Former shuttle astronaut gives down-to-earth details

Bluford helps Pratt mark 30th anniversary of first moon landing

July 18, 1999|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

The first African-American in space remembers every detail of his maiden voyage: riding through the rain after midnight to the launch pad, batting away those oversize Florida mosquitoes and strapping himself into the space shuttle. Then the blastoff, and within two minutes, he is on a noisy, bumpy ride, roaring into the sky at three times the speed of sound.

"It's a fabulous vehicle, American-made," said Guion S. Bluford Jr., who flew four shuttle missions from 1983 to 1992.

Bluford spoke to a packed auditorium of about 200 people yesterday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, as part of its celebration of the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was 30 years ago Tuesday. Older Baltimoreans who recall watching those first television images of Neil Armstrong came to see and hear an astronaut. And there were plenty of children looking up at Bluford and listening.

He didn't disappoint. Talking easily and making jokes, the 56-year-old veteran got down to the nitty-gritty of space travel -- from how NASA selected him from a pool of 10,000 applicants, to sleeping while floating upside down, to how to go to the bathroom on a vehicle with zero gravity.

On slurping down drinks: "If you don't put a cap on top of the straw, bubbles of orange juice start floating about the cockpit and it's a mess. That's a rookie astronaut mistake."

On re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, dropping from a speed of 18,000 mph to a gentle 200 mph: "You see flames out the front window. You're saying to yourself, `I hope those engineers got good grades in their thermodynamics classes; otherwise I may be a crispy critter.' "

At one point, a little girl stood up and asked, "How do you go to the bathroom?"

Bluford took a deep breath, said that astronauts had to take a class on the subject, and finally answered: "You have to strap yourself to the toilet seat."

Showing slides, Bluford explained how the shuttle circles the Earth every 90 minutes. He highlighted the power packs that astronauts can mount on their backs to help them move about outside the shuttle. But if the astronauts are untethered, one false step could send astronauts floating off into space.

Bluford's casual manner belied his years of work and discipline.

A Philadelphia native who grew up fascinated by things that fly, Bluford was considered an average student. High school counselors even told his parents to direct the shy Eagle Scout away from college, to a vocational career such as carpentry.

But he won admission to Penn State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. Eventually, he received three advanced degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering. He was in the Air Force for 29 years, including four as a tactical fighter pilot in Vietnam. Today he lives in Ohio, overseeing part of an information technology and engineering services company, Federal Data Corp. of Bethesda.

When a girl asked Bluford how he prepared himself mentally for his work, he told her and the other children at the talk that they should go into a field that they are interested in, that they love.

"I did it well because I stuck to it," Bluford said. "I had a clear idea, and I worked on it every day."

The library's presentation yesterday also featured Stan Lebar, the man who oversaw the creation of the lunar camera used by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Lebar led a team of 75 Westinghouse Electric engineers and technicians, as well as more than 300 manufacturers, who worked for five years to develop the camera. They had to design, manufacture and shrink nearly every component to turn a 400-pound studio camera into a 7-pound unit that astronauts could use.

Those live images of Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon revolutionized television news. Instead of having to lug film back to the studio to be developed, photographers could simply broadcast images from the field.

For the library's exhibit, the Johnson and Goddard Space Flight Centers lent the Pratt spacesuits and photographs from space missions. A limited showing of a moon rock will be open from Aug. 3 through Aug. 19.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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