A trip through Duane “Digger” Carey's life could be told as a tale of poverty, perseverance, education, supersonic jets, and spaceships. But if you hear him recite it, he is just living the American dream. The man who would one day pilot the space shuttle to the Hubble Space Telescope was not born into a family of wealth. He was not born into a family of Ph.D. chemists or engineers, or adrenaline fanatics desperately dreaming of soaring among the stars and skies.
In fact, the Minnesota-native who came to be known by the call sign “Digger” began his life in a St. Paul housing project and sleeping through physics class.
“I really don’t like hard work,” said Digger at a recent Southern Arkansas University presentation. “I’d much rather have fun.”
The quest for excitement ultimately fueled Digger’s passions in life and led him to a livelihood he could never have imagined as an impoverished youth.
He was the product of a teenage pregnancy in 1950s Minnesota. His mother, 16 at his birth, dropped out of school due to her situation. She had no formal education and to make matters worse, Digger’s biological father abandoned his family shortly after helping start one.
“She was 21-years-old, three kids, and an eighth-grade education,” said Digger. “As you might imagine, things weren’t exactly good for us economically.”
For most of his childhood, the family resided in St. Paul’s McDounagh Housing Projects. His mother, knowing she was in need of a skill, became a beautician. As a single parent, her job required many non-traditional hours.
“We were kind of raised with babysitters,” said Digger. “But she did what she could so we could get by.”
As someone who would later become a NASA Astronaut, Digger’s story begins to stray from many of his future space companions once he began his elementary education. A self-professed “hater of school,” the young boy in second grade missed school 45 times in one year due to his classroom disdain.
“I’d tell the babysitter in the morning, ‘see you after school,’ and I wouldn’t even go [to class],” Digger said. “I’d just go out into the middle of the woods, even in the St. Paul winter when it was really cold.”
He even spent some days sneaking back to campus simply to peep in on his “dumb” classmates.
“These days they probably would’ve put me in jail,” he said.
Not liking the classroom setting would become a common theme throughout Digger’s life. But it was not until his mother married the man he still refers to as “dad” that things began to change.
His new parent had a full-time job. It was nothing extravagant or overly high-paying, but it was enough to move the family out of public housing and into a more traditional home setting. Aside from the love and support his new stepfather showed the family, he was a man with a 12th-grade education — something Digger had never known possible.
“He was a blue-collar guy who made his living on a printing press,” he said about his stepfather. “But he made a big impression on me. We never talked about college, but it was just understood that his sons would one day take up a trade.”
Getting through to the Digger, though, was not always easy. The teenager still had no desire to complete high school, especially after failing ninth grade science.
He did have passions in life, though. He was a fun junkie — always looking for new ways to fulfill his boredom. After his freshman year, he worked all summer to buy a dream vehicle and one that still captures his soul today — a motorcycle.
His new father had Digger figured out. He knew he wanted to drop out of school, and do nothing but work, ride, and save for more motorcycles.
“He sat me down and said, ‘that ain’t going to happen,’” Digger said. “He told me I had to finish 12th grade if I wanted to live with him.”
While working 40 hours per week for a new bike and camping gear while also attending high school, the late nights and hard shifts were taxing on the teenager. So, when does a school-hating motorbike -loving youth make up for all his lost sleep? For Digger, math and physics classes became the prime period for some much-needed slumber.
“I slept in those classes because I knew those would have the most remote chances of ever affecting my life,” he said. “I had it all figured out. I was going to travel around on a motorcycle and go to California — every Minnesota kid’s dream.”
High school eventually ended for Digger with a diploma, but not without dozing through most courses he would later regret. And just as he wanted, with just $200 in his pocket and a bike bogged down with supplies, Digger took off west.
But the young man soon realized such self-funded fun does not last long — even in the mid-1970s. With his cash dried up, his two-wheeled dreams came to a halt.
Digger still loved traveling, though, so the 18-year-old then attempted an unsuccessful hitchhiking campaign. But with his shaggy hair and acne, no one stopped. And before long, an old hobby he learned as a poor kid in the Minnesota projects — train jumping — once again became a travel method.
“I kind of bumped around the country for a couple years doing that,” he said. “I worked odd jobs and ended up in an office products store in California. I was a typewriter repairman — not a job with a lot of future prospects.”
During his road-tripping days, Digger often trekked back home to Minnesota. It was there, in his hometown of the twin cities, that his life as a vagabond soon stopped. At 21 he met the love of his life in a Gopher State girl named Cheryl. The two quickly became an item and are still married today.
It wasn’t easy, however, for Digger to convince Cheryl to become his spouse. Even as the two were in a serious relationship, she had one stipulation before the two could be joined in matrimony.
“She told me she wasn’t going to marry no bum,” Digger said.
It was in those early days together that the one-day astronaut became began to mature. He was working as a bartender in Minneapolis but envisioned obtaining “The American Dream,” fit with a loving family, nice career, kids, a car, and a decent home.
One fateful night while behind the bar of a local country club, the spark of intrigue hit that eventually led to his future in fast-moving jets and advanced spaceships.
“I met a guy who had flown fighter jets in the Vietnam War,” Digger said. “I thought to myself, ‘hey, I’m a pretty good motorcycle rider, so quite naturally I’d make a pretty good fighter pilot, right?’
Convinced he would not find a more exhilarating or well-paying line of work, he consulted with Cheryl as to what to do next. But when informed that all fighter pilots must attain a 4-year college degree, he was is in shock and disbelief.
“I knew that couldn’t be right,” said Digger. “What does college have anything to do with flying fighter jets? But it turns out, it has everything to do with flying fighter jets.”
With the United States Air Force (USAF) requiring an undergraduate college degree to qualify as a commissioned officer, Digger needed to be accepted into a university — the furthest thing from reality he could think of.
The following July, Digger took off on his motorcycle to the University of Minnesota where he began knocking for entry into the school. He quickly discovered standardized tests — a new-found term to him — and the ACT Exam which Minnesota required for collegiate entry.
He wasn’t panicked upon hearing the news, though. As an avid reader, he was more than proficient in language and English. But then came math, his old friend for napping. To make matters worse, the school’s engineering program, which Digger wished to enter, required a relatively high score of 24 out of 36 in the discipline. But why try engineering at all as someone who paid so little attention to it earlier in life?
“I knew I was good at history and English, so in my mind, I knew I couldn’t take those courses,” said Digger. “I knew that if I took something easy for me, I’d get bored and drop out. So I signed up for engineering — the hardest thing for me I could think of. That way, it would be so difficult, I could never get bored.”
But still needing to simply qualify for college entry at all, Digger began taking practice exams. And just as he had figured, the literature and grammar sections were a breeze, but then came math. He realized that if he didn’t get significant help, and soon, he would never be a fighter pilot.
In a time crunch, Digger went to his education-loving, high school aged little brother for help. Hoping he’d forgotten about all the times he beat up his younger sibling as kids, he learned enough equation tricks and tips to barely squeak by the ACT’s minimum required math score. But a larger academic beast was lurking in the not-to-distant future. That old sleep-filled secondary science class came back to haunt with a vengeance.
“It was very apparent once I got into the engineering school that I had no idea what I was doing,” said Digger. “That first Christmas break, while everyone else was in Florida enjoying the beach, I had my tail my between my legs and I went back to my high school. My old math teacher didn’t even know who I was.”
For the next three weeks, Digger’s only activities were study and sleep. And although he was never a strong enough student to earn top-notch marks in his chosen major, he did enough to get by and graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering and mechanics.
At the University of Minnesota, Digger was also a member of the school’s Air Force ROTC program. By doing this, he could simultaneously attend college while also fulfilling his minimum military entry requirements, otherwise only attained by a post-college officer training school or through the Air Force Academy.
Once graduating, he was accepted into fighter pilot school, but there was a problem. The program did not begin for another 12 months. So as he sat in limbo — not really in the Air Force and not really an undergrad student — he decided he would fill the next year by attempting to earn an Aerospace Engineering Master’s Degree in half the time the course was typically completed. It took nearly every minute to accomplish this, and Digger turned in his thesis just six hours before he and Cheryl hopped on a motorcycle and headed to Del Rio, Texas, for pilot training.
“It almost killed me,” he said. “But I finished with the minimum required GPA to get a master’s degree.”
But another giant task in Digger’s life took place in the days leading up to a departure into a new life. He was finally commissioned as a USAF 2nd Lt., which finally meant he and Cheryl could be joined in matrimony.
“She told me she would only marry me if I had those two little gold bars on my shoulders,” said Digger.
Once fighter training began, Digger knew he had chosen the correct career. Just as with his collegiate studies, he felt flying some of the world’s most impressive aircraft was one of the few things in life he knew he could perfect, thus never becoming monotonous.
“It was something I felt like I could never master,” Digger said about piloting. “I knew I could always do better and better and strive towards perfection, even knowing I would never get there.”
The first training missions began in a now-retired Cessna T-37 Tweet, but then moved into a trainer still in use and loved by pilots today: The Northrop T-38 Talon.
“It’s a very simple airplane and it doesn’t fly really well,” said Digger, “but it flies well when you fly it well. Otherwise, it lets you know if you’re making a mistake.”
On the weekends in Del Rio, Digger and Cheryl often traversed by motorcycle through far West Texas. The two were always on the hunt for good camping grounds, which eventually led the couple to Big Bend National park along the U.S.-Mexico border. With its extremely dark and clear skies, the site also happens to be one of the premier astrological viewing sites in North America.
The camping trip turned out to be more than just a weekend nature getaway. After a late-night science fiction reading session, Digger emerged from the couple’s tent and gazed into the deep onyx planetarium-like sky that hovered above him and had an epiphany.
“I made a promise to myself that night that if I could be involved in any way in the manned exploration of space, that is what I was going to do,” he said. “I would sweep floors; I would take out the garbage; I would do anything I could to be involved in a noble pursuit and the pursuit of knowledge and knowing everything we can about this thing we call the universe.”
He was not able to achieve his space dreams just yet. First, he had to complete flight school and become an experienced pilot. As his training came to an end, the young flier was given his choice of aircraft to helm. Digger ultimately chose to take a seat behind the stick of one of the Air Force’s most durable planes and a virtual armed guardian angel for the boots on the ground.
“I chose to fly the A-10 Thunderbolt, or as we called it, “The Warthog” or simply, ‘The Hog,’” Digger said. “The reason I wanted to fly The Hog is because of what resides at the [plane’s] fuselage. It has a 7-barrel, 30 mm Gatling gun capable of launching 70 rounds per second. The whole airplane is built around that 2,000-pound gun to help the men on the ground.”
The A-10’s rounds are capable of piercing and destroying virtually any above ground structure or vehicle, including tanks and armored trucks. The primary mission of the Fairchild Republic-made jet is to provide support for overrun surface troops in need of a savior.
“When things are looking really, really bad on the ground, that’s when you call in the A-10,” said Digger. “The plane is designed to save the lives of your infantry.”
For the next five years, Digger flew the Warthog while stationed in Alexandria, Louisiana, and South Korea. When his A-10 assignment was complete, the pilot was once again offered a choice of what to fly next. Once consulting with the family, the Careys settled on F-16 Fighting Falcon and the country of Spain as a new home base.
But just as they prepared for a vacation trip to Morocco, former Middle Eastern dictator Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi military invaded Kuwait. Carey’s unit in 1991 then shipped to the conflict-heavy region where he spent the next seven months flying combat missions. And although the former fighter pilot does speak privately about his wartime experience, he in no way desires to showcase the events during his presentations.
“Quite frankly, there’s nothing glorious and there’s nothing fun about combat,” he said. “We were trying to kill people who were trying to kill us. And on top of that, we were destroying the works of man.”
After Operation Desert Storm, Carey and his once-challenging academic life came back to reward him instead of haunting him for his next career endeavor. He wanted to be a test pilot, but to enter training, one was required to hold an Aeronautical Engineering degree — something Digger had worked extremely hard to earn.
After applying twice to the school, he was finally accepted as an F-16 test pilot and shipped off to the legendary flight test center at Edwards AFB (Air Force Base) in southern California’s Mojave Desert.
It was at Edwards where the Bell X-1 was tested by Chuck Yeager to eventually break the sound barrier. It was at Edwards where the fastest production military plane ever to exist, the SR-71 Blackbird, was perfected and tested. And it was at Edwards that some of the first space shuttle test landings took place and where nearly every modern high-performance jet is still tested today.
In the mid-1990s, two basic variations of test pilots existed at Edwards. One could either take on technological and avionics testing, or one could try his hand at performance testing. Carey chose the latter.
Similar to the situations seen in the film “The Right Stuff,” performance and flying qualities type testing, as it was officially known, involved an aircraft and its pilot pressed to their respective limits, or “pushing the outside of the envelope,” as pilots used to say.
“We would be sitting around the squadron one day,” the pilot said, “and some really smart engineer would say, ‘hey Digger, what would happen in we had 3,000 pounds of bombs and missiles on one wing and nothing on the other win…then you shoot up to 40,000 feet and get into a spin? Do you think you’d be able to recover from that? Why you go up and try that.’”
Test pilots are unique in that they are the only pool of candidates NASA pulls its own fliers from — a practice that began in 1959 with the space agency’s original “Mercury Seven” astronauts and continues to this day. Him being one of the scarce few men walking the earth with the necessary credentials to apply for such an assignment, Digger felt it was time for him to fulfill the promise he made to himself decades earlier while camping under the West Texas night.
“The first try didn’t go so well,” said Digger. “But Cheryl, knowing how I lose interest in things I fail at, made me stay and work all one weekend on a second [application] package to NASA. And finally, the miracle occurred and they hired me.”
The pilot began training to fly the space shuttle into orbit and back. But the NASA craft has its own set of challenges not seen in any other machine.
“That fastest I had ever flown was in an F-15 Eagle at Mach 2.5,” said Digger, “but this guy flies Mach 25.”
Once an acting NASA pilot and astronaut, his mission involved flying to the Hubble Space Telescope to refurbish its electronics. With his crew of 6 others intact and thousands in the control center, STS-109 blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center the morning of March 1, 2002.
When launching the space shuttle, the craft hits its top speed within 30 seconds of taking off. Roughly eight minutes later, the crew is weightless in space. The mission of STS-109 was the fourth servicing of Hubble. The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia would travel 350 miles above earth and orbit with the telescope at 18,000 miles per hour.
“We had to rendezvous with the telescope, grapple it with our robotic arm, and pull it into the bay of the shuttle,” said Digger. “The spacecraft more of a pickup truck than anything else. There’s a cab where people lived and the back was where you put all the stuff.”
For five straight days, the spacewalk-trained astronauts performed repairs and upgrades on what some have called the most productive scientific instrument ever built by the hands of man. While in orbit, Digger primarily monitored the well-being of the ship and served as STS-109’s on board video documentarian. Since he was Columbia’s pilot, Digger did not venture outside the craft. He left that to his fellow crew members.
“I stayed inside where the food was,” he said. “These guys are highly trained. For every hour they’re in space, they train for 14 hours on earth in the underwater training facility in Houston. It’s very, very difficult, but you’ve got to put in the practice time. They’re the best in the world.”
Their repair mission included replacing the telescope’s tin-foil like solar panels with newer, better sheets, installing an infrared detector radiator, and enhancing the scope’s vision with a new $250 million camera system.
“It was about the size of a phone booth and weighed 600 pounds,” said Digger of their task. “Being involved in installing a $250 million piece of equipment gave me a case of the nerves.”
With its new eyes, Hubble was able to up its vision capabilities ten-fold. One test even kept the camera lens open for 25 straight days into the blackness of the deep universe. In a section of space NASA scientists previously had little-to-no knowledge of, Hubble revealed breathtaking images.
“In that little tiny nondescript piece of sky where there was nothing, there is actually 10,000 galaxies,” said Digger. “There is enough stars that every man, woman, and child on earth could have 30,000 stars of their own. You have to ask yourself, what else is out there? Since the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope, we have actually realized we know less about the universe than ever before that thing was launched.”
When the time came to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, Digger and the ship’s commander once again took control of Columbia. But flying the shuttle orbiter is not like flying anything else in existence. While plowing through the atmosphere, the spacecraft generates its own local plasma clouds, lightning storms, and white-hot aura from the kinetic energy dispersion combined with incredible amounts of friction from Earth’s outer gaseous protective shell.
There’s also the case of the ship losing all propulsion thousands of miles of before it lands.
“We used the last of our fuel over Australia,” said Digger, “so we glided halfway around the world before landing. You’re then a very poor-flying glider and you have to land at a very high speed — generally around 230-240 miles per hour.”
Just 40 minutes before landing, the craft and its crew were in high orbit experiencing 16 sunrises and sunsets per day.
“We were real tired, and we were real happy to be back on Earth,” said Digger. “But we were really happy we had not broken a multi-billion telescope.”
STS-109 was also one of Columbia’s final flights. The space shuttle, along with its crew, in 2003 ultimately met their destruction during devastating re-entry disaster.
Once leaving NASA, Digger was offered countless high-paying jobs with global aeronautics and aviation companies; but he declined them all. In his search for another exciting activity, the former astronaut and fighter pilot, along with his wife, decided to take up education as their next life endeavor and mix it with another one of their loves — motorcycles. By cruising on two wheels from event to event, they are now trying to inspire the next generation of explorers. With his poverty-stricken past as a reminder to all those who will listen, he informs young people that in America, education is the great equalizer.
“You’ve got to train yourself, at least with a skill, after those first 12 years of school so that you can dictate what you want to do in life,” he said. “You can do it through work and dedication.”
The couple also travels outside the U.S. and wants to one day ride their bikes to every country across the globe as part of the One Kid One World initiative. Their goal is to inspire kids to be “infected with the dream of flight.” And by looking at the recent federal funding proposals from the White House, America’s space program in the near future could need as many new astronauts as possible.
“No matter what you think about President Trump, his new budget has ‘trip to the moon’ written all over it,” said Digger. “It looks like the most significant dedication to the space program since Lyndon Johnson was in office.”
Although he doesn’t know if he will be around for the next great phase of manned space exploration — the Mars endeavor — when Digger reflects on his life, he firmly believes the future is bright for the pursuit of knowledge. He also still holds true to the idea of The American Dream and the successes afforded to those in the United States, especially for those who challenge themselves.
“These things can actually happen,” said Digger referring to his life. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of fun, and a lot of Cheryl and I together giving everything we’ve got in the service of our country. This is America, and it’s still America — these things can happen.”