Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pittsburgh astronaut looks beyond moon

Alan Wallace
Pittsburg Tribune - TribLIVE/Opinion

Dr. Jay Apt's astronaut days came long after the Apollo missions to the moon, centering instead on NASA's space shuttle program.

But he was present at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 lifted off on its way to mankind's first lunar landing -- and his ideas about what the space agency, and private space ventures, should be aiming for these days differ markedly from NASA's.

As July 20's 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon approaches, renewed and growing public and media buzz focuses on Apollo 11.

But Apt says he first drew inspiration for the direction his career would take from NASA's earlier Mercury program, which first put an American in space, and Gemini program, which flew two-man spacecraft that worked out docking and rendezvous procedures that would be critical for Apollo missions.

As the launch of Apollo 11 approached, Apt was a Harvard undergraduate -- and, fortuitously, one of the folks helping run Model Rocketry, a 50,000-circulation monthly magazine. That work enabled him to snag a press pass that he used to witness the launch from Pad 39-A in person, an experience that made a lasting impression.

"It was just wonderful," Apt recalls. "It certainly was inspirational."

He would not join NASA until 1980, when he became a planetary scientist at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. In 1982, he began a three-year stint at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he was a flight controller responsible for shuttle payload operations.

Apt was selected as an astronaut candidate in June 1985 and qualified as an astronaut in July 1986, but he was not bothered that no lunar mission ever would be possible for him.

Read the posting HERE.