Karl Henize new mountains to climb

In flying STS 51-F, Karl Henize finally realised his dream of making it into space. He also gained the "honour" of becoming the oldest man to get there (until Vance Brand flew in 1990 aged fifty-nine, Story Musgrave in 1996 aged sixty-one, and then John Glenn in 1998 aged seventy-seven). At fifty-eight years of age, Henize would become (and still remains) the oldest rookie to fly into space. Part of his "award" for this achievement was "The Slayton Trophy'', an underarm crutch that was proudly displayed in the Henize household for some years.

Henize was always frustrated that the loss of the Apollo-Saturn hardware deprived America of its heavy lift capability for launching large facilities and space station modules. He was also enthusiastic about re-flying astronomy payloads using the same hardware. "Somehow, we seem to operate so inefficiently. We built these three good telescopes (Spacelab 2) to do good astronomy and once you have spent millions of dollars developing them, you should use them on several missions. But NASA just never realises that. The original plan was to re-fly them, but now we have flown it once, NASA feels that there are other things of a higher priority. But re-flying these experiments is relatively cheap and inexpensive and should bring in lots of good science. I get rather exasperated sometimes the way we (NASA) build good systems, good scientific instruments, then leave them behind and develop new things.''8

In April 1986, with no prospect of a return to orbit, Henize transferred from the Astronaut Office to the Space Science Branch at JSC as a senior scientist, working on space debris. This was a growing problem whose solution, to Henize, was to simply stop littering up space. There is no way, realistically, to go into orbit and clear everything up, and while natural forces will gradually drag debris back into the atmosphere, this can take anything from a year to several centuries, depending on the apogee. The fear (in 1986) was not related to possible damage to the Space Shuttle or even the Space Station, but that the number of tracked items was continually rising. In the early years, a number of spent rocket bodies with propellant on board had a tendency to explode, altering the nature of the risk from a single body to the potentially greater hazard of several hundreds or thousands of small, fast moving pieces. Both the Americans and the Soviets had contributed to this problem and fifty per cent of the items being tracked in the mid-1980s were fragments from exploded rocket parts or military satellite tests.

NASA led the way in ensuring that rocket stages did not explode so frequently once abandoned in orbit by venting all propellants and making sure that the tanks were not adjacent to each other. This practice was soon followed by other space-faring nations in Europe and Japan. The next stage is simply not to leave spent rocket stages in space, by de-orbiting them - something still not accomplished some twenty years after Henize was working on the problem. According to Henize, "Anyone who flies in space ought to be concerned about limiting the amount of junk that's up there.'' He was working on a computer tracking system to address the problem and indicated that there were plans to fly a telescope on the Shuttle that would get close up to space debris, to determine exactly how much of the small-diameter items that could not be tracked using ground-based systems was up there.

Karl Henize proudly displays a model of the Spacelab 2 payload at his home in Nassau Bay in Texas during August 1988. [Credit Astro Info Service.]

With regard to astronomy on ISS, Henize pointed out that the Shuttle debris telescope could be adapted to fly on ISS, but that "serious astronomers" were more committed to flying astronomical instruments on unmanned spacecraft. This was mainly because the size of telescope required to keep up with the state-of-the-art in astronomy would be seriously compromised by the contaminations or vibrations of a crewed vehicle. However, the idea of man-tended activities such as the Hubble servicing missions appealed to Henize.

Henize had developed his skills as a satellite tracker in the mid-1950s, identifying likely sites around the world that could be used to track satellites well before any had actually been launched. This certainly helped in his new role. One day, he read an article in Popular Mechanics magazine which stated that the USAF was still tracking the glove seen floating out of the Gemini 4 capsule during the EVA by Ed White in June 1965. Henize contacted the editor, pointing out that such a small object would have re-entered years before. The Air Force investigated the claim, which ironically was referred back to Henize himself at JSC, as he was deemed to be the best authority in such matters! A retraction was printed in the magazine some time later.9

Henize was an avid mountaineer and had climbed Mount Rainier in Washington State in 1991. In early 1993, he was invited to join a British expedition to climb Mount Everest. In mid-September, Henize travelled to Tibet to join the expedition, which planned to ascend the north face of Earth's tallest mountain. During his second day after reaching the advanced base camp (6,700 m or 22,000 feet), Henize developed signs of extreme high altitude sickness. Despite the valiant efforts of the other members of the team to save him, they could not get him down from the mountain in time. He died of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) at 5,500 m (18,000 feet) at 1: 00 a.m. on 5 October, just twelve days short of his sixty-seventh birthday. He was buried nearby above the Changste Glacier. It was three-and-a-half days before news of the tragedy arrived back at the Henize home. On 16 October 1993, a memorial was held in his honour at JSC. Though he never flew in space again after STS 51-F, he rests at perhaps the highest cemetery on Earth, forever close to his beloved space frontier.

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