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Retired Utah Sen. Jake Garn never imagined he'd one day leave the planet

SALT LAKE CITY — Retired Utah Sen. Jake Garn recalled leaving the state for the first time as a boy during a fishing trip to Bear Lake.

"Mom, we walked across the border into Idaho. I’ve been out of the state," he remembers excitedly telling his mother when he returned home.

Never did the kid from Richfield imagine that he would one day leave the planet.

As the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Garn, now 86 and dealing with Alzheimer's disease, reminisced about his flight on the space shuttle in 1985.

Jake Garn on the space shuttle on April 15, 1985.
Jake Garn on the space shuttle on April 15, 1985.
Deseret News archives

"It’s just unbelievable to have orbited the earth 110 times at 25 times the speed of sound," he told KSL Newsradio in an interview this week.

Garn was a 29-year-old Navy pilot when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space on April 12, 1961.

Twenty-four years later to the day, Garn took flight on the space shuttle, which had become routine enough (though that would change after the Challenger explosion in 1986) that NASA saw benefit in inviting a member of Congress to take part. The Utah senator was the first, boarding Discovery as a payload specialist.

Garn said it's impossible to put into words what Earth looks like from space.

"Even a politician doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the beauty of this planet," he said.

A three-term Republican senator from 1974 to 1993, Garn rubbed shoulders with John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 who went on to serve in the Senate for 25 years. He also knows Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon about 20 minutes after Neil Armstrong took the first steps on July 20, 1969.

Aldrin recently expressed disappointment with the progress of the American space program the past 50 years.

Garn had a little different thought about what's transpired the last half-century.

"I'm surprised more that it hasn't developed where it’s more common for ordinary people to fly in space," he said. "I would have anticipated that it would have exploded more rapidly than it has."

Kathleen Garn and former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn.
Kathleen Garn and former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn.
Family photo

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are trying to make that happen as the major private players in space tourism and exploration.

Garn said he "absolutely" hopes children today have an opportunity to fly like he did, recalling how his father, a World War I pilot who earned his wings just 14 years after the Wright brothers' first flight, inspired him.

In a 2004 Deseret News interview, Garn said two of the best things that ever happened to him were his induction into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame — his father, Ed, was the first inductee; he was No. 12 — and earning his naval aviator wings. He claimed his greatest achievement was not the three Senate terms but the 12,000 hours he flew for his country.

In addition to his active duty in the Navy, Garn served in the Utah Air National Guard where he retired as a colonel in 1979. He was promoted to brigadier general after the space shuttle mission.

Garn said he's grateful to Utah for giving "a little kid from Richfield, Utah, such amazing opportunities."

Contributing: Amanda Dixon

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon a day after Neil Armstrong. He stepped onto the lunar surface about 20 minutes after Armstrong.