It was July 31, 1971, and the brother who used to drive Tom Scott around San Antonio became the first human to drive on the moon.
This wasn’t the Cushman Scooter that Dave Scott steered on the way to pick up burgers at their favorite joint. It was a Lunar Roving Vehicle, on the way to pick up rock samples at the Hadley Rille and Apennine Mountains. It was the Apollo 15 mission, the nation’s fourth manned lunar landing and Dave’s third space flight.
Tom, now a Columbus resident consulting for the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, recalled viewing the moment on TV in his Hilton Head, S.C., home. The world watched, but only he who could boast that was his brother “bouncing and bumping” along the moon’s surface.
As he witnessed the historic drive, Tom wondered, “How does that thing work? You saw it come out of the landing craft and unfold, and you’re just mesmerized by the technology. How can that happen?”
Never miss a local story.
Thanks to Tom donating some of the artifacts that document Dave’s NASA experience, thousands of visitors to the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center can better understand such cosmic achievements and why they matter.
Tom loaned the collection to the center in 2011, then made a permanent gift in 2013. Shawn Cruzen, the center’s executive director, said Tom’s contribution is now among the items Muscogee County School District fifth-graders — about 2,500 of them — see during their visit.
“The fifth-graders are touring our exhibit gallery as part of our recent cooperative contract with MCSD,” Cruzen said. “The majority of their activities while visiting focus on the fifth-grade science standards. However, because we have these and other artifacts from the Apollo era, we use them as teaching tools to talk about America's Space Race with the USSR in the ’60s and ’70s. This topic helps to address the social studies standards dealing with the Cold War.
Tom called the donation a “delight to be able to share information and artifacts to such a credible science center that provides a tremendous space educational program to individuals and to county school programs.
“…Dave has learned about the donations and about the programs for those fifth-graders and has been sending video site locations for some of his lectures on geology that will be used to embellish the educational efforts of the science center.”
Growing up in San Antonio, where their father was stationed in the Air Force, Dave made model airplanes while Tom played basketball.
Tom is 11 years younger than Dave, so he still was in elementary school when his brother graduated from the U.S. Military Academy fifth out of 633-cadet class in 1954. But despite the distance in geography and age, they remained close.
“He looked out for me, and he played with me, and he taught me things,” Tom said. “When you’re younger, that relationship can be more bonding. But once you start dating girls and going to high school, it changes.”
Already 6-foot-7 as a teenager, Tom challenged the 6-foot-1 Dave while he was on a visit home.
“I think I can take my brother down,” Tom thought. “It was time for me to roll him to the floor.”
“He took me down as fast as I’ve ever been taken down in my life,” Tom said.
And big brother tickled little brother until he cried “Uncle!”
Tom learned two lessons from that tussle.
“First of all, he was a heck of a lot stronger than I was,” he said. “Secondly, there were no blows, so he cared for me; he didn’t want to hurt me.”
Dave chose to follow their father’s path and became an Air Force pilot. In October 1963, NASA announced Dave as one of its third group of astronauts. Tom didn’t even know his brother had applied.
“It was a total surprise to me,” Tom said, who was working in the hotel business in San Diego at the time.
He heard the news from their parents after Dave contacted them.
“Then we saw the press releases and the TV news stories,” he said, “and I’m just amazed.”
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Dave’s first mission, in March 1966 on Gemini 8. His flight partner was Neil Armstrong, who three years later became a bit more famous as the first human to walk on the moon.
Tom watched the launch on TV in his parents’ La Jolla, Calif., home — along with a few NASA representatives in the living room and a bunch of reporters and cameramen camped outside.
The launch, Tom said, “was just excitement. Mom was probably more nervous; Dad was probably more contained, having been a pilot, but still concerned. I was, too. I’m starting to understand, ‘Wait a minute now, he’s leaving the atmosphere.’”
Excitement turned into disappointment. Gemini 8 was supposed to be a three-day mission, but it lasted only 10 hours, 41 minutes and 26 seconds because of a malfunction. Dave’s scheduled spacewalk was canceled.
“I really wanted that for my brother,” Tom said.
Disappointment turned into relief, however. Twenty-seven minutes after the crew performed the first docking with another vehicle in space, a thruster problem caused their spacecraft to roll out of control. They spun approximately one revolution per second and nearly lost consciousness.
A commentator on TV, Tom said, reported, “This is a serious situation that has to be resolved. It was a very dangerous moment.”
He doesn’t remember his family’s specific reactions, Tom said, “but I assure you that all of us were concerned.”
Armstrong, the command pilot, stabilized the spacecraft by deactivating the maneuver system and firing the entire re-entry system.
“Neil saved their lives,” Tom said.
But with only 25 percent of the re-entry fuel left, they had to head home. And the anxiety wasn’t over.
“When that thing is coming back in, the intensity of the heat is incredible,” Tom said. “Have they designed this equipment to get them back through that atmospheric break? The next thing is, do the chutes work and drop you into the ocean at a point where you are supposed to be dropped and there are people there, and are you dropped safely? Then does the Navy get there in time and does it sink? Then how are they? What’s transpired during this whole thing?”
The splashdown in the western Pacific was safe. Tom doesn’t remember when he first saw his brother again, but he does recall being cautious with his questions.
“Dave tends to be a very private person about flights and actions that happened,” he said. “… I never really pushed him. There were a few questions, maybe, but I respected his space. How about that for a pun?”
Tom also respected his parents for ensuring Dave’s sudden celebrity didn’t diminish the admiration they had for their other son.
During a cocktail reception after the Gemini 8 mission, their father introduced Dave, of course, but also bragged about Tom’s success in the hotel business.
“I was very humbled,” Tom said.
Three years later, in March 1969, and four months before Armstrong’s moonwalk, Dave was the command module pilot for Apollo 9. It was the first mission to, as NASA describes it, “complete a comprehensive earth-orbital qualification and verification test of a fully configured Apollo spacecraft.”
Tom again watched on TV with his parents. Dave didn’t give them any advance info about the mission.
“I’m learning all about this like a general American person,” Tom said. “A lunar what? You’re going to do what?”
This mission lasted 10 days. The highlight for NASA was James McDivitt and Russell Schweickart performing what NASA calls “a lunar-orbit rendezvous simulation and subsequent docking” in the lunar module while Dave piloted the command module more than 100 miles away.
“It was the landing craft that would be used to leave the command ship and to land on the moon,” Tom said. “They had transferred into that unit to test it and fly it and see how it would work.”
And the crew achieved it all with less technology in their spacecraft than a smartphone, Tom said Dave told him recently.
“I’m so happy the mission accomplishes what it does,” Tom said, “compared to the disappointments we had with his previous flight in Gemini 8.”
The Apollo 9 highlight for the Scott family was Dave completing a 1-hour EVA (extra-vehicular activity) in the open command module hatch, where he photographed Schweickart.
“I had no idea of his accomplishments with the camera that he had learned,” Tom said.
He understood it mighty well when a 1983 Christmas gift from Dave arrived: One of the pictures Dave had shot was on the cover of Time-Life’s book “Life in Space.”
Inside the front cover, Dave wrote to Tom, “… I hope you enjoy sharing those exciting years with us from the cover onward. We appreciate your interest, your support and your friendship.”
Two years later came Dave’s third and final and longest space mission, Apollo 15, from July 26 to Aug. 7, 1971. He was the spacecraft commander.
“This was big time,” Tom said.
And this time, Tom saw the launch in person. He and his parents were invited to Cape Canaveral, where they met celebrities such as broadcaster Walter Cronkite, while Dave prepared for the mission.
“It was a very ceremonial time,” Tom said.
On launch day, Tom was “nervous, proud, a little puffed up. You know, that’s my brother.”
Their viewing stand was about 3 miles away from the launch pad, but it sure seemed plenty close.
“Gosh, did the ground ever shake on the liftoff,” he said. “Oh, my gosh!”
He thought, “Go, baby, go. No problems. … You keep watching as it’s going up and going up, the different stages, and you’re kind of going, ‘Whew! Made it through another one.’”
Back at his Hilton Head home, Tom watched the rest of the mission on TV. He had saved the press kit from the launch and used it as his playbook to know what to expect.
On the Apollo 15 mission with Dave were Alfred Worden, the command module pilot, and James Irwin, lunar module pilot. The crew set a record for longest time on the moon’s surface, 66 hours and 54 minutes.
Dave hurt his hands while drilling rocks, Tom said. No wonder: Dave and Irwin collected 180 pounds of lunar material, including a rock dubbed Genesis because it was estimated to be 4 billion years old.
The crew also conducted experiments. Perhaps the best known is Dave’s live demonstration in front of a TV camera. He held out a falcon feather in one hand and a geologic hammer in the other and simultaneously dropped them in the airless atmosphere. Despite their difference in mass, they landed at the same time, confirming Galileo’s four-centuries-old theory that all objects fall in a given gravity field at the same rate if there isn’t any aerodynamic drag.
Tom gushed, “To see him speak from the moon – impossible! How could that happen?”
The tensest moment for Tom was the liftoff from the moon. It seemed scarier than the launch because death is immediate in an explosion, but being stranded on the moon, well, Tom still tears up thinking about it 45 years later.
“There was no one there to provide assistance if the ship could not lift off,” Tom said. “What relief when the sound of the Air Force song was played, indicating the launch from the Moon was successful.”
Dave’s NASA career comprised 546 hours and 54 minutes in space, including 20 hours and 46 minutes worth of EVAs. He is one of only 12 humans to have walked on the moon.
Tom emphasized he and his brother are grateful for all the folks who worked behind the scenes during the missions.
“I’ve met so many people over the years who were the support people,” he said. “They were on the ground. Maybe they were a mechanic or in some sort of position, and all of them had that pride, excited about the astronauts and proud of their part, making things happen.”
Dave retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1975. He became director of the NASA’s Flight Research Center, where he worked for two years, then started Scott Science and Technology Inc., providing space research and development services for organizations and countries.
In 2004, with Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, he co-wrote the book “Two Sides of the Moon,” sharing their views as opponents in the space race during the Cold War. Dave was an adviser for the movie “Apollo 13” and the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”
Now, Dave is a guest lecturer at Brown University and at MIT. He resides with his wife in California, but Tom said they are moving to Florida – closer to Columbus and the donated pieces that help tell a heroic story, convey its significance and inspire others to stretch their imaginations.
“Look what we forget,” Tom said. “So now, you’ve got these new generations that weren’t even alive when these missions occurred, so this is an opportunity for them to say, ‘Oh, I can read this. I can understand this. I can learn about this, the foundation of our space travel.’ This memorabilia allows that foundation to be understood and to grow from that.”
So if space travel one day opens to the general public, would Tom want a ticket?
“No. I’m not a space flight person. I fly commercially,” he said with a laugh. “Frankly, the discomfort of what they go through in those missions, it would frighten me. In liftoff on (Apollo) 15, Dave’s heartbeat was 74 or 75 — incredible. … I don’t have what my brother had to be able to do that.”
Tom recalled another moving memory of his time with Dave while growing up in San Antonio. This time, Tom was at the steering wheel. He stopped at an intersection when his brother gave him a driving lesson that turned into a life lesson.
Dave declared, “He who hesitates loses.”