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Space to earth

  • Former NASA astronaut Russell Schweickart served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 9 in 1969. Schweickart is chairman emeritus of the B612 Foundation, which is trying to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

When Apollo 9 astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart opens the front door of his home in Sonoma, it's obvious he's on a mission.

He runs and grabs a pair of binoculars, then sprints up the stairs to join his wife, Nancy Ramsey, on the second floor.

"There's an owl in my owl house!" he shouts excitedly, pointing out a Great Horned Owl roosting in a box high in an oak tree. "This is our first owl."

Slim and fit at 77, Schweickart has lived in Sonoma since 2007, where he spends his well-earned retirement years playing golf, travelling and supporting projects such as the Green Music Center.

The former astronaut, whose space voyage in 1969 paved the way for the first lunar landing, has never looked at Earth in quite the same way since circling it 151 times, through 151 sunrises and sunsets, 44 years ago this month.

As part of the three-man Apollo 9 team, Schweickart spent 10 days in low Earth orbit in March 1969. He was the first person to pilot the Lunar Module, and he tested the life-support system that would help put men on the moon a year later.

"We did as much as we could (to test) all that would take place in a lunar orbit," he said. "We couldn't go down to the surface, but I went outside with the backpack that was used to run around on the moon."

During that spacewalk, Schweickart got a gift from his crew members, James McDivitt and David Scott: a small window of time with nothing to do.

"Dave was taking pictures of me, and Dave said the camera jammed," he recalled. "So I had a famous five minutes, and I decided that this is my time to be a human being."

During that time, Schweickart gazed down at the green and blue planet from his cosmic perch and, like others before and after him, was overwhelmed by its glowing beauty and the awe-inspiring perception of the interconnectedness of all life.

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