They called him Red Rover nine years ago as he floated in outer space, connected with a nylon line to the Apollo 9 moon landing craft. Redhaired, boyish, wisecracking, Rusty Schweickart was America's hero back when astronauts had the kind of media coverage enjoyed today only by British royalty and punk rock stars.
"After the Apollo landing the press got tired of astronauts," says Schweickart, who is living another life today in California as Governor Jerry Brown's assistant for science and technology. Later this month he'll learn if the state legislature will fund the pet project on which he's been working since he left Washington and NASA eight months ago: a $5.8 million investment in a communications satellite. The Assembly said no thanks, the Senate disagreed, and now it's up to a conference committee to make a final decision.
Says a California Democrat with little love for Brown: "A lot of what Jerry does is calculated to pretend he's really president. Like establishing 'trade relations' with Asia. And his own space program. What other governor has an astronaut? I think Rusty is slightly silly window dressing."
"I'm sure working my tail off if I'm just here for window dressing," answers Schweickart. "What I'm trying to do is take technology to the point where it can directly serve the public. Forty-six percent of th manufacturing base in California is high technology, we want to utilize it as well as produce it." The satellite Schweickart envisions will permit quick, clear communications especially valuable for fighting California's devastating forest fires.
Friends say Schweickart, his wife Clare, and their five children were naturals for the West Coast life: "He's a technician for a new age," says an old Washington acquaintance who admires Schweickart's engineering background as well as his interest in meditation, massage, Zen and other schools of Buddhism. Says another fan: "I think of Rusty and Clare as being the great American couple - bright, attractive and enthusiastic. He blossomed in that great American way: if you do something it gives you a great amount of leverage to do what you want.Deep inside Rusty is the right stuff, the true American boy, the jet jockey."
Schweickart says some reporters pait him as a Zen fellow traveler when in fact he's only familiar with the religion. Unlike some of his brother spacemen, however, Schweickart's transition to civilian life was smooth: "I've got the same wife, same kids, but I substitute meditation for alcohol."
The Sacramento climate beats Washington weather, he says, and he finds "a kind of openness that says, 'Let's try something unless there's a good reason not to.'" And on the drawing boards is a hot tub. Heated, of course, by solar energy.