Some people are known as citizens of the world. Rusty Schweickart ‘56, SM ‘63, is a citizen of the cosmos. Born in Neptune (New Jersey), he piloted the first manned flight of the Apollo lunar module, rescued the Skylab program, and is now devoting his energies to saving Earth from asteroid impacts.
Schweickart was only 16 when he started at MIT. He says he wasn’t a prodigy but got passed through to the third grade when his second-grade teacher died–“stealth grade skipping,” he calls it. He went on to an impressive career nonetheless. Between 1956 and 1963, he logged 4,200 hours of flight time as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and the Massachusetts Air National Guard–and also managed to earn his SM in aero and astro at MIT.
While working toward his master’s degree, Schweickart served as a research scientist in MIT’s Experimental Astronomy Lab, researching stratospheric radiance, tracking stars, and working on stabilizing stellar images. He’d caught the research bug as an undergraduate. “When you get to a place like MIT, you turn a corner and realize you want to learn, to do exciting, original work,” he says. “I gained a deep appreciation for the scientific method. This is a tremendous thing to get–when you realize that what really counts is not just what you think but what you can prove.”
In October 1963, NASA named Schweickart to the space program’s third group of astronauts, which included Buzz Aldrin, ScD ‘63, and Alan Bean. After four years of training, Schweickart was chosen as lunar-module pilot on the March 1969 Apollo 9 mission, the first manned flight with the lunar module. For 47 minutes of the mission’s 241 hours, he was outside the spacecraft. But that almost didn’t happen. The day before his space walk, Schweickart got sick–a serious problem in zero gravity.
“If you lock yourself up in a space suit and barf, you die,” he explains. “That night, we all wondered if we would have to abort the mission. There goes Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon. But the next day, I felt much better, and we decided to go for it.” Equipment tests on this flight made the moon walk four months later possible. “The first time you step off the planet into the cosmos is an important event, and you feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of it,” Schweickart says.
Schweickart says that he is often asked what being in space was like. “When you go around the earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing,” he told his audience at the 1974 conference of the Lindisfarne Association, a New Age think tank and advocacy organization. “And that makes a change. You look down there and you can’t imagine how many bor-ders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are–hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. What’s important?’”