In 1989, I was selected to pilot the Space Shuttle Atlantis as part of the Galileo mission to send a probe to Jupiter. I had come to NASA in 1984, following Navy service in submarines and nearly 20 years as a naval pilot and test pilot, and had completed several technical assignments related to flight crew support and operations, but this would be my only space flight.
The earlier crowds of coworkers, family, and management had dwindled by the time Commander Donald Williams; mission specialists Shannon Lucid, Franklin Chang-Diaz, and Ellen Baker; and I rode the elevator to the upper reaches of the launch support structure. From hatch level, 195-feet up, I looked south to Port Canaveral, where the nuclear-powered submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) was pierside, preparing to go to sea. My excitement increased as we squeezed into the shuttle, which was to be our home for the next five days.
Liftoff and ascent were beyond imagination. I watched the blue sky turn black and realized we were on our way to space! The vibration and acceleration forces only heightened my exhilaration.
We traveled eastbound, busy transitioning the Atlantis from a payload to a spacecraft. When I finally had time to look out the window and view our planet below, I recognized Borneo, Malaysia, the China seas, Japan, and the Philippines. I had been here before, silently gliding under the huge Pacific in a submarine, but this was wildly different. From space, the ocean is still impressive and the world so big, yet it goes by so fast. With one sweep of my head, I saw Manila and the Philippines far to the south, Taiwan and Hong Kong almost below us, and Mount Fuji and the Tokyo and Yokosuka harbors to the north. I could even see Korea and Russia in the distant north.
It was such a vast panorama that it took time to convince myself it was real. Time, however, was not something I had, for almost before I realized it, these lands were behind us, and we were speeding toward Hawaii. In just a few minutes I found the Big Island, an emerald in the deep blue sea, which I had visited once at a slower, more leisurely pace. Again before I expected it, the West Coast of the United States was in sight. San Diego, the Channel Islands, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina in air so clear the yachts were almost visible; the Los Angeles basin so hazy that only its immense size made the city recognizable. I was pleased and a little surprised to see ship wakes, with spiral and cold core eddies highlighted in the waning sunlight.
Remembering an Earlier Time
While taking in this amazing view, my mind slipped back to an earlier time in my career. It was 1965, I was just out of my teens and in the Navy as a petty officer second class in the weapons department on board the nuclear-powered submarine USS Ulysses S. Grant (SSBN-631). The boat, with its crew packed on board, departed Ford Island and steamed slowly and quietly through the harbor mouth, near the USS Arizona (BB-39). Nearly half a century later, my recollections of this patrol were still vivid.
Westbound, north of the Marshall Islands, we passed near Wake Island and across the Marianas Trench. Although I was not a navigator, I loved to hang out in the Ulysses S. Grant’s navigation spaces, to watch in particular the equipment that mapped the ocean bottom. With a good deal of imagination, I could almost see the terrain over which we were sailing. The ocean bottom has small hills, big mountains, flat fields, and serene valleys. An erupting underwater volcano provided the finishing touch on an already unforgettable experience. I was enthralled!
Outside the Russian port city of Vladivostok, the captain allowed some of us a quick look through the periscope. The twinkling lights of that sleeping Soviet city were as memorable as the boiling black smoke and gray ash emanating from that underwater volcano. It was an exotic experience for someone from rural Tennessee.
Like the Space Shuttle, a submarine is a crowded world: a gym in the bilges of the missile compartment, stacked bunks that often belong to more than one sailor, a galley and crew mess so small that eating is done in shifts. Politeness is required, teamwork a must, and claustrophobia rare. There was plenty of time to work on qualifying or learning about these magnificent boats. I could understand the valves, pumps, switches, generators, accelerometers, and gyroscopes, but it was the integration of the multiple engineering and science disciplines that awed me. Equally awe inspiring was the integration of the American sailor with the complicated hardware and software. A submarine is a living, breathing vehicle, operating in a hostile environment, whose success is tied to both men and machines.
Eventually the patrol ended, and we surfaced at Guam. Once again, fresh vegetables, milk, and fresh air were within our grasp. The air, however, was not so fresh. After more than two months of breathing pollution- and odor-free air, the salt air and the harbor were a shock. A few days later we were winging our way back to Hawaii. A trip that was ten weeks going was ten hours returning.
By rough calculations, using a 10-knot average speed, I estimated we traveled 17,000 nautical miles by sea and another 3,000 or so by air. Certainly this was the longest and most significant journey of my life to that time. “Join the Navy and see the world.”
The Sound of Speed
As the Atlantis orbited away from the East Coast, my sense of deja vu continued. I was accustomed to speed. I raced motorcycles and automobiles, water skied, and had spent several thousand hours in Navy jets. I was familiar with the sound of wind, water, and engines in my ears. However, I was unprepared for the sensation of speed without sound. Having my face against a forward-looking window with the Earth passing silently but oh so rapidly by is a sensation I will never forget.
This speed, orbital velocity, resulted in another peculiar occurrence. The sun rose and set 16 times in our 24-hour day. We circled the Earth every 90 minutes! On earth, our sleep/wake cycles generally are regulated by days and nights. In space, night was only 45 minutes. We solved the problem by covering the shuttle windows and turning off the lights. It worked fine for me; I slept well, with only some mild confusion about where I was when reveille came.
Within 15 minutes of passing the East Coast of the United States, I was looking down on the Mediterranean, but it was not quite like my first visit.
In 1975, as a lieutenant and freshly minted A-6 Intruder pilot, I joined the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), headed to the Mediterranean. Her crew of 5,000 included about 2,500 permanently assigned ship’s company and an equal number in the ten aircraft squadrons that constituted the air wing. We departed the Norfolk Naval Base, with tugboats guiding the 80,000-ton “city at sea” over the Hampton Tunnel, past historic Fort Monroe, and out into the Chesapeake Bay. As we reached the open waters of the Atlantic, the Intruders, Corsairs, Tomcats, Prowlers, Vikings, Hawkeyes, and Crusaders began to land on board what would be their home field for the next seven months.
We had a “bone in our teeth” as we moved east at 15 to 18 knots. The water became blue, and more than a week passed before we next saw land, the Portuguese islands of the Azores. It had been ten days and 4,000 miles when we entered the Strait of Gibraltar. The view was breathtaking as the magnificent Rock and the rocky coasts of northern Morocco and southern Spain passed by. We didn’t fly much during the ocean transit, but we did spend considerable time studying the topography, geography, and political climate of the myriad countries over and around which we would fly for the duration of our Mediterranean cruise. I visited Pisa, climbed the peaceful but active volcano at Mount Etna in Sicily, and flew over the volcano on Stromboli. The sea itself was usually a smooth clear blue, interrupted far too often by the dumped waste and refuse of both ships and cities. No nation was innocent.
The John F. Kennedy was a good ship. We flew frequently and safely, but we suffered a tragedy when a collision with the cruiser Belknap (CG-26) claimed the lives of eight sailors.
Although our daily lives often were hectic, the time sometimes passed so slowly that it seemed as if we were gone for years. If memory serves, we spent just more than 100 days at sea during that trip—around 25,000 miles on yet another significant journey of my life.
Back on the Atlantis
Meanwhile, on board the Atlantis, traveling at more than 25,000 feet per second, I was again astounded at my seemingly unlimited view of Earth. As we crossed the southeastern United States, my gaze was drawn south to Louisiana, then to Pensacola Bay, where I had begun my flying career years before. I could recall my first flights in the T-34 Mentor and my astonishment at how much I could see from 10,000 feet up. Now, at nearly a million feet up, I could easily see from Key West to Washington! Cape Canaveral, Cape Fear, Cape Hatteras, and Kitty Hawk were all within sight. The Chesapeake Bay was there in its magnificent entirety. I had always loved exploring the hundreds of miles of shoreline along its creeks and coves. Now it was wonderful to be able to appreciate its beauty and significance on a much grander scale.
From space, borders seldom show, and the Earth seems peaceful. I wish I could show this to those who fight, who pollute, who burn, who don’t seem to care. I also would like to show it to those who do care, to show them their concerns are worthwhile and valid. Earth appears so alive through its colors but also so fragile.
On board the Atlantis, we conducted an experiment to study the ozone layer, performed several medical experiments, and grew corn shoots to better understand the effects of gravity on plant growth hormones. The purpose of these experiments was to prepare for life on board the International Space Station, long-duration missions to Mars, and beyond. I hope this data also is able to contribute to the protection of our planet and the well-being of our children. After five short days, the Atlantis ended its journey smoothly, silently, and successfully on a dry lakebed in the desert north of Los Angeles. We had traveled almost 2,000,000 miles at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
I have taken a number of journeys in my lifetime. They have always contributed to a better understanding of myself, my limits, and my capabilities. I also usually have come away with an enhanced understanding of my world. This trip was no exception and indeed set a new standard for me. I came away with a renewed dedication to my family, my country, and my planet.