video of the landing.

In 1974, when I was 17 and working at a Delaware beach condo community as the resident property manager, a friend there told me he had heard that astronaut Michael Collins was vacationing there with his family.  Collins had invited me to dinner.  My friend said that I was to not bug the astronaut with a lot of questions because he was relaxing with his family.  I had dinner at his vacation beach house with his wife and son.  I knew much about Apollo 11, but there were still of lot of questions I would have asked.  But I followed protocol.  This bugged me for the next 30 years, and after I read Collin’s 1974 book “Carrying the Fire”, I found a first edition copy and decided to track him down and ask for a book autograph.  I found him and sent him a letter with the request.  He graciously answered my letter, in which he remembered the beach incident and he instructed me where to send the book, which he then autographed for me.

Who knows astronaut John Young?  I bet not one in 100,000 Americans do, but we all should.  For a time, my work for a NASA contractor regularly took me to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where I watched on closed-circuit TV the first flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981.  That flight was piloted by John Young.  Later he also commanded Shuttle flight 9.  He was also on the first manned flight after Project Mercury ended–the Gemini 3 flight in the 1960’s.  He rode Gemini 10 with Michael Collins, he was the first person to orbit the Moon alone courtesy of Apollo 10, and then he even walked on the Moon later via Apollo 16.   He also walked in space 3 times.  And let’s not forget that before becoming an astronaut, he was a Naval Aviator and jet test pilot.  Young was the only person to ever fly four different types of spacecraft—the Gemini two-man craft, the Apollo Command Module, the Apollo Lunar Module and the Space Shuttle.  He’s still around too; he’s in his 80’s and was still flying jets a few years ago (and maybe still is).  One time my friend and former NASA colleague, who also collects astronauts, spotted Young at Johnston Space Flight Center in Houston.  He said to his wife, “Hey, that’s John Young!  He walked on the moon!”  How often do you recognize somebody out walking around on Earth who’s also walked on the Moon?

In about 1990 I was staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Cedar City, Utah and attending the  Utah Shakespearean Festival.  One morning I heard a commotion downstairs at the first breakfast shift.  When I showed up, I learned I had just missed having breakfast with Harrison Schmitt, who was regaling everyone with tales of his Apollo 17 geology moon walk and handing out autographed photos.

My last and most recent discovery is Jake Garn.  A former Navy pilot and US Senator from Utah, he also rode Space Shuttle mission STS-51D in April, 1985 as a “guest payload specialist”.  Although he had some duties on the Shuttle, he is best remembered as being the sickest-ever space flyer.  Garn blew so many vacuous space chunks in space vacuum that NASA even created the informal “Garn Scale”, which assigns a number from 1 to 10 indicating the level of space sickness incapacity.  Reportedly, Senator Jake puked-in at a “Garn 13”, having been so sick that he was even off his own scale.

In about 1983, I spotted a 1940’s vintage Navion airplane at Utah airport.  I discovered the owner was Jake Garn.  Years later when I decided to buy a Navion, I sent a letter asking him if his plane was for sale.  It was not, but he offered me a flight, which we took together in 2008.  He had changed the registration number of his plane to N51D in memory of his Space Shuttle flight STS-51D.

Jake Garn’s Navion N51D

Shuttle STS-51D Mission Patch on Navion

That’s my astronaut collection.  So what’s next in space flight?

China purportedly intends to build a space station, and China and Russia talk about sending people back to the moon. NASA announced that it is looking for the next batch of astronauts to perhaps go to the Moon and Mars.  More likely, these people will be the US custodians of the International Space Station who will hitch rides on old Soviet-era hardware.  Previous orbital scientific research tells us that we can expect about 10% of them to throw-up in space sometime during their careers. Meanwhile, US companies continue to develop and test new hardware and technologies.  We are entering a new era of commercialized space flight, with a new batch of crazy people riding rockets and with new technologies advanced by companies with names like Space Exploration Technologies, Stratolaunch Systems, Virgin Galactic and even Armadillo Aerospace.  The purpose of manned space flight is transitioning from research and exploration to tourism.  I guess it had to happen, but Armadillo?  Seriously?  Instead, I’d suggest a name like Garn Virgin Road-Kill Stratolaunch Enterprises.

It may be a long time before another American carries the fire like Michael Collins did. I’ll maintain my vigilance.  You never know what former or future astronaut is out there walking around. And NASA, if you still want to go to Mars, call my daughter.  She’s available.


A kid’s first baseball game is a magical memory.  My son and I were prepared.  Last summer’s hours of pitching and catching in the front yard made for a strong arm and accurate throws.  He had improved too.

“Let’s go to a Buzz game, and I’ll show you a trick,” I explained.  “If you secretly wave to the batter so that no one else sees, he’ll try to hit a foul ball to you.”  My boy grinned, already imagining his souvenir catch.  “Hmm,  perhaps that wasn’t a great idea,” I admitted to myself.

We sat midway down the third base line in prime foul territory.  My analysis had told me that many of the Buzz batters are lefties, and that most foul balls result from late swings.  We were perfectly positioned.

Halfway through our foot-long hot dogs, we heard thwack!  A batter fouled one right toward us.  The ball veered and came to rest in the hands of a guy a few seats to our right and two rows in front of us.  My son looked at me, astonished.  “Dad, can I go sit behind that guy?”

I smiled at youthful innocence.  “Sure, boy,”  I said.  We moved over and sat behind that lucky fan. “Remember to keep your eye on the ball at all times and keep your mitt up,” I reminded him.  After awhile, a different leftie batter walked up and took a few practice swings.  My boy caught his eye and secretly waved to him.  The ball was pitched, and the batter got a piece of it.  The foul ball whizzed right at us!  It bonked off an empty seat five rows in front of us, then zagged left, still flying.  The boy kept his eye on it.  The ball binked off a handrail and popped up in the air, came down and took a few bounces off the concrete, then began rolling down our row past at least six shoes, including mine, and right smack into the waiting mitt of my son, who had tracked that ball the entire way.

Now I was astonished. The batter took a few more practice swings and looked over in our direction.  I looked at my son, who was still admiring his catch. “What the hell,” I thought.  I caught the batter’s eye, raised my mitt and gave him a little wave.

The Sunday Paper

Now I read the Sunday paper like my father did, lazily, while sipping coffee.  As it was for me, my kids must now endure the agonizing hour until I finish reading before we have breakfast or embark on some family activity.

In my parents’ home on many summer weekends, the routine began early Saturday.  My father left at seven for a half day of drilling and filling teeth.  “I’ll meet you at the airport at one o’clock,” he’d say.  My siblings and I hurried through our chores, packed our overnight suitcases with swimsuits, clean underwear and little else and rushed Mom out of the house.  An hour later we piled into the family airplane and endured the routine hour flight to the Delaware coast.

Once on the ground at the grassy airport, it took another hour to gas up the junker car we kept there, stop at Safeway for groceries, and drive to the beach house.  We immediately clambered into our swim suits, and the rest of Saturday afternoon dissolved into timeless fun.  We swam in the waves until the smell of grilled hamburgers overcame the sea’s grip on us.  After dinner, as the ocean slowly turned dark, we followed-the-leader in the cooling air.  The sand squeaked under our feet, and we stretched our legs into Dad’s footprints.

Sunday mornings before breakfast dragged-on like the occasional foul weather day at the beach.  We got up early and drove a few miles to a boardwalk shop to buy a Washington Post.  After wolfing-down pancakes and sausages back at the house, my father sat on the ocean-side screened porch to drink his coffee and read the paper for another interminable hour of waiting.  Waiting.  Waiting, for we were forbidden to swim for what seemed like a year’s worth of boring headlines and stories of a complicated inland adult world.

Meanwhile, my brothers and I had already staked our claim on the beach with an umbrella and chair.  Finally, in his baggy swim trunks, a Playboy magazine in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Dad appeared on the sand at nine, the day already half over.  We stayed in the waves until Dad raised an arm, his signal for us to advance back up-tide into starting position, with the house front door, the magazine and the beach umbrella all lined-up before us. The sun raced towards five o’clock when we were called back to slow time by the porch bell.  We showered, packed our clothes and cleaned the house.  An hour later we flew inland, away from ocean time.

Years later, suburban lawns overtook the runway pasture.  The beach house was sold, for after 20 years of flying to the beach my father wouldn’t tolerate four hours in a car.  That old plane is gone too, broken into so many aluminum scraps on a cold mountaintop where my parents finished their last hour, slowed to forever, so far from the warm and happy coast.

I think about those idyllic summer weekends.  I marvel how the years now seem as flickering minutes, traded places with those few, unbearably long hours of my youth.  I see that time passes, sometimes like the unnoticed background whisper of waves, sometimes with the immediate presence of an offshore gale.

In a dream I stand on our beach, up on a dune behind a rickety sand fence.  I’m an adult, fully clothed, and my feet are buried in the sand.  I cannot turn around to see the house, and I cannot get out of the sand to cross the fence.  I can only look out towards the mocking surf.  In the dream I realize I cannot go back in time, that sometimes it’s even difficult to look back, that I can only stare ahead at the passing rhythmic waves, the unreachable pulse of my past.  I look down.  There is a thick Sunday newspaper, sun-yellowed, half-covered in sand.  The pages snap irritably, and the headlines fade away on the hot summer breeze.

Osculating Orbits

I head for the patio and my monthly Cigar-Playboy-Tea ritual.  On the way to August’s “Biker-Babes” spread, I spot an article featuring the redheaded planet.  It describes a cult-like band of scientists who’ve been championing a Mars mission for two decades.  My boy pulls up a chair.

“See this?”  I show him a picture.  “Mars is pretty close to Earth this year, so we sent a spacecraft to land on it.  And these guys want to go too.”  I light the Don Diego and blow some smoke.

He looks at the magazine and flips a few pages.  “How long would it take them to get to Mars?”  He’s hip on Mars because we’ve been enjoying the new Pathfinder Mars Rover images on the internet.

“Well, it can take nine months or more to get to Mars.  So that’s a year and a half just in travel time for a round trip.  Figure you want to spend some time there doing experiments and exploring, you could be gone two years easy.”  I sip the hot Oolong, which nicely complements the Don.

“How do they get the spacecraft to Mars?”  He holds out his hand, palm up, flat and still like I taught him, like my father taught me.  I touch his palm with the tip of the cigar.  I partly break the ash at its base, which is still red-hot inside like a small planet, but cooled on the outer crust.  I balance the ash for only a second until its heat is just bearable, then let it drop.  Like an astronaut confidently riding a hot rocket, he grimaces, but bravely holds his hand steady until the ash cools.  He crushes it to Earth dust.

“It’s not easy getting there.  They have to use their engine to make the path of the spacecraft exactly match the path of Mars.”  When the two paths just touch, the spacecraft has arrived and can land on Mars.  I remember the term: osculating orbits, a periodic cosmic coincidence in space and time.

The boy holds out his hand for the last hot, expended ash-rocket.  We flip a few pages and look at the bikes and the babes, and contemplate the wonders of the universe.  Next month, like two planets on some orbital schedule, we’ll meet again on the patio.