Sonoma man reflects on life as an Apollo astronaut
This has been an insanely busy year for Rusty Schweickart. As a member of a small and exclusive club of Apollo astronauts whose membership is dwindling, Schweickart, who lives in Sonoma, finds himself in high global demand in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20.
“I have probably turned down 50 or 60 invitations so far this year and accepted about the same number. It’s totally bonkers,” said the 83-year-old research scientist and MIT-trained aeronautical engineer, who piloted Apollo 9, the first manned flight test of the lunar module. That critical mission in March 1969 paved the way four months later for Apollo 11, the first successful moon landing.
In June, Schweickhart was a guest at Starmus V, a global festival celebrating astronomy, space exploration and cosmology. He also was in Luxembourg for Asteroid Day, a United Nations’ day of global awareness and education about asteroids that he co-founded. He has a particular interest in the study of asteroids, and in 2002 co-founded the B612 Foundation, a non-profit organization that champions the development of spaceflight capability to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts. Not surprisingly, he’s headed down to The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida this week for Apollo 11 50th anniversary festivities, including a VIP gala sponsored by Northrop Grumman, which designed and built the lunar lander.
Somewhere amid all that, he found time to serve as grand marshal of Sonoma’s Fourth of July parade and host a gathering of his clan for the holiday in his home which, he points out, is in the appropriately named Valley of the Moon.
“It’s totally crazy, so demanding and exhausting,” he said of his more-than-packed schedule.
Of the 32 astronauts assigned to the Apollo manned lunar landing program in the 1960s, only half are still living. The survivor’s club includes Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of Apollo 11, and both of Schweikart’s Apollo 9 crewmates — James McDivitt and David Scott.
He joined Scott and McDivitt in March for a 50th anniversary celebration of Apollo 9 at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Like most of the more than 500 million people around the world who tuned in to the first moon landing, Schweickart watched it on television. He just happened to be in the home of Apollo 11 crewman Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon only moments after Armstrong.
“The astronauts generally spent time with other astronaut’s families who were flying to help them out in case they had any questions,” he said.
“I helped to get them to understand what was happening.”
Schweickart’s memories of the mood in the room are dim. But space flights were emotionally rough for astronaut’s wives. Aldrin’s wife at the time, Joan Archer, attended church that day.
A press photographer captured her turning her face away from the TV screen as the lunar lander touched down on the moon.
Far more vivid are Schweickart’s memories of his own trip into space.
“Looking out the window at the earth is absolutely shockingly beautiful,” he said.
“It was a life changing experience. When you see how beautiful it is you realize all the life that means anything to us is here on this planet in this small corner of the universe. It is a very impressive thing.”