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Inspired by Apollo 11 as a child, Michigan astronaut recalls his three trips to space


Fifty years ago this week, America crowded around television sets to watch Neil Armstrong take man's first step onto the moon. Among the viewers was a kid from East Detroit named Jerry Linenger.

That moon walk inspired the then 14-year-old to become a NASA astronaut. Linenger went on to man missions aboard two U.S. space shuttles and the Russian space station Mir, and travel some 54 million miles in space.

Stateside talks to Jerry Linenger about that fateful July day in 1969, and how he turned a childhood dream into a career.

In July of 1969, Linenger and his family were camping in Canada. The campsite was densely packed, everyone gathered together with their eyes glued to a small black and white screen. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed out of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and took the first steps onto the surface of the moon.

As he watched the scene on a generator-powered TV placed atop a picnic table, Linenger was awestruck.

“Looking up at the moon I said, ‘Our guys are up there,’ I told my brother Ken, ‘Our guys are up there. That’s incredible,’” Linenger said. “That inspired the living daylights out of me. Went home [to a] blue collar neighborhood in Detroit. Dad drove a telephone truck, five kids in the family, and I said, ‘Dad, I want to be an astronaut some day.’”

Linenger took that aspiration and launched into action. After high school, he joined the Navy, and went to medical school at Wayne State University. Then, in August, 1992, he became a member of NASA’s Astronaut Group 14.

Linenger's first mission to space was in 1994 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, but he's most well-known for his time aboard the Russian space station Mir. That trip marked a new, internationally collaborative chapter in space exploration history. Linenger was the first American to conduct a space walk from a foreign space station wearing a non-American space suit.

Even in a seemingly small space station, Linenger says never felt claustrophobic, and loved the feeling of weightlessness.

“I was flying as if I had done that all my life, and I could be upside down talking to you right now, and I would be totally comfortable,” Lingenger said. “You can be up on the ceiling, you can be down on the floor, you can be standing on a wall.”

During Linenger’s nearly five-months on board the space station, he and his two Russian crewmates survived the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft.

“You learn to compartmentalize the chaos around you, and use your brain and work your way through the problem,” Linenger said. “You keep your cool, and you survive. Then you go to a dark corner of the space station and...go through the emotion of it, and let those emotions out.”

NASA's budget for fiscal year 2020 is $21 billion, up 1.4% over fiscal year 2019. Linenger says it's still important to fund development of new space technology, even in an age where space travel is not the government’s top priority.

“The important thing is we do something challenging and hard. And so it brings out the best in us, and so it keeps our technology on the cutting edge and competitive in the global competitive environment we find ourselves in," he explained.

These days, Linenger is enjoying life and retirement at his home in Michigan's Leelenau Peninsula. But he has some advice for others inspired by the trillions of twinkling stars beyond the earth.

“To any young person, you’re in the right place at the right time, and the sky is not the limit. I found out the sky is not the limit, you can go to space, and who knows where we go to [in the] next generation.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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