From the Desk of Colin Burgess: A Salute to Stargazers

ColinBurgess_NEWThe author of numerous books, Colin Burgess’s prodigious output is chiefly concerned with the remarkable history of human and robotic space exploration and the pioneering men and women who have ridden rockets into space. Working from his home near Sydney, Australia, he is also the series editor for the University of Nebraska Press’s Outward Odyssey open-ended series of books on that exciting and enthralling subject. His latest book, Shattered Dreams: The Lost and Canceled Space Missions, is now available.


A Salute to Stargazers

Until I learned of his death in September 2016, my friendship with former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and NASA scientist-astronaut Duane (“Doc”) Graveline and his wife Suzanne had spanned many years. My wife and I had twice stayed with them at their cozy home on Merritt Island, Florida, situated close enough to the Kennedy Space Center that they simply had to stand on their front lawn to watch rockets—and crews—blaze a fiery trail into space.

Doc and I would spend many pleasant hours together in his sun-soaked lounge room, deep in discussion about space history and related science. We shared similar philosophies, which was not surprising for those interested in astrology, as we also shared a common birthday. In fact, to this day, of the 339 astronauts selected by NASA, he remains the only one born on that date.

In 1965, Doc Graveline reached what at that time was the pinnacle of his career when he was selected as a NASA scientist-astronaut. Sadly, his first wife did not want to join him in celebrating his triumphant new career, instead deciding to sue for divorce. Back in the 1960s, NASA rigidly regarded any such scandal in the astronaut corps as unsavory and were unbending in their rules about such things. Just as he was about to begin his astronaut training, Doc’s dream of conducting vital science in Earth orbit came crashing down when he was summarily and unfairly dismissed from the astronaut corps. Today, any astronaut divorce rightfully falls into the category of a commonplace event and is largely ignored, but I could see the wistful sorrow in Doc’s eyes whenever he talked about what might have been. I always wanted to write about my brilliant latter-day friend Doc Graveline and his shattered dreams, which not only gave me the starting chapter for a new book, but also its title.


In working out which stories to put together complement that of Doc Graveline, I turned to a number of magazine articles I had written over the years for various publications, and began updating their content to create individual chapters. The theme was a common one; each of the subjects had held a scheduled or achievable goal of flying into space, but circumstances denied them that prized achievement—be it an accident, altered manifests, spaceflight tragedies, or even death.


As I began my research, delving into other lives, I recalled that I had dedicated my 2003 book Fallen Astronauts (co-authored with Kate Doolan) to NASA mission specialist Patricia Hilliard Robertson, who died of her burns following an horrific flying accident. Soon after the book’s release, Patty’s widower Scott Robertson got in touch and thanked me for honoring his late wife in this way.  I managed to re-establish contact with Scott for this book and he willingly assisted me in telling Patty’s story and the circumstances of her last tragic day. As the research continued I managed to touch base with family members of other potential space travelers who had sadly lost their lives in pursuing their own particular dream. These included NASA astronauts Steve Thorne and Fernando (Frank) Caldeiro, as well as payload specialist Robert Wood.

Others such as RAF pilot Nigel Wood, Indonesian scientist Pratiwi Sudarmono and oceanographer Bob Stevenson had their upcoming flights cancelled due to the loss of space shuttle Challenger. Australian scientist-astronaut Phil Chapman trained to go into space, but eventually resigned rather than wait an indeterminate number of years for the space shuttle program to begin sending astronauts into orbit. I even contacted and told the story of an indomitable former U.S. Navy pilot named Frank Ellis, who lost both legs in a flying accident, but still actively and doggedly pursued his service and NASA to take him on as an astronaut.

The opening chapter of the book tells of the demise of the last three Apollo lunar landing missions, and those who might have flown on these cancelled missions.  This includes the unfortunate story of former X-15 pilot Joe Engle, originally manifested for the final flight to the moon, Apollo 17. He lost his place on that crew when the NASA hierarchy insisted on replacing him with geologist Harrison (Jack) Schmitt.

Shattered Dreams: The Lost or Canceled Space Missions relates the very human tales of a number of men and women who came tantalizingly close to achieving their ambition—their dream—of flying into space. These intriguing, memorable people have long deserved to have their stories told, and this book fulfills that objective in this intensely respectful and personal salute to them.

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