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From small town to the stars: Marine vet Astronaut launches into his tale


Robert SpringerBut even after all that time in the sky, Springer was still awestruck when he took flight two decades later aboard the STS-29 Discovery.

“It’s forever etched in my memory,” Springer said of the first time he peeked at Earth from space. “It was what I expected and more. We spent an incredible amount of time looking at the technical aspects of it. From the standpoint of the technology and the science and all of that, it was pretty much what we trained for.

“The part that you can’t really train for is the awe factor of realizing you are circling the globe every nine minutes at a speed of 17,500 mph,” he continued, “and you’re going to see 70 to 80 percent of the earth’s surface every time you go around the planet.”

So how did a boy from a small town similar to those in Central Minnesota earn a trip to the stars?

That’s one of the things Springer, 74, plans to talk about at the Stearns History Museum Sixth Annual History Makers Gala on May 11. Many people, Springer said, have a misconception about the folks who get into the astronaut program.

“They tend to think of (astronauts) coming from some privileged class, and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “What it really highlights is staying open to the opportunities that are presented to you.

“It all came together,” Springer said. “When they opened up the selection process, I had never even thought about the astronaut program.”

Springer was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but grew up in a number of small towns across Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. He graduated from Ashland, Ohio, in 1960 and earned a bachelor’s degree in naval science from the United States Naval Academy in 1964. Sprinter joined the , then reported to the Air Training Command for flight training.

After serving in Vietnam and Korea, Springer graduated from the U.S. Test Pilot School and the Staff College. He was then assigned to the Headquarters Fleet Force, Atlantic, where he worked for joint operational planning for Forces in NATO and the Middle East.

In 1980, he was tapped by NASA as an astronaut candidate due to what he says was the perfect set of life experiences.

Springer became an astronaut in 1981. Before retiring from NASA in 1990, Springer took two trips to space, aboard the STS-29 Discovery, which launched on March 13, 1989, and the STS-38 Atlantis, which launched Nov. 15, 1990.

“This was fairly early on in the shuttle program,” Springer said. “The primary mission was launching satellites. We did that on both flights.”

Springer’s crew also conducted preliminary experiments to learn what type of science can be studied in space. Each flight was five days; Springer logged more than 237 hours in space.

“The incredible beauty, the majesty of it … . It’s almost beyond belief,” Springer said.

After retiring from NASA and the Corps, Springer worked for Boeing Co. Now he travels, doing consulting and motivational speaking. He hopes to use his experience to inspire student interest in math and science.

“By exposing young people to the fascinating parts of math and science — and certainly the space program falls into that — it does inspire them and gets them thinking about a career they may have,” Springer said. “We’re not trying to get them all to be astronauts, but get them interested in math and science.”

Although there might be fewer opportunities for space travel through NASA, Springer said there are more opportunities opening up through commercial space programs such as Blue Origin and SpaceX.

“If that comes to fruition, which I personally believe it will, then the youth of today will actually have not only the chance of flying in space but the jobs associated with it in a multitude of fields,” he said.

Springer said the question he gets most when talking about his experiences is how an astronaut goes to the bathroom in space.

“I usually start off with something like, ‘Very carefully,’ ” Springer said with a laugh. “The bottom line is, there’s no gravity, so you have to use air flow to do what gravity does here on Earth.”

It’s that type of humble and humorous approach to storytelling that gala organizers think people will be drawn to.

“He’s had the opportunity to do something that so very few people do,” said Sartell resident Laurie Strack. “I think what (gala attendees will) really enjoy is how down to earth (Springer) is for what he’s achieved in his life.”

Strack, who runs the event planning business We’ll Get It Done with Debbie Spaniol, helped organize Springer’s gala presentation. Strack said she met and kept in touch with some of the astronauts who visited Apollo High School in 2014; when she and her husband Robert visited Florida in February, they arranged a tour of Kennedy Space Center with Springer.

The upcoming gala will raise money for Stearns History Museum. The History Makers Gala, which began in 2012, has featured WCCO television journalist Don Shelby, former Major League Baseball pitcher Bert Blyleven, chef and author Amy Thielen, and Minnesota Public Radio journalist Cathy Wurzer.

The focus of recent galas has been contemporary history, according to Gena Deneen Hiemenz, executive assistant and development associate at Stearns History Museum. Hiemenz said she’s also seen a renewed interest in space programs recently due to the passing of John Glenn and the popular movie, “Hidden Figures,” which chronicles a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role during the early years of the U.S. space program.

Springer said tens of thousands of people have dedicated their lives to making the space program successful. While it’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects, space exploration is a very “human endeavor,” Springer said.

“Some people get to do it, and some people only wish upon it. I’m one of the people who got to do it, and I like to share that experience because I want to keep that spark for discovery,” he said.

“At heart, I’m an explorer. We were exploring a different frontier, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

If you go …

What: Stearns History Museum Sixth Annual History Makers Gala.

Where: Gorecki Center at College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

When: 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, May 11.

Tickets are $75 or $600 for a reserved table for eight, and are available in person at Stearns History Museum or over the phone at 320-253-8424. For more information, visit stearns-museum.org/gala. The event also includes a silent auction, full cash bar and dinner, and the presentation of the Zapp Historian Award to the St. Cloud Antique Automobile Club.

Follow Jenny Berg at www.facebook.com/sctimesjenny and on Twitter @bergjenny.


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