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Hard-Knocks Background Leads to Shot at Stars

October 13, 2002|Marcia Dunn | Associated Press Writer

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- As soon as Duane "Digger" Carey sat down for his interview, the astronaut-selection committee popped the question: What have you done since high school?

It was a simple query meant to relax astronaut wannabes, but Carey had fretted over his answer for days.

Should he tell this roomful of strangers -- hotshot astronauts and other NASA bigwigs -- how he slept through high school because he was working 40 hours a week to save up for a motorcycle? How he hit the road on his new Suzuki as soon as he got his diploma and spent the next 2 1/2 years bumming around? How he hitchhiked and jumped freight trains from state to state?

Sure, Carey eventually became an Air Force officer, flew combat in the Gulf War, racked up a pair of engineering degrees, and even home-schooled his two kids in math and science. But would NASA want a former railroad bum and eternal motorcycle nut for a space shuttle pilot when all those straight-A, straight-arrow, strait-laced types were available?

Carey talked it over with his wife and stepfather. Be honest, they said.

It was Oct. 18, 1995, and the first week of interviews at Johnson Space Center for NASA's Astronaut Class of '96.

"I was telling them stories about one of my hitchhiking travels, and hopping trains and traveling around as a railroad bum," recalled Carey, 45.

An hour passed and he hadn't even talked about college yet. He hadn't talked about his professional accomplishments or being a pilot in the Air Force.

His time was up.

"I told my wife that night, 'Baby, if they hire me, they know exactly what they're getting.' "

NASA did hire him, along with 34 other new recruits.

"Maybe some folks think they [NASA officials] have an elitist attitude, but I'm here to tell you they don't," says Carey, a child of the housing projects of St. Paul, Minn., and the first person in his family to go to college -- let alone space. (His mother, who had three children by age 21, never finished high school and worked as a beautician.)

In March, with his family proudly looking on, Carey flew to the Hubble Space Telescope as the pilot of shuttle Columbia. The successful repair job earned the crew a ticket to the White House and a meeting with President Bush.

The moral of Carey's story, which he occasionally shares with schoolchildren: A slacker can always shift gears and, with hard work and lofty goals, go from goofing off to lifting off.

There is one caveat. "Don't wait too long," cautioned the head of NASA's astronaut-selection office, Duane Ross. He could see Carey "had his head screwed on right" and had proven himself.

Many candidates are alike, Ross said. "But Digger was different. He had obviously learned a lot in the stuff he was doing, even though it wasn't textbook kind of stuff."

Seven years later, Carey remains unique among the 310 men and women hand-picked over the decades as U.S. astronauts. Many space fliers begin shooting for the stars almost straight from grade school, stockpiling degrees and building resumes to wow NASA.

Carey didn't even plan to go to college. All he wanted to do was ride motorcycles, an obsession that began at age 13. By then, he had sworn off shoplifting.

His favorite courses at St. Paul's Highland Park High were "ones that involved getting away from school."

Instead of being the perfect student, Carey slept through most of his classes. He worked from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. as a busboy, got up at 6 a.m. for a breakfast of iced coffee and No-Doz, went to school and started the whole cycle over again.

Now he jokes that it was good preparation for the long, exhausting days he endured during the Hubble mission.

Other would-be astronauts never would have slacked off or taken a break for fun. But the young, transient Carey slept in strangers' backyards, fixed typewriters and worked as a bartender to subsidize his motorcycle trips. Thankfully, he didn't have any money left for alcohol or drugs.

After two years of this, his stepfather -- just 14 years his senior -- asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life. That got him thinking.

Carey so appreciated all the charitable Americans he'd met during his travels, and the ease with which he'd found work, that he decided to repay his country through the military. His stepfather urged him to become an officer. Why, Carey asked. "Because when the enlisted guys are drinking beer, the officers are drinking Scotch," his stepdad replied.

So Carey opted for college and Air Force ROTC.

He'd forgotten so much during his time off that he had to hit the books and relearn high school algebra and trigonometry. But it paid off: He won a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.

Carey got his engineering degree in 3 1/2 years and went on for a master's in the early 1980s. By then, he had married his motorcycling sweetheart, Cheryl, and space shuttles had begun to fly.

After Air Force stints in Korea, Spain and the Persian Gulf and experience with A-10s and F-16s, Carey was accepted into test pilot school in 1991.

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