This year ends with 536 humans being the total number who have been blasted off this planet into outer space during the past 60 years.
When you consider about 15 billion have been born since 1920, that is a ratio of 1 out of 280 million people have punched a ticket to outer space. And that makes meeting an astronaut a big deal!
Recently I’ve been lucky to attend some astronaut gatherings at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, and believe me, people love meeting astronauts!
Astronauts are often thought of as some sort of superheroes, and they are in the minds of space geeks who seek to stand in their aura and snag an autograph.
And as much as you idolize these space travelers, hanging around them you realize they are just normal humans like you. After they take their blue jump suit off, they have wants, needs and problems just like everyone else.
There seem to be two types of astronauts: ones who forever wear their mission patches and love the adulation, and others who have moved on to new careers in the business world. Some like to be known who they are, and others like to be anonymous.
Maybe you’ve been lucky to meet a Space Shuttle astronaut or two along your path in life. Some of you might be friends or done business with a space man or woman. But one place to see a person talking about their trip to outer space is the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex near the NASA workers’ KSC site with the launch pads and largest one-story building in the world the VAB (Vehicular Assembly Building).
For the price of admission, there is an astronaut every day giving a talk about being in outer space. Though there is a lot to see at the Visitor Complex including the Atlantis Space Shuttle, I recommend catching the “Astronaut Encounter” at 1 or 3 pm, getting a photo with the space flier and then an autograph at 4 pm in the world’s largest space memorabilia store.
Each astronaut has a unique story to tell, whether one of the first five female astronauts like Rhea Seddon, or the world’s most launched human, Purdue-proud Jerry Ross with seven Shuttle flights and 9 spacewalks during his 30-year astronaut career. West Virginia’s only astronaut, Jon McBride, is just as interesting talking about piloting his only Shuttle flight as it is to hear four-time Shuttle mission specialist and spacewalker Tom Jones.
Hearing moonwalker John Young talk about lunar dust being itchy like fiberglass or Shuttle spacewalker Kathryn Thornton tell about leaving her glove prints all over the Hubble Space telescope are the gems of insight that makes you a part of the astronaut experience.
These are just a few of the astronauts I’ve been fortunate to encounter. The audiences at Kennedy Visitor Complex are of all age groups and nationalities. And yes, the astronauts have heard the same questions many times. But they realize what a big deal it is for people to hear the first-hand account from someone who has escaped Earth’s gravity grip and seen our world unlike any of the billions of humans who’ve lived.
“I enjoy it, or I wouldn’t do it,” said 74-year-old McBride, who changed careers during the Challenger disaster investigation instead of waiting four or five years for another flight. “It’s all about reaching the younger generations and affirming they can do anything they set their minds to, even becoming an astronaut.”
Astronauts can turn up at press conferences, space industry events and corporate seminars. The astronauts are trained in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, and launched from KSC on Merritt Island east of Orlando and south of Daytona. So, in those areas you might see an astronaut at the store, restaurant, gas station or a yard sale!
There is a mix of young and old astronauts among the 300-plus Americans who have ventured into outer space. All the Mercury Seven astronauts have died, and the last was John Glenn in December 2016. The numbers of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts who took us to the Moon are dwindling.
Of the 24 men who made the trip to orbit the Moon, half are still alive and in their 80s. That includes six of the 12 moonwalkers, always an event when they make a public appearance. John Young has Alzheimer’s disease, but still robust are Al Bean, David Scott, Charlie Duke and Harrison Schmitt.
And then there is Apollo 11 moon pilot Buzz Aldrin. The 87-year-old icon has assumed the height of international celebrity, blasting Twitter nearly daily with is public escapades. Aldrin is in great health for his age and promotes going to Mars as he immerses himself among young people at conferences and events. And the second moonwalker, who Neil Armstrong famously photographed at Tranquility Base in 1969, has done some wild things the past two years, including the oldest person to go to the South Pole; a day flying with the Blue Angels air show; VIP at the Super Bowl and Presidential Inauguration, and just about anything Buzz wants to do!
One common theme that Buzz Aldrin and all the astronauts have is to motivate today’s youth to chase their dreams and never give up, as each astronaut’s story is an unpredictable path of life’s twists and turns.
Many astronauts say they daydreamed in their youth about outer space. And in today’s classrooms are the daydreaming students who will become the men and woman taking America back to the Moon and eventually Mars. And it is on the shoulders of past astronauts where they will stand and reach for the stars.