Trembling in Orbit: The Astronaut's Secret

The Rich Clifford Story

By , Contributor

Zach Jankovic

A great tale and a fight against Parkinson's disease

I'm a long-time fan of Kickstarter, "the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world," where millions of dollars get pledged every week. I've donated to projects there and contemplated one of my own. (If you want to know what, email me.)

My latest favorite is The Astronaut's Secret, a documentary put together by Zach Jankovic, a Houston filmmaker whose neurologist father, Dr. Joseph Jankovic, diagnosed astronaut Rich Clifford in 1994 and found early signs of Parkinson's disease.

Michael_R._Clifford.jpgThe film will be a 30-minute documentary about the life of Astronaut Clifford and will examine how he kept his Parkinson’s Disease a secret from the public for 17 years, which included a six-hour spacewalk from the Mir space station, during the 76th Space Shuttle mission, the 16th mission for the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Astronaut Clifford, who is now retired, speaks all across the USA about early detection of Parkinson’s disease. Before his third and final Shuttle flight, only his commander, Kevin Chilton, knew his secret. After the STS-76 mission, Clifford decided to quit flying, not knowing how fast the Parkinson's disease would progress along.

Don't get the wrong idea. According to Zach Jankovic, "The Army was fully informed from day one. His flight physicals were delivered to Army medical each year. The Army conducted a separate evaluation of his condition and flying skills and made no changes in his status."

Clifford was in unknown territory about how it might affect his work as an astronaut. Once, while in space suiting up for his spacewalk, he noticed a tremor in his right hand, a very early sign of the disease. He told Zach that he would try to keep his hand hidden during the remainder of the flight.

During the process of diagnosis NASA kept in close communication with Clifford. Since Parkinson's is a clinical diagnosis, it was a six-month process of elimination to confirm the diagnosis. Anyone concerned about Clifford's condition was in contact with Dr. Jankovic.

CliffordPrelaunch.jpgThe idea of an astronaut with Parkinson's would offer wild possibilities in a Hollywood movie. One can imagine a shaking hand losing some tool that drifts into space, locking the astronaut outside. Fortunately, nothing even close to that happened.

This fascinating documentary covers Clifford visiting NASA to watch the last shuttle launch in 2011 and his reflections on the program. The Kickstarter page had raised $13,305 at this writing, with 34 days to go. If it doesn't reach its intended goal of at least $48,000 in pledges by Friday, Nov 18, 1:45pm EST, the project will not be funded.

If you want to help fight Parkinson's and see this film made, have a visit. Rewards for pledges start as low as $1, going all the way up to $10,000 or more (which includes a three-minute film made about you or your company by the director). Hey, that might put your name in orbit!

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Skip Press is an author and teacher who has been active in Hollywood for decades. He knows as much about the inner workings of celebrity Scientology as anyone alive.

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