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Terrence W. Wilcutt
From Comics to Cosmic!
Terry and Dennis Wilcutt in Conversation
An authorized reprint from HOGAN'S ALLEY No. 4 and ERBapa
On September 30, 1994, the Space Shuttle Endeavor was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with 45-year-old Terry Wilcutt as pilot. As part of NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth," Shuttle astronauts used advanced radar and a carbon-dioxide pollution sensor to study the Earth's surface and atmosphere, creating radar images of the Earth's environment and mapping global production and shifts of carbon-dioxide pollution. Following 183 orbits, and after taking more than 14,000 photographs, the 11-day mission ended with Endeavor's touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Terry Wilcutt was selected by NASA in January 1990, and became an astronaut in July 1991. HIs technical assignments include working on the Space Shuttle's main engines and external tanks; serving on the astronaut support personnel team at the Kennedy Space Centre; supporting Space Shuttle launches and landings; and assignments for the Astronaut Office Operations Development Branch.
A former high school math teacher, Wilcutt joined the Marines in 1978 and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He attended the Naval Fighter Weapons School (Topgun); served as an F-18A Fighter Weapons and Air Combat Maneuvering instructor, and was a Distinguished Graduate of the Naval Test Pilot School. He has logged more than 3,000 flight-hours on more than 30 different aircraft.
He was interviewed for HOGAN'S ALLEY by Dennis Wilcutt, comics editor and chronicler, and brother of America's newest Man in Space. We asked Terry to reflect on travels in outer space, the role comics played in his meteoric rise, and America's love affairs with both fantasy and technology.~REM
The Brothers Wilcutt
NASA Shuttle Commander, Terrence Wilcutt and his brother, Dennis "Predator" Wilcutt, are long-time ERB fans.
Dennis Wilcutt: Where are you right now and what are you doing?
Terry Wilcutt: I've been assigned by NASA to their AMES Center in California for 30 days to work in their Shuttle simulator, testing the Space Shuttle's flight-control systems.
DW: When can you expect to fly again?
TW: Normally, you can expect to fly into space as a pilot or commander once every 18 months. I would anticipate another Mission assignment in six months. Then I have a year to train before actually going into space again.
DW: Will you be the pilot again?
TW: Yes, I will be the pilot on my next mission and should I go up a third time, I should be a commander. It usually takes until the third mission before you become the commander.
DW: Are you looking forward to flying again?
TW: Definitely. I'll keep doing this until they make me quit.
DW: What do you expect your next mission to be?
TW: There's no way of really knowing but I wouldn't mind another Mission to Planet Earth, which is NASA's extensive study of the planet we live on. Of particular interest to me is how the earth's atmosphere is changing. It is a subject we should all be paying more attention to.
DW: How so?
TW: The greenhouse effect being caused by carbon dioxide. I was always told how much pollution is being put into the earth's atmosphere each and every day, but when you have an opportunity to see it, you just cannot imagine how bad it really is. We, as a people, cannot continue to dump pollutants into our atmosphere on this magnitude without severely affecting our atmosphere. It really becomes a start reality how fragile and thin our atmosphere is when seen from space. We must take better care of what we have.
True colonization of our solar system is decades away. Where else are we going to go? We had better be tending to business here; it is the only planet we have. That thin, precious blue line representing our delicate atmosphere really made a strong impression on me.
DW: Were there other deep impressions you want to share?
TW: Yes, there are a couple of others: The simple wonderment and awe of just being there for the first time in something I have a really hard time describing. It is just an incredible experience that I have been so fortunate to have ahd. I wish everyone could share the sense of adventure and see how beautiful the earth is when seen from that distance. No political boundaries, no ideologies, and no signs of wars -- just people living on the same world.
I would also like to say that during my entire military career I was trained and taught that the Russians were our enemies and it was my job to always be prepared to defend this country from them. But, from space Moscow looks just like Houston; they have a beltway around their city just like we do in Houston. It just suddenly dawned on me that Moscow contains families in it just like mine, fathers who work just like I do and want a better future for themselves and their children. When you see things from a global viewpoint, it really has a strong effect on you.
DW: I can understand what you mean. Do you think you will have a shot to go to the moon? Do you want to go to the moon?
TW: If the opportunity ever presents itself, absolutely. I hope the country will see fit to return to the moon within my career time.
DW: How about Mars?
TW: That is one I would have to think about. You're talking about three years for a trip to Mars and back. That's a long time to be away from your wife and children! But if that time arrives, and if I were fortunate enough to be given and opportunity to take part in a mission to Mars, I would have to consider it. I will say this about Mars: The first person to actually set foot on that planet is alive today.
DW: Do you think there is life on Mars?
TW: The scientific evidence says no, but you can never tell. Previous life could be a distinct possibility. Intelligent life, no; I wish it were otherwise.
DW: You once told me that working with your fellow astronauts was like being around a scientific laboratory. Explain that.
TW: Our astronauts corps are filled with experts on practically any subject you would want to talk about. For instance, if I had a question about the atmosphere on Mars, I can just walk down the hall from my office and see an expert on the subject. You can get almost instantaneous answers on any topic you want, ranging from purely medical subjects to black holes. That is really a remarkable fringe benefit; I love it. And I see that fringe benefit all the time.
I don't know who will read this interview but if there are school kids out there I want to tell them to do the very best they can in whatever they do. I cannot over emphasize the importance of obtaining skills in math and science. If they have an interest in those areas, make a career out of them. This country needs all the people it can get in the math and science fields. It's important for our country's future; we, as a nation, cannot afford to fall behind other nations in these areas. I also encourage any adults reading this to encourage your children to learn all they can. Point out to your children how important an education is. Read all you can!
DW: Reading and outer space... tell us, what comic books did you read when you were growing up?
TW: The ones I remember most were Superman, Badman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Justice League of America. I believe they were all DC. From Marvel I read Spider man, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. I read Dell Comics too, mostly Disney, and Tarzan, and Turok, Son of Stone.
DW: Which ones did you like the best and why?
TW: I would have to say I like Superman the best, maybe Batman second. I also want to emphasize I liked the old versions the best... the characters were done in a manner that were examples for everyone who read them. For example, Superman was honest, brave and displayed moral courage and integrity. I'm not so sure that is the case today.
DW: Why do you say that?
TW: I just do not think the characters are presented in a proper manner today. I'm not really criticizing how they are presented today, but I just liked them the way they were done when I read them; and that is still the way I would want to read them.
DW: You read Spider-Man as frequently as you did Superman. Is there a reason for your preference of Superman?
TW: I would have to say because he could fly. That is something I always wanted to do; I wanted to fly just the way he did. Just hold your arms out and take off! No plane, but just zinging around the air without any type of mechanical help.
Spider-Man could never do this. By the way, Marvel stories were sometimes irritating to me. They never seemed to have a complete story in one issue; you always had to buy the next issue and then it would be another issue after that. DC would have complete stories in their issues.
DW: What about Disney?
TW: I read Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. I did not know until you told me later that a man named Carl Barks drew and wrote the stories. His were the ones I enjoyed the most.
DW: What about the other Dell and Gold Key comic books?
TW: Well, Turok was a good one, and Andar. I thought they had great stories; I can still remember them. Tarzan is one of my all-time favorite characters.
DW: The version in the comic books was a poor imitation of the books and not true to Burroughs. I found Jesse Marsh's version terrible; and the art was worse.
TW: I still liked the comic-book stories; the Russ Manning version was the best -- no, was that the Sunday comics?
DW: He did both the Sundays and the comic books. To me he was the best from t he standpoint of story and art.
TW: I really liked the guy who does him today -- Thomas Yeates? -- who really draws a good version of Tarzan. That is the way I picture him.
DW: Any other comments on comic books? Do you think they had an effect on you becoming an astronaut?
TW: They did in the sense that a constant theme in most comics is a tale of adventure; in that respect, they definitely did. I have always been an action/adventure type of person. So, I guess they did; comics were fun reading. I wish they were as good today as they were in my time.
DW: How about favorite comic strips?
TW: Peanuts, in the past and present. I also like the Far Side; I'll miss that [Gary Larson had just announced his retirement], I still read the comics page most every day. There are hardly any adventure strips left; I mostly have to stick with the funny stuff. I did like Steve Canyon when it was around.
DW: Did you ever read Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Jet Scott, Beyond Mars, and other science-fiction strips?
TW: When I was going to Western Kentucky University, I was able to read Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant in the Bowing Green paper before they were dropped. The paper quit carrying them before I graduated. I've never read Buck Rogers and I don't know Jett Scott or Beyond Mars.
DW: Can you remember reading any science fiction comics or comic strips that might have had an impact on you becoming an astronaut? How about EC comics?
TW: Not really. Except I really liked John Carter, but that is a book. I know what EC comics are but I have never read them.
DW: Let's move on to books. What do you read and who are your favorite authors today?
TW: My favorite authors today are Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz and Robin Cook. I used to like Steven King; his Strand was great. But I have dropped him from the list -- you can always count on him to kill all the good guys off in the end. Robert Ludlum was another good writer but his stuff has become boring and too complicated to read. Cussler and Clancy are probably my two favorites today. Action/adventure stories are my favorite books to read. My problem is finding the time to read them.
DW: Any favorite science-fiction books?
TW: The one I have always remembered is Earth Abides. That is probably my favorite.
DW: How about old authors?
TW: Edgar Rice Burroughs! His stories about Tarzan, John Carter and David Innes were great. If it hadn't been for you I'd never have read them. His characters are true classics.
DW: Favorite movies?
TW: That's easy. I am an action/adventure person. I have two firm rules I abide by. I do not pay money to have someone make me cry and I don't pay money to listen to some incomprehensible music. I like the Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones 1 and 3; Number 2 was bad. Alien; although Aliens I did not care for. It was too predictable. And I enjoyed Terminator I and II. Oh yes, Jaws. There are probably many others I have not mentioned. Just thought of one -- True Lies.
DW: You did not like Aliens? Shock!
TW: No, but Alien was probably the best science-fiction horror movie ever made. And I like Westerns; Shane is at the top of the list. The Wild Bunch is probably number two although I have to put an asterisk by it now -- too violent. But the story was great. I really like all the Clint Eastwood Dollar movies. His showdowns and gunplay were the best. I wish he would make another Western with the "man with no name."
DW: Did you like any particular television shows in the science-fiction area?
TW: My favorite TV shows are all science-fiction related. Outer Limits; The Twilight Zone; Star Trek -- all of them.
DW: Any particular stories that stand out?
TW: From Outer Limits, the show were Robert Culp volunteers to allow himself to try and bring peace to the world. And another that gave me nightmares was astronauts on Mars being eaten by monsters hidden in the sand. One in particular from the Twilight Zone has a girl being supposedly operated on by disfigured people and she is in fact normal -- "in the eyes of the beholder."
As for Star Trek, all of them including the shows out now. Let me go back to favorite movies. I liked The Thing, the old version. As a kid, that movie scared me more than any other I ever saw. I also liked the modern version although it was gross to say the least.
DW: Can you think of some gadgets or silly technologies of comics or books that you have seen come to pass?
TW: Let me think... Wireless communications and laser are two right off the top of my head. I always think of Dick Tracy's watch. That is completely possible today. Satellites geo-positioned around the world for instant communications. Remember the Star Trek phaser? That will probably be a reality some day. Great technology I would like to see are warp speeds and transporters.
DW: Were there any stories of characters that made you want to go into space?
TW: Not really, except I would say that everything I have read in comics and books made me want a life of adventure. In that respect, it would have been a motivating factor -- a strong one at that. Superman made me want to fly. That's for sure.
DW: Were there any characters that have helped you fulfill your dreams in growing up?
TW: As I said, Superman made me want to fly. And I can say other characters such as Tarzan and Batman helped me be honest and morally strong. They were good examples to emulate when you are growing up. The same can be said for John Carter and David Innes. I want to emphasize that when I speak of these characters, I am talking about the versions I grew up with, not the modern versions.
DW: Do you think science fiction, whether done in comics or books, plays an important part in teaching a generation to dream and wonder?
TW: Absolutely! I can truly say science fiction is very important. The people who write science-fiction stories are dreamers. They create the ideas from which scientists begin their search. Just think what this country would be like if we did not have writers who dream of making things better for this country and the world. Without the dreamer, our country could be in pretty bad shape. Science fiction is the material from which dreams begin their initial journey to reality. Without that first building block, we, as a nation, cannot advance and we would eventually stagnate. A stagnating civilization will eventually collapse in on itself.
I would have never gone into space had it not been for someone in the past who one day wondered if space travel was possible -- that person dreamed the dream and I was very fortunate to be able to fulfill his dream from long ago. That's an incredible process when you think about it. It applies to everything we do.
"Characters such as Tarzan ... helped me be honest and morally strong. They were good examples to emulate when you are growing up. The same can be said for John Carter and David Innes....
"The people who write science-fiction stories are dreamers. They create the ideas from which scientists begin their search. Just think what this country would be like if we did not have writers who dream of making things better for this country and the world. Without the dreamer, our country could be in pretty bad shape. Science fiction is the material from which dreams begin their initial journey to reality. Without that first building block, we, as a nation, cannot advance and we would eventually stagnate. A stagnating civilization will eventually collapse in on itself.
"I would have never gone into space had it not been for someone in the past who one day wondered if space travel was possible -- that person dreamed the dream and I was very fortunate to be able to fulfill his dream from long ago. That's an incredible process when you think about it. It applies to everything we do."~Terrence W. Wilcutt
Commander Wilcutt (far left) and the crew of the September 2000 shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The main objectives of this mission involved hooking up equipment and unpacking and stowing gear for the first resident crew.
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