Sen. Jake Garn Primes to Strut His (Right) Stuff in Outer Space

updated 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jan. 15. Yesterday's physical exam was the most comprehensive I could imagine. I was poked, prodded, perforated and examined in places I didn't even know I had. I was wired up and fitted with a respiratory analyzer and run on a treadmill. Then I was zipped into a plastic bag to test my tendency to claustrophobia.
Jake Garn's Journal

Nine hundred miles from Capitol Hill, Jake Garn drives across a flat Florida landscape of scrub brush and orange trees, bound for a simulated countdown on a Kennedy Space Center launchpad. The 52-year-old Republican Senator from Utah is just days away from becoming America's first VIP in space, and he can scarcely suppress his excitement. "I've been waiting for this moment a long, long time," he says, as the tiny silhouette of the spacecraft Challenger spikes into view on the horizon. "The simulators are fine, but when I get into that orbiter tomorrow, then I'm going to realize that I'm actually going up."

The final countdown has begun for Jake Garn—and with it, a feeling of relief. In his more than six weeks of basic training at NASA's boot camp, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, the balding legislator has put in 18-hour days prepping for his role as a "payload specialist"—i.e., guest astronaut—aboard the space shuttle. He has been sealed into an altitude chamber and transported to a simulated 28,000 feet, whirled around at dizzying speeds in a fiendish contraption known as the "vomit comet," exposed to zero gravity in a KC-135 turbojet, bombarded with a battery of psychological tests, and subjected to a running satirical assault by Garry Trudeau in the comic strip Doonesbury. (The real crew members rib him by calling him "B.J." for "Barfing Jake" from the cartoon.)

So why, you ask, has this right-wing Mormon grandfather, the stern chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, submitted himself to such an ordeal and spent $80,000 of the taxpayers' money to float weightlessly in space in a blue aviator suit with electrodes glued to his bald pate? "I've always been an adventurer," Garn says. "I need a challenge—a carrot in front of me. My family has never seen me this high and geared up."

Jan. 16. The zero-gravity experience was fascinating. A crew-mate described it as being as if you had died and your spirit had left your body. The engines scream as we climb at close to the speed of sound from 25,000 to 30,000 feet. Then, as the plane makes the parabolic arc at the top of its flight, everything becomes very quiet. You go into a weightless state, and you feel that sense of release. It's an eerie, unearthly sensation.

Cynics have viewed Garn's lift-off as an enormous perk tendered by an obeisant NASA to the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees its $7.3 billion budget. But the rookie astronaut insists he'll be pulling his own weightlessness among the crew of seven. During the four-day, 65-orbit flight, Garn will serve, in effect, as a human guinea pig to help solve a major space travel problem: space motion sickness. He will conduct a series of 16 tests on himself to investigate the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the stomach, body fluids, eyeballs and brain. So limitless is the doctors' curiosity about Garn's physiology in orbit that he will wear belt microphones to monitor his bowel reactions on launch. There was some initial wariness toward the rookie from Washington, even though the veteran military and civilian pilot has logged more flight time (10,000 hours) than all but one of America's 91 astronauts. But Garn's unpretentious manner won his space-mates over. "They all call me Jake now," he says. "I'm one of the troops."

Feb. 25. I've done a lot of dangerous things, and part of being a professional pilot is welcoming that element of risk. If you're going to go, it's a lot better to go this way than to waste away from cancer or heart disease or old age. After my flight was announced, I asked my wife if she was afraid something might happen to me. She said that if it did, she knew I'd die with a smile on my face.

Wife Kathleen, 35, has been at his side since April 1977, nine months after his first wife, Hazel, was killed in an auto accident. The freshman Senator was left with four children to raise. "I wanted to quit the Senate," he remembers, "my whole purpose for being was to raise those kids, and I couldn't do it without help." Only five days after Hazel's funeral, women started pursuing the grieving Senator. "My office was inundated with thousands of letters from women proposing marriage." Instead, Garn began seeing Kathleen, ex-wife of his administrative assistant, Jeff Bingham. "Five months later we were married," he says. The couple's brood includes Garn's quartet, Kathleen's son by her earlier marriage and two of their own, Matthew, 6, and Jennifer, 2½. Interestingly, the liaison between his boss and his ex-wife has not disturbed Bingham's close working relationship with the Senator. As his trusted and most senior aide, Bingham has been screening calls, riding herd on Garn's Washington staff and tying up innumerable loose ends while the Senator trains for his shuttle mission. Garn has lived in a rented Houston apartment during the week, commuting to Washington on weekends.

Though her husband is a notably self-contained man, Kathleen says the prospect of the space ride has raised him to a rare exuberance. Garn agrees, calling it "my ultimate fantasy." Indeed, were he not bound to his seat in the Senate, Garn admits he might succumb full-time to space fever. "If I were 10 years younger," he says, "I'd fight, I'd scratch, I'd do anything to be an astronaut."

Share this story:

Your reaction:

advertisement

From Our Partners

From Our Partners