Memories from orbit

Memories of vivid events in one's life can remain with you forever and this has to be true for a flight into space. After being selected to fly at a time of pioneering the exploration of space, struggling to be accepted as competent astronauts, waiting long years to fly and proving their worth on more than one occasion, what remains for the scientist-astronauts as their overriding memory of their participation or contribution in man's greatest adventure?

For Bill Thornton, it was the work he did on SMEAT and Skylab that was most rewarding in the early years, along with the achievement of making it to orbit. "Just getting there with my lab on STS-8 was the highest point... just making it. It was not that I did not want to look out the window - there were some memorable scenes during the brief time I had - but being there and being able to make the measurements, in particular with the tools I developed myself, were for me another high point.'' He said he had learned more in one orbit than in all the years of research on the ground combined. Asked if there was a high point for him on 51-B, Thornton replied, "Yep. I got to look out the window a lot more on 51-B.''

His greatest disappointment during his years in the CB was the inability to work with the Life Sciences Group. "It was a constant confrontation, and I would be the first to step up and say that it was understandable and predictable. I now know that they believed firmly in what they were doing, as I believed in what I was doing, and they believed I had no business doing it. This is still true today. So my greatest disappointment was not being able to work with them in a meaningful way. It was a constant confrontation, for which I will accept more than my share of the blame.'' Bill Lenoir's most memorable impression on his first and only flight was his first look out of the window at the Earth. "I could say, hey, the guys who drew the maps did it right!" Asked about his personal contributions to the space programme, he answered the question in two ways: "As an administrator, working at Headquarters, it was getting the Space Shuttle under cost control... [and] under schedule control so we flew when we said we would. As an astronaut, it was developing the flight engineer role, developing the deployment procedures for satellites and putting together the whole aspect of how we performed EVAs from the Shuttle.''

For England, it was the Apollo era that gave him the greatest satisfaction in his first term at NASA, and his only space flight during his second term. "It's fun to tell people that I was the crewman in the Apollo 13 movie who went away and worked on the lithium-hydroxide canisters. It makes a nice story. But I think the science we did on Apollo 16 was probably better because I was involved in it. Not that somebody else couldn't have done as well, but I know that even the choice of the landing site and some of the experiments - the way we approached the experiments -1 had an influence in, so I am very happy with that involvement. For Spacelab 2, I felt I made a contribution and, given the situation, we got as much out of the mission as we could have, so I am happy with those experiences." For England, as with others, a most particular joy was the view of the Earth from orbit. ''I had spent a couple of seasons in Antarctica, and we were in high-inclination orbit so we could see over Antarctica. The southern aurora was active at the time, so you could see the green curtain and the waves in the curtain, which you can't see from the surface of the Earth. While we were up there, the annual meteor showers were going on, so while I watched the southern aurora, I could see shooting stars below. That was a scene that was otherworldly.'' As for going to NASA and coming back a second time, he felt, ''That was not the wisest thing to do for a science career, but I do not regret it at all. The benefit for me was the adventure and it was well worth the cost.''

Owen Garriott commented that the most rewarding thing for him was the long-duration flight of fifty-nine days on Skylab, demonstrating ''that you can indeed live and work and conduct very good science in space. Though we take that for granted now, in 1973 that was not an accepted fact, so the science that was done and the demonstrations that were made of the ability to live and work in space were the contributions that were the most satisfying to me.''12

Story Musgrave, the final scientist-astronaut to leave the CB, who flew six missions on the Shuttle over a period of thirteen years during a thirty-year career at NASA, very much lived the dream: ''The spirit of it, over thirty years, was my calling, and I did pretty much the best I could every minute. I had the passion for it and I did make a difference. Some people were sad to see me go because they knew that some of the spirit and the passion would go.''13

And indeed, some of it has. The NASA these men joined in the mid-1960s was an agency with the spirit and passion to reach for the Moon and beyond, to believe in the impossible and make it happen. The NASA of today is, naturally, very different, operating in a different era. The commitment is certainly there, but the spirit and the passion has been knocked a few times. One can only hope that with the Vision of Exploration announced by President George W. Bush, that same passion will once again make NASA reach for the impossible and make dreams a reality. In a way, they have done that with ISS. In the 1970s, the idea of a large space station was a far-off dream. In the 1980s, it became a Presidential objective, but in the 1990s, it almost became an embarrassment. In the first decades of the new century, it is ISS that will carry mankind forward towards new dreams and goals. The role of a scientist on that station, or indeed as part of any exploration crew, will be an enduring legacy of the NASA Scientist-Astronauts, Classes of 1965 and 1967.

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