Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All in the family, relative-ly speaking: In honor of Cousin John on his 66th birthday today

Every family has its noted people in terms of celebrity. There’s always a distant cousin – actor, politician, singer, athlete – who you claim as a close relative and hope they appear at the annual family reunion.
On my side, the late Yippie founder-radical Jerry Rubin (he of the famous 1969 Chicago 7 trial) and singer Bobby Bloom (the lightweight hit song, “Montego Bay”) are wobbly branches on the family tree. Sorry, you’re not impressed.
But, my wife, Jodie, has two strong branches on her family tree. On her mother’s side, there is Dr. John Turner Tinsley, a bona fide hero of the Texas Revolution, involved with survivors of the Alamo, the Battle of San Jacinto, and the Battle of Gonzales in 1835, which led to the siege at The Alamo.
From the “Frontier Days of Texas,” by author A.J. Sowell, it states, “Dr. John T. Tinsley shot one Mexican who stopped to look back … (after the Alamo fell) … and General Sam Houston was in Gonzales. Gen. Houston made the Tinsley house his headquarters. When the army left Gonzales on the approach of the Mexican army under Santa Anna, Dr. Tinsley materially aided the cause of independence by making a trip to the coast after ammunition and intercepting the Army of Houston on its line of march with the powder and lead in time to be used in the famous Battle of San Jacinto, which was fought soon after.”
He remained in Gonzales, as its doctor, alderman, mayor, justice of the peace before dying on March 5, 1878. He is buried in one of the oldest cemeteries in Texas – the Gonzales Masonic Cemetery.
A second hero comes from her father’s side. Her cousin is San Antonio native John Blaha, who was a United States astronaut from 1980-97, flying five times aboard three of the five U.S. space shuttles.
I met John at the annual family reunion in Boerne and if I hadn’t been told of his background, I’d never have known his history. He was just a regular guy, a very nice, warm individual … with a little more to say when people asked him, “What did you do for a living?”
When the country collectively got a knot in its stomach on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, learning that the Space Shuttle Columbia had been destroyed upon re-entry, I thought of Cousin John and how he must felt, tragically losing members of his NASA family.
Blaha, 66, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1965 and earned a master’s degree in astro­nautical engineering from Purdue University in 1966. He flew 361 combat missions in Vietnam before taking his experience into the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1971.
In the next five years, Blaha was a test pilot working with the Royal Air Force at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment in England, and was assigned to work for the Assistant Chief of Staff, Studies and Analyses, at Headquarters USAF in the Pentagon.
In May, 1980, Blaha was selected as an astronaut, logging a total of 161 days (more than 3,864 hours) in space during his five space missions. He was twice pilot on Discovery (STS-29 and STS-33), was Spacecraft Commander on Atlantis (STS-43) and Columbia (STS-58), served on the Mir-22 space station as Board Engineer 2, and was a Mission Specialist on Atlantis (STS-79 and STS-81). On his five missions, astronauts launched satellites, and conducted scores of vital scientific, engineering and medical experiments.
On Sept. 16, 1996, after docking, Blaha replaced astronaut Shannon Lucid, to continue the American presence on the Mir Space Station and joined the Mir-22 crew of Valeri Korzun and Alexander Kaleri. For his Mir adventure, Blaha took Russian language training in California and in Star City, Russia.
During Blaha’s time aboard Mir, the mission completed many life sciences and materials science experiments, including: the Binary Collodial Alloy test, for liquid crystal displays; drugs that dissolve over time in the human body; treatment of oil spills with micro organisms; and the Cartilage in Space investigation into three dimensional tissue growth.
Also, the Greenhouse experiment showed wheat will grow in microgravity for a complete life cycle, and demonstrated successful photosynthesis. The Muscle Performance experiment (in conjunction with the Russian exercise program) demonstrated how exercise in space minimizes the loss of bone density, muscle volume and muscle strength. He returned to Earth after 128 days in space; his final mission ended aboard Atlantis on Jan. 22, 1997.
He logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time in 34 different aircraft, and wrote numerous technical articles on spacecraft performance and control. He received almost every conceivable honor, from the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross to the Russian Order of Friendship Medal to the British Royal Air Force Cross to being a charter member of the Texas Science Hall of Fame. Oh yes, he’s been president of the Zoeller Family Reunion. Can’t forget that.
After his active space career, Blaha became deeply involved with the Challenger Learning Center of San Antonio, a place where all sixth grade students in San Antonio could go and fly a two-hour space mission to intercept a comet. Blaha was board chairman of the foundation that raised the money, built and operated the facility.
“I talked with schools to inspire kids to pursue the career their heart told them to follow – that they were important – that they could make a difference,” he said, noting that more than 26,000 students attended in a 2-1/2 year period. “The teachers, students, parents, and superintendents liked it; they wanted me to double the size so the students could attend more often.”
This past May, Blaha and fellow shuttle astronauts Robert Cabana, Bryan O’Connor and Loren Shriver joined an elite group of U.S. space heroes when they were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame during a public ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
It’s the seventh group of space shuttle astronauts named to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (it totals 71). Earlier inductees served in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs, including such American legends as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell and Sally Ride – just to name a few.
In 1989, he wrote this as part of his space journal: “The achievements of the entire human race put us here. All those smart people through the centuries have had a hand in building the Discovery. Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and many others provided the scientific and mathematical foundation. I am reminded of the old saying, ‘We are only as tall as the shoulders of those we are standing upon.’”
I don’t know what your definition of “hero” is, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. And you just read about it.
But to us, he is just Cousin John – one of the family.

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