The population of Earth is approximately seven billion. Only 550 have flown in space, fewer than two-thirds have been Americans. Only 12 humans have walked on the moon, and all were Americans. Erie’s Paul J. Weitz (1932-2017) is truly a member of a very small group known as astronauts.
Weitz was born in Erie on July 25, 1932. He attended McKinley Elementary and Harbor Creek High School and was Valedictorian of his graduating class of 1949. The football and soccer stadium at Harbor Creek High School is named for him. In 1954, Weitz graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He had enrolled in the Naval ROTC program at Penn State and earned a commission as an Ensign. After a year of sea duty aboard a destroyer, Weitz entered flight training and was awarded his aviator wings in September 1956 and logged over 7,700 hours of flying time, mostly in jet aircraft.
In 1966, Weitz was one of 19 men selected by NASA for Astronaut Group 5 and served as pilot on the crew of Skylab 2 which spent 28 days in space, a record at that time. Weitz’s crewmates on Skylab 2 were veteran astronaut Pete Conrad, who had been part of the Apollo program and as commander of Apollo 12, the third man to walk on the Moon, and Joseph P. Kerwin. Together, the three astronauts completed critical repairs that Skylab had sustained during its unmanned launch. Weitz logged two hours and eleven minutes of EVA (extravehicular activity) or a spacewalk. Weitz might have been assigned as Command Module Pilot of Apollo 20 had not NASA cancelled the program. Weitz rejoined the Navy after retiring from NASA but returned to command the maiden flight of the space shuttle Challenger. Weitz was fifty years old.
During this mission, the crew conducted experiments in materials processing and recorded lightning activities and conducted EVA. After a mission lasting 120 hours, Challenger touched down safely on the concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Weitz became a NASA administrator and was the Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, when he retired in May,1994. Paul J. Weitz died in Arizona on October 22, 2017, at age 85.