The Sky's the Limit: Down-to-Earth Jill and Scott Altman ‘Take Command’ of the 2016 Georgetown House Tour
It comes but once a year, one of Georgetown’s peak experiences, when homes open up on an April day.
Every year, some wonder how it will all come together. Who will agree to put their place on the tour? Who will host the popular Patrons’ Party — founded by the tour’s heart and soul, 100-year-old Frida Burling? From the co-chairs to the docents, work on this single Georgetown Saturday involves hundreds (not counting the visitors).
Reviewing this newspaper’s pages on the house tour over the years, one reads a living scrapbook of past and present, of people and place. Called “the glue that holds Georgetown together,” the tour provides a living record of the republic’s architecture: Federal, Georgian, Classic, Revival, Victorian and Modern.
Founded in 1931, and thought to be the nation’s oldest such event, the Georgetown House Tour & Tea is a love affair with this town. The 2016 tour, the 85th, will feature 10 private homes on Saturday, April 23.
In fact, this year — with co-chairs Jill and Scott Altman — it looks like the sky’s the limit. Scott is a former NASA astronaut and Jill is an astronaut’s wife.
“It’s an exciting year with Jill and Scott Altman leading our mission!” says Reverend Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John’s Church on O Street. “The Georgetown House Tour provides vital funding for St. John’s ministries that support the needy in our community. We are grateful to the Altmans and every St. John’s member, friend and sponsor who contributes to this celebrated Georgetown tradition.”
“The thing I love most about Georgetown is being able to walk everywhere,” Jill says. “I am a gardener and look forward to spring because we have an explosion of bulbs everywhere. During the blizzard, we joined friends almost every evening for dinner. I also love that we are so close to all that D.C. has to offer. There is a real sense of community here. The house tour is special to me because it is a tremendous labor of love.”
Scott says his favorite thing “about Washington, and especially about Georgetown, is just walking around and breathing in all the history and stories that have taken place here. I love knowing that both Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln visited soldiers in hospitals here in Georgetown and that there is a continuity in this town that will continue after we are gone.”
Each year, the tour co-chairs work overtime to coordinate all the parts of the show, and each year their own life stories reveal a part of Georgetown — and add to its story.
Jill and Scott Altman met in San Diego at a friend’s engagement party. He was a Navy aviator and she, a college senior. “Are you one of those jet jocks?” Jill asked Scott, who was stationed at nearby Naval Air Station Miramar, known then as “Fightertown, USA.” She knew how haughty fighter pilots were. “You think you’re Prince Charming?” she parried, after he took her shoe, drank champagne out of it and kept the shoe — ensuring a date the next day at the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park.
Within months, the two — each with Midwestern roots — were engaged. They married in 1984. As a F-14 pilot in the Weapons School program, Scott acted as a stunt double and flew his plane in the 1986 film “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise. For the movie, he buzzed the station’s control tower — an insane maneuver in real life. He also got to flip the bird, so to speak, to a MiG pilot flying alongside his jet. He was shown upside down. (Yes, some tricks of the camera were used, and the rumors are true: a “Top Gun 2” is planned.)
Next up for the Altmans was Monterey and Naval Postgraduate School, with Scott as an F-14D test pilot. Later on, there was an assignment in this area at Naval Air Station Patuxent River — as well as months in the Indian Ocean. At the time, Jill worked for Pacific Southwest Airlines and could readily fly to ports where the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson docked.
After medal-earning missions over Iraq’s no-fly zone in the 1990s, the Navy captain got the call from NASA. He had been rejected two years earlier. At six-foot-four, he was able to become a naval aviator (he was too tall for the Air Force). At the end of his second consideration, he told the NASA interviewers in Houston that his grandmother already thought he was an astronaut. He became one in 1995.
Scott had seen the Apollo 11 lunar landing on live television as a ten-year-old in Pekin, Illinois, next to Peoria. His love of flight was egged on by the “Sky King” TV series. Today, there is an elementary school named after him in Pekin. He was also honored by his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, with a bust of his likeness. And about 10 years ago, he met his hero, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
For her part, Jill — originally from Tucson, Arizona — was happy to hold down the home front, raising three boys and playing her part as an astronaut’s wife during 15 years in Houston, home to the Johnson Space Center.
“NASA took good care of us,” Jill says. She recalls walking past the space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad in Florida. “It was amazing to be that close. You could almost touch the shuttle. Astronaut wives were usually relieved when MECO [main engine cut off] was announced, but Columbia showed us that danger continued throughout the mission.” (Shuttle Columbia burned up in the atmosphere during its descent in February of 2003.)
Her husband — known as Scooter and considered NASA’s tallest astronaut — went on four shuttle missions as pilot or commander, logging more than 40 days in space. His last time up was as commander of Atlantis, STS-125, in May of 2009. It was the last service mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, itself a singular achievement.
During his first time in space, Scott glimpsed his hometown in Illinois. “It was an incredible feeling to look down and see the place where I grew up, where so many of my friends and family still live,” he says. “It was an emotional rush for me that put the whole spaceflight in a human perspective.
“I also felt that way as we flew over the Holy Land. It is amazing to look down on that part of our planet and think of how much impact that land and the people who lived there long ago are still having on us today.
“On my last mission, after having so many struggles with the repairs to Hubble, but finally being able to release the telescope with all our repairs completed, it felt good to set Hubble free to continue its voyage of discovery of our incredible universe.”
In 2010, with the U.S. manned space program on hiatus, Scott retired as an astronaut and the Altmans moved to Georgetown.
Scott works for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. as a vice president in its Engineering and Aerospace Solutions section in Beltsville, Maryland. The firm provides federal services, including those that assist the Orion program, NASA’s next manned project, and works with engineers at the Goddard Space Center. Among her charities, Jill is on the board of directors of the Georgetown Senior Center and the Salvation Army Grate Patrol.
The two are members of St. John’s Church. Scott gave a stirring homily on God, science and faith — with an image from the Hubble Telescope shown above the altar — during a service at St. John’s last year. His faith in God got him through very tough basic training, he says, adding, “It’s hard to imagine an atheist in the cockpit of the space shuttle.”
The Altmans have three grown sons: Daniel, Alexander and Michael. Mom and Dad live on 36th Street with their little white coton named Roxie. Neighbors include Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis, real estate agent Michelle Galler, Robin and Jeff Jones — who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner and an airline pilot — and two 90-year-old nuns. Jack the Bulldog, the sports mascot for Georgetown University, lives across the street. Scott likes that Mike Lackey, whose O Street house is on the tour, also flew F-14s.
While we wonder if Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer will indeed fly again in the movies, we know that Scott Altman would like to return to space. “I’ve had a fun ride,” he says. “I stood on the shoulders of giants. I like to imagine that someone I’ve talked to will become the first person to walk on Mars.”
As participants in the Georgetown House Tour experience on a small scale, the houses, the people, the stories collectively reveal this extraordinary neighborhood in the nation’s capital. One might even say that Scott has taken the ultimate house tour: he has orbited our home planet — with Jill keeping it all together on the good earth.