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.
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.