The Astronaut Pin and the Lone Star on the Moon

This week NASA's 2017 astronaut class graduated basic training, making them eligible for flight assignment as the first class to graduate under the Artemis Program! Put 2 and 2 together, and it's clear this group of extraordinary individuals has their sights set on the moon.

After selection, astronaut candidates undergo years of flight training, spacecraft familiarization, EVA preparation, medicine, languages, and other sciences... and that's before the mission-specific training of a real flight! No wonder astronauts are such geniuses - my favorite of the bunch, Jonny Kim, became a Navy Seal, Harvard doctor, and astronaut before the age of 35 (learn more about him here)!

My hero Jonny Kim: an absolute wonderkid that other Asian Americans like myself could only dream of being (front row, second from the left)

Among other American spaceflight traditions, one dating back to the Mercury days is the silver astronaut pin every candidate receives once they graduate from basic training and attain flight status. The original Mercury 7 started off wearing Mercury logo pins on their suit lapels, but as more astronauts joined their ranks, a new design was needed. So around 1964, NASA created a pin displaying a 5-pointed star flying through a halo with three trailing rays. Astronauts wear these silver pins from when they graduate until their first mission, upon which their silver pin is replaced with a gold one to signify they've finally reached space and become "real" astronauts.
The silver and gold astronaut pins - if I had this kind of bling, I'd literally wear them to sleep

In researching the history of the astronaut pin, I found two astronauts' stories worth sharing: Alan Bean and Deke Slayton. Alan Bean flew his first spaceflight as the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12, so although he was only the fourth man on the moon, he was the first rookie since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Pete Conrad flew during the Gemini Program. Bean wore his silver pin for 6 long years as he waited for his first flight assignment, and by then he'd all but given up on ever getting that sparkly gold pin. That is, until his good friend and Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad specifically requested NASA assign him as his Lunar Module Pilot. When he got to the surface of the moon, he figured he wouldn't be needing the silver one anymore, so he literally chucked it as far as he could so that it would rest on the moon for all time (click on the below clip from HBO's miniseries From the Earth to the Moon!!)

Bean also left a second silver astronaut pin on the moon, that of his friend C.C. Williams, who was part of the same astronaut class as him and was supposed to be the Apollo 12 LMP before he was killed in a T-38 jet crash. Bean knew the only reason he got to the moon was because of his friend's passing, so he wanted to honor his memory in a fitting way

C. C. Williams on the left. The Apollo 12 crew put 4 stars in their mission patch: one for the each of the 3 of them, and a 4th for their fallen friend

In the decades after retiring from NASA, Bean went on to become an accomplished artist, painting the magnificent sights he witnessed on the moon so the rest of the world could see them too. In his painting Lone Star below, he depicts himself at the Ocean of Storms, tossing his silver astronaut pin. To learn more about Alan Bean, click here - as a fellow Texas Longhorn, he's my all-time favorite astronaut!

At 1/6th gravity, any toss looks like an NFL quarterback's Hail Mary!

If you think 6 years is a long wait for a first flight, Deke Slayton's was even longer! Slayton was part of the Mercury 7, but while the other 6 all flew immediately, Slayton was grounded when flight surgeons diagnosed him with an atrial fibrillation. With his dream seemingly derailed, Slayton nonetheless went on to become Chief of the Astronaut Office and Director of Flight Crew Operations, meaning he was in charge of crew assignments for all flights. In retrospect, Slayton's grounding was a huge blessing in disguise for NASA; crew assignments are extremely competitive, and if some nameless NASA bureaucrat were assigning crews, undoubtedly there would be tons of politicking and pushback among the astronauts. But Slayton was seen by the astronauts as one of their own, someone who could be trusted and would always be fair with assignments

What an amazing show of gratitude to a man who made such enormous backstage contributions to the space program

Since it seemed Slayton would never replace his silver pin with a gold one, the widows of the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission still wanted to acknowledge his invaluable contribution to the space program. Knowing Slayton would never accept a normal gold pin without going to space, in 1967 they gifted him a special diamond-encrusted pin, unique from any other astronaut's pin. Two years later, Neil Armstrong personally flew Slayton's diamond pin to the moon. Slayton himself said it was a gesture he would never forget - he wore the pin wherever he went, transferring it from suit to suit, as a tribute to his fallen friends

Deke Slayton with Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on the Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit

But Slayton's story isn't over yet! He never quit on his dream of going to space, giving up smoking, caffeine, alcohol, exercising regularly, and doing literally anything else he thought could cure his heart condition. And in 1972, the miracle he'd been hoping for arrived: NASA's flight surgeons cleared him to fly! A whopping 16 years after becoming an astronaut, Slayton finally got his gold pin on his one and only spaceflight, the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. If that doesn't bring a smile to your face, you're reading the wrong blog! :)

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