April 6, 2017 / 1:00 PM / 5 months ago

The right stuff: first jobs of America's astronauts

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK, April 6 (Reuters) - While many dream about what is beyond our horizon on Earth, some actually get to see outer space up close.

For the latest in the Reuters "First Jobs" series, we talked to a few of America's foremost astronauts, who have undertaken missions to the International Space Station and on the now-discontinued Space Shuttle.

Before they ended up global, they started local.

Anna Fisher

First job: Candy scooper

I used to work in the candy section of Newberry's, which was a department store back in the day in San Pedro, California. I used to scoop up treats like popcorn and gummy bears and put them in little bags for customers. I remember how scared I was, not wanting to make any mistakes.

That was actually one of the only times in my life that I got a paycheck and paid Social Security taxes, because as an astronaut, I am in the retirement system for civil servants. So the few Social Security credits I do have come from that old candy job.

That store doesn't exist anymore, but I still drive by that shopping center when I go back to San Pedro. Since then I have gone on to more complicated jobs, like launching and retrieving satellites on the 14th Shuttle flight. But I still look back fondly on my first job - and I still love candy today.

Butch Wilmore

First job: Stonemason

I grew up in middle Tennessee, and worked for a rock mason who built stone chimneys and walls. We had a real hard-driving kind of boss, who always made sure we were on the clock and never taking any breaks.

I started at $3.65 an hour, and pretty soon graduated to driving the dump truck. I used to go into the Tennessee backwoods and buy old stone chimneys from homeowners, or find old rock walls built back in the 1800s.

It was such dirty work. I came home from work every day, and my mom would have to hose me off in the backyard, because I was literally covered head to toe in soot. My claim to fame was that the musician Charlie Daniels, who sang "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," had a log cabin in the area - and I built his chimney.

Working a backhoe isn't that different from working robotics, actually. You are operating in three dimensions, just like in spaceflight.

Chris Cassidy

First job: Corn picker

This was in southern Maine, and there was a corn farmer who lived only a couple of miles from my house. One day when I was 12, I went up to his farmstand and asked if they needed help, and they told me to show up the next morning.

I didn't particularly enjoy it, because there were a lot of big, mean 16-year-olds there, who used to mess with me and put grease on the seat of my bike. What I really remember is the early wakeup at 5:30 a.m. That was a real shock to my system, riding my little bike there in the pitch dark.

That was some real work. Picking corn, grinding it out with hands and sweat - that was a good foundation for me.

Rex Walheim

First job: KFC cook

I worked for a couple of years at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Redwood City, California. I believe it was for $2.75 an hour, prepping the chicken and then putting it in the deep fryer. I remember I had to dump the chicken into a marinating tub with the secret herbs and spices, and I used to get totally coated in flour.

I liked the chicken, but after working there and having it so much, it took a long while before I could start eating it again. My family loved it, though, because after work I got to bring home extra chicken and they would put it all in the freezer.

That job gave me motivation to get out of there and go to college, because what I really wanted to be was an Air Force pilot. Eventually I became an astronaut and went on three shuttle missions. I may be the only KFC worker to have been in space - I haven't heard of any others yet. (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Matthew Lewis)

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