At 6'8", James Oberg was too tall to be an astronaut, so he became an aerospace engineer and then a space reporter instead
Photo: Matthew Mahon
James Oberg was 11 in 1955 when his grandfather gave him a copy of Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon . He was hooked by the 19th-century fantasy and dreamed of building spaceships—someday. Two years later, he sat on a sidewalk next to a stack of newspapers intended for his paper route and devoured the front-page stories: The Soviets had just launched Sputnik. No longer was space exploration the stuff of science fiction. It was happening, right now.
Then came the realization, as a teenager, that he would never travel in space. At 6 feet 8 inches (213 centimeters), nothing short of a battering ram was going to get him inside one of NASA’s space capsules. But Oberg still wanted to be part of the great leap. He attended grad school at Northwestern University on a NASA fellowship. Just before Christmas in 1968, as the space agency was preparing to launch its Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon, he and three friends drove from Evanston, Ill., to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where they sat on the beach and watched the launch.
Oberg went on to work as an aerospace engineer at NASA for 22 years. He switched to journalism in the late 1990s and now makes his living reporting on space for such outlets as Popular Science , NBC News, and, of course, IEEE Spectrum.
For this issue, he sat down with Owen [center] and Richard Garriott [left], the second father-and-son pair to reach space (albeit at different times). The interview was a reunion of old friends: Oberg knew Owen, an electrical engineer and former NASA astronaut, from Owen’s Skylab and space shuttle days in the 1970s and 1980s. Richard, 47, took a more newfangled route into orbit: He made a fortune in the computer-game business and last fall paid US $30 million for a ticket to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz.
Having spent a lifetime around astronauts and cosmonauts, Oberg knows their job is as demanding as they come. ”The degree of concentration and focus that they have to have in their lives, day after day, year after year, is an enormous price to pay,” he says.
Still, he admits, he’d trade his reporter’s notebook for a spacesuit. In a heartbeat.