Friday, February 09, 2007

Are astronauts still made of 'Right Stuff'?

Plain Talk by Al Neuharth, USA TODAY founder

February 9, 2007

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - This gateway to the universe has had 322 astronauts pass through in training or en route to space flights since the original seven in the "Mercury" program in 1959.

Accidents in space or on launch pads have taken the lives of 17. But until this week, not a single astronaut has been charged with any major law-breaking.

That remarkable record was broken when astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged with attempted murder in a love triangle involving a male astronaut and a launch-support servicewoman.

People around here are asking whether NASA has lowered its standards. I think it's a matter of the law of averages.

My perspective comes from covering the space program in its early years, getting to know the first seven famous astronauts very well and many since as a resident for the past 35 years in nearby Cocoa Beach.

My recollections are enhanced by these two favorite books about astronauts:

•The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe in 1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $12.95).

•John Glenn: A Memoir in 1999 (Bantam $27).

Glenn was the most straight-laced of the original seven. He wrote: "I read the riot act (to them) … saying, 'This program meant too much to the country to see it jeopardized by anyone who couldn't keep his pants zipped.' "

Wolfe hinted at some shenanigans but suggested that the most dangerous extra-curricular activity was by Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and his free-spirited buddies when they raced their Corvettes down A1A at breakneck speeds.

To me, every astronaut is a hero. Heroes are human, too. Astronaut Nowak deserves the best legal and psychiatric assistance available.

NASA should help provide it.


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