Transcript: Space4U podcast, Digger Carey, Pt. 1

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, I’m Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today. We are joined by Digger Carey, former NASA astronaut, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, retired.


It’s an honor to have you with us today. Digger. Thanks. Andrew’s great to be here. So let’s. Start with your nickname. Where did Digger come from? Now? Every time someone asks me that question, I have to preface it with, I really need to make up a cool story. Something involving, you know, 50,000 feet flying, inverted, those kinds of things, but really the whole backstory is, is as a lot of people realize, you know, when you’re in the military, there’s obviously the goal is to win against bad guys, but there’s a lot of internal competition in the military and bragging rights and stuff like that.


And within the air force itself, there’s a lot of competition among different types of fighter pilots, depending on what you flew. And as a young fighter pilot, for five years, I flew the, the 810 Thunderbolt two fighter jet, and then several years into my air force. For the air force gave me the opportunity to fly a different kind of fighter called NEF 16.


And when I was, uh, trained up in the F-16 and I went to my first F-16 unit in Spain, all the guys there of course were giving me a hard time about my 810 heritage that the aircraft that I had flown before. And, you know, we’re trying to find an identity for me. And one of the young, I was a captain at that time.


And one of the young lieutenants that I outranked, we were at the bar on Friday night and he goes, Hey, what are we going to call this guy, this new guy needs a nickname. And I, and I said, well, I suggest something like Killer or Mauler or something cool like that. One of the other guy says, uh, you know, uh, we just had a guy lead the squadron, his nickname was Digger.


I think we need another Digger. I said, I refuse to take that nickname. I hate that name with every fiber of my being. And all of a sudden I felt an arm go around my shoulder and I looked over and it was a squadron commander who was a big guy. He goes, how you doing Digger? So the nickname just stuck. And now my wife calls me Digger.


I guess I’ve gotten used to it over the years. Like I say, I need to come up with a really cool story about that. Growing up in St. Paul Minnesota. Did you ever imagine that one day you would travel to space? Actually, Andrew, during my early years there was, there was no way I ever felt like something like that was for me.


We were living in housing projects, single parent household, and, um, sometimes the kids. Like that just kind of feels like things like spaceflight, more prestigious type jobs. You just never think that that’s for you, that you don’t belong in that type of community. I was always interested in it. I always like to say that most people want to be an astronaut and some time in their lives.


And for boys that happens somewhere between the fireman phase and the cowboy phase. And then some of us never give up the desire to be an astronaut. But no, I never, I never thought it was for me. And it was actually a good decade and a half later in my life that I actually looked at myself in the mirror and thought, Hmm, maybe this is something that I can endeavor to achieve.


Someday being that your personal backstory is probably an unlikely one compared to most other astronauts. Tell us about your upbringing. Were there obstacles that you had to overcome? Yeah. You know, most astronauts, if not, all of them have got interesting stories and interesting experiences. And the cool thing about being in the astronaut office.


Offices, you see that there’s a wide variety of people in a wide variety of backgrounds that are doing that job. And my particular story is that when I was very young, my mom had me when she was 16 years old and she dropped out of school in eighth grade. She was going to a Catholic high school, Catholic middle school, I guess, of all things.


And you can just imagine back in the fifties that didn’t go over too well when one of the students turned up pregnant. So she left school at the beginning of ninth grade. And I popped out when she was 16 years old and my dad was a year older than that. And, uh, by the time my, my mother was 21 years old, she had three kids, like I say, eighth grade education.


And then my dad ran off. And actually, quite frankly, I kind of can’t blame him. I mean, that’s a heck of a huge responsibility to take on at a young age, but he took off and I really didn’t know him for the rest of my life. And. My mother started, she went to beautician school and learned how to be a hairdresser.


And we lived in the projects in St. Paul for several years, the housing projects, and just didn’t have much money or anything like that. Now being raised in a situation where you’re poor single mother is working full time. Uh, we were primarily being taken care of by babysitters. And I don’t think that, uh, there was a lot of care really.


The babysitters just wanted to get their, their money at the end of the day. And I was more or less allowed to kind of run wild during the day. And so since I didn’t like school, I just flat didn’t go to school. And I, I like to point out to kids my first couple of years in school first and second grade didn’t go into kindergarten.


Cause we lived in Alabama at that point. And, um, kindergarten was like an optional thing and plus it cost money and we couldn’t afford that. So first and second grade, I was either. Tardy for, or miss school almost 60 times during those two years. And as a matter of fact, I hated school so bad that even when it was in midwinter in Minnesota and St.


Paul, I would actually choose to spend my days running around in the woods and stuff, ditching school. Then I would spend them in a nice warm classroom with my classmates and stuff like that. You know, having a school lunch and all that kind of that’s how bad I didn’t like school that actually. I continued, unfortunately, no, my mom got married again.


When, when I was in fifth grade to a guy that had a good job and we moved into a house and everything, stepdad’s a great guy. He’s still around my best friend. I never did like school. And that actually turned out to be an impediment. And I rebelled against authority. Don’t quite know, you’d have to have a psychologist figure that one out for you, but a headline to discipline problems in school.


And, uh, thanks to my stepdad. I was forced to stay in school through high school and graduate and get a high school diploma, which later on of course came in very handy, but I never had any intentions of ever setting foot in a classroom again, after I left school. So I would say the main impediments, uh, the main challenges I overcame as a youngster was poverty dislike of school and, uh, rebelling against authority.


And those are all things that really didn’t help me. Get ahead in life. The whole poverty thing though, can be mitigated and was mitigated in my circumstances to a great extent by the fact that I had such a wonderful family. My mom’s a very strong woman. You can just imagine three kids, 21 years old with no education.


Uh, she kept the family together and to the best of her ability, she took good care of us and, uh, her sisters and my aunts and uncles and stuff like that. We’re all really good people. And so I had that going for it. I mean, I think that was probably, even though I was a difficult kid and all that kind of stuff.


I think the saving grace was the strength, my family. And there’s one thing that my son and my brother and sister never doubted it was that our mother really loved us and protected us as much as she could. And that’s really important for a young person. So I had some disadvantages and then I had some other real strong advantages that maybe a lot of people don’t have.


Can we touch on the years after high school that you spent motorbiking, hitchhiking and train hopping around the country. Where did those adventures take you philosophically and how did those experiences change and shape your outlook in life? Well, Andrew, like I said, when I graduated from high school, it was one of the grandest days of my life because I really felt like I had just gotten out of prison.


And now I was looking at a lifetime where I could start to call the shots and I could do what I wanted to do. Uh, my last couple of years in high school, I spent actually more time working at my job as a bus boy, uh, to make money, to buy a motorcycle. I spent more time doing that, actually, that I spent at school.


And a lot of times I would use school as a chance to catch up on sleep. Cause I was working full time when I was in high school. I was working 40 hours a week and three weeks after I graduated from high school, uh, I took that $200 that I had earned $200 leftover. I forgot. I bought a motorcycle and some camping gear, and I packed that can’t be gear on the bike.


And three weeks after graduation, I, I hit the road on my motorcycle to see North America. And, um, life was pretty darn good for a while until I ran out of money and I still wanted to travel. So I put the bike away, parked up my dad’s garage and my friend, my good high school buddy, and his future. My wife and myself decided we want to go from wanting to go from Minnesota to California.


And so we hitchhiked and we didn’t have a lot of luck hitchhiking, mainly because we had long hair and pimples and stuff like that, and probably looked pretty threatening. So we started to jump, trace, no jumping trains was the thing that I knew how to do from my days growing up in the projects. You know, you can learn a lot of skills when you’re growing up in a family that doesn’t have any money.


And if you ever want to go anywhere as a boy, You know, a mom couldn’t drive me cause she was never there. So we would jump trains and we’d travel around St. Paul that way, get to where we wanted to go, come back home on a train, freight trains. And there’s a trick to jumping on those things. And I knew all that stuff.


So we, uh, just hop trains and hitchhiked and stuff like that till we got out to California and then started working odd jobs out there, save up enough money for the next trip. And that’s kind of how my life went for about the next two and a half years. Philosophically, I would say the main takeaways I had from those years was actually, it sounds kind of funny, but I gained a lot of confidence because I, due to a lack of money is sometimes some of the adventurous ways that I would travel and the people I would meet, I find myself in situations, uh, that were actually probably hazardous, where I had to have my wits about me red to make the right decisions.


Otherwise I was going to get hurt. There were one or two times I probably came close to getting killed. But if you survive situations like that, it gives you a sense of deep confidence set of obstacles that you overcome. And confidence for me has always been a huge thing to have. And, uh, those types of experiences helped me later on in life.


When I came across situations that felt hopeless, I would just think back on those days and go, heck if I survived that I can survive this, the second thing it did for me, Andrew, and this was very important to me later on in life was, um, there were several times I was on a test. Like spot. I needed a job.


I needed a place to stay for the night. Maybe I even needed food and the kindness of strangers and America and Americans themselves. And the beauty of our country inspired me to start to develop a sense of patriotism. And it was just. The sense of patriotism that came from not from hearing stories and, and reading about, you know, America’s history and all that stuff.


It was a patriotism that came from the bones of my body, where I, I could feel the gratitude and the generous spirit of America. And I started to feel, as the years went on, I started to feel like I’ve got to pay this back sometime because America is a wonderful place. And. America can’t survive unless her citizens sometimes make sacrifices to ensure the future of America and the greatness that she represents was there a single pivotal event that changed your course, you know, everybody’s lives go by and there’s a lot of influences and everything.


And when you think back, you can think of, uh, that’s so much of a single thing, but maybe a series of events. Um, after I had. Uh, working as typewriter repairman in, in, in Southern California for awhile. I mean, can anybody think of a job that has less future prospects than typewriter repair? I came back to Minnesota and started working as a bartender.


And it was during that time that I met my future wife, Cheryl and Cheryl was considerably more mature than I was. And I started to mature at that point and I fell in love with this girl. And I started to think in terms of. You know, getting a decent job someday where I could make enough money to raise a family under uncomfortable circumstances, unlike the way that I was raised in my early years.


So I started, grew up in that respect, started to think of, well, what could I do for a job, a career that would be fun and interesting and yet make decent money. I knew at that point in my life that, uh, you know, by this time I was probably 21 years old or something like that, starting to grow up a little bit.


I knew that I had a real short attention span of. Whatever it was that I had was going to devote myself to the rest of my life, basically had to be something that was going to be really interesting and exciting. So I was tending bar one night and, uh, I met another gentleman older who had been a fighter pilot in the Vietnam war.


He flew up for fours in Vietnam, and I was intrigued by this and I’d read some, some books and stuff like that about fighter pilots and all that kind of stuff. And it was always an interesting thing. I mean, Once again, fighter pilots, probably one of those things that, that everybody wants to be at some point in their life.


I started talking to this guy and, and the wheels started to turn and, and, and I said, you know, that sounds really interesting. It sounds like something that I think I could do. Cause I’m a motorcycle guy. I’m pretty skilled motorcycle rider. I actually tried racing motorcycles for a while and I was good, but I wasn’t good enough to make a living at it.


So I had a pretty high opinion of my skills as far as operating machinery. And he looked me in the eye and he says, Dwayne, you don’t understand nor to be a fighter pilot. You have to have, you have to go to college and you have to have a bachelor’s degree. I didn’t even know what a bachelor’s degree was.


He said that means four years of college. And right then I could, I could feel that particular desire, that dream kind of crumbling. Cause I wasn’t going to do that. I hated that I hated school still hated it and went back home that night, uh, after work and I’m talking. Cheryl. And I got ya. I met this guy that was a fighter pilot.


Have you ever thought, how cool would it be to be in the military? And if you’re in the military, I mean like yeah. Air force or something like that, be a fighter pilot that doesn’t, that sound fun and Cheryl’s pretty adventurous. And she said, yeah, that does sound cool. Well, why don’t we do that? Don’t you think you can do that?


And I said, well, you got to go to, I’d have to go to college. And she just said, well, then go to college. I mean, and, and her view was that simple. She knew I didn’t like school, but she didn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to sacrifice to make your dreams come true. And I thought about it that night. And, you know, as was as happened a lot since then, as it turns out she was correct.


If you really want something real bad, you gotta go after it. You gotta, you gotta throw the dice and you gotta jump into this headfirst and you just got to go for it. Otherwise you’ll never know. You’ll just never know. How far you could have ever gone. If you don’t challenge yourself to do something that you think is impossible.


And I know this will sound odd to kids that are good students and, and, and are looking forward to going to college or perhaps young parents that have got kids going into college. I mean, we all know what the drill is. You write the essays, you apply to all the different colleges, you plump up your resume, all that kind of stuff.


And, uh, heck I didn’t know any of that. I was Sherlyn. I run our own, we were living in a, rented a house. House. So this was summertime and I decided that I wanted to get into school and start the fall term. So we were living in Minnesota St. Paul. So I went to the university of Minnesota, rode my motorcycle over there and started walking around on campus.


All these cool looking old buildings and stuff like that. Found myself in a corner of the campus that was called the Institute of technology. It was engineering school. I didn’t know what that meant. I walked into a building that looked like an airport. Building and started knocking on doors and hello, who is that at?


Did I poke my head in and say, hi, my name is Duane. Karen. I’d like to go to school here in the fall. What do I have to do? And that’s how it was. That’s how unprepared I was. I didn’t know anything about it, but once again, the whole philosophy has to be, you see something you want to do and you go after it.


And if people laugh at you or think that you’re not very smart or think that you’re unprepared, let them laugh and stuff like that. Is that because you’re going to show them in the long run because you’re never going to give up. And, uh, you know, people didn’t want to talk to me. And finally there was a very nice secretary.


It turns out it was the headquarters building for engineering school. And she said, well, yeah, engineering school, you know, you got to take some tests. And fill out these applications and all that kind of stuff. And then I’m looking at the practice tests and I can’t the reading and all that back in them days, it was the act that university of Minnesota wanted.


And there were two parts to it. I think they called it like the reading part. And then there was the math part. I don’t know how much that has changed, but the reading part I did. Okay. I’ve always been a voracious reader. That’s gotten me in trouble a lot of times because, uh, when I was in grade school, stuff like that, Yeah.


And even middle school, I would be caught reading books and stuff like that. So listening to the teacher and the teachers never liked that, but I love to read, but the math, I wasn’t getting the math. Well, luckily my little brother, he’s two years younger than me. He’s really smart kid. And he grew up to be a successful rich person, all that kind of stuff.


Very successful. Well, he’s really smart in math. And I went to him when I’m trying to take these tests. I go, I go, Doug, you need to help me out on this math part. I’m not, I’m not passing it. They tell me I need it 24. And I, and I can’t get there. Those of you that are snickering know that at 24 on the act in math really isn’t that good?


And he looked at the test and he goes, well, He called me Bird back in that base, he goes Bird. There’s a lot of these questions that are algebra questions and they involve the type of problem. That’s known as a system of two equations and two unknowns. He said a lot of the questions are like that. So let me show you a couple of tricks, how to solve those problems.


And they were tricks. I didn’t understand how they work, but they were tricks. And I went in and took the test, which was a huge deal because the test was expensive and I wanted to pass it on the first time. Cause otherwise I’d have to pay my own way. Money again to take this, this test. Yeah. I don’t know.


I did. Okay. On the reading part, but I got a 24 on the math and I filled out all the, yeah. The applications and I paid rack rates for tuition. There was no, I guess I might could’ve gotten a scholarship or something like that because of my low income, but then I didn’t know anything about that. So I wrote the check and off to school.


I go. And the very first thing I did when I got started classes was I went over to the armory on campus. Yeah. Force ROTC because I wanted to be a fighter pilot and I signed up for air force ROTC. They’ll they’ll basically take ROTC as a way to get a commission as an officer in the military and not have to go to a military Academy, military academies, like West point Annapolis air force, Academy, coast guard Academy.


These are really difficult schools to get into. You have to be a top performer high school student or to get into these programs. And I, that wasn’t me. But ROTC is very egalitarian in that they’ll they will let a lot of people in now, maybe not a lot of people complete the program, but they’ll give you a chance.


And Andrew, it was my first glimpse at the almost pure meritocracy that the United States military is ROTC didn’t care that I grew up in the projects ROTC didn’t care that I hated school, that I had problems with authority. Yeah. And I really didn’t know my way around a college campus. ROTC didn’t care, ROTC cared about one thing.


Can you be a good troop in the United States military? And to me, that was very attractive. They let me in, they let me get started. I start off with engineering school, you know, where their store is going. Of course not doing real good. I’m not doing real good in my math classes in particular engineering school, it’s still this way.


You got to hit the ground running and you start off with. Pretty advanced calculus courses. I wasn’t the least bit prepared for that kind of stuff. And once again, I could see the dream starting to disappear. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t prepared myself. It’s your worst nightmare? So after my first semester in college, it was apparent that I wouldn’t do in good enough to survive an engineering school.


All the friends that I had met. At that point in engineering school, how were they going to spend their three weeks of Christmas break? You got to remember this. Isn’t the depths of winter in Minnesota. A lot of those kids that had on liquor sense and a couple extra dollars, we’re going to go down to Florida.


And spend that time on the beaches and in the sun recharging their batteries for spring semester in engineering school. Well, that wasn’t an option for me. I was working 30 hours a week as a bartender at that point to pay for tuition, rent, food, heat, lights, water, all that kind of stuff. Cheryl and I were paying for all that.


And, uh, what I did was I put my tail between my legs and I went back to my high school that I had left three years ago. And. I walked in and I went to the library and I checked out a bunch of math books. Math classes was one of those classes I slept through when I was in high school, because I need to sleep.


I was working 40 hours a week, physics and math. I slept through and I knew I was never going to need that stuff. So that was a good time to catch up on some sleep. Well, I checked out a stack of books about a knee-high stack of books started with algebra. And during that three weeks, all I did was. Work study, sleep for three weeks.


And I answered every question in every book I pounded my way through the algebra bar then came the trigonometry, geometry, advanced algebra, precalculus. You know, that probably four or five books, you know, you can do that when you’re a young person, you’ve got energy. I don’t have that kind of energy anymore, but you can do that when you’re young, young people out there that are listening, challenge yourself 20 years from now, kiddos, you’re not going to be able.


Do it, so do it. Now you can do it. You’ve got the energy, you’ve got the desire go after it. And you would hope that the story would happen. Have a happy ending. I started my spring semester and I nailed the math classes and that’s, that’s not true, but I passed the math classes. And after about two years of engineering school, it actually started to get kind of interesting.


It was aerospace engineering and it started to get pretty cool. And yeah, I was working real hard and never getting enough sleep. But between air force ROTC, which I qualified to get a scholarship from the air force that really helped me through school and between air force ROTC and help from an encouragement from my wife and from my family.


I’ve made it through those four years of college and got a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and mechanics, which really of course, came in quite handy later on my career prior to being selected by NASA. Air force combat missions in the Gulf war. Did that experience in any way, prepare you for space flight?


Do you know Andrew? Uh, as, as, as we share my story this morning, you’re going to hear some common themes. And one of those is, is the importance of developing confidence. And let me get on my philosophical soapbox here for a moment. Uh, Cheryl and I are parents, we’ve raised a couple of kids being a good parent is probably the, the most.


Challenging thing almost any of us will do in life. And I mean, being a good parent, anybody can be a parent, but to be a good parent is a very, very difficult to do it well, and nobody gets perfect. Nobody nails it. One of the things that Cheryl and I learned as we were raising our own children was we wanted them to have a robust sense of accomplishment self-worth and confidence.


And we learned early on that if you tell a child that right. They’re awesome. Just because they’re alive and they’re in this world that, that makes them feel good in the moment, but that they were crumbled later on in life when they’re faced with real serious challenges. Just the fact that someone told you that you’re awesome is not going to help you through dark times in the future.


So what we really tried to do with our kids was we tried to get them to expose themselves to real challenges where they were faced with significant. Obstacles in areas that were, that were important. In other words, my son, for instance, is an Eagle scout and to get his Eagle scout badge, we all, as a family decided that it was important for him to be involved in something that was really going to help someone or some people and perhaps even change their lives.


My daughter, the same thing, she has her goal to word, and then girl Scouts, both of our kids to get them. Those awards did projects that helped people that were going through some really hard times and going through a Rocky patch in life, the tasks that they accomplished was very significant and that it was the result of that successful accomplishment of the task.


Wasn’t someone shaking their hand and telling them that they were great. It was them being able to look at a person or a group of people that were better off because they were in this world and they took the time to, to help somebody. To make the world a better place. It was like that for our poor kids all the time they were being raised.


And what I’m getting at Andrew is the only way to develop a robust sense of confidence. And self-worth is to be challenged by very, very difficult tasks that are very significant combat was one of those things by the time. I’ve gotten to the point in my career where desert storm came along and I was flying combat.


I was in a leadership position in the squadron. I wouldn’t only responsible for myself and my jet, but I was responsible for my flight. My guys, it was all guys back then. And it turns out, you know, um, I don’t really want to brag, but I’m a fighter pilot. So I’m allowed to be arrogant. Of course, I’ll fire fighter pilots have to be arrogant otherwise.


We can’t achieve the crazy stuff that they expect us to do. And yeah, I’ve probably made a few mistakes in combat, but for the most part, it went quite well. And you just develop, you look back on that and you go, wow. Combat was very, very challenging, very difficult, very dangerous, very scary. But here we are.


We popped out on the other side of it. Successful did a good job was recognized by the air force is doing a good job. And when you have those types, Experiences. It’s almost like, you know, the challenges of space flight. You look at it, and then you look back at the other things in your life that came before and the attitude is almost like, bring it on.


You know, I really think I can do this in confidence. It’s a huge, huge opponent that, uh, anybody who strives to achieve, you have to have confidence, real confidence. And like I say, the only way that you get there and achieve real deep. Robust sense of confidence is, is having a legacy of accomplishing difficult goals that were significant and doing them well.


This concludes part one of our two-part podcast with Digger Carey. Don’t miss part two, where we’ll hear about Digger’s career with NASA piloting Space Shuttle Columbia to service the Hubble space telescope and more. Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Duane “Digger” Carey – Former NASA Astronaut, Part One