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All Curt Brown ever wanted to do was fly

Mary and Curt Brown moved to a home in the town of Hudson 10 years ago. Curt was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on April 20. Photo by Randy Hanson

Hudson can now boast of being home to not only an astronaut -- but a Hall of Fame astronaut.

Space shuttle commander Curt Brown was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center on April 20.

Brown and fellow inductees Eileen Collins and Bonnie Dunbar joined legends such as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and James Lovell in the Hall, bringing the total membership to 85.

"I've given a lot of talks, but that had to be most nervous thing I've had to do, because I was standing up in front of all these guys who were my heroes as a kid," Brown said when he sat down for an interview with the Star-Observer a week later.

Seated behind him on the stage during the induction ceremony were heroes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

"They did what I wanted to do as a kid -- walking on the moon, driving a buggy on the moon," Brown said of the earlier astronauts. "If it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't have been there or had a job. Now I'm getting inducted with them. And I'm supposed to say these insightful words. It was strange."

"It was humbling," said his wife, Mary.

The Browns bought a house on the north side of North Hudson 10 years ago and have quietly gone about their lives there.

When people ask what it is like to be married to an astronaut, Mary tells them that Curt takes the garbage to the end of the driveway and mows the lawn like every other husband in the neighborhood.

"He's a great guy," she added. "I'm very proud of him."

It takes some coaxing to get the modest Brown to talk about why he was selected for the Hall of Fame. When he got the notice that he was eligible, and a request for an update on what he's been doing, Brown wrote about the scholarship that he and Mary started for high school graduates in his hometown of Elizabethtown, N.C.

He did establish some records over his 13 years (1987 to 2000) with NASA, Brown allowed. His six flights in a seven-year period is a mark not likely to be equaled especially since NASA has discontinued manned launches.

Brown was the commander of three Shuttle missions and the pilot for three others.

His first mission was aboard Endeavor in 1992. He then flew on Atlantis, returned to Endeavor for another mission, and made three trips into space on Discovery, the last one in December 1999.

He was the commander for the 1998 return to space for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.

Brown went on multiple space walks, worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, orbited in close proximity to satellites for 21 hours, and flew the highest a space shuttle has gone on his last mission. All told, he logged more than 1,383 hours in space.


It's pretty high achievement for the son of a hardware store owner from Elizabethtown.

"I came from a small town, and shoot, if you went off to college you were kind of special. Back then, hardly anyone did," said Brown, now 57 years old.

He grew up putting together tricycles, bicycles, wagons, swing sets, outbuildings and anything else that needed assembling in his father's Western Auto store.

"Dad didn't care so much about the sports, because if I was in sports in the afternoons I wasn't in the store working," he said.

He played some baseball and ran with the track team, but at 6-foot-1 and 129 pounds he "was barely visible," Brown joked.

"I liked science and math and that kind of stuff. Those are the classes I liked to be in, I guess."

The hours he spent in the hardware store as a teen paid off later on in life.

"I'm a motorhead. I like working with stuff. I'm mechanically oriented, so it probably helped," he said. "With NASA, we go outside and do space walks. You've got to know how to work tools and that sort of stuff, as opposed to an academician that has been to school their whole life and never worked on their car in their backyard."

The dream was to fly

It was his desire to fly that led him to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and gave him the drive to qualify for the Air Force's elite Fighter Weapons School, and later the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

As a high school senior, he was offered an ROTC scholarship to a state university, but turned it down for the chance of receiving an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

The deciding factor, he said, was that you had to graduate first or second in your ROTC class to be guaranteed a slot in flight school. But every graduate of the Academy gets pilot training.

"I honestly didn't have that much confidence," Brown said in his lingering Carolina accent. "I said there's no way that I'll graduate first or second, so is there any other way we can do this and get into flying."

"My dream as a kid was to fly. It never came into my head about being an astronaut," he said.

At the Academy and the flight schools that followed, Brown's goal was to be the best pilot he could be.

That was good enough to earn him the prestigious job of test piloting A-10 and F-16 jets, and the notice of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"After Test Pilot School, I had all the squares filled for NASA to look at you. At that point, I said, why not give it a chance? They're not going to pick me if I don't apply. So why not apply?"

He went into the interview with the calm attitude that he wasn't going to be chosen, but would learn from the experience.

Shortly after returning to his squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida he got the call from NASA asking him if he wanted a job.

"That's when I really knew I wanted to become an astronaut," he said. "Because I got picked. Before then, my thing was flying -- being the best aviator I could."

What it's like

Brown joined NASA two and a half years after the launch explosion of the Shuttle Challenger in 1986, in which seven crew members lost their lives.

"It was more in my mom's mind than my mind, to be honest with you," Brown replied when asked if the disaster caused him any concern.

"When we step up to do this job, we understand what can happen... the vehicle is very complicated. It's a lot of energy being released to get off the pad and into orbit. And things can happen, just like (with) your car, or a train, or a plane, or a boat," he related.

"There's never been a mode of transportation in our history that has not had accidents. Why we think the space program should be any different, I don't know."

The space shuttle commander flies the vehicle on re-entry into the earth's atmosphere and the landing on ground. The pilot is the equivalent of a co-pilot on an airliner, he or she backs up the commander.

"The commander does all the manual flying, all the decision-making," Brown explained. "He's the boss. If the commander can't fly, the pilot takes over."

Asked about the experience of landing a space shuttle, Brown replied: "Well, I'm an aviator, so that's what I do. I wanted to fly the shuttle, so that's what you do when you land it."

It happens quickly and you land fast, he said.

"If you don't like the approach, well, you're going to have to make it work, because there's no way to go around. You're totally a glider all the way back from orbit."

The shuttle comes out of the sky at a much steeper angle (20 degrees) than an airliner (3 degrees). The shallowing out begins at a speed of 330 mph and the touchdown is at about 230 mph.

"But you have a team," he said. "You're a team in the cockpit working together to do it. You just get to move the little stick. Everyone else is helping you out."

Brown tells people that the launch is kind of like what they imagine it to be.

"It's pretty serious," he said. "When the vehicle comes alive, when the engine starts and the boosters light off it is truly... I've done it six times, but every time you go holy moly, I cannot believe something that is so big and weighs 4 million pounds all of a sudden comes alive and it jumps off the pad and it's on its way. It's quite a ride. It is quite a ride."

The closest thing on earth to the feeling of weightlessness in space, he said, is to close your eyes and relax while floating in water.

"Except you don't get cold, you don't feel wet and your fingers don't wrinkle up," he tells the school groups he addresses. And you can't swim because the atmosphere doesn't provide any resistance.

An advocate

Brown is an advocate for the U.S. space program and unhappy that the United States has abandoned manned launches.

"We have been the leaders in space since the '60s and now we don't have a vehicle to get to orbit," he said. "Everybody says, well, we've got vehicles coming. But we should have never, ever been in this position. We have an International Space Station that your tax dollars paid for about 95 percent of. And now we can't even get to it because we don't have a vehicle -- which is just bad planning, or bad judgment, on the part of the administration."

U.S. astronauts now get to the Space Station via a Russian spacecraft.

Brown said civilian companies are working on new American space vehicles, and doing pretty good at it.

"But the neat thing about NASA," he said, "is everything we learn at NASA -- all the new technology, all the information -- is public domain. If you want to use something that we learned at NASA, all you have to do is use it. There is no copyright. There is no privacy. It's free. It's public domain information and anyone can use that information to create a business or create a product or whatever."

Brown said he wishes the entire country understood NASA operations and what is learned from missions into space.

The technologies that spin off from space research, as well as medical and physics discoveries, are important to everyone in the country, he said. It leads to making things that more efficient, lighter and economical.

"What we do is really important," he said. "Space offers a unique environment. People don't think about it, but up in space heat doesn't rise and cold doesn't sink... so we can do some really neat things."

Brown is hopeful that "sooner or later" NASA will become a priority for government funding again.

"We're talking about going to Mars now, and maybe rendezvousing with an asteroid which are big steps," he said. "That's the thing I really liked about the space history of our nation back in the Mercury, the Gemini and the Apollo days. We took huge steps."

Brown also is doing what he can to promote more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math in American schools.

The scholarship that he and Mary established goes to a student pursuing a college degree in science, math or a related field.

"The science and math is a little lacking in our country right now, I think. We need to motivate young kids to get back into that," he said.

Brown noted, too, that the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame was established by the Mercury astronauts as a way of raising funds for its scholarship program.

The induction ceremony was his first visit to the Hall, but he was impressed by what he saw.

"I would strongly suggest it. They have a lot of artifacts and it is a very nice facility," he said.

The nearby Kennedy Space Center also has two excellent visitor centers, the Browns said, and a new Shuttle Atlantis exhibit will be opening in June.

"It is a $100 million facility. It is an attraction," said Mary. "It has all the latest interactive technology. Children, adults can truly feel like they are inside the space shuttle."

Life in Hudson

"We love Hudson. And that's the truth," Brown said of their new hometown.

Asked who a former astronaut socializes with, he said: "I have friends in the neighborhood, obviously, and I have friends I fly with. And we have friends we've met at Barkers."

Barker's Bar & Grill is his favorite Hudson restaurant.

"(Owner) Pete Foster is a good friend. We wind up spending too much time at Barker's having a good burger and an Arnie Palmer. That works for me," he said with a smile.

"We've met wonderful people living in Hudson" adds Mary, a native of Ironwood in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Brown is a co-pilot and flight simulator tester for Sun Country Airlines.

Even though he has thousands of hours of flying experience, and is a former astronaut, he doesn't have the seniority with the company to be a captain.

The passengers usually don't know there is a Hall of Fame astronaut in the cockpit. When they are told, they tend to stop in the cockpit door to ask for an autograph or shake his hand, which slows the deplaning process.

He does air racing for a hobby.

You can view the 2013 U.S. Astronauts Hall of Fame induction ceremony by going online to YouTube and entering those words. Brown's speech comes at 45 minutes into the one hour, 45 minute program.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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