HOUSTON — The history of one Santa Monica family spans both time and space.
Albert Louis Bresnik served as the personal photographer for Amelia Earhart from 1932 to 1937, the year she disappeared.
His grandson, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Randy Bresnik (“Komrade”), flew aboard space shuttle Atlantis during STS-129 last November. As the shuttle orbited Earth for 11 days, he often passed over cloud-covered Howland Island, Earhart’s final destination. Flying on Atlantis with the astronaut was one of his grandfather’s Earhart photographs and the legendary lady pilot’s lucky scarf, frequently photographed by his grandfather over seven decades ago.
Passions for flying and photography
Albert Bresnik became interested in photography when he took a photography class in high school, said his son, Albert “Randy” Bresnik. The new love drew the budding shutterbug into a passion for aviation.
“Several aviators were his friends,” said Randy Sr. “He would take pictures and then try to sell them. Back then, there were 35 airports in the L.A. basin. Now we’re down to seven.”
When Albert Bresnik met Earhart, he had already opened his own photography studio. He shot publicity pictures for Columbia Studios, capturing images of such stars as Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper, Jane Withers, Jack Elam and Randolph Scott. Randy Sr. said that Earhart liked his father because “he just took pictures.”
“He would not ask her to pose,” Randy Sr. said. “He was an old-time photographer. You had to wait for your shot.”
According to Randy Jr., Earhart viewed Albert Bresnik as “a little brother.”
“She was shy and private. He did not treat her as glitzy Hollywood.”
Earhart’s fateful decision
Randy Sr. said that his father met his mother at a casino in Avalon, on Catalina Island, in August 1936. A love for dancing brought Albert and Mary together.
But a fateful decision could have interfered with the couple’s wedding on New Year’s Eve in 1937.
“My dad was supposed to go with Amelia on her last flight,” said Randy Sr. “But she came to him and said: ‘I need more weight and fuel.’”
So Albert stayed on the ground, to the relief of Randy Jr.
“My dad was born in 1938,” explained the astronaut. “If my grandfather had been on that plane, I wouldn’t be here today.”
When Albert received the news that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had disappeared on July 2, 1937, the photographer sadly packed away all his negatives for five long decades.
In 1987, the San Fernando Ninety-Nines, a group of female aviators, invited Albert to talk about Earhart to honor the 50th anniversary of her disappearance.
“He began bringing out the photos,” said Randy Sr. “And people started requesting them.”
According to Randy Sr., Albert met his second wife, Gabrielle, in mid-1988 when a flying club asked him to give a talk about Earhart. The couple was married from October 1988 until October 1993, when Albert passed away.
Quipped Randy Sr. of his stepmother, now age 86: “She still goes out dancing a couple of times a week.”
Memories of grandfather Albert
Randy Jr. remembered how, after Albert had found the Earhart photos again, his grandfather would drive cross-country with him each summer for the three years the astronaut attended college at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
They visited relatives and friends along the way, and then Albert would fly back home. Their four-day expedition was leisurely, compared with road trips that Randy Jr. would later take.
“I’ve driven coast-to-coast in two-and-a-half days,” explained Randy Jr., citing sudden change of military orders as the reason.
So the unexpected doesn’t seem to faze this former F/A-18 test pilot.
“I can go out on a spacewalk one day, my wife can have a baby the next day, I can go back out on another spacewalk the following day,” Randy Jr. said with a laugh.
Unique way of marking time
By coincidence, last year Randy Jr. became the second astronaut to become a father while flying in orbit.
His wife Rebecca gave birth to their daughter, Abigail Mae, on Nov. 21. The happy event gave the Bresnik family a unique way of marking time.
“Abigail was flight day seven,” quipped Randy Jr.
The astronaut, one of six on the STS-129 crew, was the 509th human being in space, the 189th to perform a spacewalk.
“We were not an elite bunch. We were regular people who worked hard.”
A photographer himself, Randy Jr. said he enjoyed shooting from space photos of places he and his wife have visited on Earth. He captured shots of the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in Israel; Cairo in Egypt; Hawaii; Italy, where the couple spent their honeymoon; and Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, the hometown of their 4-year-old adopted son, Wyatt.
Astronaut Bresnik will make an appearance Thursday afternoon at Santa Monica College to share his space flight experience with local residents. Bresnik is also scheduled to appear at his alma mater, Santa Monica High School, and John Adams Middle School on Friday, March 5.
– By Jill Michaels