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Two Adventures in Outer Space Are Heading for the Launching Pad : All Systems Go for Tamara Jernigan, Nation's Youngest Astronaut Candidate

July 01, 1985|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Tamara Elizabeth Jernigan lives here in a typically Spartan graduate student apartment, one flight up and five blocks south of UC Berkeley.

Humphrey Bogart's picture, taped to the wall, casts a macho eye over her living room. A stereo behind glass doors stands in high-tech contrast to the furnished apartment's tired-looking chairs and couch where Jernigan curls up to study astrophysics or to run mental replays of her latest volleyball game.

Lives Simply

A softball glove and a volleyball occupy one of the room's three chairs. Nothing else seems out of place. Indeed, there isn't a lot to be out of place. Jernigan does not surround herself with creature comforts.

"I live very simply--like a graduate student. Most of my time is spent studying or doing something athletic," said the doctoral candidate from Santa Fe Springs, who excels at volleyball, racquetball and softball and is learning tennis.

Physicist and pilot, athlete and astrophysicist, scholar and accomplished chef--Jernigan this month became the nation's youngest astronaut candidate. She is 26.

The word candidate, in this case, doesn't mean much. Essentially, Jernigan is in the club. She must undergo a year of training in Houston before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration drops "candidate" from her title, but, as Jernigan said, "Nobody has bombed out of the program yet."

Tammy Jernigan appears vaguely uncomfortable in her new role as astronaut.

"I feel so pretentious," she said out of the blue, in the middle of an interview.

Yet competing and succeeding is nothing new to the lithe, 5-foot-6-inch, 130-pound, blue-eyed woman who lets her straight brunette hair hang to below her waist and eschews makeup except for a little mascara.

Athletic Honors

Jernigan has been a successful student and athlete as far back as she can remember. As a sixth- grader in 1971, her name was engraved on a trophy awarded the best female athlete in Santa Fe Springs' Lakeview School. She was valedictorian in 1977 at Santa Fe High School, and volleyball "Player of the Year" in the California Interscholastic Federation's southern section, 3A division.

College acceptance letters arrived from Princeton, the Air Force Academy, Stanford and UC Berkeley. After a semester at Princeton, she felt the Ivy League university offered an excellent physics program, but the weather and the volleyball programs "left something to be desired." She transferred to Whittier College.

"Stanford had excellent physics and athletic programs, especially volleyball," Jernigan said, so she transferred again. At Stanford she played varsity volleyball and graduated with honors in physics. She stayed at the Palo Alto university to get a master's degree in aeronautics.

Then, two years ago, she came to Berkeley where she earned a master's degree in astronomy and is working on her doctorate in the same subject while simultaneously serving as a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Second Baseperson Too

In her spare time--what there is of it--Jernigan plays second base on both the astronomy department and Ames Research Center softball teams.

Debbie Meche Anderson, who has been close to Jernigan since seventh grade, describes her friend as giving and loyal. "My mom died about five years ago," Anderson said. "She was in a coma for five months, and Tammy was around all the time she could be. She was very busy, but she found time to be here with me. She just let me know it would work out.

"She's such a bright person," Anderson continued. "She's one of those people who can talk to anybody. She can mix in any situation, in any crowd. She can be a giddy little girl, and then when it's time for business, it's time for business."

When Jernigan learned this month that she had been selected from among 792 women and 4,142 men who applied two years ago for the astronaut program, she changed careers.

She had been preparing for a life in astrophysics, aiming to answer questions like, "How did the universe evolve? How do the stars form?"

Now--as one of 13 women among the nation's 102 astronauts--Jernigan is preparing for a life in space. In 20 years, she said, "I think I'll be part of a space station."

High on the list of factors that led Jernigan toward her NASA appointment is a deep interest in science. She traces that interest back to when she was 7 years old, washing dishes in the kitchen.

"I took this cup and I stuck a dishrag in it and I stuck the cup upside down in the water, and the dishrag didn't get wet. This really amazed me. So I took it to Show and Tell at school. I thought it was just fascinating. It wasn't like bringing pretty leaves to Show and Tell. My teacher didn't know what was going on. So I looked in the encyclopedia, but didn't figure it out. I thought about it for a long time."

Since that day, Jernigan has thought about the mysteries of science. She thought and worked her way to a 3.8 grade point average in high school and a 3.5 at Stanford.

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