Astronaut Tom Jones comes home


October 23, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Astronaut Tom Jones came home to Essex this week, and that's just where his mother likes him.

"My mom would rather not have to worry about all this," said Jones, a boyish-looking 36. "She thinks I'm better off with my feet on the ground."

While her astronaut son talked with a visitor in the living room of her yellow Cape Cod on Seaford Avenue in Essex, Rosemarie Jones sat in the kitchen, politely declining to be interviewed.

"Mom doesn't like to fly," her son said. And she would rather that no one she loves flew.

Just a mother's luck, then, to have a son who grows up to fly B-52 bombers for the Air Force for six years, and then signs up to fly in space.

Even so, said Jones' father, David, "We're all for him." The family is his "support group."

Jones was selected as an astronaut in January 1990 and now lives with his wife and two young children in Houston. He is due to receive his first mission assignment soon, and hopes to fly in space as a space shuttle mission specialist by 1993 or 1994.

With luck, he says, he may get the "Holy Grail of space shuttle missions," the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, now scheduled for 1993.

Jones is back in Baltimore this week for a series of "Hometown Visits" to schools he attended as a boy. He spoke at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School a few doors from his parents' home, and at Stemmers Run Middle School earlier this week. He will be at Kenwood High School on Friday.

"He always had his mind in the clouds, since he was a youngster," recalled David Jones, 60, a retired junior high school teacher and counselor. "Every time he was sketching, every picture would be airplanes and missiles."

Jones' dreams have also been nurtured repeatedly by television.

On a family camping trip to California, young Tom insisted on stopping one night in a motel so he could watch an Apollo landing on television.

"I was always interested in space and flying," Jones said. By the time he was 5, he had already read about Sputnik, and science fiction.

And by fifth or sixth grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, he was captivated by the Gemini flights, which he watched on television sets his teachers rolled into the classroom.

It was then, he said, that he decided to become a pilot and an astronaut. Nearly everything that followed -- his hard work in school and good grades, his choice of the Air Force Academy -- was calculated to get him into space.

Then in 1983, while with a B-52 bomber crew at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, Texas, Jones was watching astronomer Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series on public television when he decided it was time to take the next step.

"Sagan was a very good popularizer of planetary science," he said. The program inspired Jones to quit the Air Force and work toward a doctorate in planetary science at the University of Arizona, which he earned in 1988. It was a surer route into space, he figured, than flying bombers.

He then spent two years in project development for the CIA. He had just switched to a job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington, planning future planetary spacecraft, when he was selected for the astronaut corps.

Since then, he has been immersed in classroom and simulator training that he says is "like going to space camp for a year."

So far the training has been focused on shuttle systems, engineering, celestial mechanics and astronomy. But when his first mission assignment comes, he will begin intensive training for that.

He has even flown shuttle flight simulators, and aircraft modified to mimic the shuttle's handling.

"I've done well enough at those that I feel I could land the thing if I had to," he said.

Curiously, he has yet to watch a shuttle launch in person. Just hasn't had time.

He's not frustrated by flight delays or the long waits between missions, he said. "Just the opposite. I feel like I've only got that much time to get ready, and how can I learn it all in that amount of time."

Part of every astronaut's time is also devoted to public relations, which is what brought Jones home to Essex this week, and to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School gym, which he had not seen since he played Catholic Youth Organization basketball there as a teen.

This time the place was filled with grade-school kids. They sat in rapt attention while he, decked out in blue NASA coveralls, narrated a short NASA film on space flight and the mysteries of eating, sleeping and playing jacks in zero gravity. Somewhere in the crowd were Ryan and Nicholas Oldewurtel, his nephews.

If the students practice their reading, keep healthy and study hard, he said, "you, too, could get a chance to go into space one day." He offered himself as proof that, "If you dream about something you want to do, you can do it."

"Space," he said, "is where we're going to go as a country." And walking in space is "as close as we can come to having a God's-eye view of the universe."

The kids' interests, however, seemed more down to Earth.

"How do you take a bath in space?" one Mount Carmel student asked. You take a sponge bath, Jones replied.

"Are satellites hard to fix?" someone asked. "We're very smart about figuring out how to fix things that are broken," he answered.

"Have you ever been scared in training?" asked another. No, he answered. "I know how careful we are in getting the shuttle ready to fly . . . It's going to be a good time."

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