Astronaut, Eastpointe native to receive Wayne State award

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published September 25, 2013

Dr. Jerry Linenger

DETROIT — Eastpointe native and former astronaut Dr. Jerry Linenger is one of five people scheduled to receive an award from the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s annual Golden Gala Oct. 12 at the MGM Grand Detroit Hotel.

The university uses the gala to “honor individuals who have contributed to the school’s legacy,” and to raise money for medical school scholarships and student-related activities, according to a press release sent out by the university.

Linenger, a retired U.S. Navy captain and space shuttle astronaut who lived on the Russian Mir space station for more than 130 days, is receiving the “trailblazer award” from the university. Linenger currently resides in Suttons Bay, but was born and raised in Eastpointe.

Linenger said he is a graduate of the Wayne State University medical program, though it was a longer-than-anticipated route he took to get to that point. He originally went to East Detroit High School with the dream of becoming an astronaut.

After a concussion in ninth-grade football put him out of commission on contact sports, he said he was welcomed onto the high school tennis and swim teams by the coaches. He said they were an inspiration to him because even though he was inexperienced, they stuck with him and made sure he succeeded.

“What I learned there is no matter what your background, maybe there are places that put you in a better place to succeed, but if you work hard, you can do it from anywhere,” Linenger said. “That was a good launching pad. It taught me to be tough, to not give up and to take advantage of opportunities with a little initiative.”

Linenger decided to enlist at the Annapolis Naval Academy, reasoning that more people from there went on to become astronauts than his alternatives. Cost was also a consideration, he said, adding that he had four siblings, and the academy offered effectively free tuition in exchange for serving in the U.S. Navy for five years.

From there, he was one of 10 people selected to go to medical school, choosing Wayne State due to its reputation for being a top school for trauma surgery and its proximity to his hometown. He ended up becoming a flight surgeon and eventually entered the astronaut corps, where he flew on a few shuttle missions and spent about five months on Mir.

Linenger said students in high school should take every class seriously, as they never know what will end up being useful. He said a shop class he took in high school, where the students disassembled a lawnmower engine and learned all about compression, intake, power and exhaust, ended up being vital when a pump on Mir broke down and he needed to fix it.

“You never know what you may need in the future. I never took a lawnmower engine apart, but it helped me take a pump apart on a Russian space station traveling 17,000 miles an hour,” Linenger said. “I also had a public speaking class with Cynthia Haas, and it seemed like a normal course that you’re taking without much meaning, but now I do a lot of keynote speaking all over. And that old high school course that I thought was just a standard public speaking course really paid off.”

Even showing a sincere interest in a topic and revealing one of those big dreams, like becoming an astronaut, got teachers excited in his day and ready to help a student out, he said.

“If you have those big dreams, you can succeed and be a trailblazer in your own right,” Linenger said. “Don’t think that you’re not as good as a Grosse Pointe kid or something, because you have some toughness they don’t have, and some adversity. That may make you stronger and more competitive.”

While he does not live in Eastpointe anymore, Linenger said he still tries to represent the city as best he can, and is a frequent visitor for his kids’ hockey games and to see family. He said the city is not as quiet as it used to be, with more businesses along the main drag, and seems a bit nicer in some parts because of it.

He said the experience of going into space — the launch, re-entry, the spacewalks and so on — was an adrenaline rush, and while he may have retired from NASA in 1998, he said he can still picture the Earth from space whenever he looks at a map, and is content blazing the trails he did serving on Mir.

“You feel a bit like a trailblazer when you’re the first American in a Russian spacesuit shooting a laser at the Earth. It’s a pretty good feeling in your back pocket now,” Linenger said. “I feel like I contributed to the best of my ability and moved our country forward a little bit.”

East Detroit Superintendent Joanne Lelekatch said the district was proud to have produced an alumnus receiving the trailblazer award from Wayne State.

“Dr. Linenger continues to inspire the students of East Detroit,” Lelekatch said.

Other Gala honorees include Grosse Pointe Park resident Paul Schaap, a retired chemistry professor and founder of Lumigen Inc.; Dr. Robert Wilson, for pioneering critical care and trauma medicine; Dr. Albert Silbergleit, Huntington Woods resident, founding member of the Oakland Health Education Program and WSU faculty member; and Paul Hillegonds, senior vice president of corporate affairs at DTE Energy, former Michigan state representative and Plymouth resident.

Tickets to the black-tie affair are $225 for one or $200 each for two or more. It will include dinner, music by Fifty Amp Fuse, and hosting duties by television and Michigan Radio reporter Cynthia Canty.