Saturday, October 28, 2017

Paul Weitz Was A Comedy Genius

NASA photo, 1973: "Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot for Skylab 2 (first Skylab manned) mission, looks over off-duty recreational equipment in the crew quarters of the Skylab Orbital Workshop (OWS) trainer during Skylab simulation activity at the Manned Spacecraft Center." 
Born on July 25, 1932, Paul Weitz was one of the more reserved astronauts from 1966’s Group 5 (“The Original Nineteen”), and following his two missions – 1973’s Skylab 2 and 1983’s STS-6 – he seemed more than happy to recede from the spotlight, and simply focus on the job at hand.

I was fortunate to have a few encounters with Weitz (who was known to many of his friends as “PJ”) because of my involvement with Spacefest, and I was honored to moderate last year’s Skylab panel, and this year’s Skylab/Apollo-Soyuz Test Project panel. While I would like to emphasize my dealings with him were all-too-brief, I did find him to be a humble, thoughtful man who exhibited a quiet pride over saving Skylab, and ushering in a new era of space exploration with the maiden voyage of Challenger. One of the most unforgettable moments of last year’s Spacefest VII, for me, was when Weitz stood up and explained his Skylab 2 standup EVA in detail, using a great Ed Hengeveld painting to illustrate one of the most iconic spacewalks of all time. I was nervous he wouldn’t want to share much because of his natural humility, but he absolutely lit up when he saw that painting, one of his favorites.

That’s not to say Weitz wasn’t a complete riot and had an incredible dry sense of humor. I’m sure his closer friends and family have a wealth of untold stories, but here is one of mine. At Spacefest VIII in June, I went to the Thursday night cocktail party that opened the event. The drinks flowed, and at one point I saw Weitz and Jack Lousma chatting away on the floor. Emboldened by a bucket of wine, I went up to them, politely said hello, and told them I’d be moderating the panel again. I think I said some gibberish about how I wanted to “focus a little more on science” or something; I wasn’t exactly sober and I am sure they thought I was nuts, but they seemed polite and shook their heads in agreement. Weitz then said with a completely straight face, “I love science. I have a PhD in science...piled high deep.”

I noticed he was drinking a martini, and said something stupid like, “Are you enjoying the martini, sir?” He said with utter seriousness, “Come closer, I have a secret to tell you.” Of course, being a massive Skylab fan girl, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, he’s going to tell me there were aliens on Skylab, or Kerwin started growing a tail, or something insane that nobody’s ever heard...and I’m going to be the only one to ever know about it.” I leaned in closer.

He said with a small smirk on his face, “I had a couple of drinks before I got here.” That was his secret.

Fun fact: I also asked him, “Weren’t you roommates with Al Worden at some point?” He snickered audibly and said, “Yeah.” (I did not inquire further about this particular topic.)

Paul Weitz died on October 23, and he and his brand of quiet courage will be missed immensely.

NASA photo, 1973: "Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot for the Skylab 2 first manned mission, is suited up for Skylab training activity in the mission simulation and training facility at the Manned Spacecraft Center."