‘For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’ – Unread public tribute to lost astronauts.
On 27 January 1967, the US space program came crashing back to Earth. In a disastrous launch pad fire, during a test run for an Apollo 1 space mission, three astronauts were killed. The cause would later be attributed by astronaut Frank Borman, at least in part, to ‘failure of imagination‘ in that contingencies were not fully anticipated. It was improvements in subsequent spacecraft design and operations that undoubtedly contributed to the successful Apollo Moon landings two-and-a-half years later.
Further tragedies would happen for the US space program effectively during the anniversary week, on 28 January 1986 (with the loss of the Challenger space shuttle and its crew in flight) and on 1 February 2003 (with the loss of the Columbia space shuttle). These tragedies – borne from engineering, management, and political failures of imagination – led to some ‘hard-won lessons‘ that we could possibly learn from today in a variety of life lessons.
One person whom Astronaut Remembrance Week touched personally was Kate Doolan, a lifelong space enthusiast and a close friend – a woman of eclectic interests. After catching the space bug while viewing the Apollo Moon missions on TV as a child, she spent her life studying and writing about space, meeting many astronauts and becoming an expert on the topic.
Kate was a close friend for about thirty years, and in recent years she called me her ‘BFF’. Many people will have different memories of Kate, including those who will recall her as being loud, assertive, forthright in her opinions, and somewhat abrasive with her language. She liked to present herself as being what we both jokingly called, ‘big and butch’. Her exuberance meant that life with Kate as a friend was never dull. But as a close friend, I came to realise that some of this facade, her bluster, her boisterousness, was, at least in part, a self-defence mechanism. Kate may have, on occasions, roared like the dinosaurs she loved, but her heart resembled the koalas and kittens that she loved. Kate hid a sensitive and tender side: her idealism, her childlike sense of awe at the universe, and her almost childlike vulnerabilities. Kate was a complex character.
I met Kate in 1989 through the Space Association of Australia. Everyone who knew Kate knows that space was her deepest passion and interest. She held herself to the highest standards of professionalism when researching, writing or presenting space material. Kate got to meet astronauts, go to special movie screenings, attend space conferences and diplomatic functions, speak on the radio, and write articles for newspapers and magazines. Kate gave talks on space to anyone who would listen. This included a local ‘Star Trek’ club. Kate was like an evangelist for the space program. Whenever I was preparing a space project for my secondary school students, Kate always provided relevant research materials for the kids, and supplied sufficient quantities of space stickers or lithographs to ensure that every student received a small, inspirational memento. On more than one occasion, upon learning that one of my students had a special admiration for an astronaut, she secured a signed photograph for that student from that astronaut. Her knowledge of space trivia was breathtaking. She knew what was Neil Armstrong’s favourite music, or when was John Glenn’s birthday, or which astronauts had been honoured by having puppets named after them in the TV series, ‘Thunderbirds‘.
Kate is probably most famous for co-authoring the book ‘Fallen Astronauts‘, along with Colin Burgess and Bert Vis. She had hoped it would lead to further opportunities to write books, such as her frequently expressed desire to write a biography on astronaut Ed White – an ambition which sadly, never came to pass. On occasion, she expressed to me her frustration at not having qualifications in journalism, or a PhD in aerospace engineering, as she felt that such credentials may have helped to open doors for her writing. Once, she even complained that her one book was insufficient. I told her that in a thousand years’ time, after most of the 20th century was long forgotten, her book will serve as a primary source for historians studying the early space program. I truly believe she has left that as a legacy for the world.
Kate had other interests outside space that are not so well-known. She loved her cats, Costner and Benedict. Regarding her love of dinosaurs, I have fond memories of the many times we went to see ‘Jurassic Park’ at the movies, with the scary scenes always resulting in her repeatedly screaming, jumping out of her chair, swearing aloud and then apologising to everyone around her – and she loved it. She also loved to suggest that we go out and buy some Kentucky fried dinosaur. She loved Abba, cricket with beer, US politics and military history, the movie ‘Dances with Wolves’, actress Emma Thompson, the TV series, ‘South Park’, and giving her ‘Muttley’ laugh. She was word perfect on many of the bawdy jokes in the TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’. She dabbled in casual jobs, including working at a book shop in Prahran, where she shared her extensive military and space knowledge in conversations with her customers.
In the 1990s, Kate joined the Melbourne chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and was a volunteer and committee member with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. She also joined the Rainbow Sash, an LGBTI group that protested against specific forms of religious homophobia. Among her other LGBTI activism, she marched in Melbourne’s annual Pride March, and attended Marriage Equality rallies. Such involvements waned in recent years due to her declining health.
Kate joined me in attending the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in 2012, even while expressing misgivings about what she called her lingering Catholic guilt. Such inner conflict was typical of Kate. She could be happy, sad, funny, bawdy, outraged and reconciliatory – all on the same day – and yet she also knew when to be the consummate professional, especially when being a public space advocate. I am thankful for her complex friendship. Among the many things it taught me was how to be a more understanding person. I admired her because her life journey embodied the Latin motto, ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through hardship to the stars. Kate learnt from some of life’s hard-won lessons and triumphed in her own way. We could all learn from her very human example.
In the last few years, Kate largely withdrew from face-to-face social contact. Instead, she sought – and found – a supportive network of friends online. I was pleased to learn that when she went overseas, to attend Spacefest, and to visit military monuments and museums, she was offered friendship, support and hospitality by what she called her ‘extended family’ from the Space Hipsters, Space History, and Fallen Astronauts groups on Facebook, and from other kind, welcoming people whom she had met online via social networks. At the time, her real-life friends wondered why she had socially withdrawn into a world of virtual friends. More recently, after a year of pandemic and Zoom teleconferences, I now realise that she was ahead of the rest of us.
In the last few years of her life, Kate became quite enamoured with crocodiles. I never actually asked her why. I assumed that she may have seen some physical resemblance between crocodiles and dinosaurs. But upon reflection, I think her fondness for crocodiles held a deeper meaning. I wonder if she may have fancied herself as a female version of Crocodile Dundee – hence her twitter name, @crocodilekatie. Like Crocodile Dundee, Kate probably imagined herself to be a lovable Aussie larrikin who could out-drink and out-swear the best of them. Like Crocodile Dundee, she could wrestle what she saw as her life difficulties – her metaphoric crocodiles – and emerge victorious. And like Crocodile Dundee, she had a habit of, shall we say, being ‘somewhat creative with the truth’ in order to spin a good yarn. And she loved to be the centre of a good yarn.
Kate wrote in detail about the Apollo 1 astronauts, and in a touch of ironic cosmic timing of which she would have tacitly approved, she also tragically passed away during Astronaut Remembrance Week on 28 January 2019.
“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
– Sarah Williams.
As my parting tribute here, I write something to Kate instead of about her. In doing so, I quote from her favourite TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’: Kate, thank you for being a friend.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn