Aloft in space, Curt Brown looked down on Earth with the pioneer of orbit himself, astronaut John Glenn, riding beside him.
It was a childhood dream come true for Brown, who now lives in western Wisconsin, to command the space shuttle Discovery with his hero aboard.
“The joke is, ‘Was John on your mission, or was I on his mission?’ ” Brown told reporters April 20 when he joined rare company — the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. His induction with fellow retired astronauts Bonnie Dunbar and Eileen Collins took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Brown had a storied career as an astronaut, making six space shuttle missions that began with Endeavour in 1992. Atlantis followed, Endeavour again, then three visits to orbit on Discovery.
“I have the record for the most flights in the least amount of time,” said Brown, 57, who retired from NASA in 2000.
Now he’s a Sun Country pilot, flying passenger jets out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and testing flight simulators in Eagan, putting to work his vast knowledge of most anything that flies, still marveling at how seeing Earth from space humbled him.
“When you’re up in orbit and you look down on your country ... you don’t see any big borders. Everything looks so peaceful from orbit, so quiet. It makes you realize you’re small in the big scheme of things. There are a lot of things in this universe that are happening that we know nothing about.”
Brown was born and raised in North Carolina, a state famous for Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flight near Kitty Hawk in 1903. It was as a boy in Elizabethtown that Brown realized that “my whole dream in life was to fly.” Exploring space, however, was something that other people did, such as the incomparable Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth — three times over almost five hours — in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule in 1962.
“No way in the world that someone from a little farming town in North Carolina could be an astronaut,” Brown said . “It just wouldn’t happen.”
At last weekend’s induction ceremony, Brown was surrounded by a who’s who of the space world. Among them were Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, first shuttle pilot Robert Crippen and Brown’s mentor, Robert “Hoot” Gibson. Two dozen previous Hall of Fame honorees attended, although Glenn, now 91, was unable to make the trip.
“It’s very overwhelming, to be honest with you. I looked at the older astronauts sitting behind me at the induction, and they were my heroes,” Brown said of the experience.
Brown attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, learned to pilot planes and became a colonel. In 1987, at the age of 31, he was offered a job as an astronaut.
In his presentation to a crowd of space aficionados that included 38 residents of his hometown, Brown recalled an awkward conversation when he told his mother he had been assigned to the Discovery flight in 1998.
“Really? Are you on the flight with John Glenn?” she asked him, before launching into several minutes of praise for the then-77-year-old legend. Glenn’s role aboard Discovery, his first trip to space since before he became a U.S. senator from Ohio, was to study aging in space.
Brown said he and other astronauts had some fun at Glenn’s expense by printing fake boarding passes before the launch. When it came time to board Discovery, Brown said, everyone reached into sleeve pockets of their space suits for their passes.
“John says, ‘I don’t remember getting a boarding pass. Somebody really screwed up,’ ” Brown said as the crowd roared with laughter.
NASA ended the space shuttle program in July 2011, leaving the future of space to private companies and foreign countries. That was a mistake, Brown said, because so much work remains to discover far reaches of space, including Mars.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “We were leaders in space, we walked on the moon. We have no space program right now when it comes to a vehicle to take people into orbit. I think it was the wrong thing to do.”
Even though Brown has lived in Hudson with his wife, Mary, since 2002, and spent 20 years in Houston in the space program before that, his legacy won’t fade anytime soon in Elizabethtown, where residents renamed their tiny airport after him.
“Dreams are very important because they determine what we are and what we can be in life,” Brown said.
It turns out that astronauts can come from small towns after all.