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Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2006

Astronaut a hometown hero

August 27, 2006

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— Corner of Brent Jett Boulevard and Northeast Sixth Avenue. Sixth Avenue is easy. But who is Brent Jett Jr.?

"A famous politician? A governor of Florida?" asked Lilita Morejon, 73, whose peach bungalow house faces Brent Jett Boulevard.

"Maybe they named it in remembrance of a teacher who passed away," guessed Antonio Rodrigues, 31, who also lives on the neighborhood street. "Maybe it was someone who had to do with South Florida history?"

Brent Jett is famous in many circles. People ask for his autograph. Some have his picture hanging on the wall. At 47, many consider this Houston resident a Fort Lauderdale hometown hero.

His last name alone - Jett - suggests the answer.

"He's that astronaut that I think went to the moon, isn't it?" said Edger Gaitan, 18, a senior at the high school.

As the teachers at Northeast High could tell Gaitan, the last of six manned lunar missions was in 1972, and Jett never hitched on to one of those rides.

On Monday, however, he is scheduled to lift off in the shuttle Atlantis, his fourth time in space and second as commander.

He may not carry the popularity of Paris Hilton or Michael Jordan, but his younger brother, David Jett, says he has followers.

Five years ago, wearing his blue astronaut jumpsuit, Brent Jett shook hands with hundreds of children at Broward General Medical Center and at seven public schools, including his three alma maters - Bennett Elementary in Fort Lauderdale and Rickards Middle and Northeast High, both in Oakland Park.

Obviously, some people know Brent Jett.

His advanced placement English teacher, Rosemary Timoney, recalled him as "a marvel of courtesy and helpfulness" in high school. "The kid that parents would love to have the girls go out with," she said.

So why is it that hard to recognize a man who graduated first in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy or who has circled the earth hundreds of times? Or, someone who made 450 aircraft carrier deck landings before being admitted, on his first try, to the astronaut program in 1992?

"Most people don't know about him because he hasn't done anything for them," Gaitan said. "He's not like a rapper ... most people don't care. They want to know about the rappers and celebrities."

His life's mission may not have included being a rapper, but Brent Jett was struck with "the flying bug" in 1967 when the USS Independence visited Fort Lauderdale. As part of a tour, his family was ferried to the aircraft carrier, where a Navy pilot let 9-year-old Brent Jett sit in the cockpit of an F-4 fighter. He was hooked.

He eventually joined the Naval Academy after studying for a year at the University of Florida and excelled as a test pilot.

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