Owen Kay Garriott can trace his family back over several generations; notably on his father's side to French immigrant brothers who first set foot in the colonies in the late eighteenth century. "Most have been farmers, until my father's generation. No criminals or cattle thieves that I've been told about!''4
The future scientist-astronaut was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on 22 November
1930, the first child of Mary Catherine (nee Mellick) and Owen Garriott. While he was given his father's forename (he in turn had been named Owen after a much-admired local Welsh teacher), Kay was derived from an abbreviated form of his mother's middle name. Garriott speaks with tremendous pride of his forefathers in the days before Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, describing the way these rugged pioneers worked the land and ''lived in partial dugout homes for some period, until crops were grown and sold and some money became available.''
He also recalls being told how grandfather Garriott ''freighted goods and supplies by horse and wagon from the nearest railroad station to their small community store -a distance of some twenty miles. It took a full day each way. Seventy years later, as I approached Vance Air Force Base for a landing in my NASA T-38 aircraft, I travelled across my grandfather's tracks, but covered the same distance in about four minutes. In 1973, some eighty years after my grandfather's trips, I covered the same distance in orbit in only four seconds!''
Childhood recollections of growing up in Enid with his younger sister, Donna Jean, evoke pleasant memories, unclouded by the sprawling impact of the Depression. ''Perhaps this is because my father and most uncles always had jobs, and we never worried about material ownership. We played games, hiked with kids, and swam at the local pool, or occasionally in ponds. I had quite a few nearby cousins, friends and marvellous parents - very idyllic!'' If anything, he found elementary education in the Enid Public School system to be disappointingly easy, but nevertheless enjoyable. ''I still remember almost all my school teachers by name,'' he adds.
One teacher he particularly remembers from around eight years of age was Bessie Truitt, a poet laureate for the State of Oklahoma. ''In her third grade class she showed us a simple orrery, which was a word whose definition I did not learn for a good many more years. It's a device that has the whole planetary system in it, with the sun at the centre, then all the planets and the moons of the Earth and Jupiter and so on. You turn a little crank handle and they all rotate. To see how the solar system moved was a real awakening for me, and quite fascinating. When I moved into the fourth grade the next year, I was asked to go back to the third grade class and explain its operation to them, which I considered quite a privilege.''
His father, Owen, would also provide considerable inspiration. He held a Bachelor of Arts degree in geology, but when promised jobs in geology evaporated in 1930, he turned instead to his minor area of study for employment. For the next fourteen years, he worked as a chemist with Pillsbury Mills, and then spent a further thirty years as an oil and gasoline distributor. One evening in 1944, while the younger Owen was still in eighth grade, his father came home and mentioned that a friend at work would be teaching an adult class on radio theory, which involved instruction on electronics and how radios and transmitters worked. All this was in order for his father to become an amateur radio operator, more commonly known as a 'ham', so he asked his son if he would like to attend with him.
''I was pleased to participate in an adult activity with my father and we went to class three nights a week for four months or so. Next, we found that a 'code class' would be starting, so we both went to that together. When all this was finished we took our Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exam and we both passed, much to my father's relief!''
Due to existing war restrictions, ham radio operators were precluded at that time from on-air activities, but this situation would not last much longer. At the age of fifteen, Garriott was well on the path to his future, and he genuinely credits that study experience with his father as a major factor in his determination to enter the field of engineering.
After graduating from Enid High School in 1948, Garriott went to undergraduate school at the University of Oklahoma on a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship, which paid about half of his college expenses. While still in high school, he had worked as a technician in the local radio station. The income from this work had been largely saved and would cover most of his remaining college education costs. Studies did not occupy all his time, however. After dating through their college years, he married his high school girlfriend Helen Mary Walker in 1952.
The following year, he was awarded his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and then, because of the NROTC scholarship, he was obliged to serve in the United States Navy. During three years on active duty, he served as a line officer and electronics officer, and was stationed aboard several destroyers at sea. Garriott then returned to graduate school, this time at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he was selected to work as a research assistant in the Radio Propagation Laboratory with an eclectic group of ham radio operators, many of them faculty members.
By late 1957, Owen Garriott had completed his Master's degree in electrical engineering at the laboratory and was actively seeking an interesting research topic for his dissertation. On 4 October that year, the Soviet Union launched their first Sputnik satellite into orbit, so most of the graduate students and many of the professors in the laboratory converged on their field site, where a number of radio receivers and antennas had been set up for research purposes. Through this equipment, they were able to listen in unconcealed awe to the famous "beep-beep" signals emanating from the world's first artificial satellite. Very fortuitously this event, followed soon after by the launches of Sputnik II and III, handed Garriott his research topic on a platter.
"My dissertation used the radio signals from Sputnik III to study the electron content of the ionosphere. As these waves transverse the ionosphere some 300 to 400 kilometres above the Earth, various measurable effects were imposed upon them, such as a modified Doppler shift.'' Observation and interpretation of these changes formed the basis of his dissertation.
Having achieved his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1960, Garriott stayed on at Stanford, now as a member of the faculty involved in teaching electronics, electromagnetic theory, and ionospheric physics, as well as conducting his own research. At this time, he was honoured to receive a year-long National Science Foundation Fellowship at Cambridge University and the Radio Research Station, located at Slough in southern England, so the Garriott family took temporary leave of their American home.
By now, he and Helen had become proud parents to three of their eventual four children; Randall Owen, born on 29 March 1955, and Robert on 7 December 1956, with Richard patriotically arriving on 4 July 1961, albeit in England. Their daughter Linda would be born five years later, on 7 September 1966 after his selection by NASA, to complete the family. While they were living in England, Garriott was enthralled by the news that twenty-seven-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union had become the first human to fly into space. His epic flight was followed just three weeks later by that of American astronaut Alan Shepard.
Was this article helpful?