Shuttle trip sent Johns Hopkins astronomer's spirit soaring

December 24, 1990|By S. M. Khalid

Johns Hopkins University astronomer Sam Durrance had to wait nearly five years for a ride on the space shuttle Columbia, but he said yesterday that the nine-day journey to the stars this month was truly out of this world.

"It's great to be back," Dr. Durrance said at a news conference on the Hopkins Homewood campus. "And I can honestly say that this was worth it. It was all that it was cracked up to be and more. . . . I will carry it with me forever."

It also appeared to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, based on comments by Dr. Durrance's wife, Becky, who unofficially announced his retirement from space travel and talked about what it meant to her and the couple's two children, Benjamin, 8, and Susan, 5.

"They're happy to have daddy home," said Mrs. Durrance. "They're excited. My daughter hasn't let him out of her sight for a minute. She follows him around everywhere."

Using the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope and other instruments aboard Columbia, Dr. Durrance and his six crew members generated voluminous data measuring ultraviolet rays and X-rays from stars, galaxies, quasars, comets, planets, asteroids and supernovas that cannot penetrate Earth's atmosphere.

He called the mission a "major success," despite the loss of observation time because of problems with the telescopes and a weather-induced return to Earth a day earlier than planned.

"I hope the legacy of my trip is scientific," said Dr. Durrance. "The observations, despite the delay of the launch, are still state-of-the-art. Nothing has come along to eclipse it. The

observations and data are more exciting than we thought."

To underscore his extraordinary experience, Dr. Durrance showed a few of the 5,000 slides he took during the Astro-1 mission, including some breathtaking photos of Earth.

The photo subjects ranged from the shifting sands of southern Africa's Namib desert to aerial evidence of deforestation along South America's Orinoco River.

Dr. Durrance said that during the observation of Earth the continents all displayed distinct colors that distinguished one from another.

He said he was surprised at how Earth looks from space and described how he was able to see the lights of major cities on the West Coast, which helped him track the geography of the revolving planet.

Dr. Durrance noted that the logistics of weightlessness spawned a sort of "space etiquette" among the crew members as they floated inside the cramped shuttle cabin performing their tasks -- or toying with water bubbles.

Mrs. Durrance said that she and her children feared for Dr. Durrance's life, especially in the wake of the January 1986 Challenger tragedy, which killed seven astronauts the family had known well.

She said it took more than a year for her to come to grips with the tragedy and the idea of her husband's going on another shuttle, but added that it took more than three years before their son would even discuss Dr. Durrance's trip into space.

"The kids were afraid before the liftoff," said Mrs. Durrance. "My daughter asked me after liftoff if Daddy was safer now. I said, 'Daddy is safer now.' After a couple of days of Daddy up in space, the kids settled down. To them, it was like, 'Daddy's up in space. That's his job.' "

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