There are 7.7 billion people on Earth. Only 562 have flown in space, and five of them live in this state. (That’s obviously not counting Spokane-born astronaut Anne McClain, who now lives in Houston).
So, yes, it is a very, very select group.
Three men and two women who live here, ranging in age from 44 to 85, have accumulated more than 2,440 weightless hours, with those flying shuttles hurtling through 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day at 17,500 miles an hour, their eyes seeing the Earth in colors deeper than any photograph can match.
As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches Saturday, they can try to explain what it was like out there, but they acknowledge it’s not quite enough.
“I felt very connected to God and to the grandeur that is beyond what I can describe,” says Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, of Lake Forest Park, who in April 2010 was a flight engineer on a 15-day shuttle trip to resupply the International Space Station. She traveled 6.2 million miles in 238 Earth orbits.
“My brain wanted to rationalize everything, but some things just need to be absorbed and experienced.”
She tried to explain it to her family – “the beauty of the heavens and Earth; the vastness that cannot be shown because photos have edges.” She says, “I’m sure my words fell short.”
Metcalf-Lindenburger, Bill Anders, John Creighton, Gregory C. Johnson and Wendy Lawrence are not philosophy majors you’d expect to contemplate why we are here.
These were individuals with backgrounds in geology, aeronautics, nuclear engineering, ocean engineering or as a test pilot. For some, though, what they felt in space was spiritual.
Says Johnson, of Kent, who in May 2009 piloted a shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, “You can’t look out into the cosmos and not think there is a higher power creating all this.” And, he says, there’s something else. “There’s gotta be somebody else out there.”
Anders, 85, who splits residences between Anacortes and San Diego, was the lunar orbit module pilot for Apollo 8 in December 1968 – the first crewed spacecraft to successfully circle the moon.
It led the way to Apollo 11, and made the journey launched by the powerful Saturn V rocket that had experienced flaws and instrument failures. Apollo 8 originally was to go on a low Earth orbit, but the schedule for the program was pushed ahead after faulty CIA intelligence that the Soviet Union was preparing its own lunar landing mission. There were no mishaps on this journey.
Anders is the one who took the historic “Earthrise” photo – the Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface. Time magazine listed it as among the 100 most influential photos ever.
“In the history of mankind, almost all people thought we were the center of the solar system. We’re hardly the center of anything, except in our own minds,” says Anders.
It actually hadn’t occurred to planners that Apollo 8 was an unprecedented opportunity to look back on Earth. The crew took a lot of photos of the moon’s surface.
But, says Anders, “The moon was battered and ugly, uninteresting. And here was Earth.”
Using a Hasselblad camera with a 250 mm lens, Anders took two color images, varying the exposure, including the historic one. The camera had been modified to include special large locks for the film magazines and levers on the f-stop and distance settings on the lenses, for easier use by astronauts wearing pressurized suits and gloves.
“I’m not a huge environmentalist, but I think that picture basically kick-started the environmental movement,” says Anders.
For him, the picture means, “We ought to treat Earth with care and not as people throwing bombs and rockets at each other.”
On Christmas Eve 1968, Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell sent a message of peace back to Earth. They took turns reading from the book of Genesis. In Anders’ portion: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
He says Borman came up with the idea.
“In those days I was more religious. I thought it was a good choice. The creation story runs through many beliefs, almost all beliefs,” says Anders.
Gonzaga Prep graduate McClain, in a recent interview, said: “The most uncomfortable thing about going to space is coming home. It’s a little strange to get used to gravity again.
“One of the coolest things to me about living in space was it really caused me to think about how the human body and mind can adapt to completely different environments. For me personally, I’ve had 39 solid years of gravity. Then all of a sudden, I get to space and other than maybe some mild nausea on the first day, my body was like, ‘Oh, we’re weightless and we’re still going to function.’
“Coming home I noticed the same thing: It’s amazing what we’re used to. One of the things I’ve noticed most in the last week is, ‘What does it mean for everything to have weight?’ It’s really fun to look at everything with a completely different perspective. Oh my gosh my wristwatch has weight! It’s pulling my arm down!”
Dreams made true
For these astronauts, a common thread is a fascination with space that began in childhood.
Metcalf-Lindenburger is 44 and now works as an environmental geologist on soil and groundwater issues.
She still wears the ring she bought as a 14-year-old that has a crescent moon and a star on it, and that she took with her on the shuttle.
There is the majesty of space, and then there are the less-than-majestic aspects of a space mission.
Metcalf-Lindenburger, like 60% to 70% of astronauts, threw up because of what’s termed “space motion sickness.”
With no sense of up or down, the vestibular system of chambers and canals in our ears that gives us balance “is not getting any signal,” she says. “I was sick for the first few hours in space, and upon my return.”
Something else that some astronauts notice is that space smells a bit metallic. Well, not really space.
“When we bring space walkers back into the airlock, and open the hatch, it smells metallic. This is likely an interaction of our suits and tools going outside and interacting with the sun’s radiation,” she says.
Johnson, 64, a 1972 West Seattle High graduate, had never flown in a plane until he was 17. “My dad was frugal. We took car trips.”
But he saw airplanes when the family picked up somebody arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and he would wonder about how such big objects could fly. That’s how his interest in space began.
Johnson now is senior vice president at the New Shepard suborbital rocket project for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
John Creighton, 76, of Burien, was a pilot on a 1985 shuttle mission, and commander on 1990 and 1991 shuttle missions.
The 1961 Ballard High grad remembers three things that sparked his interest in space.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite. It was about the size of a beach ball.
He remembers climbing on the roof of his family’s house in Ballard about an hour before dusk to try to see Sputnik illuminated by the sun.
And then there was the annual visit of the Blue Angels flight squadron for the hydro races, and the headlines about Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who in April 1961 became the first human to fly into space. He completed one orbit.
Sometimes Creighton talks to schoolkids. “If you want to become an astronaut, don’t let anybody talk you out of it. I’m living proof that dreams come true.”
‘Quite a ride’
What all astronauts remember is the sheer power of liftoff.
The energy released at full power by the three main shuttle engines is equal to that created by 13 Hoover dams, according to NASA.
In a liftoff, says Creighton, “Until you experience it for the first time, you don’t appreciate the tremendous brute force pinning you in the seat, with all the vibration on top of it.”
That would last 2 minutes, 11 seconds, says Creighton, then the solid rocket booster would shut down, and soon after that the bolts holding down the boosters would be blown off, and rockets would ignite that accelerate the shuttle to reach orbit.
“You hear this boom, boom, boom. It only lasts half a second to a second, but it seems longer. It catches you by surprise,” he says.
Briefly, the windscreen is engulfed in flames.
“I describe it as sounding like World War II going on right outside the windows.”
Astronauts can have a dry humor. “It’s quite a ride,” he said, and adds, “built by the lowest bidder.”
Wendy Lawrence, 60, of Ferndale, Whatcom County, flew as a mission specialist on shuttle flights in March 1995, September-October 1997, June 1998 and July-August 2005. She works part time at Space Camp in Alabama and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and is on the advisory board for the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
She was 10, her family living just north of San Diego, and she well remembers Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong taking those first steps on the moon.
“My brother and sister and myself were lying on the floor in front of the TV. I was absolutely mesmerized. It absolutely caught my imagination. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.’ My mom said I actually turned around, looked at the rest of the family, and said that.”
And then there is the first time you’re weightless – not for a few seconds in a simulation, but for real, in space.
“You push off and you somersault across the crew compartment,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence, too, talks about that sense of wonder only astronauts can feel the first time they see Earth from up above.
“In my first launch, the mission commander grabbed me and put my face on the window. ‘Take a look!’,” Lawrence remembers. The photos she had seen didn’t compare to the real thing.
“Our eyes see a much more dynamic range of colors, and there is the vivid 3D effect,” she says. “You can see the clouds over the ocean, and then a thunderstorm much higher.”
One more question
All five astronauts were asked this one question: If world leaders could experience space, would it change them?
Lawrence: “Yes, undoubtedly. You don’t see obvious borders. You see one place. You see Earth in an intensely black space. It looks very small and very fragile. This is our home.”
Creighton: “I’d hope they have more appreciation of what we’re doing to the Earth. I could see with the naked eye the Amazon rainforests, and you were just seeing more and more of the land being destroyed, roads starting to get bigger and bigger.”
Anders: “I hope so. I’ve been so disappointed in the behavior of so-called world leaders these days, I’m not sure what they would do.”
Johnson: “I do. It’d focus us all on working more as a team of humans to take care of the Earth.”
Metcalf-Lindenburger: “Perhaps. If they were thinking like teammates and viewing Earth as their precious spaceship. But I’m not sure it would matter. They are who they are. I don’t see world leaders changed by space.”
That’s three pretty hopeful answers out of five. Given the times we live in, not bad.
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