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Astronauts Show Movies of Mission, Delight NIH Audience

By Suzanne Lewis

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

What's a kid's idea of a fun thing to do on a school night? Perhaps play computer games or watch television? How about talking with real-live astronauts about what it's like to go into space? That's how hundreds of kids, including patients from the Clinical Center and the Children's Inn, spent the evening of Jan. 27 at the Natcher Conference Center. The event was jointly sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and NASA.


More than 800 people — kids from 2 years old to adults in their 70's — enjoyed an evening with four astronauts from the NASA STS-95 Space Shuttle Discovery. The 9-day mission began on Oct. 28, 1998. The astronauts who came to NIH included Pilot Steve Lindsey, Mission Specialist Stephen K. Robinson, Payload Specialist Chiaki Mukai and Payload Specialist John H. Glenn, Jr., former U.S. senator. The other three astronauts who were part of the crew were unable to attend.

Four of the seven STS-95 Space Shuttle Discovery Mission crew talked about their 9-day mission, which began on Oct. 28, 1998. They are (from l): Payload Specialist Chiaki Mukai, Mission Specialist Stephen K. Robinson, Payload Specialist John H. Glenn, Jr., and Pilot Steve Lindsey; NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes (far r) welcomed the astronauts to NIH.

In opening remarks, NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes welcomed the NIH community and NASA representatives. "The presence of the astronauts from the STS-95 mission on the NIH campus is symbolic of the collaboration between NIH and NASA, and our joint interest in science to improve the welfare of the human condition," he said. He introduced the astronauts, who took turns narrating a 15-minute movie of their flight. With a videocamera on board, the astronauts documented their experiences throughout the mission, resulting in a "home movie" that gave the audience a feel for what it's like to travel in a space shuttle.

Lindsey, who has participated in two space missions during his 4 years with NASA, described the rigorous preparations and baseline testing the astronauts endured months before the flight.

He said that the shuttle blast-off required 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and within 1 minute off the ground reached a speed of 200 mph. By 20,000 ft. above the ground, the shuttle reached Mach 1, or the speed of sound. At 150,000 ft. above Earth, and just 2 minutes into the flight, the shuttle was traveling at 16,000 mph, and released the solid rocket boosters. The boosters fell into the ocean, where NASA retrieved them for use on other missions. Within 81/2 minutes after blast-off, the space shuttle was in orbit, and according to the astronauts, the view of the Earth, in shades of blue and white, was breathtaking. "Seeing the beautiful Earth made me very proud to be part of it," said Mukai.

Robinson said he coordinated 83 different experiments during the mission. "Each day we followed a flight plan of experiments and procedures," he reported. "The experiments were performed in the payload bay, our onboard laboratory."

He said the astronauts lived in the nose of Discovery. The astronauts used 20 onboard computers for mission work, and emailed their families back on Earth.

Former Sen. John H. Glenn, Jr., described some of the aging studies in which he participated.

Glenn worked as a "living laboratory." He participated in 10 experiments studying microgravity and age-associated problems. During most of the mission, he was hooked up to monitors that measured 21 different body parameters. He also swallowed a capsule containing a radio transmitter and temperature sensor. Lindsey noted that Glenn returned to space "after a 36-year absence." In 1962, Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in a tiny space capsule that splashed into the ocean upon his return. The senator remarked that the STS-95 shuttle landing on a runway was a different experience altogether.

Mukai, a cardiovascular surgeon and the only woman in the crew, became the first Japanese woman to fly in space in 1994. She is a National Space Development Agency of Japan astronaut, and a visiting scientist at NASA, who conducted many experiments onboard Discovery.

The presentation was followed by a question and answer period. Very young future astronauts in the audience asked questions about how the shuttle works; how to become an astronaut; and what astronauts did for fun. Glenn mesmerized the audience when he explained how he drew water, contained in a plastic bag, through a straw and then removed the straw from the bag. He blew the water out of the straw and it formed a round ball at the end of the straw. When the ball of water was disconnected from the straw, the surface tension of the water kept it together as it was suspended in front of him. To add some pizzazz, he took some grape juice and blew it from a straw into the ball of water, creating a purple ball. As it floated in front of him in the capsule, he opened his mouth and slurped. In a couple of swallows, it was gone. The audience laughed and clapped with approval.

Some children came prepared with a list of questions to ask the astronauts about their mission.

Lindsey said that during the return to Earth, while flying over Baja, Calif., the shuttle speed reached Mach 24. He said the shuttle descended at 20 degrees, which is much steeper than the 3 to 4 degree descent of a commercial aircraft. As the shuttle glided at 2,000 ft. above the ground, the pilot pulled the nose up, and at 300 ft., the landing gear dropped, just a few seconds before touchdown.

Following the program, the children in the audience received mementos from NASA: their choice of a bookmark that contained a piece of the shuttle lining, a photo of the crew, or an STS-95 patch.

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