NASA-BOUND ASTRONAUT PINS DREAMS ON WIDE OPEN SPACES.
Jim Dutton is approaching the end of his first long vacation in years, but the 1987 Sheldon High graduate won't mind going back to work. A day at the office in his new job will rival the most exciting holiday.
Dutton, 35, reports to work next Monday at NASA as part of the latest class of astronauts. He'll begin living the dream that's enthralled him since he was a boy: being among the next generation of astronauts to go to the moon.
"I think most of us in the program now were inspired by the Apollo astronauts," he said Monday at his in-laws' Eugene home. "Our dream has been going back to the moon and setting up a permanent presence to learn what it takes to survive on another planet."
For someone about to assume a larger-than-life quest, Dutton couldn't be more unassuming. He stands just 5-foot-9, with a lean build, boyish grin and down-to-earth manner. He doesn't even pretend to conceal his excitement over what may lie ahead.
As a new astronaut, he recently attended a 35th anniversary celebration for the Apollo 11 team that was the first to land on the moon.
"I sat next to Jack Schmidt, the geologist on that mission," Dutton recalled. "I asked him, 'Is there ever a time when you go outside at night and look at the moon and think: I was there?' and he said, 'Pretty much every night.' '
Dutton has also gotten to meet fellow Eugene astronaut Stan Love, a 1983 Churchill High graduate who joined NASA in 1998 and is still awaiting his first mission.
"When I went out to Houston for the interview, he showed me around Mission Control," Dutton said.
There aren't many Oregonians at NASA, so they tend to seek one another out, he said.
Dutton had to think hard to identify an advantage a Northwesterner might bring to the job.
"Maybe being used to not seeing the sun," he said, laughing. "When I got to walk through the space station, I was surprised at how few windows there were."
Dutton has seen plenty of his home state since beginning his monthlong vacation, including a stay in Portland, where his parents now live, and a relaxing week at Sunriver. This week, he's back in Eugene with his wife's parents, Rod and Nancy Ruhoff.
Erin Ruhoff Dutton also graduated from Sheldon, in 1988. But the pair didn't start dating until both were students in the Seattle area - she at the University of Puget Sound, he in graduate school at the University of Washington.
"When I first met Jim, I thought, 'No way would I be a military wife, but obviously I've adapted,' ' she said.
The couple are raising three boys who obviously inherited their father's adventure gene. Six-year-old J.P. wore a space shuttle T-shirt and wants to become "a pilot or a world explorer."
Will, 3, walked around his grandparents' home wearing swim goggles.
"They're his flying goggles," Dutton explained. "He's been wearing them ever since he saw the movie 'Battle of Britain' on DVD."
Even baby Joey, 11 months, emulated his big brothers by repeatedly pulling on a bike helmet.
Erin Dutton doesn't dwell on the dangers posed by her husband's new assignment.
"In fact, things probably just got a lot safer for him," she said. "Yes, there will be a huge risk every time he goes into space, but that's going to be once every few years, at most. It was a lot more dangerous when he was flying an F-22 every day of the week."
As a U.S. Air Force major, Dutton's last assignment was testing fighter jets at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. Though a goal of the job was to push the envelope, Dutton has never had to eject from a plane.
"I've been very blessed in terms of emergencies," he said.
His most thrilling challenge to date: testing the limits of the F-22 in low-speed, high-angle attacks.
"Basically, I just flew up straight up until it fell back on itself and flopped over," he said. "It was so much fun to see how the plane behaved, I was laughing."
Dutton will lose the daily thrill of testing jets, as well as the daily risk. But he'll still get to fly in his new role - unlike the test pilots who became NASA's first astronauts.
"The Gemini astronauts joked that they were just 'Spam in a can,' ' he said. "But I was hired as a pilot, and at least with the space shuttle, you're still flying."
After spending most of his career flying single- or two-seat fighter aircraft, Dutton now must learn to work smoothly in a group.
"When I visited NASA, I watched four pilots in the simulator, where they throw one emergency after another at you, and sometimes multiple emergencies at the same time. It was fascinating to watch the way they just split up and worked on different tasks simultaneously, without even having to talk about it."
He's also looking forward to more training in what NASA calls "extra-vehicular" activities - working in zero gravity outside the space station or shuttle. He enjoyed the simulator he got to try during his NASA interview.
"You're harnessed to a tether so that you move, and everything around you also moves if you touch it," he said. "You go to turn a screw in space and if you don't brace yourself, you'll turn - or the shuttle will turn - instead of the screw."
Karen McCowan can be reached at 338-2422 or email@example.com.
Eugene's homegrown astronaut shares his thoughts on:
Private space travel: "I'm for anything that's going to push the boundaries of space exploration. For the private sector to jump in there and give NASA some competition should be a good thing, and I admire their ingenuity."
Human travel beyond our solar system: "Definitely possible. That's what we're taking small steps towards right now. Look how far we came in the last century, from the invention of the automobile to the space shuttle. I'm sure we could make just as much progress this century, if we have the national and international will."
Spending billions on NASA: "The benefits that come from space exploration are tremendous for everyone and have an increasingly international flavor - three Japanese astronauts are training with our class."
The value of playing video games: "At NASA, they did a computerized assessment of our robotics aptitude that was basically a video game. Most of us had been members of the Atari generation, so we did really well."
Jim Dutton enjoys vacation time with his wife, Erin, and sons Joey, 11 months, J. P., 6, (center) and Will, 3, at his in-laws' house in Eugene.
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|Title Annotation:||General News; Jim Dutton leaves Oregon with visions of reaching the moon - and beyond|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Aug 3, 2004|
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