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Astronaut tells students about trip into space

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Duane "Digger" Carey thinks of himself as a motorcyclist.

His mother, Penny Pastorius, said motorcycles were probably what kept her two boys out of trouble. Between riding and working part-time jobs to pay for motorcycle parts, they didn't have time to get into trouble.

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Duane, the older of the two boys, even liked to draw motorcycles.

Doug, the younger brother, was the one who drew the airplanes. So it was a surprise to her and the family that Duane was the one who became a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force and a NASA astronaut.

Carey also liked science fiction, according to his sister, Hastings resident Denise Cadwell.

"When he was young, he told me if he were ever abducted by aliens, he'd go in a snap," she said.

Perhaps his love of speed and the thought of traveling through space with aliens were the foundation for what had to be the ride of his life. In early 2002, Carey rode a 2,250-ton, $1.7 billion rocket ship called Columbia into space. It was something he wanted to do, but his mother wasn't so sure.

"We knew in December that he was going," Pastorius said. "He'd been in training for a long time. I was just miserable. I was so upset I couldn't even eat. I lost 23 pounds before he went up."

Family worries

The rest of the family worried, too. Cadwell said her brother was fine with the risk, telling her if something happened to remember that he was doing what he liked.

"He's the same with his motorcycles," she said.

Carey retired two years ago from the Air Force. Today, he spends part of his time speaking to motivate students, including students in Hastings Tuesday during a visit.

"He wants young people to know what they can do," Cadwell said.

Traveling interests

The boys went from riding the motorcycles to racing them. When Carey graduated from high school, he got on a motorcycle and went off to explore.

Carey got traveling out of his system and returned home. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he joined the Air Force ROTC program. He also applied for pilot school, crediting his motorcycle riding for the good results on some of his aptitude tests for flying.

The motorcycles were never far away. One of his motorcycles even went to Korea with him. When he was selected for the Air Force Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, he and other officers built a motocross track. As a test pilot, he first flew F-16s.

Carey flew as a pilot in the Gulf War. Cadwell said her brother flew some 30-plus sorties in the Gulf War, earning a purple heart along the way.

Selected for trip

In 1996, Carey was selected for astronaut training (on loan to NASA from the Air Force, according to Cadwell) and transferred to Houston. After two years of training, he qualified for his first space ride and was assigned to Columbia STS-109. The motorcycles had to be put away for a while. A minor accident could scrub the mission.

The whole family was there to see Carey off to outer space.

The family was at the launch area at 1 a.m. the day of the launch. The ship was launched at daybreak.

"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," Pastorius said. "The crew was quarantined so we couldn't see them. But the day before they left, we had lunch -- the parents and the spouses -- with the crew. As they left, he hugged me and I kind of turned away so he couldn't see I was crying."

Pastorius was scared for her son. And when the solid rocket boosters went off, it was like fireworks -- a lot of heat and light. It took a few seconds to see the ship was all right.

"When the ship went up again later -- the same ship -- it exploded," she said. "The spaceship Duane had been on was the Columbia disaster. We are very lucky."

Carey was the pilot on mission STS-109. The commander was in charge and did most of the flying, but Carey had plenty of time at the throttle on the 11-day mission, in which the crew upgraded the Hubble space telescope.

Carey's nephews, Cadwell's sons, Tim and Nick were at lift-off too. Neither remembers much about it. Nick remembers people were talking about it when they got back to the motel. Last year, Nick met a girl who has become a close friend. He said he told her his uncle was an astronaut, but she didn't really believe him until she came over to the house and saw the pictures.

Tim said he plans to go into the marines out of high school.

"Duane's friends got me excited about it," he said. "I think I'd like to be a fighter pilot."

That's what Duane "Digger" Carey came to do in Hastings -- get kids excited about life.

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