Eugene astronaut to pilot space shuttle

EUGENE — Col. James P. Dutton Jr. is finally going into space.

And he is taking Len Casanova's 1958 Rose Bowl ring with him, among other things.

"When you stop and think about it, it's pretty nice," said Margaret Casanova, widow of the legendary University of Oregon football coach and athletic director. "There are not many rings that get up there."

The first Rose Bowl ring in space? Maybe.

Still known as Jimmy to family and friends, Dutton began dreaming about becoming an astronaut when he was at Eugene's Meadowlark Elementary School in the 1970s. It finally happened in 2004 when he was selected by NASA as part of its 19th class of astronauts.

He will make his first voyage into space on March 18 when he pilots the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station during one of the shuttle program's final voyages.

And he is not only taking the gold-plated ring with the emerald in the middle that Casanova earned coaching the UO football team against Ohio State University 52 years ago. He'll take a UO car flag, banners made by students at Meadowlark and Sheldon High School, where he graduated in 1987, along with some small Irish shamrocks from Sheldon, a stuffed gorilla from a friend in England and mementos from Air Force colleagues who have lost their lives.

The Rose Bowl ring, worn by longtime UO associate athletic director Herb Yamanaka since Casanova died at 97 in 2002, will be stored in a canister that will go under a seat in the space shuttle, Dutton said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Register-Guard from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Dutton, 41, a diehard Duck fan, called Yamanaka in November to inquire about what he could take into space to honor Dutton's grandfather, the late Charlie Harvey, as well as the UO.

Harvey, who died in 1984, was also a huge Duck fan who even traveled on the road with the football team. And he, like most, thought highly of Casanova.

"Since (Harvey) idolized Cas and he loved Oregon football, I thought, 'Why not send up the Rose Bowl ring?' " said Yamanaka, a close friend of both men. Yamanaka thinks Harvey and Casanova would like the gesture.

"To be able to do that and honor my grandfather and Oregon football is really special," said Dutton, who played football and baseball at Sheldon, edited the school newspaper and got perfect grades. The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce honored him as its Future First Citizen of the Year in 1987.

All items had to be sent to NASA by Dec. 1. Once it returns from space, Casanova's Rose Bowl ring will not go back on Yamanaka's finger, but into the glass case — alongside the photos of Cas with Jimmy Stewart, Gen. Douglas McArthur and Bob Hope — in the athletic department's Casanova Center lobby that is part of an exhibit honoring the man who coached the UO football team from 1951 to 1966.

The UO hopes to have Margaret Casanova, who turns 95 on Oct. 1, and Dutton as honorary captains when the Ducks play Stanford at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2, Yamanaka said.

As long as he can remember, Dutton has dreamed of the moment that will arrive when he and the other five crew members of the 13-day Discovery mission blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. next month.

His bedroom was plastered with photos of astronauts and space as a child, remembers his mother, Nita Dutton of Newberg, who will be there with her husband, James Dutton Sr., for the launch on March 18. Jimmy Dutton had a rocket on his cake when he turned 3 on Nov. 20, 1971, in Eugene.

At Cal Young Middle School in 1982, he asked librarian Linda Ague for help with his Career Day project on how to become an astronaut. She helped him draft a letter to NASA. The agency mailed back a pamphlet on the best ways to realize his goal. Dutton followed the suggestions, going on to graduate with honors from the Air Force Academy in 1991 with a degree in astronautical engineering, then get his master's in aeronautics and astronautics in 1994 from the University of Washington.

He then became an Air Force fighter pilot, flying F-15 combat air patrols in northern Iraq, and later served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Dutton was one of two pilot astronauts selected by NASA in 2004 to begin training for development of NASA's next generation of spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, which will replace the shuttle program and begin ferrying crews of astronauts to and from the International Space Station in coming years. He completed training in 2006 and was assigned to NASA's Exploration branch.

NASA hopes the CEVs will carry astronauts back to the moon by 2018, and possibly to Mars someday.

Discovery will deliver a multipurpose logistics module filled with science racks to be transferred to laboratories on the International Space Station. The mission will feature three spacewalks. As pilot, Dutton will work inside the space station, helping move the station's robotic arm to replace an ammonia tank assembly, he said. There will be only three space shuttle missions after this one, the last in September, said Dutton, who now makes his home in the Houston area with his wife, 1988 Sheldon graduate Erin Ruhoff Dutton, and the couple's four boys, ages 4 months to 12 years.

After the program ends, NASA's emphasis will turn toward the possibility of developing commercial transportation to the International Space Station and the long-range exploration of the solar system, developing big engines for heavy lift rockets that can take us farther and faster into space, Dutton said.

Could a Rose Bowl ring from the UO land on Mars one day? You never know. For now, Dutton is thrilled for the opportunity to take Casanova's ring on a ride that goes 17,500 mph.

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