If you go

What: Jim Wetherbee speaks about space and music

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 61980 Skyline Ranch Road, Bend

Cost: $35

Contact: ccschoolofmusic.org or 541-382-6866

Bend resident Jim Wetherbee is used to high-risk activities: serving as a Navy test pilot, flying six space shuttle missions and keeping timeon the drums. While he still finds himself commanding a drum set, Wetherbee has left his space flights and aviator duties behind for other missions. He’s authored a book and serves on the Cascade School of Music’s advisory board. At Friday’s fundraising event for the nonprofit school’s new Third Street home and scholarship program, he’ll be sitting in on drums with the school’s rock group, Anything but Vanilla, playing three songs.

“He’s not just an astronaut; he’s a musician. He’s a drummer,” said Robert Lambeth, executive director of the music school. “Jim’s going to talk about his time in space and the way space and music have worked in his life.”

Wetherbee knew in elementary school that he wanted to be an astronaut. He was realistic about his odds. His decisions as a young man didn’t hurt his chances — in college he studied aerospace engineering, then trained as a Navy fighter pilot.

Wetherbee, 65, comes off as calm and cerebral. He exudes cool-under-pressure, entirely fitting for a pilot, astronaut and drummer.

After a career spent in various locales including Anchorage and London, England, Wetherbee and his wife, Robin, a former labor and delivery nurse, settled in Bend three years ago.

Their two adult daughters live in the Dallas, Texas area.

“Robin followed me throughout my careers in the U.S. Navy, NASA, and the oil and gas industry,” Wetherbee said. “Since her job was a lot harder than mine, as she had to watch me launch on rockets, I always told her after we retire, she gets to choose where we live.”

Wanting to experience four seasons and access outdoor recreation, she researched a potential new home and found Central Oregon.

“We both love Central Oregon and think Bend is paradise,” he said.

Throughout his career, Wetherbee learned a lot about what he calls “operational excellence.” Those principles would eventually result in a book, 2017’s “Controlling Risk — In a Dangerous World.”

Superstitious tradition

Astronauts are not superstitious people, Wetherbee said, “but occasionally, there’s something.”

His pre-launch routine verged on something superstitious.

“The last person I would call on the morning of launch, before I’d get into my technical mode, where you don’t think about anything except the mission and the job … would be my wife — to say goodbye,” Wetherbee said. “The second-to-last person I would call was Max Weinberg.”

That’s Max Weinberg as in the E-Street Band. Even before his first space flight, Wetherbee had forged a friendship with Bruce Springsteen’s longtime backup band.

Before one shuttle mission, Weinberg was busy with a soundcheck prior to a Miami concert when Wetherbee tried him, so he hung up and called his wife.

“I said goodbye to her and hung up the phone and realized I had another three minutes to spare. I said, ‘Well, hell, I’ll try Max one more time.’

“This time, he picked up. Well, now, I’m in trouble because I had to say, ‘I gotta go, real quick, see ya, bye.’ Now, I gotta call my wife because SHE had to be the last person. I’m going ‘Please answer the phone. Please answer.’ Fortunately, she did answer.”

Launching a career

Reminders of Wetherbee’s career pepper his home, including letters from political figures such as John Glenn and presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, framed artwork and patches of each of his six space launches, and a commissioned stained glass shuttle piece hanging in a living room window.

Wetherbee said he has just a few isolated memories from his early childhood in Huntington Station, New York.

At 10 years old, “I suddenly woke up one day, and I just knew I was going to be an astronaut,” he said. “The motivation was the Mercury flights were flying then, and I would listen to them on the radio.”

The enterprising Wetherbee smuggled a 9-volt transistor radio into class so he could keep up with the unfolding mission.

“The teacher caught me, and I thought I was going to be in trouble,” he said. Instead, she handed him a pile of thumbtacks and had him take a seat at the back of the classroom, next to a map of the world.

“She said, ‘Plot the progress of the mission as it (flies) around the Earth.’ I felt like I was part of the space program at that point,” Wetherbee said.

However, joining the space program was not a foregone conclusion. As he grew older, he began to think, “‘Well, there’s not much chance of being an astronaut,’ but nothing else interested me,” he said.

College and Navy

Wetherbee attended Notre Dame University, where he graduated in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering.

After graduation, “I didn’t want to get a real job, so I applied to the U.S. Navy to learn how to fly airplanes — not really with the goal of being an astronaut,” he said. “But the only thing I really wanted to do was to fly.”

While the Navy processed his paperwork, Wetherbee attended graduate school at the University of Cincinnati “as a contingency back-up plan,” he said. A highlight was the fact that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was a professor there.

“He was teaching the undergraduate students. I was a graduate student. I did play basketball with him one day,” Wetherbee said. As fate would have it, the two played on the same team. It was professors and graduate students against undergrads.

“It was kind of cool,” Wetherbee said. He doesn’t remember which side won.

Once the Navy came through, Wetherbee left grad school in 1975 to begin training.

He worked hard to excel. Before flying a Navy jet for the first time, “We were supposed to have six flights in a simulator. And I knew that was not enough,” he said. “So I became friendly with the night shift janitor in the simulator building, which allowed me to sneak into the building.”

This surreptitious extracurricular flight training enabled him to get six times as many flight hours in the simulator as his peers, he said.

“My instructor asked me when we first flew, ‘Are you sure you have no flight experience?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ I kept that as another of the techniques of operating excellence. You study hard and work hard and become the best at what you do.”

Wetherbee was designated a naval aviator in 1976. His first tour consisted of flying A-7s in the Mediterranean on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy.

“It was great fun. Best job on the planet,” he said. “At the end of the tour, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do now?’” He applied and was surprised when he was admitted to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Afterward, “(I) tested the F-18 when it was new. We had the first set of F-18s that were built and just great fun. The airplane had some issues, and that was fun,” he said. “Four days out of the week … I was testing the airplane, finding problems with it, and one day, I was essentially selling the airplane,” showing its strengths to congressional liaisons who would join him for a test flight.

Joining NASA

Wetherbee logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time and made 345 aircraft carrier landings. After three years as a test pilot, he realized he had satisfied enough criteria to apply to NASA.

“I still never thought I would be accepted,” he said, but in 1984, he was chosen to be in NASA’s 10th group of astronauts.

“It was the best feeling in the world — the best professional feeling in the world — to potentially fulfill the only thing I had ever really wanted to do since I was 10 years old.”

Soon after arriving at NASA, he noticed that “many of the astronauts worried far too much about the politics, how to position themselves to look good to the boss. I thought that was wasted mental effort,” Wetherbee said. “I had learned long ago, you put your head down, you work hard and you study as much as you can, and then you become as good as you can and then they have to assign you to a flight. Don’t worry about the politics.”

Space travel

He served as pilot of the space shuttle Columbia on his first mission in January 1990. During the 261-hour, 173-orbit mission, the crew recovered a stranded satellite, deployed another, and studied the effects a prolonged stay in space on the human body.

Over Wetherbee’s next five missions as commander, he and his shuttle mates deployed satellites and conducted two operations with Russia’s Mir space station, including docking with it in 1997.

In March 2001, on his fifth shuttle mission, he and his crew mates performed the first crew exchange mission to the International Space Station.

Wetherbee flew twice in the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery, and once each in the Atlantis and Endeavor. He is the only astronaut to serve five missions as commander and land the shuttle five times — records, he notes, that will not be broken given the shuttle program’s end in 2011.

Being in space was exhilarating.

“The things you can see and feel and experience are almost mind blowing,” he said.

He appreciates the nighttime stargazing to be had in Central Oregon — but it pales compared to space.

“It’s a lot better than anywhere else on the Earth that I’ve seen,” he said. “Multiply that by a hundred, and that’s what it looks like in space.”

A couple of hundred miles up, the view of the Milky Way is incredible.

“It’s unimaginable to see the density of stars in the Milky Way with the naked eye. All different colors. Mostly white, some yellow, some reddish, some brownish, some bluish,” he said. “And they don’t twinkle.”

On the daytime side, “The Earth is just amazing. To look at the blueness of the ocean, it’s the deepest, most brilliant blue you can imagine,” Wetherbee said.

At 6-foot-4, Wetherbee is often labeled the tallest astronaut. It’s really a tie, he said.

“Some magazine printed that a long time ago, and you know how the internet is,” he said. “There’s another astronaut who was equally as tall named ‘Ox’ Van Hoften.”

Working toward safety

Beginning in 1995, Wetherbee served as deputy director of Johnson Space Center, and from 2000 to 2002, worked as the director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate.

Wetherbee and his team were tasked with figuring out how the program had arrived at “a place where the best aviators on the planet, the best scientists, engineers and doctors, (were) not operating as safely as we should,” he said.

They noted that in the space program’s infancy, astronauts came from a military test pilot background. Over the ensuing decades, the program began to include people who didn’t have the original test pilots’ innate understanding of safe operations.

“We began to hire more scientists, engineers, doctors. Great people. Really smart, talented and No. 1 in their class, best in their field. But they came with a different set of values, and they didn’t understand the principles of operating excellence in the flight environment,” he said. “My team looked at me, and they said ‘You need to write down the principles of operating excellence for space flight.’”

Wetherbee said he does not like danger.

“I like being in control, and controlling the risk.”

After NASA

That initial list of tenets of operating excellence contained 13 of Wetherbee’s principles, plus one from another astronaut. After NASA, Wetherbee went to work in the oil and gas industry for BP, America, as a safety and operations auditor and vice president for Operating Leadership.

He pointed up.

“Instead of exploring that way, you’re exploring this way,” he said, pointing down. “It’s the same hyrdrocarbons, you know, explosive energy, and you’re trying to contain the energy, and make decisions — it’s virtually the same occupation.”

Wetherbee further honed his ideas about operational techniques, and after retiring from BP, put them down in “Controlling Risk.”

“It’s a real slow seller, but I think it’s going to be a long-term seller because it’s intended to help companies in dangerous businesses (that) are not figuring out how to prevent accidents in general,” he said.

Orbiting music

His favorite room in his Bend home is the music room, where he keeps his drum kit.

“My wife finally allowed me to indulge in quality drums,” he said. The snare drum stands out from the rest of the kit.

“It’s a 1966 Slingerland,” he said. “They don’t make quality like they used to in the old days. … So I still play my original snare drum.”

He’d like to start a band in Bend, but he travels frequently to give talks at conferences. It’s the same reason he first declined when approached to join Cascade School of Music’s Advisory Board.

“Eventually, I was too interested in music,” he said.

Lambeth of Cascade School of Music, sings Wetherbee’s praises.

“He’s great. He’s already encouraging them to take a song and switch it up with a different beat. And he said ‘Start writing your own music.’”

Wetherbee took three years of drum lessons starting in high school, followed by a 17-year break as his flight career took off. It ended a year and a half after the 1986 Challenger tragedy.

“We were about ready to start flying again, and (wanted to) start improving morale and getting our minds right,” Wetherbee said. “A couple of astronauts who were guitar players had an idea to have a morale-boosting party.”

The theme was a ’50s sock hop, for which the guitarists wanted to form a rock band. They just needed a drummer.

“There was only one question in the audition,” Wetherbee said. “It was, ‘Do you own a set of drums?’ And when my answer was ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘You’re in the band.’”

He soon began practicing for the band, which they named Max Q.

“(It’s) an aerodynamic term designating maximum dynamic pressure on ascent when a rocket flies through the atmosphere, when there’s the most noise, vibration, acceleration — but no music,” Wetherbee said. “We thought that would be a good name for us because we were making a lot of noise.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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