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Space shuttle's allure fostered a different breed of astronaut

The men and women who became shuttle astronauts lacked the star power of their 'right stuff' predecessors, but their accomplishments in and out of orbit were a giant leap forward.

July 02, 2011|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • From left, American shuttle astronauts Charles Precourt and Dominic Gorie listen as Franklin Chang-Diaz speaks at a news conference at Florida's Kennedy Space Center after the return of Discovery.
From left, American shuttle astronauts Charles Precourt and Dominic Gorie… (Roberto Schmidt / AFP/Getty…)

As a teenager in Costa Rica, Franklin Chang-Diaz had an improbable goal: becoming an American astronaut. Ultimately, he would fly a record seven shuttle missions and today wants to fly to Mars.

Scott Parazynksi also wanted to go to space and figured becoming a doctor at Stanford University would help him get there. He became a jack-of-all-trades spacewalker, and went on to climb Mt. Everest and become chief of medicine and technology at a research hospital.

Curtis Brown Jr. dreamed of cockpits while growing up on a North Carolina tobacco farm. He became one of the shuttle's top pilots. Now, he flies airliners for a job and races jets over the Nevada desert for fun.

The blastoff of Atlantis in Florida on Friday will end not only the 30-year-old space shuttle program but also an era defined by a different, more driven breed of astronaut.

The 358 men and women NASA says became shuttle astronauts lacked the star power of their predecessors in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, who were made of the "right stuff" and walked on the moon. The shuttle astronauts' biggest headlines came in tragedy, when seven died in the 1986 explosion of Challenger and seven more perished in the fiery reentry breakup of Columbia in 2003.

But in many ways, what they accomplished before they walked into NASA, during their flights and in their careers afterward was a leap forward.

They were well-educated, physically fit, intellectually curious and diverse — men, women, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans mingled in what before was an exclusive club.

The shuttle pilots flew orbiters above Earth with their hands on the thruster controls, delicately docking with the International Space Station and making no-second-chance landings on Earth. They walked in space scores of times, repairing the Hubble telescope and methodically assembling the space station from bits and pieces flown up in the shuttle's big trunk.

And their stories became much more a part of the common American fabric, even as they achieved something rarer than winning a lottery. The shuttle astronauts came from every corner of the nation and every background, and scattered in every direction when their space days ended.

Some were former combat pilots in the Vietnam War who took command of the shuttle cockpit, becoming known as the "bus drivers." Others were elite scientists in the back seats, conducting arcane experiments in orbit, and became known as "talking ballast."

They had one thing in common: After one flight, they became addicted and waited for years to get one more flight, and then another.

"It is an awe-inspiring emotional experience," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander who, like other astronauts, struggles to describe the sensation of launching atop a 60-story column of fire.

The best of the corps were super-achievers — setting their academic and career sights incomprehensibly high, forgoing better-paying professions to spend months rehearsing sometimes mundane tasks. Even among the best, a few stood out.

Chang-Diaz wanted to be an astronaut growing up in Costa Rica in the 1960s when he wrote to legendary rocket scientist Werner von Braun. NASA wrote back, suggesting he come to the United States to study engineering.

"I made up my mind that I would emigrate to the USA to follow my dream," he recalled.

The teenager went alone to Connecticut and by 1977 graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in plasma physics. He went on to have seven flights, a record he shares with Jerry Ross at the top of the astronaut pyramid. Today, Chang-Diaz, 61, is attempting to develop a revolutionary plasma rocket engine at his company, Ad Astra Rocket Co., that could reach Mars in a fraction of the time a conventional rocket would take.

Story Musgrave, who is the only astronaut to fly aboard all five shuttles and was the hands-on mechanic who fixed the Hubble Space Telescope, was perhaps the most highly educated of any astronaut. A chemist, mathematician, surgeon, biophysicist, business administrator and literary scholar by academic training, he has become a landscape contractor in Florida since leaving NASA.

"I own a bulldozer, a tree spade, two military dump trucks," said Musgrave, who flew six missions in all. "I do 20-acre projects. I was up in the cherry picker today trimming a tree."

Musgrave, 75, has a 5-year-old daughter, one of five children who range up to 50 years old. "Everybody's genes are different," he said.

Shuttle veterans can earn considerable speaking fees. Richard Searfoss, a retired Air Force colonel and veteran of three shuttle flights, gives 30 to 40 speeches a year and does experimental test flying in Mojave.

But for many astronauts, their aspirations to fly into space carried a heavy personal price. The probability of death after the 2003 Columbia accident was 1 in 56, a grim statistic in any profession. It was hardest on spouses and children.

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