Two Adventures in Outer Space Are Heading for the Launching Pad : All Systems Go for Tamara Jernigan, Nation's Youngest Astronaut Candidate

Times Staff Writer

Tamara Elizabeth Jernigan lives here in a typically Spartan graduate student apartment, one flight up and five blocks south of UC Berkeley.

Humphrey Bogart's picture, taped to the wall, casts a macho eye over her living room. A stereo behind glass doors stands in high-tech contrast to the furnished apartment's tired-looking chairs and couch where Jernigan curls up to study astrophysics or to run mental replays of her latest volleyball game.

Lives Simply

A softball glove and a volleyball occupy one of the room's three chairs. Nothing else seems out of place. Indeed, there isn't a lot to be out of place. Jernigan does not surround herself with creature comforts.

"I live very simply--like a graduate student. Most of my time is spent studying or doing something athletic," said the doctoral candidate from Santa Fe Springs, who excels at volleyball, racquetball and softball and is learning tennis.

Physicist and pilot, athlete and astrophysicist, scholar and accomplished chef--Jernigan this month became the nation's youngest astronaut candidate. She is 26.

The word candidate, in this case, doesn't mean much. Essentially, Jernigan is in the club. She must undergo a year of training in Houston before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration drops "candidate" from her title, but, as Jernigan said, "Nobody has bombed out of the program yet."

Tammy Jernigan appears vaguely uncomfortable in her new role as astronaut.

"I feel so pretentious," she said out of the blue, in the middle of an interview.

Yet competing and succeeding is nothing new to the lithe, 5-foot-6-inch, 130-pound, blue-eyed woman who lets her straight brunette hair hang to below her waist and eschews makeup except for a little mascara.

Athletic Honors

Jernigan has been a successful student and athlete as far back as she can remember. As a sixth- grader in 1971, her name was engraved on a trophy awarded the best female athlete in Santa Fe Springs' Lakeview School. She was valedictorian in 1977 at Santa Fe High School, and volleyball "Player of the Year" in the California Interscholastic Federation's southern section, 3A division.

College acceptance letters arrived from Princeton, the Air Force Academy, Stanford and UC Berkeley. After a semester at Princeton, she felt the Ivy League university offered an excellent physics program, but the weather and the volleyball programs "left something to be desired." She transferred to Whittier College.

"Stanford had excellent physics and athletic programs, especially volleyball," Jernigan said, so she transferred again. At Stanford she played varsity volleyball and graduated with honors in physics. She stayed at the Palo Alto university to get a master's degree in aeronautics.

Then, two years ago, she came to Berkeley where she earned a master's degree in astronomy and is working on her doctorate in the same subject while simultaneously serving as a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Second Baseperson Too

In her spare time--what there is of it--Jernigan plays second base on both the astronomy department and Ames Research Center softball teams.

Debbie Meche Anderson, who has been close to Jernigan since seventh grade, describes her friend as giving and loyal. "My mom died about five years ago," Anderson said. "She was in a coma for five months, and Tammy was around all the time she could be. She was very busy, but she found time to be here with me. She just let me know it would work out.

"She's such a bright person," Anderson continued. "She's one of those people who can talk to anybody. She can mix in any situation, in any crowd. She can be a giddy little girl, and then when it's time for business, it's time for business."

When Jernigan learned this month that she had been selected from among 792 women and 4,142 men who applied two years ago for the astronaut program, she changed careers.

She had been preparing for a life in astrophysics, aiming to answer questions like, "How did the universe evolve? How do the stars form?"

Now--as one of 13 women among the nation's 102 astronauts--Jernigan is preparing for a life in space. In 20 years, she said, "I think I'll be part of a space station."

High on the list of factors that led Jernigan toward her NASA appointment is a deep interest in science. She traces that interest back to when she was 7 years old, washing dishes in the kitchen.

"I took this cup and I stuck a dishrag in it and I stuck the cup upside down in the water, and the dishrag didn't get wet. This really amazed me. So I took it to Show and Tell at school. I thought it was just fascinating. It wasn't like bringing pretty leaves to Show and Tell. My teacher didn't know what was going on. So I looked in the encyclopedia, but didn't figure it out. I thought about it for a long time."

Since that day, Jernigan has thought about the mysteries of science. She thought and worked her way to a 3.8 grade point average in high school and a 3.5 at Stanford.

Jernigan succeeds partly because she is smart and partly because she demands a lot of herself. She enjoys being around people who require the best of her.

Jernigan's sixth-grade teacher was one of her favorites because "she pushed us. I like being pushed, challenged."

Carol Loehmann was that teacher. She remembers Jernigan as "a real bubbly personality " around Lakeview School in Santa Fe Springs.

"Tammy was competitive," Loehmann said. "She just never liked anybody to be better at anything than she was. Whenever she was beaten at anything, she would just dig in and work hard to see that she wasn't beaten again."

In high school Jernigan was an academic star.

"The challenge, the debates with teachers, the mental gymnastics, those are the things she really liked. Those are the things that really turned her on," said Mollie Kavanagh, Jernigan's high school volleyball coach, who remains a friend and confidante.

But Jernigan did not suffer through classes whose teachers taught by rote. They bored her, and she found them unchallenging. So, she did the required work and avoided attending those classes.

"Her attendance at classes wasn't always the best," Kavanagh said.

Her attendance at volleyball, however, was perfect. The game challenged Jernigan in many ways, and her coach motivated the young athlete to play at a level that came close to inspirational.

"She was one of the best players I've ever had. She was limited only by my knowledge as a coach," Kavanagh said.

It was that combination of courage, competitiveness and intelligence that helped make Jernigan an attractive astronaut candidate.

She first "dreamed of being an astronaut" during the 1969 moon launch. She was 10.

"I remember watching the launch on TV and thinking, 'That would be a very fascinating thing to do,' " she recalled.

And Debbie Meche Anderson, Jernigan's friend since seventh grade, recalled that even as a ninth-grader "she wanted to be the first woman on the moon." But it was not until she reached Stanford that Jernigan "seriously started thinking about being an astronaut. Sally Ride (who was to become the United States' first woman in space) graduated from Stanford the year before I transferred in. Her acceptance as a mission specialist astronaut candidate made me realize I had a shot at becoming an astronaut." While she did not tailor her education to becoming an astronaut, she chalked up some obvious credits:

The pilot's license she got last summer was a plus, as were her good grades and athletic ability. Her knowledge of physics and astronomy fit in with the astronaut's profile, and she enhanced her candidacy by working for NASA as a technical aide at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena after her freshman and sophomore years in college, and by working again as a technical aide in her sophomore and junior years at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, where she currently is employed as a research scientist.

Jernigan's family seems unsurprised by her selection as the nation's youngest astronaut.

"All of us were happy for Tammy, but I don't think any of us were very surprised when they chose her," said the new astronaut's mother, Mary Jernigan, an aircraft parts inspector from Santa Fe Springs. By "us," Mary Jernigan meant her ex-husband, Terry, an inventory analyst, and their children, Terry Jr., 24, an iron worker; Timothy, 21, an aircraft parts assembler, and Tabitha, 15, a high school freshman. "She demanded to learn. She demanded to learn how to tell time. She demanded to learn how to tie her shoes.

"She demanded that I read her every book that I picked up. I couldn't skip lines; she had them all memorized. She was 2 then.

"She is very ambitious. I wouldn't be surprised if she was the first woman President. . . . To me she is very sophisticated, but she's still my little girl. I just think she's beautiful."

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