The Power of Persistence
When astronaut Roger Crouch speaks to students, he talks about the importance of persistence in preparing for the future. And he knows what he's talking about.
Image to right: Roger Crouch made two spaceflights in 1997. Credit: NASA
Crouch is an excellent example of the power of persistence, as someone who pursued his dream of spaceflight for more than four decades before it became a reality. From a young child inspired by science fiction to a 56-year-old payload specialist making his first flight into space, he never gave up on his goal.
His interest in spaceflight began when he was in elementary school and watched a movie called "Destination: Moon." He was excited by the movie's fictional story of a trip to the moon, almost 20 years before people actually made it there. "At the end of that movie, it said 'The End of The Beginning,'" Crouch explained. "I wanted to do something in my life that would be a lot of fun, so I wanted adventure. And when I saw that -- 'The End of The Beginning' -- that just registered in my mind, that this really is the new frontier, space travel. So I said, 'I want to be part of that.'"
Though the first astronauts had not yet been chosen when Crouch entered high school, his heroes were the type of people that would become the first astronauts -- jet pilots. "When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a fighter pilot," he said. "Chuck Yeager was sort of my hero, and all these war aces."
Image to left: Astronauts (from left) Roger Crouch, Janice Voss and Mike Gernhardt talk to people on Earth during their mission. Credit: NASA
When he tried to follow in their footsteps, however, he encountered the first stumbling block in his road to reaching his goals. He applied to join the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, but was told he was ineligible to be a Navy pilot because he was colorblind. Over the next few years, he tried again with other branches of the military -- "anybody that had a program where I could fly high-performance aircraft" -- only to be turned down by all of them, as well.
While he was in college, Crouch found new heroes. "NASA had just been created, and we had real live astronauts for a change, instead of the science-fiction kind," he said. In particular, he was inspired by the fourth group of astronauts selected, who, unlike their test pilot predecessors, were scientist-astronauts. When Crouch learned one of the scientist-astronauts was a physicist, he changed his major to physics in hopes of increasing his chances of someday being chosen himself.
The same stumbling block got in the way, though. "You had to have normal color vision for that, too," he said. Time and again Crouch applied, without hearing anything back. Finally he contacted NASA, and learned that because it received so many applications, the agency didn't respond to people who did not meet the basic requirements.
Image to right: The crew that flew with Crouch is the only one to make two shuttle flights with the same members. Credit: NASA
After having dreams denied so many times, some people might have been tempted to give up. But Roger Crouch kept trying. When the space shuttle began flying, NASA started the payload specialist program. Payload specialists are chosen to fly on specific missions, accompanying experiments that need experts to operate them. Payload specialists train specifically for that mission, make their flight and then go back to their regular job. Most of them only make one spaceflight.
For Crouch, the good news was that being a payload specialist didn't require normal color perception. "So every time there was some sort of an opportunity for a payload specialist that had a requirement for a background like mine, I'd start applying for that," he said.
In the meantime, Crouch pursued a career as a NASA scientist. Even though he wasn't an astronaut, he was still very involved in human spaceflight. His experiments flew on the space shuttle. He worked with the crews on several flights. His original career goal to be an astronaut gradually became a side note to a fulfilling occupation. But even though his chances of flying into space seemed increasingly remote, he never stopped trying. "It never occurred to me not to try if another opportunity came up," he said. "I pretty well had accepted that I never would get a chance to fly. But given that, it still didn't make sense not to try."
When he was 56 years old, Crouch had no reason to believe his next application would be any more successful than all the ones he had submitted before. But he submitted it anyway. "So after a lot of persistence, I finally got picked," he said.
Image to left: The STS-83 launch marked Crouch's first trip into space. Credit: NASA
Crouch's spaceflight experience was marked by bad luck for the mission that turned into good luck for the crew. He was named as a payload specialist for the STS-83 mission, which launched on April 4, 1997. Unfortunately, early in the mission, the orbiter suffered a problem in one of its three fuel cells, and had to come home early. After all those years of waiting, Crouch had made his spaceflight. But what should have been more than two weeks in orbit turned into less than four days.
"It was strange really, because we were up there, and we flew and we came home," he said, "and they started talking about us going back up. And I said, 'Yeah, sure, they're going to let us go back up.' Then we kept training, and kept training, and they kept working on the shuttle getting ready to go again. And I'm thinking, 'Gee whiz, they may mean it.'"
Sure enough, on July 1, 1997, the STS-94 mission launched with the same crew, same payload and same orbiter as STS-83. The problem had been fixed, and the crew stayed in orbit until July 17. Through a bit of bad luck, Crouch had the good fortune to become one of a handful of payload specialists to fly into space more than once. "It was wonderful," he said. "It couldn't get much better than that. By the time we flew the second flight and it went 16 days, that first one just felt like a really, really good sim(ulation). I feel really blessed and really lucky that I got two opportunities to fly."
JoCasta Green and David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services