Astronauts discuss how the Coast Guard prepared them for NASA
By ETHAN GENTER | Cape Cod Times | Published: May 20, 2018
BARNSTABLE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Of the hundreds of astronauts sent into space by NASA, Bruce Melnick and Daniel Burbank share a special bond.
The two men, who spoke to a crowd of about 100 people Saturday at the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, are the only two Coast Guard members to become NASA astronauts. For two hours, the men told tales of their trips to space, their time on Cape Cod and how the Coast Guard prepared them to be astronauts.
The event, which was hosted by the Coast Guard Heritage Museum, started with the last of the those three topics.
"What it really prepared you for is to never give up and to be very persistent in whatever you did," Melnick said. "If you wanted anything, you had to go for it and you had to work at it."
That persistence helped him get through life in a military branch that is known for setting out no matter the weather.
"I think that carried me through my whole Coast Guard career and carried me through applying for astronaut corps, which I started in 1978 and didn't get accepted until 1987," he said.
Burbank, who lives in Yarmouth Port, agreed and said there was another aspect of Coast Guard life that translated to flying a spacecraft.
The distance between the top ranks and the bottom in the Coast Guard is short -- much like at NASA, said Burbank. Coast Guard crews have members who have a specific job and skill set; the same goes for those who fly space shuttles.
"You end up having this very cohesive, tight-knit team and your life is in the hands of your crewmates at all times; their lives are in your hands at all times," Burbank said.
The son of a fisherman, Melnick got his sea captain's license at 18 but decided to get into flight training with the Coast Guard. His first tour of duty was on Cape Cod. The Cape was one of the most desirable locations for the airman to get, but for his next tour Melnick went to Sitka, Alaska, a place known for treacherous weather and frequent rescues.
During his time there, Melnick was honored after he hoisted 115 people out of the water after an engine fire took down the Prinsendam cruise ship in 1980.
Burbank had his first tour of duty in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where he would end up flying a rescue mission into what became known as the "Perfect Storm" in 1991 -- a gale with 110-knot wind gusts and up to 40-foot seas, he said.
And while the missions in Alaska were tough -- they had to fly their helicopters low towards the water so they wouldn't freeze but high enough to avoid waves -- becoming an astronaut was one of toughest things he has ever done, Melnick said.
"If you pass the physical, you know you're a healthy human being," he said. "That week was the highlight of my life at that point."
The hardest part is actually being picked, he continued: "You feel like you really won the lottery."
During the interviews to become an astronaut, applicants have to write an essay answering a simple question, "Why do you want to be an astronaut?"
"My answer to that question was, 'I can't imagine anyone who doesn't want to be an astronaut,'" Melnick said. "Doesn't everyone want to do that?"
Burbank's road was more winding. As a third-grader, he was amazed by Apollo 11 but figured he would never be smart enough to do it. He read as many books about space as he could and later on saw an obscure Disney film, "The Boatniks," about the misadventures of a Coast Guard officer.
He joined the service and was finishing up flight school when Melnick became the first Coast Guard astronaut.
"I said 'Oh my gosh, maybe I could do this,'" Burbank said.
He applied and failed three times but his Coast Guard training kept him pushing to achieve his dream.
"It's the best background in the world -- to be a team player; to understand how to operate in the craziest, dangerous, hazardous conditions; to do a great humanitarian mission; and probably the best training ground I ever could have asked for to then fly in space."
(c) 2018 Cape Cod Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.