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Sunday, October 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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He was wild before the blue yonder

The Associated Press

SPACE CENTER, Houston — As soon as Duane Carey sat down for his interview, the astronaut-selection committee popped the question: What have you done since high school?

It was a simple query meant to relax astronaut wannabes, but one that Carey had fretted over for days.

Should he tell this roomful of strangers — hotshot astronauts and other NASA bigwigs — how he slept through high school because he was working 40 hours a week to save up for a motorcycle? How he hit the road on his new Suzuki as soon as he got his diploma and spent the next 2-1/2 years bumming around? How he hitchhiked and jumped freight trains from state to state?

Sure, Carey eventually became an Air Force officer, flew combat in the Gulf War, racked up a pair of engineering degrees and even home-schooled his two kids in math and science. But would NASA want a former railroad bum and eternal motorcycle nut for a shuttle pilot, when all those straight-A, straight-arrow, strait-laced types were available?

Be honest

Carey talked it over with his wife and stepfather. Be honest, they said.

It was Oct. 18, 1995, and the first week of interviews at Johnson Space Center for NASA's Astronaut Class of '96.

"I was telling them stories about one of my hitchhiking travels, and hopping trains and traveling around as a railroad bum," Carey recalls.

An hour passed and he hadn't even talked about college, his professional accomplishments or being a pilot in the Air Force.

His time was up.

"I told my wife that night, 'Baby, if they hire me they know exactly what they're getting.' "

NASA did hire him, along with 34 other recruits.

"Maybe some folks think they (NASA officials) have an elitist attitude, but I'm here to tell you they don't," says the 45-year-old pilot nicknamed Digger, a child of the housing projects of St. Paul, Minn., and the first person in his family to go to college. His mother, who had three children by age 21, never finished high school and worked as a beautician.

Last March, with his family proudly looking on, Carey flew to the Hubble Space Telescope as the pilot of shuttle Columbia.

The moral of Carey's story, which he occasionally shares with schoolkids: A slacker can always shift gears and, with hard work and lofty goals, go from goofing off to lifting off.

There is one caveat. "Don't wait too long," cautions the head of NASA's astronaut-selection office, Duane Ross. He could see Carey "had his head screwed on right" and had proven himself.

Many candidates are alike, Ross said. "But Digger was different. He had obviously learned a lot in the stuff he was doing, even though it wasn't textbook kind of stuff."

Seven years later, Carey remains unique among the 310 men and women hand-picked over the decades as U.S. astronauts. Many begin shooting for the stars almost straight from grade school, stockpiling degrees and building résumés to wow NASA.

Carey didn't even plan to go to college. All he wanted to do was ride motorcycles, an obsession that began at age 13. By then, he had sworn off shoplifting.

His favorite courses at St. Paul's Highland Park High were "ones that involved getting away from school."

Instead of being the perfect student, Carey slept through most of his classes. He worked from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. as a busboy, got up at 6 a.m. for a breakfast of iced coffee and No-Doz tablets, went to school and started the whole cycle over again.

Other would-be astronauts never would have slacked off or taken a break for fun. But the young, transient Carey slept in strangers' back yards, fixed typewriters and worked as a bartender to subsidize his motorcycle trips. Thankfully, he didn't have any money left for alcohol or drugs.

Scotch instead of beer

After two years of this, his stepfather — just 14 years his senior — asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life. That got him thinking.

Carey so appreciated all the charitable Americans he'd met during his travels, and the ease with which he'd found work, that he decided to pay back his country through the military. His stepfather urged him to become an officer. Why, Carey asked. "Because when the enlisted guys are drinking beer, the officers are drinking Scotch," his stepdad replied.

So Carey opted for college and Air Force ROTC.

He'd forgotten so much during his time off that he had to hit the books and relearn high-school algebra and trigonometry. But it paid off: He won a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.

Carey got his engineering degree in 3-1/2 years and went on for a master's in the early 1980s. By then, he had married his motorcycling sweetheart, Cheryl, and space shuttles had begun flying.

After Air Force stints in Korea, Spain and the Persian Gulf and experience with A-10s and F-16s, Carey was accepted into test-pilot school in 1991.

With an eye to becoming an astronaut, as unattainable as that seemed, Carey applied to NASA in 1994. Not even a nibble. He tried again the next year, at his wife's urging. This time, he was invited for an interview. "I don't know why they hired me, quite frankly," he says with a laugh.

"It's good to have a mix of different kinds of people," explains Ross. "If everybody in the astronaut office looked exactly the same, it would be boring and you wouldn't get near as much done, probably."

A never-ending passion

For most astronauts, flying in space is as good as it gets. And while Carey says that nothing professionally has been as satisfying as making the Hubble Telescope better, motorcycle riding still beats out space travel for him.

Carey's astronaut pals accept his passion for bikes and motocross racing, even those who find the sport dangerous. (Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad survived two lightning strikes on his way to the moon in 1969, only to die after wiping out on his bike 30 years later. Carey, for the record, has broken ribs and had other minor injuries in motorcycle spills.)

But cycles are a passion so deep that he turned down an appointment to the Air Force Academy in the late 1970s because cadets couldn't have vehicles their first two years. Now, 18-year-old son Zachary, not nearly as zealous about the sport as his father, is in his first year there.

Carey rides a Honda ST1100 and Yamaha YZ250. His wife has her own bike, a Suzuki Savage.

The Careys hop on his motorcycle every Sunday morning in Houston and ride a couple hundred miles to get breakfast. During a family vacation to St. Paul over the summer, his wife drove the car — and Carey rode his bike.

Now a lieutenant colonel, the astronaut is counting down the years and months to November 2004, when he can retire from NASA and the military.

"I'm stopping in the middle of really what for most people are the most productive years of their career, and I'm going to stop because I can't bear to go any more time in my life without going back on the road full-time. I thought I would get that out of my system, but now it's stuck," he says. "Our clocks are ticking."

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