Astronaut’s son sets sights on exploring final frontier

By Linda K. Wertheimer The Dallas Morning News (KRT) HOUSTON _ Vance Henize felt sick to his stomach when he saw the television footage of the shuttle Columbia bursting apart over Texas skies. But the 33-year-old doctoral student at Rice University said he also felt more determined than ever to pursue a spot in American space history. He is chasing a family legacy. Like his father, the son wants to be an astronaut. He’s the youngest child of Karl Henize (pronounced HEN-eyes), the oldest astronaut to go into in orbit when he flew on a Challenger mission in August 1985. At the time, Karl Henize was 58. Others broke his record later. He died in 1993 seeking another record _ becoming the oldest man to scale Mount Everest. “Ten minutes after seeing the breakup video of Columbia for the first time, I just knew I didn’t have a choice,” Vance Henize said. “My philosophy came from my father, `Make sure you do something worthwhile with your life, and follow your dreams.’ I have the opportunity to make a small milestone, to be a second-generation astronaut.” This is no pipe dream. He’s weeks from getting his doctorate in space physics at Rice, which has sent three other graduates on to become astronauts. Henize passed the oral examination for his Ph.D. in December. He’s writing the last pages of his more than 120-page dissertation, research meant to help scientists predict space “weather” _ phenomena such as waves of solar radiation. In a few weeks, he starts postdoctoral work in South Africa. He’ll analyze data from the Voyager deep space probe as it leaves the solar system. “We’ll be going where no satellite has gone before,” he quipped. Henize was initially an art major at the University of Texas at Austin. He transferred to the University of Houston and changed his undergraduate major to physics. He’s a surfer, a scuba diver and a man who dances with rings of fire in a performance troupe. And he has the “right stuff,” said Patricia H. Reiff, his Rice dissertation adviser and director of the Rice Space Institute. “He’s got the right talents and the right spirit — the spirit of wanting to learn and the spirit of adventure,” Reiff said. No son or daughter of an American astronaut has ever been selected as an astronaut, said Eileen Hawley, a NASA spokeswoman. Hawley said she didn’t know whether the application process would continue as scheduled in light of the Columbia disaster. Applying is a nearly yearlong exercise. Applicants often compete with several thousand people for a dozen or more spots. Henize doesn’t play up the fact that he’s an astronaut’s son. He doesn’t exactly hide it, either. A sticker from his father’s shuttle mission is on the center of his office door at Rice. With his mother’s help, he created a Web site about his father, also a noted astronomer, for the Rice Space Institute. Henize was 15, the same age as Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon’s eldest son, when his father went into space. Henize remembers his fear in July 1985 when Challenger’s launch was aborted on the pad in the final minute because of engine trouble. Karl Henize later confided to his family that the aborted takeoff was the only time he was afraid aboard the shuttle. Being an astronaut’s son means being mesmerized and frightened by what can happen when humans venture into the unknown. “When you grow up with a father who’s going to sit on hundreds of tons of explosives, you accept that there’s going to be a danger there,” he said. As a toddler, Henize’s first understandable words were “moon man,” said his mother, Caroline Henize. She said she and her husband woke the 1-year-old in the middle of the night to watch TV coverage of men walking on the moon. Karl Henize joined the astronaut corps in 1968, a year before Vance was born. On the side, Karl Henize acted as a guide on travel tours for people hoping to see comets and eclipses. He took his family along. At age 7, Vance saw an eclipse from a cruise ship in the Pacific Ocean. When he was 13, he went to Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Indonesia to see another eclipse. At age 15, he saw Halley’s comet over the South Atlantic. He saw the unglamorous side of space as well. His father waited almost 18 years to go on a mission. “Your father is training 12 hours a day, six days a week,” he said. “He’s stressed out. Just before flight, there’s a little time off. The family says goodbye.” Still, his mother said she supports her son’s dream. “I would rather he did it if that’s what he wants to do,” Caroline Henize said. “There are going to be more deaths in the space program as it continues.” That’s the way Vance Henize sees it, too. “The thing my father was most afraid of was growing old and dying a slow death from illness,” he said. “In a lot of ways, I’m happy for him that he died climbing Mount Everest. “He went out on his own terms, doing something he wanted to do, in the same way Columbia’s seven astronauts did. I honor their sacrifice. But I don’t feel sad for them. I feel sad for their families.” ___ ‘copy 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.