Astronaut from Essex is about to get his turn in space

March 30, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Tom Jones was a fifth- or sixth-grader at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School in Essex when the two-man Gemini capsules were being launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Fla. His teachers used to wheel a television into class so the students could watch.

On April 7, Thomas D. Jones -- planetary scientist and space shuttle mission specialist -- expects to be blasted into space himself, from the same spaceport. He will join five other astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour on a scientific mission to study air pollution and test new radar mapping equipment.

For Dr. Jones, 39, a graduate of Kenwood High School and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Endeavour mission is the culmination of a dream he has worked for since those days at Mt. Carmel School and Stemmers Run Middle School.

"I started wanting to be astronaut when I was about 10," he said.

His sister, Nancy Oldewurtel, 34, of Essex, remembers him building models, reading about space or drawing airplane and missiles while she was outside playing.

He was a parent's dream -- Boy Scout, altar boy and choir boy, A-student and a varsity letterman in track. But "we always knew that [space] was where he wanted to be," Mrs. Oldewurtel said.

"I was always fairly realistic," Dr. Jones recalled. "I said I would first try to fly, then try to learn a lot of science in college. And if I got to put it all together, that would really be a dream realized."

And in truth, he has never really stopped studying for this adventure, and the last weeks of training, he said, have been like cramming for final exams.

The nine-day flight calls for 460 shuttle maneuvers; radar RTC mapping of 5 percent of the Earth's surface; collection of enough radar data to fill 12,000 compact discs; and up to 14,000 frames of manual photography -- one shot for every 20 seconds the shuttle is over land in daylight.

The photography -- the most extensive ever by U.S. astronauts -- is needed to provide scientists with a visual record of the landforms being scanned by the shuttle's radar for later comparison and calibration of the radar images.

At a final crew press conference in Houston yesterday, flight commander Sidney M. Gutierrez, 42, compared the geographical knowledge crew members have had to acquire with "a bachelor of science [degree] in geography."

Last week, the crew was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, practicing the launch countdown, emergency escapes and landings.

At the Johnson Space Center in Houston this week, they have conducted simulations of the launch and the rocket firings that will return them to Cape Canaveral nine or 10 days later.

Tomorrow, the crew will be placed in medical isolation to ensure they're healthy on launch day. With the aid of intense fluorescent lighting at night and enforced darkness during the day, Dr. Jones and two of his crew mates also will begin shifting their sleep cycles to prepare them for the "night" shift in space.

The launch will take his Baltimore kin -- mother, Rosemarie Jones of Essex; brother, David of White Marsh, and sister, Nancy -- to Florida.

"Mom's driving with us," Mrs. Oldewurtel said. "She won't fly."

"I think my kids [Bryce, 4, and Annie, 7] are really excited," Dr. Jones said. "So is my family in Baltimore. They're all pumped up about seeing a shuttle go off. Liz [his wife, Elizabeth] is nervous about the whole thing, and understandably so."

Ironically, when the countdown reaches zero, Dr. Jones -- a former B-52 pilot -- will have little to do. "I sit in the mid-deck [during launch] and, unfortunately, you don't have any windows. You don't even have computer displays. You're just listening on the intercom as the rest of the crew narrates for you."

The space rookie said "the pilots [on the flight deck] are so intent on the displays, dials and gauges that they're not really looking outside anyway. And you're pointed at the sky, so there's nothing there except the sky changing from blue to black."

It will be 10 minutes into the flight before Dr. Jones will be able to unbuckle and remove his helmet. "Then I'll just pop upstairs and take a look," he said.

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