Astronaut finds blastoff almost ho-hum

December 24, 1990|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Evening Sun Staff

Astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance thought he would be excited and nervous when the space shuttle Columbia blasted off Dec. 2, but when the actual time came after many rehearsals and false starts the thrill wasn't quite there.

"I think that we had done it so many times, that when the time finally came, I just felt 'Oh well, here it goes,' " Durrance said.

At a news conference yesterday at Johns Hopkins University, where he works as a research scientist, Durrance, 47, and his wife, Becky, 38, talked about his 9-day Astro-1 mission and the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescopes.

Durrance also showed crisp, colorful slides of outer space.

"It's good to be back," he said. "It's been a long, winding road. I can honestly say it was worth it."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration ordered the shuttle to return Dec. 11, one day early, because of a threatening storm front approaching the unpaved desert landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

L The day the shuttle lifted off, Durrance's family was there.

His son, Benjamin, 8, was the only family member who had uneasy feelings about his father's safety, Becky Durrance said.

"He was afraid for Sam, but once the shuttle got off the ground, he turned to me and said, 'Daddy's safe now isn't he, Mom?' "

In January 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies above Cape Canaveral, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The explosion and shuttle fuel leaks delayed Durrance's flight for 4 1/2 years.

Yesterday, Samuel Durrance said the $150 million mission was a success, despite the observation time lost because of problems with the system that aims the observatory's three ultraviolet telescopes, despite the failure of two flight deck computer terminals that direct the telescopes, and despite clogged plumbing.

"The scientific data are going to be a major success," he said.

From among the slides he selected from 5,000 or so collected, Durrance showed a colorful photo of the Hopkins white telescope in front of the Earth.

While orbiting the Earth, Durrance, the payload specialist, and .. six other astronauts looked at the stars, galaxies and planets. He said the crew made about 130 "targets," or space observations, as they star-gazed about 200 miles above Earth.

While on "Mission Elapsed Time," he said, he operated the telescope for 12 hours.

"I guess the thing that surprises me was what the Earth looks like at night," Durrance said.

Because the night allowed for clearer observations, Durrance said, they could see, for example, city lights and the entire West Coast of the United States, among other things.

"Watching the United States floating by at night was really neat," Durrance said. "It took about 10 minutes for the whole U.S. to go by.

"You can see there's a chemical reaction at night. A real thin layer of light in the very top of the atmosphere."

The astronauts also could view internal structures of oceans.

Durrance said he learned each continent had its own superficial and distinct color. For instance, South America had a brownish color; Africa a dark color and Australia a red one.

In slides of South America, there was a colorful still photograph of a rugged brown surface and an emerald blue spot, indicating a lake. The destruction of large rain forest areas could be seen, he said.

"The sunsets were indescribable," Durrance said. "It sort of spreads out the different colors of space."

He showed slides of water bubbles that floated in the shuttle because of a lack of gravity.

"They're pretty neat," Durrance said.

The trip into space had an effect on Durrance's body.

He said weightlessness placed the seven astronauts in peculiar and "provocative" positions.

Also, he said, he grew an inch in space. He said zero gravity causes people to stretch. Most astronauts averaged an inch and a half of "growth" and one man grew 2 inches, he said.

"I almost made it to 6 feet," said Durrance, who topped out at 5 feet, 11 7/8 inches.

However, as soon as Durrance returned to Earth, he returned to his normal height.

On his first night in space, Durrance said, he took a sleeping pill, thinking he would have trouble sleeping, but "I slept like a log the whole time."

In an interview after the news conference, he said that sometimes when he slept he saw flashes of light in his eyeballs because of the high radiation environment.

For enjoyment, Durrance said, he listened to classical music and Bonnie Raitt tapes on his portable headphones.

As he worked in space, his family coped with his absence on Earth, Becky Durrance said.

"It was extremely stressful," she said. "It was sort of being a single parent," but harder.

However, the difference was that a single parent often doesn't yearn or have strong emotions for the absent parent to return, she said.

Becky Durrance said she had heard stories from other astronaut wives that it would be difficult.

She was forced to be both mother and father to Benjamin and Susan, 5.

While his father was away, Benjamin became angry, often venting his anger on Becky Durrance, she said.

Now that the excitement of the flight has had time to settle a bit, the family plans to spend a quiet Christmas together. But the meaning of the flight remains with Sam Durrance.

"I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to do this," he said.

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