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The astronaut who learned how to see

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Nasa/Reuters/File

(Read caption) The International Space Station in orbit.

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As a group, they defined cool. As individuals – from Yuri Gagarin to John Glenn, Sally Ride to Christa McAuliffe – they have shared the intelligence, confidence, ingenuity, and physical fitness that the writer Tom Wolfe rightly termed the “right stuff.”

Fewer than 600 humans have gone extraterrestrial in the 50 years of spaceflight. Most have carried out their missions with quiet competence. Some have skillfully saved the day. Gordon Cooper took over the controls and used celestial navigation to maneuver his crippled Mercury capsule to a pinpoint landing in 1963. Seven years later, the Apollo 13 crew slingshotted around the moon, ingeniously overcame a series of epic challenges, and endured a cold, harrowing return.

Some have uttered memorable lines (“That’s one small step....”); performed inspiring acts (the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve reading from Genesis); or fascinated us by floating in the void, bouncing on moon dust, or smacking golf balls from the lunar surface. For all the fun, we have always known how dangerous this work was. Eighteen astronauts have died in flight. Another dozen were lost in training.

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