When I was little, some kids said they wanted to be farmers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, baseball players, or firemen. But I couldn’t say I wanted to be an astronaut.
When I was born on January 20, 1948, there were no astronauts. There were no space capsules or Space Shuttles. There was no NASA and no International Space Station. Orville Wright—who with his brother Wilbur designed, built, and flew the world’s first airplane—was still alive. He died ten days later at the age of seventy-six.
Airplane flight was barely forty-four years old, and the term “Jet Age” was so new it was rarely used. The real “Jet Age” was still a few years away, and the “Space Age” would drop right on top of it as daring pilots such as Chuck Yeager pushed the boundaries of possibility. On October 14, 1947, Chuck had piloted the Bell X-1 airplane and flew faster than the speed of sound for the first time.
The only spacemen in 1948 were Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and they were in comic books and movies. While space had captured the imaginations of science fiction writers and some scientists, the public viewed spacemen as whimsically as the “Man in the Moon.” Space travel was still a fantasy.
In 1948, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who later would become the second American in space and the first person in the world to be launched twice, was a sophomore studying engineering at Purdue University, seventy miles south of my northern Indiana hometown. He’d probably never heard the word “astronaut.” He wanted to be a United States Air Force pilot. Neil Armstrong was an eighteen-year-old Purdue freshman with no idea that in twenty-one years he would put his bootprints on the Moon.
While they could not know what lay ahead, the future was brewing inside them as they walked across the redbrick campus carrying thick calculus and physics textbooks and slide rules holstered in leather cases. The next twenty-one years would transform the world, and I lived through it. It made me what I am today.
I am an astronaut.
In my life I have seen views of Earth and the universe from a perspective once known only to God. And yet, I grew up in a time so distant from today that electric can openers were considered high tech. And my family didn’t have one.
I have launched into space seven times and ventured into the blackness of the universe on nine spacewalks.
From two hundred miles high I have watched lightning pop through dark clouds stretched across the Amazon, seen the Himalayas reach up to greet me, and looked down at the Indiana hometown from where I once looked up at the stars.
The world we live in today was unimaginable when I was a boy, and space has made the difference. In the twenty-first century, all of us are as closely linked to space as the cellular phones in our pockets. We are linked to space by television, financial transactions, the Internet, weather forecasts, and GPS. The technology we employ every day has been made possible by space systems. Our exploration of space has not only opened up the universe and fostered new technologies that we use here on Earth, but it has also taught us about our planet and its environment. The impact has been revolutionary.
Thirty years of that exploration was dominated by a ship that was launched, returned to Earth, and sent back into orbit again—the Space Shuttle. We were awed by it, inspired by it, and sometimes saddened by it. And I was there for it all—from the first Shuttle mission to the last. It was the adventure of my life. Now the Space Shuttle program has run its course, the orbiters are in museums, and I am very concerned that America is walking away from its hard-earned leadership in space.
Our missions were filled with danger, excitement, hard work, tension-breaking laughter, and good times as we launched off the face of the Earth in an explosion that could be seen, heard, and felt miles away. We did things no one had ever done before. I want to share the amazing experiences I had pursuing my dream and help you understand what it felt like to ride those rockets and walk in space.