When I graduated college the first time in 1996, the World was in the middle of a serious change in employment outlook. Across the board, people were losing their jobs, good jobs. Companies were entering wave after wave of downsizing, and managers got the sack after 10, 20, or 30 years with their companies. From a purely corporate perspective it made sense of course. Why keep expensive executives around if they could be made redundant or outsourced? From a human point though, it was pretty shitty. It became obvious that this trend was here to stay, and would probably get much worse. I didn’t see a long-term corporate career track as a viable future, and I made up my mind that in the long run, I would be self-employed. Working for someone else had lost its sex appeal. However, there were to be some distractions along the way. The first of these distractions came in the form of an ‘event’ that had taken place back in 1992. I was still in high school then, and didn’t become aware until I read about it during my last year of college. The event in question was STS-45.
On March 24, 1992 at 8:13am, space shuttle Atlantis departed the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on mission STS-45, carrying the first Belgian astronaut, Dirk Frimout. I found out about this over Christmas in Singapore in 1995. Paul, a good friend of the family gave me a signed copy of Frimout’s book ‘In Search of the Blue Planet’ (original title: ‘Op Zoek Naar De Blauwe Planeet’), which he co-wrote with journalist Suzy Hendrickx. This book came at the right moment in time. Academically things were going really well, and I felt on top of the World. I was having a blast building flight time. The first module of the International Space Station ISS was under construction, and John Glenn was contemplating going for another ride up. And now a Belgian had earned his astronaut wings. Could this possibly be something I could do? After all, what boy hasn’t dreamt of being an astronaut?
I wrote to NASA asking for an application, and for information on what the requirements were for selection. It came in the mail about three weeks later, and I have to say getting anything in the mail with NASA written on it is pretty exciting. They were looking for two types of astronaut, ‘pilot astronauts’, and ‘mission specialists’. Not too many guesses as to which one I wanted to go for. There was however, a problem… They were looking for people with at least 1000 hours of ‘pilot in command’ time on jet aircraft. I was nearing 200hrs, a lot of it with an instructor in command, and on aircraft with a piston engine and a propeller instead of an afterburner. Most of the Shuttle pilots had come from the Air Force and Navy, flying jet fighters. How could I get around this problem? Being a total eccentric, and sometimes hopelessly impractical individual, I asked myself the following question: “How much would a small jet cost to buy, fly it 1000 hours, and how would this compare to the cost of getting all my ratings as an airline pilot”?. Total cost of training at OATS in Oxford, including a Boeing 737 type rating was around US$120,000. So that would have to be my ‘hypothetical budget’. Next time I was at the airport, I would pick up a copy of Trade-A-Plane, and see what was available. I was in need of a ‘Budget Jet Fighter’…
I bought the periodical and I went directly to the ‘Warbird-Jet’ category. To my delight, quite a lot of aircraft were for sale. The first thing I saw was a picture of a stunning F-100 Super Sabre. Fabulous machine, but the owner was asking $650,000 which was ever-so-slightly over budget. Next was a Lockheed T-33 trainer. Docile handling with freshly serviced ejection seats, but at $230,000 still a ‘bit’ expensive. A Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker! Alas, the owners wanted $1Million… The first aircraft I actually made a phone call about was a Fouga Magister, priced at $85,000. It was based in California. However, the first thing the rep asked was how much flight time I had. When I gave him the honest answer he remained polite, but informed me that they wouldn’t sell a jet to anyone with less than 500 hours ‘In Command’ time. Next on the list was a former Singapore Armed Forces Hawker Hunter, $35,000. For this one, I had to make a call to Australia. Again, one of the first things the broker asked me was how much flight experience I had. He didn’t outright refuse to sell, but he strongly recommended against it, the Hunter being a very complex aircraft to fly. Annoying as this was for an eager trainee pilot to hear, it should be noted that these were some very honest sellers. They were genuinely concerned with the continued welfare of their merchandise, and anyone that might be flying it or watching it fly from the ground.
Thus far the ‘non-dodgy’ stuff. Next on the list, a MiG-21 UM, $18,000 with spare engine, located in Ontario, Canada. This was starting to sound more promising. The UM was a two-seater, so it would mean I could theoretically take people for rides. I called up the broker, a friendly chap named Mike with a very thick Russian accent. It turns out he was also the broker for the million dollar ‘Flanker’. He promised to fax me a spec sheet with shipping costs later that afternoon, and so he did. The pictures and schematic of the MiG looked awesome. The numbers however, were a bit worrisome.
The first thing that struck me was the fuel capacity, which with drop tanks was over 1100 gallons. Jet fuel in those days cost around $1,40/gallon at the local airfield, which meant that fillin’ her up would cost over $1500! The top speed of Mach 2.05 was a bit daunting as well. The ‘never exceed’ speed on the Cessna 152 I flew was 149 knots, above which any control inputs could tear the wings off. Getting up to cruise speed would require a gas-guzzling full afterburner takeoff, reducing my range to a miserable few hundred miles. And that was just the fuel… I also needed to factor maintenance into the equation. A licensed Aircraft and Powerplant mechanic cost $85/hr. This particular plane required more than 24 hours of maintenance for every hour flown. In the end, by my calculations (fuel, maintenance, machine gun permits, taxes, and insurance!) the total cost per flight hour came to almost $5000 which would mean one hell of an expensive Big Mac! (see ‘Why McDonald’s Deserves a Michelin Star’). Also, going supersonic in US airspace requires a nearly impossible to get FAA permit. The ‘Budget Jet Fighter’ was a bit farfetched, and in hindsight reminds me of an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson famously said: ‘Yes, you can buy a supercar for under £10,000, but for the love of God, don’t!’
Not being interested in an expensive lawn ornament, the idea of ‘Mission Specialist’ suddenly became a lot more appealing. Part of doing my ‘homework’, was contacting some current and past ones, and asking about their work experience. I corresponded with Janice Voss, who offered some interesting insights. I also met Kathy Sullivan the following summer at Denison, when she gave a lecture to kids at a summer camp. She flew with Frimout on STS-45 and I was very excited to meet her. Just for fun, I made an attempt at contacting some of the original ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts, the pioneers. My strongest lead was for Gordon Cooper, pilot of Mercury-Atlas 9 in 1963, and Gemini 5 (along with Pete Conrad) in 1965. He was portrayed brilliantly by actor Dennis Quaid in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, and is still one of my biggest all-time heroes. Browsing through Who’s Who in America, I found out he was the president of Galaxy Group, a company in Van Nuys, California. The company’s address and phone number were listed. One late afternoon, I picked up my dorm room phone and dialed the number. Expecting a secretary to pick up, I was surprised to hear a male voice with an Oklahoma drawl answer with: “Afternoon, Galaxy…”. I explained that I was interested in becoming an astronaut and was curious about Mr. Cooper’s experiences. There was a pause on the other end, and then the words came that very nearly made me crap my pants: “Well, this is Gordon Cooper you’re speaking to right now. What do you want to know?”. For a moment I was speechless, and this is without a shred of doubt the most nervous I have ever been on the phone with anyone. It was a very enjoyable chat, and I’ll forever be thankful for having the opportunity to have a personal conversation with one of my heroes, a true American legend.
Meeting the requirements for selection as a Mission Specialist was going to be a lengthy undertaking, as it pretty much required a PhD in science or engineering. This was my motivation for re-enrolling at Denison for another degree. By then, Denison’s undergraduate Physics & Astronomy department had established itself as one of the best in the country, and I felt I was in good hands. I continued my flying on the weekends, and it certainly took on the flavors of the moment. The flight school in Newark had just obtained use of a gorgeous blue Piper Cherokee 180 which became my new toy (I very nearly crashed it a year later, one dark and fuel-starved night over Ft Wayne, Indiana… but that’s another story). One aspect of astronaut training which had always fascinated me, were the zero gravity flights. Until 2004, NASA trained astronauts on a KC-135 Stratotanker (a military variant of the Boeing 707). When flown in a parabolic flight path, it provided up to 25 seconds of weightlessness for those aboard. The plane was affectionately known as the Vomit Comet. I was eager to try this out for myself, and had my instructor demonstrate the maneuver in the Piper, which then became known as the Vomit Comet Jr. It is not a particularly difficult or dangerous maneuver, but it is way too much fun! You start at a safe altitude and go into a moderate dive. As you accelerate to about 110 knots, you pull back on the controls and climb steeply until the airspeed bleeds off to about 75, which is when you push the nose down. If you do it right, you can get around 3-4 seconds where everything in the cockpit that wasn’t tied down will be floating past your eyeballs. I took several of my friends up in the Piper, and only one (a German exchange student) lost her lunch, luckily well after we were back on the ground. The most memorable of these flights was when I took my friend Jason up. Jason at the time was a huge ‘Trekkie’ and had a large model of the Star Trek Voyager on his desk, and he was very eager to see it float in midair, which it did, three times, for about four seconds each. We both had a mile wide grin on our face on the ride back to campus.
As we all know, I never did make it into space. Physics is a subject which fascinated me, but the mathematical skill required to bring it to a successful conclusion, I must admit just wasn’t there. I switched over to geology, which for me was a lot more ‘user-friendly’. With a professor I was able to do some research on the Neptune-Triton system which was intense, but enjoyable. By the time graduation came, I had lost my drive and was burnt out. The trend in science was that my Doctoral Thesis would involve roughly 100,000 words about some minuscule aspect of an even tinier detail of my field of study. ‘Big picture’-research was gone. Even though I enjoy reading an occasional peer-reviewed article in Nature or Icarus, as a general rule I find National Geographic and Harry Potter to be far more gratifying.
One thing is for sure though. I will never have that lingering guilt swimming around in the back of my mind asking: “Could I have done this?” Because I gave it all I had, and the honest answer is no. And I truly am ok with that. My basic life philosophy is that when a good opportunity presents itself, you should go for it and try. Chances are brutally good that it won’t work out, but what you get out of the experience is often amazing, and teaches you a lot about life and about yourself. For me, the most important lesson so far, is to not be afraid of failure. That’s where you find out what your strengths and your limits are, and where your ego gets in line with your abilities. The second most important lesson is that after a failure, you get up off your ass, figure out what you want to do next, and try again and again until eventually you do succeed. Where this process will ultimately lead me I don’t know, but it certainly has a habit of leaving me with an inexhaustible supply of great stories to write about.