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September/October 2019

Liftoff: Vietnam Veteran Guy Bluford in Space

In the last issue of The VVA Veteran Hector Ramos dreamt of space travel from atop a watchtower in Vietnam. In this issue, Vietnam War veteran and astronaut Guion S. Bluford talks about the real thing. Between 1983 and 1992, Guy Bluford flew four missions for a total of 688 hours in space. At the 2013 National Convention in Jacksonville, Fla., he received the VVA Excellence in the Sciences Award (see “Guy Bluford: Fighter Pilot, Astronaut, Aeronautic Consultant” in the September/October 2013 issue). Here he talks about his initial 1983 launch into space aboard the Challenger.


Photo: NASA“Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Liftoff—Liftoff of STS-8 on the first night launch of the Space Shuttle.” With these words from Mission Control, I began my first adventure into space.

It was dark at 2:30 a.m. But as the solid rocket boosters ignited and the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off, the night sky seemed to turn into day. The two rocket boosters and three shuttle engines thrust us upward. Inside the shuttle, we were hanging upside down, being bounced around in what felt like a fast and noisy elevator. No wonder it sounded so loud and felt so fast. In just two minutes, we were traveling three times the speed of sound and already were twenty-two miles above the ground. It takes a passenger airplane more than ten minutes just to reach five miles above ground.

Photo: NASAAbruptly, the ride became smooth and quiet as the shuttle released the solid rocket boosters, and we surged forward to 18,000 miles an hour on the three main engines. As the engines propelled us further into orbit, we were pressed against our seats with the force of three G’s—three times our body weight on earth.

We certainly couldn’t move around much under all that pressure. But I could move my head enough to look out the window. We were hurtling across the Atlantic Ocean just in time to see the sun peek out from behind the earth and light up the African continent with the rays of dawn. In a wide arc, the sun touched down on the tan of the deserts and the greens of the grasslands and the forests. This was a unique and spectacular view.

Once at our final altitude of 180 miles above Earth and cruising at 18,000 miles per hour, we shut off the engines and jettisoned the main engines’ fuel tank. To reach our final orbit, we flew halfway around the earth and then lit two small shuttle engines for two minutes. This put us in our final orbit. We had made it.

Photo: NASA

Unstrapping my seatbelt, I coasted through the shuttle compartment. In orbit, there is no gravity, so people and objects have no weight and are free to float. You have to tie things down or fasten equipment to the walls and ceilings with Velcro to keep them from floating away. In orbit, everything has Velcro.

This was my first time in Zero-G (zero gravity), and it was a strange and delightful experience. I found myself bobbing around the cockpit like a beach ball floating on the water. I felt clumsy at first, and it took me a little while to learn to float where I wanted to go. All you need to do is to push very gently off the walls and ceilings. Since you can float comfortably around the shuttle, you don’t have to wear your helmets or boots—just thick socks to keep your toes warm.

In space, some things are the same as on Earth. We ate three times a day and had a bedtime. But we went about eating and sleeping much differently than we do here on Earth.

Since the shuttle had no refrigerator, all of our food was freeze-dried, meaning dry and without water. In order to eat the food, we opened the vacuum-sealed packages, added water, and sometimes heated them in a little stove. We even had to add water to our drinks. When the food was ready to eat, we had to make sure that nothing floated away. We strapped ourselves in and Velcroed our food trays down, then dug in with a regular fork or spoon. The water added to the food makes it sticky enough that it won’t float away.

Photo: NASA

Millions of Stars and City Lights

Sleeping on the shuttle was different, too. Since you’re orbiting the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour, the sun rises every ninety minutes. That means that it’s night for forty-five minutes, then day for forty-five minutes, then night again, and so on. You certainly don’t sleep every time it’s night on the shuttle. Instead, you sleep after you’ve been awake for about sixteen hours. You slip on eyeshades to block out the sunrises and slide into sleeping bags that are Velcroed to the wall, or even the ceiling. In space, you don’t need cushioning for your back or head. Zero-G is really comfortable.

While in space, we had to deploy a weather and communications satellite for India, INSAT-1B. We had carried the satellite into orbit with us, and we needed to set it into its own proper orbit. We had to go through a lot of procedures before we could finally open the cargo bay and release the satellite. After we were a safe distance away, the satellite’s boosters propelled it to its orbit at 22,000 miles above the earth. It was ready to help India communicate. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on my duties because it was my first time seeing such beautiful views of Earth. When we were flying upside down, we could peer through the shuttle’s large windows over thousand-mile stretches of the Earth.

From space, the horizon doesn’t look flat, but curves in a gentle arc. You can see the slopes of mountains, the stretches of fields and cities, the vastness of the oceans. Swirling above the earth are great mats of clouds, like comforters over a bed. With a pair of binoculars, you can see the Great Wall of China and other man-made features. When passing through night, you can clearly see the dots of millions of stars above and of city lights below. Everything is vast and impressive.

After six days in orbit, the time came to return home. Again, we put on our protective space suits and helmets and made the final preparations to return to Earth. We flew backward through space, and then forward through the Earth’s atmosphere. We descended in a fast, fiery glow. In a smooth, quiet arc, we passed Australia, then Hawaii, then Southern California, as we fell toward the Earth. Gracefully we slowed down to just below the speed of sound as we neared our destination at Edwards Air Force Base in California. After one pass over the top of the base, we curved around to make our final descent. Although the shuttle has no lights, we were guided safely to the ground by the lights along the sides of the runway. We touched down gently at 12:45 a.m. We had just completed the first night landing of a space shuttle. As we disembarked, I knew that I wanted to fly again.

Soaring far above Earth makes you realize how precious our planet is. From up there, the Earth looks like a small blue marble in space. You don’t see any divisions of peoples and nations. What we did see was pollution from the burning of the forests in the Amazon and—on a later flight—the Kuwaiti oil fires (during the Gulf War in 1991). It made us realize how important it is that we all take care of our planet.

We, as its inhabitants, as one people of God, must share this planet together and act in the best interest of all who live here. We must be good neighbors for those we share this planet with, as well as for future generations.

The original version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2002, issue of The Christian Science Sentinel ©2002 The Christian Science Publishing Society. It appears with permission.





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