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Space shuttle Atlantis is seen as it launches from pad 39A on Friday, July 8, 2011, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch of Atlantis, STS-135, is the final flight of the shuttle program, a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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Former Jax NASA astronaut: “A shame we didn’t replace the shuttle program with new vehicle”

This week in Jacksonville, Community Health Outreach will commemorate the 20th anniversary of former NASA Astronaut and Jacksonville resident Norm Thagard’s return from the Russian Mir 18 mission on July 7, 1995.

Twenty-eight experiments were conducted in the course of the 115-day flight. The mission culminated in a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Thagard was the first astronaut to enter space aboard a non-American craft and the first American occupant of the MIR.

“It was a novel experiment,” he said during an appearance on WJCT’s First Coast Connect. “I had always wanted to learn Russian, and so the mission offered me that chance — to learn how the Russians think and act and to compare the two space programs.”

“If anyone in 1969 had ever told me that I would wind up having a captain in the Russian force as a commander, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But while I was on the MIR, the crew and I deployed satellites for Canada and Indonesia and operated the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System, and I performed the first deployment and retrieval exercise with the Shuttle Pallet Satellite.”

As space flight in Florida enters the private sector, Thagard has a former astronaut’s perspective on the ending of NASA shuttle flights.

“I don’t think leaving the shuttle program was so bad, the problem is we didn’t have anything to replace it. The shuttle was awfully expensive to operate and I could see the need for a new vehicle, but we abandoned the shuttle before we had that new vehicle, and now that leaves us at the mercy of the Russians to get our people to and from the station,” he said.

Not unlike the midcentury astronauts from the Clint Eastwood film Space Cowboys, Thagard says he wouldn’t turn down the chance to rocket into space again- and this time, if he had a chance, he says he’d go to Mars.

“I’d go back up again if they would ask me. When I went into the astronaut program in 1978 I hoped I would have been one of the first humans on Mars. I’m disappointed we haven’t been there yet and I wish we would make a commitment to get to Mars. And back to the moon, too. If this planet ever becomes uninhabitable, those will have to be options,” he said.

Thagard is a graduate of Jacksonville’s Paxon School for Advanced Studies (formerly Paxon Senior High School) and the road in front of the school bears his name. He’s also an associate dean at Florida State University.

The events honoring Thagard will be part of a fundraising effort for the Healing Hands Clinic, the only free dental clinic for the nearly 200,000 qualified, low-income adults in Duval County.

Access to low-to-no-cost health care remains a potent political issue in Florida after Gov. Rick Scott used his veto pen to cut $9.5 million for the state’s free clinics.

“I’m glad there is something like that in Jacksonville. You want to do that when you have folks who are otherwise not going to get that kind of care. Dental care is so important. People can develop a number of medical diseases without good dental care,” he said.

Written By

In addition to her work writing for Florida Politics, Melissa Ross also hosts and produces WJCT’s First Coast Connect, the Jacksonville NPR/PBS station’s flagship local call-in public affairs radio program. The show has won four national awards from Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). First Coast Connect was also recognized in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 as Best Local Radio Show by Folio Weekly’s “Best Of Jax” Readers Poll and Melissa has also been recognized as Folio Weekly’s Best Local Radio Personality. As executive producer of The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State, Melissa and WJCT received an Emmy in the “Documentary” category at the 2011 Suncoast Emmy Awards. The 904 examined Jacksonville’s status as Florida’s murder capital. During her years in broadcast television, Melissa picked up three additional Emmys for news and feature reporting. Melissa came to WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. Married with two children, Melissa is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism/Communications. She can be reached at m.ross66211@gmail.com.

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