A career in science

Curt (as he prefers to be known) attended grade school at California Junior High from 1945-8, and over the following three years was a student at the C.K. McClatchy Senior High, where he met his future wife, Beverly Muriel Kaminsky. Having a desire to pursue a career in science, he applied for a position at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), was successful, and began his studies in 1951, living at the popular undergraduate lodgings of Blacker House in Pasadena, one of four on-campus residences attached to the institute. In order to assist with his college fees, he worked for a short time as a disc jockey with Sacramento's KPBK radio, and then as a clerical assistant for Hale Bros.

Michel went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from CalTech, graduating with honours in 1955. In June that year, he took up a position as a junior engineer with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company's Guided Missile Division in South Gate, California, working on the Corporal missile programme. Then, on 6 December, he began his military service as a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force Reserve, with an introductory posting to Lackland Air Force Base for elementary training.

In February 1956, as an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) graduate, Michel travelled to Marana Air Base in Tucson, Arizona, where he would spend the next six months learning to fly single-engine trainers, before his reassignment to Laredo AFB in Texas for more advanced training on jet aircraft, and then Perrin AFB, also in Texas, where he learned to fly the F-86D all-weather interceptor jet aircraft.

In October 1957, Michel was given overseas duty at Bentwaters AFB in the English county of Suffolk. Here, he continued flying F-86 aircraft until his squadron's reassignment to Sembach Air Base in Germany in April 1958, situated amid rolling farm country near the vineyards of the Rhine Valley. He would remain at Sembach for the next four months, before returning to the United States in September 1958 and seeing out the few remaining weeks of his Air Force reserve service at Travis AFB in Vacaville, California. In October 1958, he received his honourable discharge.

When he left the Air Force, Captain Michel had accrued five hundred hours of flying time, mostly in the F-86, and his experience with this particular aircraft would later serve him well in his astronaut application with NASA. In a 1963 interview with the Los Angeles Times newspaper, he said of the F-86: ''This is a radar bird, similar to the type of guidance an astronaut uses. There is very little visual contact.''

While serving in his country's Air Force, he and Beverly Kaminsky had become engaged, and they were married in Sacramento on 4 October 1958, immediately following his return from Germany. He then returned to CalTech as a graduate student. "Over the next four years, I worked on an experimental thesis project under Professor Thomas (Tommy) Lauritsen and, at the same time, a theoretical thesis under Richard P. Feynman.'' In 1965, Feynman would win a shared Nobel Prize for Physics in recognition of his work in quantum electrodynamics. In 1986, as part of a commission set up to investigate the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew, he was the first to discover and publicly identify the cause of the explosion.

In June 1962, Curt Michel was awarded a PhD for his work in the experimental project. He stayed on at the institute to finish his work under Professor Feynman as a Research Fellow in Physics, and then did some theoretical work on astrophysics of interest to Professor William Fowler. In 1983, "Willy" Fowler (as he was universally known) would also share the Nobel Prize for Physics, as a result of his research into the creation of chemical elements inside stars. Michel certainly enjoyed an impressive array of teachers and colleagues in his time at CalTech.

By this time, a national effort to accelerate scientific research programmes essential to America's space efforts had begun. A wide range of academic programmes were undergoing intense evaluation by NASA, together with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. Of particular interest to Michel was the fact that government bodies were proposing the establishment of a programme for training scientists as astronauts on Project Apollo and beyond.

When NASA began recruiting for their third intake of astronauts, Michel noticed that the test pilot requirement had been lifted, although the mandatory jet flying and education-to-degree-standard requirements remained. As well, advanced degrees or scientific research could be substituted for operational flying experience, which resulted in a large number of applications from experienced pilots with advanced academic skills and experience. He completed his application on 20 June 1963 and submitted it with high hopes that he might be one of the ten to twenty candidates NASA required.

Unfortunately, he did not make the cut of thirty-four from which the final fourteen were selected, but when he read the academic qualifications of many who had made it, he felt NASA was moving into an area which would soon encompass those whose skills were more scientifically based, rather than judging them chiefly on their flying ability. He was disappointed, but resolute; he was still building his resume, and another opportunity would soon come along.

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