What are astronauts really like?

Astronaut Symbol

Astronaut Symbol

These modern-day heroes became my friends in the Shuttle’s heyday.  All are very bright (some brilliant), friendly, hard-working, reliable, and productive.  I had the opportunity to serve twice on selection boards for new astronauts.  We liked to say we were looking for high-performing, low-maintenance people.

That is not to say they were serious all the time.  In fact, they were the most fun-loving people I have ever known.  There was the constant back-and-forth banter between fighter pilots and attack pilots, between the Air Force guys and the Navy ones (“Anybody can land on a stable, seven-thousand-foot runway.  Only a Navy pilot can put a plane down on a pitching aircraft carrier.”)  And, oh my, the Marines were always the brunt of the jokes.

The scientists in the group were not left out.  On one of his flights, my husband and his co-pilot were required to point a cargo bay telescope at specific regions of the sky.

“Oh, Charlie, we’re going to observe a clear, dark region at a high galactic altitude!”  Hoot said, reading his checklist.

An informal crew picture.

An informal crew picture.

“Oh, wow, man; cooool!” Charlie replied.

The two astronomers on board were not amused.  They taped a sign on the back of the forward seats that read, “Intellectual Dead Zone.”

One of the more creative stunts was the design of informal crew pictures.  Few have made it into the official annals of spaceflight.  My second crew dressed up like the characters from M*A*S*H, complete with Hot Lips, Radar, and Klinger.

There are even a few funny crew patches in private files.  The chief of crew operations had to approve all patches.  Jokingly, he looked at one and told the commander there had never been a dragon on a patch and to add one.  The design that came back with Columbia as a fire-breathing dragon destroying a Russian space vehicle was not acceptable.  Cleverly, to comply with the order, the crew arranged stars on the patch in the shape of the constellation Draco (the dragon).

My favorite space picture is a painting by the famous astronaut artist Alan Bean, who paints fantastic moonscapes. He shows his Apollo 12 crew on the lunar surface.  There are two funny things in the picture. Look carefully. You’ll see two fingers forming horns above the central figure’s helmet.  Look again. There were never more than two men on the moon at a time.  The Command Module pilot always remained in lunar orbit but Alan has pretended he walked on the moon with them.

Apollo 16 crew

Apollo 12 crew

All these friends of mine are unassuming heroes.  I’m sure that they feel as I do: we were given extraordinary opportunities to do incredible things for which we should give back.

While I am honored to be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame this month, I am particularly happy to be a part of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation that funds young college students, allowing them to become tomorrow’s heroes.


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  1. The Apollo crew you mention, should be 12, not 16…

  2. i’ve seen the 51D tuxedo crew pic and the 61C crew pic with the helmets down. Would love to see other gag pics from both yours and Hoot’s missions as well as the gag patches a!

  3. There is no doubt in my mind that the astronaut corps represents the best and brightest individuals–who work as a team–in our country.

  4. I have a signed copy of one of his paintings. He is an excellent artist.

  5. We have a signed print of Bean/Conrad/Gordon and have NEVER noticed the ‘horns’ in the picture…..!!
    Looking forward to getting a copy of your book when it comes out! Perhaps we’ll see you at another Autographica when it does!

  6. What a great article!!! So personal, funny, but informative. You so talented!!!!


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