NASA At 50 -- Five Of Their Weirdest Astronauts

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Today is NASA’s 50th anniversary. It is also almost 40 years since the organization’s signature acheivement, but hey, Kurt Cobain peaked early too.

Almost 500 people have been trained as astronauts in NASA’s lifetime. And they haven’t all been the clean-cut, strong-jawed John Glenn types.

Here are five astronauts who didn’t fit the mold:

5. Jim Irwin. Irwin walked the moon, one of only a dozen men who can make that claim. And then he went kinda nuts.

Okay, he didn’t go “nuts” unless you think that obsessing about Noah’s Ark to the point that you lead countless expeditions up Mount Ararat in Turkey is, well, nutty. Irwin never found the Ark. He also never went on another mission after Apollo 15, because crew members had carried almost 400 stamps aboard that they planned to sell after splashdown. NASA tut-tutted and brought the hammer down.

4. Alan Bean. Another moonwalker, Bean also spent two months in Skylab, the cramped precursor to the International Space Station. He is also an artist.

The trouble is, he’s not exactly the world’s most exciting artist. He’s been painting the same scene over and over for years while collectors gobble them up.

Go ahead – tell me the difference between “The American” and “Apollo, an Explorer-Artist’s Vision.”

Bean’s style could perhaps best be described as “Dogs Playing Poker, Except With Astronauts.”

Don’t worry, though, he’s figured out how to make the things sell. He claims that he’s saved moon dust from his astronaut suit and sprinkles it in his paint; he also uses his space hammer to add “texture” to his work.

3. Edgar Mitchell. He, along with Alan Shepard, holds the record for most time spent walking on the moon – a little over nine hours. But, as we’ve noted before, Mitchell has since gone far beyond where sane men go.

He’s a deep believer in psychic phenomena, including ESP, “remote healing” (he claims he was cured of kidney cancer by someone sending brainwaves over long distances) and aliens.

Not aliens as in the guys doing his lawn, but aliens as in Roswell, Area 51 and all that. He’s given a series of interviews charging that the U.S. government has long covered up the story of alien visits. NASA had to give out an official statement earlier this year saying “Dr. Mitchell is a great American,” but there’s no alien cover-up.

Mitchell, of course, is a great American. If you go strictly by entertainment value.

2. Buzz Aldrin. Two men landed on the moon on the Apollo 11 mission. Their lives since could hardly have been more different. Neil Armstrong began teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati, all but refusing to do interviews; Buzz Aldrin began a fanatical effort to get in front of every TV camera and reporter he could.

Aldrin famously lobbied hard to be named the first man out of the Eagle, to the point where NASA officials had to tell him to stow it. Armstrong calmly went about his business and has never exploited the publicity opportunities people were begging him to take.

Aldrin famously appeared on The Simpsons; he’s also appeared on The Ali G Show, in a cameo on the TV movie Apollo 11, the cop show NUMB3RS and Punky Brewster.

He claims to have made his peace with being the second guy on the moon, but we're not buying it.


-- Richard Connelly

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