LOS ANGELES – 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, went on to climb Mount Everest and became 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 who 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 re-entry 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.
And their stories became much more a part of the common American fabric, even as they achieved something rarer than winning a lottery.
Some shuttle astronauts 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 chief 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 Wernher 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 that Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a doctorate in plasma physics. He went on to have seven flights, 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 flew six missions 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 literati 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,” Musgrave said. “I do 20-acre projects. I was up in the cherry picker today trimming a tree.”
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.
“For some, their children would beg them, ‘Daddy, don’t go again,’ ” said Michael Cassutt, a Studio City screenwriter and biographer of astronauts.
NASA currently has 62 astronauts. They include 33 military officers, four medical doctors, 15 who hold doctorates and five combat veterans, according to their official biographies.
For the pilots and commanders, the love of flying never ended. Five former shuttle pilots ended up at commercial airlines, four of them at Southwest Airlines.
The high altitude view “never gets old,” said Southwest Capt. Byron Lichtenberg, a former astronaut with a doctorate in biomedical engineering from MIT and a veteran of 238 combat missions in Vietnam. “It is always beautiful.”
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