Watertown's own astronaut Dan Brandenstein wishes humanity would have made more use of valuable lessons learned during the Apollo 11 moon landing of a half-century ago and would be farther along in exploration of the universe. He said, however, that politics tends to gum things like that up.
"Back when we landed on the moon, I thought that, by now, we would be farther along and be on Mars, but politics comes into play. It's 50 years later (after man first walked on the moon) and I'm a little disappointed," the 76-year-old former Naval aviator and test pilot told the Daily Times last week by phone from his home in Blanco, Texas. "But then I'm not a real patient guy."
Brandenstein spent about a half-hour talking about his recollections of the Apollo and other early space missions undertaken by the United States, their meaning to the history of man, how they will be viewed in the future and his amazement while watching astronaut Neil Armstrong be the first man to walk on the moon. Brandenstein would later become friends with Armstrong while the younger man's career included four NASA space shuttle missions. His first shuttle mission was aboard the Challenger in 1983. He subsequently commanded missions on Discovery, Columbia and Challenger.
"I knew Neil Armstrong very well. He was a tremendous person," Brandenstein said. "He was the perfect person to be the first person on the moon -- although I wished that I could have been. Neil was very smart, humble and easygoing. He was a role model to me. I was impressed by the magnitude of his accomplishments, but he recognized it was a team effort."
Brandenstein said a common theme that brought astronauts together from the different eras was that they realized they all were being given rare, high-profile -- and dangerous -- opportunities to do the best they could to advance mankind in the universe.
For a man who has logged more than 789 hours in space -- the most of any space shuttle astronaut -- and has spent 13 years in the Navy and 14 years at NASA -- Brandenstein comes from a humble background and seems to live a fairly sedate retired life now. Recently he and his wife have been spending time at their lake retreat near Hayward, fishing for bass and playing golf. They commute between their home in Texas and Wisconsin's northwoods with Brandenstein piloting their plane.
Also a Vietnam veteran fighter pilot, Brandenstein spent his boyhood, until age 10, on a farm west of Watertown on state Highway 19. His parents, who were known around the city for their good-natured personalities and approachability during their son's space shuttle-commanding days, then moved their family to 1415 Center St. in the city. Brandenstein went on to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with bachelor of science degrees in mathematics and physics.
He was 26 years old and at home in Watertown from a flight mission in Vietnam when he sat on the floor of his parents' home and witnessed the epic story of the Apollo moon landing unfold on television.
"It actually seems like quite awhile ago," Brandenstein said of watching the moon landing and man's first steps there. "I was just a young sprout in the Navy. I'd just completed my first combat cruise. We watched the moon landing in the afternoon and saw the moon walk on the black and white TV at 1 a.m."
Brandenstein called humans reaching the moon, "a phenomenal technical achievement."
"To me, being a pilot in the Navy, it was an amazing achievement. The Mercury program inspired me in 1961. There was the terrible Apollo (I) fire, but we did an amazing job of recovering and we soon had two people walking around on the moon. It was very inspiring."
The Mercury program got Brandenstein, who admitted he was never much of an athlete and wished he could have been a good musician, interested in being an astronaut. He said when he was growing up, he never aspired to be an astronaut because the term did not exist. He said he was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he mentioned jealousy that Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, but that his four shuttle missions gave him tremendous opportunities to place himself in the class of astronauts who have bettered humanity through their exploration of space.
Brandenstein said among the biggest accomplishments of the Apollo program was the tremendous amount of new technology that was realized. He said computers were miniaturized -- for that time anyway -- and scientists programmed them to be able to handle vast amounts of data quickly. He said rocket engines evolved and man learned how to rendezvous in orbit, among many other advances.
"The space suits were very unique, as well, and they had spin-offs," he said. "The safety equipment used was then moved over into aviation and boating. The moon was a hostile environment and we learned a lot from it."
Brandenstein stressed his disappointment that the space program has not progressed sufficiently in the 50 years since Armstrong first cavorted on the lunar surface.
"Yeah, I've been on my soapbox about that for years," he said. "We should go back to the moon. You can get there in three days. Then we should go to Mars, but it takes three months to get there. The moon is very similar to Mars. We should be exploring. In the 1300s and the 1400s, man looked across the ocean and made it to the East Coast. Then he looked inland and moved across the mountains. It's human nature to explore."