Lt. Colonel (Ret) Duane “Digger” Carey
Minnesota’s Own Astronaut Rider
by bj max
In a Midwestern bean field, a young man lay in a small tent reading a science fiction magazine by the light of a Coleman lantern. As he perused the pages, he ran across an article about a proposed telescope that NASA wanted to build and park in outer space. The theory being that the lack of atmosphere would permit an unobstructed view, allowing such a telescope to peer into heretofore never-dreamed-of nooks and crannies of our universe.
“Fantastic stuff,” the kid thought as he rolled over and gazed at the stars through the spokes of his Suzuki 750 that sat just outside the open flap. Up until now, his life had no direction. For two years, he had been bumming around the country on his bike, busing tables, tending bar, anything to pick up a buck. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he thought, “if I, too, could explore the universe someday like (Neil) Armstrong and (Buzz) Aldrin?”
Fat chance. He had barely squeaked through high school and couldn’t match wits with those guys. He finally dozed off, dreaming of rocketing into space, exploring the heavens and doing something with his life that would make a difference. Thirty years later, that same young man woke up, rolled over in his bunk, opened his eyes and there, floating just outside the window, was the Hubble Space Telescope.
That young man was Lt. Colonel (Ret) Duane “Digger” Carey. Digger was born and raised in St. Paul, graduated from Highland Park High School and later earned his Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. After graduating from USAF pilot training in 1983, Digger flew both A-10As and F-16s in the Air Force. In 1991, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross plus three Air Medals for exemplary performance and courage while commanding combat fighter missions during Operation Desert Storm.
In 1996, Digger applied to NASA and was accepted into the astronaut training program. After completing training, he qualified for flight assignment as shuttle pilot. Initially, Digger was assigned technical duties in Spacecraft Operations and worked as CAPCOM in Mission Control. In 2002, he served as the pilot of the Space Shuttle Columbia on the Hubble Telescope servicing mission STS-109.
Quite a resume. But after all that super-sonic boomin’ and zoomin’, Digger is, and I quote, first and foremost a motorcyclist. My first contact with Digger was through a motorcycle forum. After I learned who he was, I asked him for an interview and, to my surprise, he said yes. A heavily edited version of that interview follows.
MMM: You call yourself Digger.I’ve read that a pilot’s nickname is given to him by his brothers-in-arms. How did you get tagged with Digger?
Digger: Well sir, I’m gonna’ tell you the truth and the sad thing about the truth in this case is, it’s boring. When I was in the Air Force I flew a couple different jets and as you know there’s a lot of competition between flying communities in the Air Force. When I started flying, I flew A-10s and my call sign back in those days was Spider. Later, when I transferred to F-16s, they asked me what my nickname was and I told ‘em and they said, “Well, you’re a filthy, dirty A-10 driver and we gotta’ give you a new nickname.” As it turns out they just had a guy leave the squadron and his handle was Digger and they said, “We need a new Digger and you’re it.” I told ‘em I despised that name with every fiber in my being. My squadron commander put his arm around my neck, smiled and said, “Well, that’s exactly why we’re gonna’ call you Digger.”
MMM: Sounds like the military.
Digger: Yep, yep. It stuck and now even my wife calls me Digger sometimes.
MMM: Well you seem to have taken to it too. How long have you been riding motorcycles, Digger?
Digger: Well sir, I was raised in a single-parent home for a while and when my mom re-married it was my good fortune that she married a guy who liked motorcycles. This was the late-sixties and he rode a 650 BSA Rocket at the time. A few years later, he came home one day with a couple of Honda CT-70 mini-bikes and taught me and my brother how to ride. I was smitten and I’ve been riding ever since, roughly forty years.
MMM: I can imagine what a thrill it would have been if my Dad had brought home a couple of motorcycles.
Digger: Yeah, and you know, not all kids would go crazy over it, but my brother and I just kinda’ connected with it and to this day he and I both are motorcycle fanatics.
MMM: On your website you list your interests as camping, hiking, computer programming, parenting and motorcycle maintenance. Do you perform all the maintenance on your bikes?
Digger: Yes sir, I actually do. Take that little Honda 70. If it broke down, I couldn’t afford to have it fixed, so I learned to work on it myself. I just kinda’ kept doing it and now that I can afford to have someone work on my bikes I don’t because I feel I do a better job. It’s just something I learned to do along the way and I enjoy it right down to changing out the tires. I am meticulous and I am slow but my equipment seems to hang together.
MMM: I’m like you. I change my own tires and all that. I just don’t trust the mechanics anymore.
Digger: No….You know it used to be, when I was a teenager hanging out at bike shops and stuff, the mechanics I ran into were generally older guys and they all knew what they were doing. But now, well… My wife once had an airhead BMW and it fell over in a moving crate and was damaged. I was working for NASA back then and I didn’t have time to work on it, so I took it to a local shop and they did a lousy job. I ended up having to do most of the work over. The thing was leaking gas and everything. So yeah, like you, I just really don’t trust the mechanics anymore.
MMM: I know you own a Gold Wing but you own a couple other bikes too, right?
Digger: Yeah. I don’t drive a car anymore. I sold my truck a couple years ago because I wasn’t driving it much after I left NASA and even when I was with NASA I rode a bicycle to work most of the time. I’ve never been much for four-wheel travel anyway and I’ve got nothing but motorcycles now. My Wing is for business trips with my wife but when I go by myself, I ride my ST-1100. I actually like the ST better, sort of a personal fit kinda’ thing. The Gold Wing is my wife’s bike, I’m just the driver. I also have a couple KLR 650’s that I’m outfitting so we can do some International adventure travel and for around-town duty I have a Suzuki Savage.
MMM: You used to race some too, right?
Digger: Between high school and college I raced enduros a bit. I had a Can-Am 175. That was back in the late-seventies. After I started riding street bikes, I kinda’ put the dirt bike thing away. Then later I transferred to Edwards AFB out in California and there was a track right there on the base. My brother was living out there at the time too and he was racing moto-cross and talked me into buying one of my own, and I raced for a good ten years or so I guess. Then after the Columbia crashed, I got caught up in the investigation and I just didn’t have time to race anymore.
MMM: I noticed in your bio that safety is one of your passions and a lot of your work in the Air Force was “risk assessment”. Does your enthusiasm for safety carry over into motorcycles too?
Digger: Yes sir, it does. My motto is if you’re gonna’ do something stupid you’d better be smart about it. So I try to balance the risk with the payoff. I was made aware of that philosophy when I was a test pilot at Edwards. I use to do a lot of testing of F-16 engines. I would go up to altitude, shut off the engine and see if I could get it started again. And if I couldn’t, well I had a big problem. So we always tried to stack the odds in our favor. We tested our backup systems, we did a few practice landings and by the time I got to the test mission, the odds were in my favor and that’s pretty much how I approach motorcycling. I fully realize that ridin’ a motorcycle isn’t the smartest thing to do, so I try to stack the odds in my favor before I ever fire it up.
MMM: Never thought of it that way but it makes sense. I’ve always heard that riding a motorcycle is a lot like flying anyway. You yourself have said that it’s a great substitute for flying. Would you care to elaborate?
Digger: Well sir, having flown a lot of high-performance aircraft and having logged close to 400,000 miles on motorcycles, I can truthfully say that the stimulation your brain receives riding motorcycles is very similar to that of flying jets. If you’re riding your motorcycle at a brisk pace on a twisty road with traffic and maybe a little bit of weather thrown in, your brain is being stimulated in much the same fashion as it is when you’re flying fighters. So if you want to know what it’s like, all you have to do is think back on a stimulating ride you’ve ridden and that’s about as close as you’ll come to high-performance flying without experiencing it yourself.
MMM: Well you’ve mastered some very challenging aircraft in your time for sure and you’re obviously considered the best by your peers or you never would have landed that seat in the Columbia’s cockpit. Do you feel that your two-wheel peers see you in the same light?
Digger: I like to think that I was a pretty good racer but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t that talented. Any success I had at moto-cross came as a result of hard work and luck. But as far as riding street bikes, I see myself as more skilled that some, less skilled than others. But in answer to your question, I was a lot better pilot than I am a motorcyclist. I could never have made a living as a motorcyclist because I just wasn’t good enough. But when it came to flying, I was well above average. My riding skills aren’t quite as developed as my flying skills and there’s a certain amount of conservatism in my riding that I never had as a pilot.
MMM: Taking into account your lifelong involvement with motorcycles, jets and rockets, do you see yourself as a power freak?
Digger: (Laughing) Most people would probably think that but I don’t really see myself that way. Now there’s no doubt that when you light the afterburner on an F-16 you’re gonna’ get a rush and when you’re strapped in the Space Shuttle and the count reaches zero you’re in for the ride of your life and that’s some cool stuff. But more than a power freak I see myself as a freedom freak. I love the freedom you have on a motorcycle. You’re engaged and you can never let your guard down. I like that; I love the challenge.
MMM: I notice you were awarded the AMA’s Hazel Kolb Brighter Image Award a few years ago. How did that come about?
Digger: Well, when I was training for my mission with NASA, they told me I could pick ten non-profit or sports related businesses and fly mementoes into space for them. Since I grew up in Minnesota, I contacted my school, the Twins, the Vikings and I flew little things for them into space. I’ve been a member of the American Motorcycle Association almost twenty years so I called them up and asked if they’d like me to fly something into space for them too. They came up with an AMA banner and I took it with me on my mission. Couple months later while trying to figure out how to get it back to them, I came up with three choices. I could mail it, fly it up there in a NASA jet or I could stuff it in my saddlebag and take it up there on my motorcycle. I chose the latter, got on my bike and rode to Ohio and hand-delivered it. When I got there they surprised me with the award. I was very flattered and of all the awards I’ve ever received, I put that Hazel Kolb Award right up there on top.
MMM: On your mission as the Columbia pilot you circled the earth 365 times and now you and your wife Cheryl are planning, in your words, a single low earth orbit by motorcycle. Have you set the launch date for your trip around the world?
Digger: No, but its gettin’ closer. One thing that’s been in my way, and I say that facetiously, is this little business that I’m running, One Eighty Out, Inc. I do a lot of educational outreach with kids and that’s kept me busier than I thought and it’s taken away time from getting my KLRs prepared but I anticipate starting International travel in 2011, 2012.
MMM: Can you explain briefly what One Eighty Out, Inc. does?
Digger: Well, after I retired, my wife and I bought this house here in Colorado and after we got everything squared away we looked at each other and said, “Now what are we gonna’ do?” We had both been so busy in our previous life, you know, raising kids, the Air Force, NASA and we were sorta’ lost. We were still passionate about riding motorcycles and we were passionate about the future of our country and to my way of looking at it, the future of our country means kids. So we decided that if I could share my story with kids all over the country maybe we could inspire some of them to stay in school and take those hard classes and become great Americans.
The reason we call it One Eighty Out is because a lot of the business decisions we make are based primarily on where we want to ride our motorcycle, one hundred eighty degrees from what a wise businessman would do. If somebody calls me up with an offer to do some public speaking in Minneapolis in January and they throw a buncha’ money at me, I’m gonna’ tell ‘em, “No, because I can’t ride my motorcycle up there in the middle of winter, and all my business travel is by motorcycle.” A smart businessman would look at me and say, “Well, that’s just dumb. You just threw away a lot of money because you don’t want to fly commercial jets.” And I say, “Well, that’s how we run our business, a hundred eighty degrees out from the way you run yours.” We pick an area of the country we want to ride to and then my wife and I get on the phone and start sending e-mails and string together a business trip that can be made on a motorcycle.
MMM: It suddenly struck me that you don’t act like a celebrity. My hero-worship for pilots, astronauts and anything aeronautical goes way back and I don’t mind telling you, I was a bit intimidated about this interview. But your status doesn’t seem to have affected you at all. You come across as just another motorcyclist.
Digger: Well, to tell you the truth, and I don’t share this with a lot of people, but you know all that flying I did over the years, eh, well I was never passionate about it. I liked it. It was a great way to make a living, but I was never passionate about it. But I am passionate about motorcycling and as you know, we can’t choose our passions. Sometimes you live your whole life and you never find what that passion is. I found mine at a young age and its limited me in a lot of ways but I don’t regret it, that’s just the way it worked out. So more than an astronaut, a fighter pilot or anything, I am a motorcyclist.
MMM: You and your wife met the President and the First Lady. What was that like?
Digger: That was after we flew in space and he invited us to the White House as a crew and we spent half hour or so with him in the Oval Office. I actually managed to get into a little bit of trouble that day. You may know that President Bush was an F-4 pilot back in the day so he knew a little bit about the flying game. Well my commander, Scott Altman, and the President started talking flying and you could tell the President was having a good time and he asked what it was like in the space shuttle with the negative gravity and I had to correct the Commander-in-Chief and tell him that it wasn’t negative gravity, it was an absence of gravity up there. You’re not stuck against the ceiling, you just float around. Zero gravity. He kinda nodded and moved on. Then, about fifteen minutes later, he brought up the negative gravity thing again and I corrected him again. At this point my commander gave me a pretty hard elbow nudge and scolded, “Digger, quit correcting the President.”
MMM: If the President says its negative gravity then I guess its negative gravity.
Digger: Yep. You just nod your head and make it work.
MMM: You’re an extraordinary person Digger and you’ve accomplished extraordinary things. Do you consider yourself special or do you see yourself as an ordinary guy that just kicked in the right doors.
Digger: Well, I have a few talents in the cockpit and I’m a hard worker and I never give up. I decide what I want to do and then like the tortoise, I start plodding toward that goal and I just don’t stop. But no, I’m nothing special. I’m just a kid out of the projects that worked hard and caught a few breaks along the way.
MMM: Well, looks like you certainly took advantage of those breaks. I’ve got one more question for you Digger. This nut I ride with wants to know if the life forms you encounter in outer space are as weird as those you run into at Bike Week or Sturgis?
Digger: (laughing) Well, one of the cool things about the Hubble Telescope and the other observatories we have out there now is the discovery of more and more planets and many of ‘em are a lot like earth. But, I think you would have to visit a whole bunch of ‘em to find aliens as strange as some of those you meet at Daytona or Sturgis. (laughing)
MMM: (laughing) I think you would too. Well, I want to thank you for a very interesting hour. Thanks for your time, your patience and most of all, thanks for your service. Take care, Digger, ride safe and maybe we’ll cross paths out there on the road someday.