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To The Moon!

by Jill Léger (Associate Editor) |

They once numbered 24. Two dozen men, who by the grace of science, and some say by God, journeyed to the moon and back. The number is a little lower now, but an entire planet will never forget what they achieved.

The ranks of the departed include Stuart A. Roosa (CJ-53), who in 1971 rocketed to space aboard Apollo 14. December 2004 marked the tenth anniversary of his passing.

Even as a rookie smokejumper, Roosa showed promise—the kind of mettle he'd demonstrate at NASA 13 years later. Thin with red hair and a studious demeanor, he was smart, level-headed and virtually fearless, "with a little fire in his eyes," recalled Phil Clarke (CJ-51).

Roosa had visited the Cave Junction base in 1952, staying in the bunkhouse and getting to know a few of the jumpers. That's when he "became infected with what would later be his trademark, the 'can do' spirit of the Gobi," noted fellow jumper and friend Jimmie Dollard (CJ-52).

Roosa joined the program the following summer. Nicknamed "Red Rooster," he trained at Cave Junction, adeptly tackling each new challenge and even overcoming a fear of heights.

"Stuart went through rookie training fine and handled everything better than most except for tree-climbing classes," remembered Dollard. "Strange as it might seem for someone who later became a jet pilot and an astronaut, he was afraid of heights. He finally passed the tree-climbing by sheer determination."

Roosa made his first fire jump out of a Noorduyn Norseman, accompanied by Dollard and Bob Wood (CJ-53). "[I was] in the door," Wood recalled. "[Roosa] was next. I remember looking up at him and thinking his eyes were big."

That particular jump turned out to be somewhat of an infamous episode, involving a novice lookout named Shorty and orders to jump a nonexistent blaze. But Roosa managed to impress his colleagues, especially on the pack out, an arduous hike straight uphill some 3,000 feet. "He kept up with me and Wood even though we outweighed him by 15 pounds," Dollard recalled.

It was a busy season, and Roosa continued to prove himself with his enthusiasm and leadership qualities. He was "outstanding…the ideal jumper," Jim Allen (NCSB-46) told a local newspaper in 1971. Roosa would jump a total of four fires, two in the Umpqua National Forest and two in Northern California, working primarily out of Medford, Oregon, due to the paving of the Cave Junction runway that summer.

He joined the Air Force that same year and after the 1953 fire season entered flight school, joining the Aviation Cadet Program at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. His smokejumping experience gave him an edge, especially during the application process.

"He was concerned about a particularly tough psychologist who had [rejected] several [candidates] as unsuitable," Dollard recalled. "When he asked Stuart what he had been doing, Stuart said that he had been a smokejumper and was asked to explain. When Stuart told him what smokejumpers did, the shrink stared in disbelief and said, 'Okay, you shouldn't have any trouble with flight training,' and the planned two-hour interview was over in 10 minutes."

Roosa was working as a test pilot in California when NASA selected him and only 18 others for its astronaut-training program in 1966.

His jumper buddies were behind him all the way. Al Boucher (CJ-49) and Jim Allen sent Roosa a letter offering their congratulations. "It is quite an honor to have an ex-Forest Service smokejumper assigned to…the nation's space team," they wrote. "We are mighty proud of you."

For Roosa, NASA training wasn't too far removed from what he'd experienced as a jumper. He and his fellow recruits spent time on some of the same Oregon terrain he knew in his jumping days, probing the canyons and caves of the state's volcanic Deschutes region and touring the prodigious Newberry Crater.

If he was hoping for excitement at NASA, his timing couldn't have been better. Since 1961, when President Kennedy had set the then-audacious goal of a lunar landing by the end of the decade, a moon landing seemed imminent. In July 1969, of course, it happened, and then again the following November. In the winter of 1971, it was Roosa's turn. He was 47 years old.

For the Apollo 14 mission (the first attempt to land on the moon since the near-disastrous Apollo 13 endeavor), Roosa's job was to pilot the command module Kitty Hawk around the moon as crewmembers Allen B. Shepard and Edgar D. Mitchell explored the lunar surface. He was also assigned to photograph potential landing sites, as well as cosmic activity transpiring behind the dark side of the moon.

Shepard and Mitchell would spend 33 hours on the moon, exploring an impossibly desolate, hilly region known as the Fra Mauro. It remains the longest "lunar surface stay time" of any Apollo mission, but just as noteworthy is the fact that during all those hours, Roosa was alone, piloting the Kitty Hawk in solo orbit around the moon. By the end of the mission, he had logged more than 216 hours in space. A fan of country-and-western music, Roosa brought along a few tapes for the ride. (A favorite song was Frankie Laine's "Cry of the Wild Goose.")

But Roosa is perhaps best known for taking along some 450 tree seeds, as part of a deal forged between NASA and the Forest Service. After the mission, the seeds were germinated and planted across the United States. The resultant loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and Douglas fir are known today as "moon trees" and are living monuments to the Apollo program.

For Roosa, the moon voyage was an awesome experience, but he'd later say it didn't change him fundamentally. "Space changes nobody," he said. "You bring back from space what you bring into space."

Still, upon his father's death, Roosa's son Christopher told the Washington Post that his father had been humbled as he'd looked out at Earth shimmering in space like a "jewel in the sky," a tiny orb he could cover with the palm of his hand. Some 200,000 miles from home, Roosa told his son, he'd felt very alone.

Roosa became one of the space program's most respected members, going on to serve as a backup pilot for the Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions and later working on the space-shuttle program. He retired in 1976.

Married with three sons and a daughter, Roosa was a devoted family man as well. He taught his daughter to fly, and taught all his children the value of dreams, and of persistence.

"One of the things he always taught us was to be adventurous," his daughter, Rosemary, told a reporter in 1994, "to pick your goals and strive for them."

He went into business after retirement and in 1981 assumed ownership of a beer-distribution company in Mississippi, where he lived with his family.

He was 61 when he fell ill during a Thanksgiving-weekend visit to a son in Arlington, Virginia. He died two weeks later, reportedly from complications due to pancreatitis.

When he died, mankind again remembered the miracle of the Apollo landings, feats that seemed perhaps even more remarkable in light of the fact that no one had been to the moon since 1972.

It was a standstill that had long disappointed Roosa. "Apollo was our unfinished obelisk," he told author Andrew Chaikin. "It's like we started building this beautiful thing, and then we quit."

In Roosa's case, such beauty grew in part out of the hard lessons learned that summer at the Gobi. Recalled Dollard, "Several times later in his career he referred to the 'can do' spirit and confidence he had gained at the Gobi as one of his greatest assets."

It was also perhaps his greatest legacy.

"Stuart Roosa was one of the 'can do' space-farers that helped take America and all humankind to the moon," said then-NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin at the time of Roosa's death. "He exemplified the talents that all of NASA strives for: service to our nation, technical know-how and an unbridled creative spirit."