Sonoma man reflects on life as an Apollo astronaut

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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.

Small club

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.”

Schweickart, whose signature red hair is now white, was only 33 when he went up in space, and was among the youngest of the Apollo astronauts.

The first manned flight of the lunar module, Apollo 9 was critical in testing and determining if the actual moon landing mission would work. They tested docking the command service module and the lunar module and practiced transferring from one vehicle to the other.

During a 46-minute spacewalk Schweickart tested the portable life support backpack which was subsequently used on the lunar surface explorations.

It also didn’t happen.

Walk delayed

Schweickart was overcome with motion sickness before the crucial walk. Little was known about space sickness at the time.

“We know a lot more than we did then. You get over it in a day or so. Unfortunately, I did the worst thing I could have done,” he said.

“I kept my head still and tried to avoid it. The problem with that is you also avoid adapting. So what I did logically in trying to avoid getting sick, simply delayed my getting sick until the worst possible time.”

The walk was called off. As luck would have it, he adapted by the next day and was able to take his important stroll into space.

Schweickart went on to work on the Skylab program and later served in executive functions in satellite and telecommunications companies and served as a Commissioner of Energy for the State of California in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He said of course he would love to have been one of the 12 astronauts who had the privilege of walking on the moon.

“Everyone who was an astronaut wanted to go to the moon,” he said. “Unfortunately everybody could not. Everyone wants to be a quarterback on the winning football team ... but everyone can’t be the hero. Nevertheless, the whole team makes the quarterback what he is.”

Auction of memorabilia

On July 20, Sotheby’s in New York is auctioning off more than 220 lots of authentic space gear and memorabilia from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, including items consigned by Schweickart.

Between them, he and his wife Nancy Ramsey have seven children, 11 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.

He said none of his offspring are interested in his collection so he has been divesting himself over time.

What Schweickart took away from his experience looking down on earth couldn’t be measured by memorabilia. It transformed his perspective on humanity and the planet we share.

He took up with him 23 treasured quotations from people such as John F. and Robert Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder and Bertrand Russell.

“Those things were my way of saying this is much bigger than me. I am a human being going into space and I wanted to take a sample of the wisdom of human life.

“Those were very precious to me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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