Astronaut Corps Far From Ordinary People

The astronaut corps today is, of course, different than it was in days of yore. It's no longer a white male club. To its credit, NASA has made every effort to ensure that the astronaut corps reflects not only the composition of the United States, but the world as well.

But they are still the same in that they are highly gifted persons who have already achieved much by the time they earn their space wings.

What has changed more than the astronauts is how we perceive them. They seem more ordinary because we have, as a people, grown bored with the space shuttle. Until the Columbia broke apart over Texas, I doubt that one American out of a thousand could have named a single member of the crew.

It had become routine, and it seemed like astronauts were all around us, talking to our school children, leading our parades, acting like ordinary folks with extraordinary jobs.

Their numbers have grown over the years to the point that lots of people have known at least one of them, even before he or she became an astronaut.

I live in a small Alaskan town of 30,000 people who can only be reached by air or boat because there's no road leading into this place. To say it's isolated is an understatement.

Yet the day after the Columbia broke apart just minutes before it was supposed to land, my hometown newspaper, the Juneau Empire, splashed a story across page one about a local physician, Deb Lessmeier, who had been at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch because one of her friends from medical school was a member of the crew.

Laurel Clark, according to Lessmeier, may have seemed ordinary in that she loved life and was "so much of the Earth."

"She noticed every flower, every bird," Lessmeier told the Empire. No wonder Lessmeier wasn't surprised when she heard her old friend say in a television interview from space that the jingling of metal straps and buckles floating in the cabin sounded like music.

Ten days before the flight the two friends from medical school were talking on the phone, and the astronaut was preoccupied with helping her son with a school science project. She was, in the end, a mom first.

Lessmeir still has a photo of her and six friends, including Clark, that was taken during a sailing trip after medical school.

The caption on the photo reads: "A ship is safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are built for."

Ordinary? I think not.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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