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Former NASA astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, 77, who lives in Sonoma, served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 9 in 1969.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / PD
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 12:36 p.m.

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

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Former NASA astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, 77, who lives in Sonoma, served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 9 in 1969.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / PD

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.

But Schweickart didn't get a chance to articulate his feelings until five years later, when he gave a talk, “No Frames, No Boundaries,” at a conference on Long Island.

“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing,” he told the crowd of 60 people. “And that makes a change.”

This off-the-cuff talk, in which he narrates the nuts and bolts of the Apollo 9 mission as well as what it meant for humanity to look back at itself, was a life-changing moment for the down-to-earth astronaut.

“I started to talk and went on for 40 minutes,” he said. “And when I got done, half the people were crying, and I was crying, too.”

In a way, Schweickart's most important contributions have come after that historic 1969 flight. Having sufferered nausea from space sickness — a common reaction as the body tries to adapt to weightlessness — he volunteered to become part of a research study.

“We needed to learn more about it so that we didn't needlessly risk anyone on subsequent flights,” he said. “Hence, I was a guinea pig while my buddies went to the moon.”

He also served as back-up commander of the first Skylab space-station mission in the spring of 1973, developing a plan for erecting an emergency solar shade and saving the space station after its thermal shield was lost upon launch. NASA honored him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1969 and the Exceptional Service Medal in 1973.

After leaving NASA in 1977, Schweickart worked as assistant for science and technology to California Gov. Jerry Brown until 1979, then served as the Commissioner of Energy for California for five years.

In 1984, he co-founded the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), a non-political, professional organization of cosmonauts and astronauts.

“We had to have e-mail with the cosmonauts,” he said. “So I was clandestinely taking the first laptop computers into the Soviet Union.”

In 1988, the ASE published a coffee-table book of photographs, “The Home Planet,” with a preface by Schweickart. It became an international bestseller.

In 2001, Schweickart co-founded the nonprofit B612 Foundation, bringing together scientists and astronauts to champion a plan to protect Earth from future asteroid hits.

Just last month, when a meteor struck Russia the same week that the 150-foot-wide Asteroid 2012 DA 14 came within 17,200 miles of Earth, Schweickart's inbox was jammed with more than 3,000 emails about the asteroid threat.

“There are about 1 million out there that periodically cross our orbit, that, if they hit, could wipe out a city,” he said. “We can prevent those impacts ... if we find them and have adequate early warning.”

Fighting for the survival of Earth has become a lifelong mission for Schweickart, whose love of philosophy and poetry, classical music and art made him stand out among his peers.

“Philosophy was one of my things, and I was thoughtful and well read,” he said. “I was known as the hippie astronaut.”

Schweickart has come a long way from his childhood as a freckle-faced farm boy in Neptune Township, N.J. From a young age, his piercing blue eyes were trained at the sky.

“Airplanes were my favorite things,” he said. “We were near Lakehurst Naval Air Station, where the Navy did their fighter training, and I knew all of the fighter jets by sight by the age of 6.”

Schweickart earned his bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT, trained as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, then went back to MIT for his master's degree in aeronautics/astronautics.

While Schweickart was working on his master's and flying in the Air National Guard, the first astronaut, Alan Shepard, went into space in 1961.

When the Berlin Wall went up, also in 1961, Schweickart's squadron was deployed over eastern France. Then astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth in 1962, and Schweikart's life took on a new focus.

“I was sitting in the base café with a cup of coffee, reading an account of Glenn's flight,” he said. “Then I went into a reverie, and when I came back to the present, my coffee was cold.”

Back at MIT, Schweickart started to work on his goal to become an astronaut. By then, a second group of astronauts had been accepted by NASA.

By May 1963, the test-pilot requirement had been dropped, and Schweickart applied, flying his “butt off” to boost his high-performance jet experience to more than 1,000 hours. Then came a raft of medical exams, aptitude tests, security clearances and psychological exams.

In October 1963, he got a phone call from Deke Slayton, NASA's director of flight crew operations. He had been chosen as one of 14 astronauts out of 730 who had applied for the third group.

By this time, he was married and the father of four young children, with a fifth on the way. On his family's way down to Houston, the news broke that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

“It was surreal and really crazy,” he said. “It was a very dramatic time.”

A round of intensive training ensued, and Schweickart went to Cape Canaveral, where he helped the Gemini launch team in its bunker-like blockhouse, where the only computers where inside their heads. The goal of the Gemini program was to extend the length of manned space flight begun by Alan Shepard and the Mercury program.

“I watched the hold-on bolts through a periscope,” he said, of the mechanism that held the spacecraft to the launch pad. The crew was as close as they could safely get to the spacecraft.

“And I would call lift-off” when he saw the bolts let go.

The Apollo program was designed to land a human on the moon. Schweikart's crew had been selected as the back-up crew for the first Apollo flight, but a series of unfortunate events threw a wrench in the works.

In 1965, Schweickart was driving in L.A. when he heard on the radio that three Apollo 1 astronauts had been killed in a fire on the pad.

“That fire was a horrible thing, and everything came to a screeching halt,” he said. “That was a year of agonizing rethinking, and all the missions got screwed up.”

His crew was assigned to the first lunar module flight, but even that was delayed by design issues. Schweickart and McDivitt were part of the engineering team, flying back and forth from the West Coast to Long Island, where Grumman Aircraft Engineering was building the lunar module.

“You're fixing things, and things don't work, and you have to troubleshoot it,” he said. “Finally we said, 'You can't fly this,' and then we switched to the LM-3.”

It was during his second day in space, when he had to put on his spacesuit and move through the tunnel into the lunar module, that Schweickart felt his first wave of space sickness. While testing switches in the lunar module, another wave of nausea came over him.

“I knew I was susceptible to motion sickness,” he said. “The Russians had had problems, and on Apollo 8, Frank Borman got sick.”

Because he was supposed to test the spacesuit and the backpack the next day — where motion sickness could be fatal — the team decided to cancel his spacewalk.

It was a low point in his life, as the future of the entire space program seemed to rest on his shoulders.

“I'm thinking ... 'There goes the whole Kennedy plan to get a man to the moon by the end of the decade,'” he said. “That was a very bad night.”

But the next day, Schweickart felt better, and his spacewalk went ahead. Later, Schweickart and McDivitt test-flew the lunar module, practicing undocking, separation, rendezvous and docking maneuvers and flying it about 125 miles from the command module.

While he never got to the moon, Schweickart's crew on Apollo 9 performed engineering tests that helped bring back their friends on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

“I was not directly involved in the recovery and rescue operation,” he said. “But indirectly, it happens that we did a number of tests during our Apollo 9 flight which were key to them getting back. ... We're just grateful that we were able to get them back alive.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@presdemocrat.com.)

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