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(Robert Seale)

My Other Vehicle Was a Spacecraft

Now that the space shuttle has retired, astronauts are rediscovering the joys of flying airplanes.

Michael Foale - Grumman American AA-5B

Michael Foale
(Alexander Poleshuk)

Why do so many astronauts own Grumman Tigers? They’re simple and relatively inexpensive, and yet they have enough power to cruise at 130 mph. Michael Foale has a different opinion: “I think it has to do with the level of salary.” Foale owns a share of a—yes—Tiger. He bought into his first one around the same time he started working for NASA, in 1983. “I bought a seventh share of a Tiger from Sally Ride,” he says. “I wasn’t an astronaut then, and I was extremely excited buying an airplane from an astronaut.”

Foale, born and raised in England, decided to fly solo from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Houston one night. At 3,000 feet, an engine exhaust valve failed and everything grew quiet except the wind rushing past the canopy. Up ahead, he spotted a rotating beacon, and radioed a mayday. After what seemed a very long time—about 10 seconds—air traffic control responded. “Tell us your intentions,” the controller said. Foale replied that he needed to land.

When he reached the airport and the wheels touched down, Foale saw flashing lights coming toward him: a fire truck. “I think, God, America is a great country—you roll to a stop on a dead airport, and they send out a fire truck,” he says. “Then the truck whizzes by me. But then they come back, and they say, ‘Hey, you got a problem?’ I said, ‘The engine quit.’ They said, ‘We’re having a party, want to join us?’ ” So he called his fiancée, then partied until she arrived four hours later to drive him home. America is a great country.

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