KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Don Lind has waited 19 years for this moment.
If all goes as planned, this 54-year-old nuclear physicist with the slight paunch and the professorial look will take his seat directly behind space shuttle pilot Frederick D. Gregory today and claim his small spot in history.
Lind, who was named an astronaut in 1966, will serve as a mission specialist in the seven-man crew of the Spacelab shuttle Challenger, scheduled for liftoff at 9 a.m. PDT. And when the shuttle is propelled out of the Earth's atmosphere, Lind will have the distinction of being the man who waited the longest for his shot into space.
Look at it this way: Don Lind ("not 'Donald,' " his official biography says) has been an astronaut since before there was a Super Bowl, before there was a Medicare program.
Lind became an astronaut only four years after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. But now, after years of sometimes frustrated waiting, he has his chance.
His mission is on the 17th shuttle and second Spacelab, which also is scheduled to be the quickest turnaround thus far for space flight, its takeoff only 10 days after Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center on April 19.
Along with Gregory, 44, Lind will share duties with the shuttle commander, Robert G. Overmyer, 48; two physicians, Dr. William E. Thornton, 56, and Dr. Norman E. Thagard, 41; and two payload specialists, Lodewijk van den Berg, 53, and Taylor Wang, 44. The average age of the crew, 48.6, makes it the oldest to fly a U.S. space mission.
"All systems are go," Jesse Moore, NASA's associate administrator for spaceflight, said Sunday afternoon. "Everything is looking good with the shuttle."
Before the shuttle makes its scheduled landing at Edwards Air Force Base next Monday, the Spacelab module in the shuttle's cargo bay will be used for a number of experiments relating to the commercial uses of space, such as testing how crystals can be developed in zero gravity, and to space stations of the future. The Spacelab was built by the European space agency for use aboard the shuttle.
And there will also be a menagerie aboard--two monkeys and 24 rats--to test the effects of weightlessness and long periods of space travel. It will be the first time in 16 years that a monkey has been aboard an American spacecraft.
But Lind's wait has been longer yet--19 years of watching from the ground while his fellow astronauts lifted off from the space center.
He was scheduled for a landing on the moon in the late 1960s, but he lost that chance when budget cuts forced cancellation of the Apollo program.
He was a backup pilot for the Skylab 3 and Skylab 4 missions, which seemed to put him in line for a space shot, but again he was the victim of budget cuts.
"There have been times when we thought, always a bridesmaid, never a bride," his wife, Kathleen, said.
Each time Lind visits the launching site at the Kennedy Space Center, he must pass an Apollo rocket on display there. It is a rocket that might have been his if the Apollo program had continued.
"Every time I pass that, I cry," he once told reporters.
The whole process of choosing an astronaut is something of a mystery even for those who have been involved in the program. Alan Bean, a crew member of the 1969 Apollo 12 mission, the second of the moon landings, said he does not understand the process despite his many years with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Bean, who trained astronauts from 1978 to 1981, said the lonely wait before one finally gets the nod to go up is one of the worst parts of the job.
"It's tremendously frustrating," said Bean, who now earns his living as an artist. "You're wondering why you have to wait, why you're not going on the next one. You don't know if it's your own performance or the luck of the draw. And, if it is your own performance, you wonder what you can do better to move up the line.
"It's not a thing where, if you wait, your time will come up," he said. "There's a constant fear that you are going to become unfit for spaceflight. Things can happen to you physically that can take you out of the running."
And there is always the problem of being a professional astronaut. It is not a skill that can be used elsewhere.
"You're either going to play ball there, or you're not going to play," Bean said. "People do learn how to handle frustration like that in the space program. Just doing it is a test of character."
Donald K. (Deke) Slayton is another astronaut who had to wait for years. He was selected in 1959 as one of the original astronauts. But because of a heart problem that could not be diagnosed conclusively, Slayton was pulled off flight status and his career as an astronaut seemed doomed.
"I spent 10 years trying to get myself back on flight status," said Slayton, who now runs a commercial rocket-launching firm. "I kept seeing doctors all over the world until I finally found one at the Mayo Clinic, and we went through the whole nine yards."