Future astronaut Chuck Gemar didn’t even watch man’s first landing on the moon July 20, 1969.
“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I didn’t see it (live on television),” the Scotland native said. “I was 13 at the time. My aunt and uncle had a farm, and I’m pretty sure I was combining oats at the time of the moon landing. I did watch it later, though, when they showed it again on television.”
Gemar would later hold a very close-up view of space exploration. He became the first South Dakotan to travel in space, completing three missions in 1990, 1991 and 1994 and logging more than 580 hours in space.
For him, todays’ 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing brings special memories. The spectacle of a lunar landing inspired him — a teenager at the time from a town of 800 residents — to reach for the heavens and pursue a space career.
“My goal while growing up was that I wanted to fly,” he said. “I thought flying as an astronaut (to the moon) would be the ultimate flight experience, but I thought astronauts don’t go there. I was wrong.”
President John F. Kennedy’s directed that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, turning what had been a scientific fantasy into a national mission,
“I certainly thought it was possible. The president (John Kennedy) said it was going to happen, and we dedicated our entire technical prowess and economic fortunes to make it happen. Of course, it was going to happen in my mind,” he said.
“Admittedly, I didn’t consider it was an achievement that would be reached in my lifetime. But ultimately, we did. It drove much of my inspiration for my desire to fly. I didn’t think or feel it was outside my grasp.”
Gemar saw his idyllic childhood as giving him self-confidence to achieve anything. On the South Dakota prairie, he grew up admiring the vast sky where he would someday travel.
“I loved having the opportunity to grow up in Scotland. It’s a great community, not just the town but the surrounding area as well. We spent summers on the Missouri River and going to neighboring towns and having the opportunity to experience those things and the whole thing that South Dakota has to offer,” he said.
“One of the things, I tell people how fortunate I was growing up in a community where you had personal connections to everyone in town. They provided guidance, mentorship and, in some cases, much needed discipline.”
In addition, Gemar learned a great deal from growing up among people from all walks of life and professions. They encouraged him, and they shared the common bond of caring for each other.
“We attended the same schools and churches, shopped in the same stores. We didn’t go home to a gated community,” he said. “Small towns are quite literally the butchers, bakers and candle stick makers. They took time to talk to you. To every one of them, you mattered. You were one of those people. I was blessed with a firm foundation.”
THE SPACE RACE
Gemar didn’t share his “golden aspirations” with those around him. However, the space race was on the minds of many Americans as they were stunned to watch the Soviet Union score a number of stunning early successes.
The 1969 lunar landing put the United States back in the driver’s seat, not only on space but back on Earth, Gemar said.
“We had been running a close second to the Russians. We weren’t the first to put a satellite in space, we weren’t the first to orbit the Earth, and we weren’t the first to walk in space,” he said. “But we were the first to put a man on the moon, and that was a huge victory for America, especially during the middle of the Cold War. It was a sense of pride at what we accomplished.”
Gemar pointed to the moon landing as a prime example of American exceptionalism. The accomplishment also showed what the nation could achieve, which was crucial in inspiring young Americans.
“We’re certainly capable of great things when those aggressive goals are laid out before all of us,” he said. “John Kennedy didn’t live to see the moon landing and the exciting times, … but we needed that kind of bold initiative to gain credibility and to encourage the American people. We needed that visionary leadership.”
Gemar followed what he considered a non-traditional career path.
“At 17, I enlisted in the Army. I had plans to go to (the University of South Dakota) and major in accounting and minor in computer science, which was a fairly new field,” he said.
“But I wanted to join the Army in the commissioned ranks, and my (Army) recruiter convinced me that I needed to rethink my plan. If I wanted to be a commissioned officer, I needed to apply to the military academy.”
In 1979, Gemar received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the U. S. Military Academy. He not only got an education but also made important personal relationships.
“I met a lot of really great people and good mentoring while I was (at West Point),” he said. “Some of those professors ended up at NASA themselves. They were great resources.”
Gemar described the rigorous and multi-layered application process for selection as a NASA astronaut. The extremely competitive field included highly-qualified candidates from various fields and walks of life.
Gemar made the list of finalists, but only about 10% of the list was chosen to enter the flight program, he said.
“In June 1985, we had 135 people who went down for interviews, and they ultimately made the selection of 13 candidates,” he said. “I was confident I had done well in the interview, but I wasn’t self-confident enough that I would be selected.”
The NASA selection board held other ideas, choosing Gemar’s on his first application. In contrast, he noted candidates who applied multiple times for a slot.
“When I got the phone call that I was selected, the only person more surprised than everyone else was me,” he said with a chuckle. “But I really wanted it and was excited that this was going to be a long-term goal. It was an achievement that was personally and professionally satisfying.”
HEADED FOR SPACE
Selected by NASA in June 1985, Gemar embarked on a one-year training and evaluation program. He would qualify for assignment as a mission specialist on future space shuttle flight crews.
“We had a very young class. We had four astronauts who were under 30 years old at the time of our selection. But it was a very operational class with a lot of operational experiences,” he said. “We had class members with engineering backgrounds, but we also had members with extensive experience in flights and military operations.
All was going well — but then came the Challenger explosion in January 1986. The seven-member crew included “Teacher In Space” Christa McAuliffe. A shocked world watched the spacecraft disintegrate moments after the launch.
“We were six months into our training program when that occurred,” Gemar said. “I had given (Challenger crew member) Greg Jarvis a ride home before he went into quarantine.”
The tragedy rocked the space program and raised questions about the future, Gemar said.
“Challenger was a wake-up call for NASA. Nobody expected a catastrophic failure. People didn’t think it was plausible. But it was a bit arrogant to think otherwise, to think we would never experience problems,” he said.
“My parents (Leighton and Bea Gemar) were visiting me during that time in Houston. I could see the apprehension on their faces during the news conference. They didn’t verbalize it, but it wasn’t hard to read their minds.”
However, Gemar himself held no doubts about what needed to happen.
“For the astronauts, we were more resolved than ever to go ahead and complete the mission,” he said. “The president (Ronald Reagan) asked that we get the problem fixed, and he provided leadership. He submitted the budgeting for the replacement. It took resolve on his part.”
NASA determined the type of people and skill sets needed for a particular mission. Gemar was chosen for three journeys, with one flight remaining classified in regards to what was undertaken and collected.
Family members, including his parents, attended his launches. He considered it one of the best parts of the experience.
“It was enjoyable to see the reactions on the faces of the people who love you. They’re joyous and offer you congratulations,” he said. “At the same time, they are nervous about the whole flying experience. At that time, one in 17 astronauts had been killed in the line of duty.”
Gemar admitted to some nervousness as he awaited liftoff, particularly the first mission — and it wasn’t necessarily linked to the danger or possible loss of life.
“I was a rookie flyer, and I had all of these self-doubts. I thought, ‘We have $4 billion of taxpayer resources, we better not screw it up,’” he said with a laugh.
Gemar recalled the awe that accompanied traveling in the vastness of space.
“Looking back at the Earth was incredibly beautiful. On previous flights, we couldn’t see South Dakota because of the darkness. But on my last flight, we were able to see the state,” he said. “We saw the western part of the state as we came into daylight. You were flying over the Black Hills and over Chamberlain and the Missouri River. Then, things went dark again, but it was a pretty spot to see during the daylight.”
The space travels also changed his perspectives about life.
“Things seemed small when you’re placed in the vacuum of space. You take on an overwhelming feeling of insignificance,” he said. “There is a huge emotional presence and a sense of isolation.”
At the same time, Gemar was working in close quarters with other crew members. They dealt with the physical stresses on the body during liftoff, then the weightlessness of gravity once in space.
“When we went up, we experienced 3G acceleration during ascent,” he said. “Then, we had the weightlessness, which was both freeing and aggravating when you move around and are trying to perform activities.”
What goes up must come down, as the saying goes, and Gemar had to readjust to the physical demands of returning to Earth.
“Gravity starts to weigh in on you again. You feel an awkwardness and heaviness in your movement,” he said. “Everything is heavy and you’re not able to stand up the first time. It isn’t because you’ve lost muscle, but it’s related to just reprogramming the brain to send the messages.”
In comparison to some of today’s flights, Gemar’s missions were relatively brief. He served two flights of five days each, while the third mission lasted 14 days.
“For me, 14 days hardly gives you enough time to settle in before it’s time to come home. And for me, 180 days would get long,” he said. “For my money, the optimal would be 90 days.”
Gemar retired in 1997 from the U.S. Army and NASA. He then worked in the private sector for a time.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
Gemar doesn’t plan any special observance for today’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing. However, it does provide him time for reflection on the program and on his own life and career.
The world has benefited greatly from research which has saved lives and made life better around the globe, he said.
“We need to maintain our leadership in space. It’s important that America maintains a strong scientific lead,” he said. “I hope we build on previous accomplishments and work toward new future goals so our efforts aren’t wasted.”
In that respect, Gemar noted the new goals set for the space program.
“President Trump has laid out a bold agenda for NASA. He has given the directive for NASA to put men and women on the moon again by 2024,” he said. “That’s a pretty aggressive schedule. NASA’s budget is going to have to be beefed up. By 2028, the goal is to have a permanent presence in orbit around the moon.”
However, Gemar doesn’t question America’s ability to show the same technology and resolve that landed men on the moon a half-century ago.
“American leadership is one aspect. We’re not perfect, but we’re a pretty good country,” he said.
Today’s anniversary not only focuses on the moon landing but also on the accomplishments of all astronauts, including Gemar. He remains in awe at the role he played in space exploration.
“It’s hard to believe I’ve been a part of this. You think, these kinds of things happen to somebody else,” he said. Here, it happens to me, and I am so certainly honored to be a part of it, and it’s a bit overwhelming.”
Gemar’s name will remain forever part of a very elite group of men and women who have explored beyond Earth’s grasp.
“The reality is that there were thousands of candidates in the 1985 class that were more talented, more educated, but here I was the guy selected to be part of history,” he said.
“I am constantly humbled to have had the opportunity provided by the American taxpayers. It was quite the venture.”
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