Assignment headline: Astronaut falls off bike, loses spot on shuttle mission

Most people hear “astronaut” and flash on images of young guys opening up a throaty muscle car on a country road next to a cornfield. Or doing rigorous tests that border on torture. Maybe ol’ Armstrong doing that first moonwalk. Images courtesy of Hollywood and the news that have seeped into the collective unconscious and reduced the notion of the astronaut to near cliché.

That said a lot of the guys on base are into cars. Most astronauts were pilots first, and share some pilot DNA. Pilots love speed. It works the other way too; something like sixty percent of NASCAR racers are pilots. Bet ya didn’t know that.

But like many other competitive, excellence-based fields (the more ego-driven of our lot might say calling) there is no average astronaut. Even the phrase “average astronaut” is an oxymoron.  It would follow that there is no usual astronaut hobby.

There are a few shared indulgences among the crew. Most of us like to play poker and drink beer, often simultaneously. Most like to watch football and many of the guys like to golf. But there are also men who are serious chefs, and guys that are collectors. One crewmember loves Flow Blue and Depression glass. He’ll go on and on like Antiques Road Show if you aren’t conversationally careful. One guy writes space-themed sonnets, for which he is ridiculed. Another indulges his nerdiness by building 1/100 scale models of the ancient wonders of the world entirely from Legos.

So a range. We’re not all the macho-man wrestling a bull to the ground by its horns while wearing boots and sporting flattop-types. That space sailor no longer exists, at least not in 2011. Though I did once ride a mechanical bull to impress a lady. And that lady is now my wife. Uhm. . .Oops. . . now I’m ramblin’ . . .sorry bud. This morphine drip – I’m in constant pain and only have to push this little button – kinda lethal combo, know what I mean? Yeah.

Anyway, the fact that I’m an astronaut and also an avid cyclist shouldn’t be so surprising, regardless of what the local media has made it into. Think about competitive cycling: speed, power, navigation, sound familiar?  This is strictly of the record but I swear to God those freakin’ Houston Chronicle articles are only good for filling space between the endless bleepity-bleepin’ ads for penis pills and bi-curious chat lines.

Those gutless reporters just friggin’ latch onto somethin’. Doesn’t need to be actual and factual. They just need a juicy headline to hook people, bring em in and make em see the G.D. ads explaining how you can get out of a DUI or hire a friggin’ hooker.  Look, I know that yellow rag is lining the birdcage a coupla days after it hits the stand, but it still gets my goat. Gets my gonads, if you pardon my little joke. The joke is little, mind you. Not the ‘nads. Ha. Just trying to keep it light. Sorry, not used to being this medicated. Feel a little woozy.

Where was I? Oh yeah – that’s why I called you here. Pardon my saying so but you are the least terrible. The best of the bleepin’ worst. Most of the time you’ve covered the Space program with a fair, if slightly cynical viewpoint.  I need to set this story straight. Everybody else at the Chron makes a mockery of our vocation by default. Like NASA is Houston’s special little joke, or almost a bleepin’ burden to the friggin’ community. Like doin’ what we do is somehow friggin’ dubious. Oh, a little FYI – when I landed in this hospital bed I told the wife I wouldn’t cuss anymore. Not going so well. Got the swear jar over there, every time I curse it’s ten friggin’ bucks. Must be 150 bucks in there now. Penance for poor judgment.

Anyway, when all the BS about my bike accident got out I knew the Weekly was going to have a day, and they sure as Shinola did.  That’s why I’m holding court here, conduction a one-person press conference from the oh-so-glamorous Base sick bay. Having your legs in traction limits the G.D. options as to locale. But hey, thems the breaks. Get it?  Anyway, I can’t wait another two months while more mud is flung on my once pristine reputation. Flung? Slung? Oh what’s the G.D. difference?

I guess this is more of a talk than a conference as it’s just you and me and I’m not takin’ questions. Let me tell you how it’s gonna work. I’m going give you an oral incident report on the record. I suggest you record it for posterity. No questions, and then you write the story. If I like what’s written I won’t sue the crap outta that bleepin’ rag you work for.

So here goes. I got into cycling about ten years ago when a buddy got me into the Tour De France. I had all the gear and a custom 21-speed Peugeot that was built to my body. I wore the cyclist Lycra and fingerless gloves. I was an enthusiast.

A few years ago I moved from geared street bikes to fixed-gear bikes, called Fixies, in case you didn’t know. I liked the control and the economy of design. I also liked that if one endeavored to ride backwards one could do so. I stayed in this zone for a while, doing my miles on my favorite Fixie, a converted Noshimi quad I built myself.

About six months ago I became unsatisfied with the traditional fixed-gear bike and started looking around for a change. I looked at recumbent bikes but couldn’t get into the lack of precision in the steering. I checked out a unicycle but always felt a little like a freakin’ circus performer or a fruity mime. Also it wasn’t practical as an over-the-road mode of transport. You see, by this time I was using the fixie for 90% of my transportation. That and you couldn’t put a pack on it, so it was a no go.

One day I’m surfing Fixie YouTube videos there’s one mysteriously titled Penny-farthing. Intrigued I click on it and there’s this dude way up high on one of those old-timey bicycles with a huge front wheel and a tiny back wheel. The guy is friggin’ cruisin’ like 10 feet off the ground sitting on the tiny saddle that looks like it’s mounted on the huge wheel. He looks like he is having a G.D. blast, the wind blowing his long hair back as he pedals hard, a shit-eating grin on his face. Oh shit. Oh double-poop. 20 in the swear jar. Would you mind, my wallet is over there.

After watching that video I knew I’d found my next cycling obsession: The Penny-farthing. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle. Its fixed gear. The handlebars are mustache shaped and attach to the front wheel. It’s stylish and special and difficult. I was smitten.

Long story slightly shorter, some trendy Fixie companies now makes new ruggedized Penny-farthings and I swooped one up. The hipsters in the bike shop called it a High-Wheel and momentarily let me into their status-seeking fetish club. Once I actually bought the beauty and loaded it into the truck, they eyed me enviously, NASA ID tag notwithstanding.  Dave, did you know the front wheel is 60 G.D. inches in diameter? 60 inches!

I was a man possessed.  It took a week to learn how to mount it without falling over sideways. It took longer to understand the steering. Every standard bicycle steering instinct is wrong for the Penny-farthing. A couple of times starting out I was pitched over the front wheel when I hit big dips or rocks. Maybe I should have heeded the warning. Penny-farthings fell out of fashion in part because they were known to eject riders over the handlebars. It was so common there was even a term for it: “Taking a header.”

Naturally enjoying a challenge I remembered seeing another Penny-farthing video where the rider had his legs up over the handlebars, feet out over the wheel and hands still on the bars, riding on the bars. He was going downhill and obviously not pedaling. It looked so precarious but he also looked like he was having a freakin’ blast. I read this was a way riders countered the danger of taking a header. By having your legs up and over the bars you could, in theory, land on your feet.

So I tried it. It was G.D. exhilarating. It became my preferred way to ride, like hang gliding on the ground.  And that’s how I was riding when I shattered my legs. So your paper had it half right. I was not, as it was, ahem, reported, hot-doggin’, showing off for the traffic on the base. Here’s a sound-bite for you: I was riding in a well know defensive position to protect myself from serious injury or even death from taking a header on a Penny-farthing and possibly bouncing my soft little head off the freakin’ ground.

My riding method, however unorthodox in appearance, actually prevented something more serious from happening. Unfortunately when I was pitched feet-forward going so fast the impact shattered both femurs and created a compound fracture in my right tibia just below the knee.  Thus the traction, the pins and the morphine.

Not hard to put together that someone put a call in to you guys from the base. When I get outta here I’m going to crack some friggin’ skulls. Getting selected for a mission is fiercely competitive, but in this instance they didn’t need to bother. I took myself out. My Penny-farthing addiction lost me the G.D. shuttle spot.

So yes, I did something foolish on an exotic bicycle. But in reality I was riding responsibly. Not showboating but taking precautions. It just looked like I was goofin’. Look, I can see how the notion of a high-flying astronaut being taken down by a bike from the 1800’s might be humorous. But hey, at least I didn’t take a fuckin’ header.  Oh shit. Wallet.

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