Earth: 'It's like God took a paintbrush'

May 02, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

As astronaut Tom Jones awaited his thunderous ride into orbit on April 9, he stood on the launch tower 200 feet above the Florida marshes. Next to him, the shuttle Endeavour was poised for its pre-dawn launch.

"You can look over the rail at this beautiful machine sitting there bathed in lights," he said, "with steam rising from the cryogenic fuel being pumped into the tanks and the wind whipping by. . . . It's a very gorgeous, almost religious sight.

"I thought, 'I can't understand how we got smart enough to build a machine like this,' " the Essex-raised astronaut continued. "Clearly a larger hand was at work. It was divinely inspired."

A week after returning from his 11-day mission, Dr. Jones vividly described his first trip into space in a telephone interview with The Sun.

The 39-year-old pilot and planetary scientist said the scientific part of Endeavour's mission measuring atmospheric pollution and testing new radar gear to map the Earth was a success. But mostly, Dr. Jones spoke -- sometimes rhapsodically -- about his wonder at flying in space, a dream he has nurtured since boyhood.

Dr. Jones is an Air Force Academy graduate, a former B-52 pilot and holds a doctorate in planetary science. But during his launch April 9, he had little to do except listen to the radio chatter between Cmdr. Sidney Gutierrez, Pilot Kevin P. Chilton and their ground controllers.

'Go! Go! Go!'

Minutes before liftoff, he said, "there was a spine-shivering experience when they polled the launch team, and everybody was chiming in with 'Go! Go! Go!' There was sort of a crescendo building.

"At six seconds [to launch] the command goes out to start up the [main] engines," he said. Their sound is "high-pitched, like a jet engine scream that comes through the floorboards. You know that at 'zero,' they're going to blow the bolts [that hold the shuttle down] and light the solid [fuel] rocket motors."

As the shuttle leaped from the pad, "there was this tremendous whipsaw back and forth, left and right as well as upward." He compared the jolting to a prolonged "panic stop" in a car. It made him five seconds late punching a stopwatch -- his only chore at liftoff.

The first two lurching minutes of the ride were "very rattly," Dr. Jones said. It's not loud, he said, "more like a subway train rumble. I could see my crew-mate, Linda M. Godwin, across the compartment shaking in her seat. And you're very aware that 20 feet away the solid motors are burning."

Those powerful rockets can't be turned off, and a failure in one triggered the fatal explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986.

After the rising spacecraft passes its worst aerodynamic jostling, its engines speed up.

"You can definitely feel the engines sort of being floored," Dr. Jones said. Separation of the solid fuel rockets shortly after that "feels like a big metallic baseball bat, like 'Bong!' . . . and they're gone."

Flying on the main engines alone, Dr. Jones said, was "so smooth, it was as if you were on an electric train . . . without any air noise. You just feel it through your feet."

Burning fuel from its big external tank, the shuttle gets lighter and accelerates. Crew members are pressed into their seats with three times the force of gravity until the engines throttle back, then stop.

'You're really here'

"And boom, you're weightless," he said. "I took a glove off and let it float in front of my face just to verify it. And once you get out of your chair, you're floating. It's the same sensation as bobbing in water. I had sort of a big grin for a minute and said to myself, 'Hey! You're really here.' "

Like about half of all space travelers, Dr. Jones had an "unsettled stomach" for several hours and lost his appetite for a time while first weightless. He declined to say whether he took medicine to control his symptoms.

His first view of outer space came about 30 minutes after reaching orbit, when he peered out of a small hatch window. It was night.

"You could just see the blue band of the atmosphere over the dark Earth. It was like something out of a science fiction movie."

Dr. Jones would see more from the flight deck upstairs, with 10 windows in all looking out toward the front, rear and through the cockpit ceiling. The best views were at the commander's windshield.

He found that if he floated with his stomach toward the ceiling, and his feet hooked onto the pilot's headrest, he could place his face in the window as if he were looking down from the gondola of a dirigible. Weightless, he was comfortable, "and it's a spectacular view."

He was captivated by the clouds.

"There were huge groups of thunderstorms over the tropics," he said. From the shuttle's unusually low orbit 137 miles up, "you could almost reach out and touch them. You could watch lightning rippling up and down the storms across hundreds of miles as if the storms were talking to each other. The big storms are a lot more connected that we realize from the ground."

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