Andy the Astronaut -- he's your Bay Area neighbor

10:51 AM, Jul 11, 2011   |    comments
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Astronaut Andrew Allen aboard Space Shuttle Columbia as commander of NASA mission STS-75.

Safety Harbor, Florida -- He coaches Little League and shops at the grocery store, but that guy next to you may have quite a past! Maybe it's Andy the Astronaut, who lives right here in the Bay Area.

Andy Allen's wife grew up in Florida, and he's also worked here in the Sunshine State.

So when he retired from the NASA astronaut corps and got a job offer that brought him to the Tampa Bay Area, he was all systems go.

He's been a somewhat hidden hero here for years.

Allen hurtled into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Or maybe it's better to call it what the space workers do: "Hotlantis," Allen said with a smile.

"The nickname was Hotlantis, because it was the speed demon, it was the high payload, lightweight vehicle," he explained.

Allen says each shuttle has its own personality. Atlantis is the ride everyone wanted.

"It was a good machine. It had the fewest amount of anomalies at the time," he said of the ship that's set to make the final shuttle flight ever then become the centerpiece of a $100 million expansion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

"I mean, I was really thrilled to be on Atlantis. The fact that Atlantis is staying at Kennedy Space Center is wonderful, it's fun."

Allen's Safety Harbor home holds flight plans, photos, and hefty shuttle hardware -- many mementos from his three shuttle flights.

That includes one he commanded, and landed, in 1996.

"I used to just tell my crew all the time, when I was a commander, I said, 'Your job is to make sure I don't look bad on CNN,'" Allen said.

"And they'd all turn right back around and say, 'Your job is to make sure we all come home.' I said, 'Fair. It's a deal.'"

While astronauts are up in space about the shuttle, they may be eating rehydrated hamburger patties from a plastic bag, seasoning them with a brown liquid NASA calls a "pepper dispenser assembly."

But back on earth, their families is in their regular kitchen, wondering when Daddy's going to be home for dinner.

"The worst feeling is when you say goodbye to your kids," Allen remembered.

"The daughters were 10 and 6, and they were pretty emotional. Apollo 13 had just come out," he said, recalling one of his missions.

For the Allen family, anxiety during launch -- turned into good ol' family fun once he was flying.

"Talking to my daughters from space. I have a video from space, I'm linking down so they can see me," he said, looking back to the time he commanded Space Shuttle Columbia.

"And for 18 of the 22 minutes, it's me saying,'All right -- stop it! Quit arguing. Listen, I'm 10,000 miles away from you on the other side of the earth, you've gotta quit arguing so I can talk to you.'"

"'One of you at a time. Jessica, it's your turn to talk, ask your question.'"

"The kids will just pull you right back into real life."

Andy Allen and all of his fellow astronauts will tell you: Even in space -- where the sun rises and sets every 45 minutes, aboard a flying machine with more than two million parts -- we are all human.

The final launch of the space shuttle program is set for Friday at 11:26 a.m.

Watch 10 News and wtsp.com Thursday tonight for our final launch special with anchor Reginald Roundtree and space reporter Grayson Kamm.

We'll broadcast live from Kennedy Space Center from 7-8 p.m. with astronaut interviews, a look ahead to what's next for NASA, and more.

And we'll bring you live coverage of Space Shuttle Atlantis' historic liftoff on 10 News and wtsp.com starting Friday at 11 a.m.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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