`The Earth was just rolling by'


Space: Baltimore-born astronaut Tom Jones gives view of the speed, the joy and the `ammonia leak' fear during his time on shuttle Atlantis.

March 05, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The rumbling lurch off the launch pad, the howling race toward orbit, and the view of the Earth as it revolves serenely amid the stars -- none of it lost any magic for astronaut Tom Jones on his fourth journey into space.

On Feb. 8, Jones, 46, was one of five Americans rocketed off the planet aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Their assignment on the 11-day mission was to deliver NASA's $1.4 billion Destiny Laboratory to the International Space Station, and to help the station's Russian/American crew get the lab up and running.

Jones, a Baltimore native, belongs to that exclusive sub- category of astronauts whose members are blessed with both a sense of wonder about traveling into space, and an eagerness to share it with those who will never have the privilege. He took a break recently from two weeks of mission debriefing at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston to talk with The Sun about the highlights of the mission.

The launch looked spectacular from the ground. What was it like from where you sat?

For me it was a lot of old things I'd forgotten coming back in a tremendous rush. There is this rumble and lurch at the main engine start. And when the [solid fuel] boosters lit -- it really rattles your cage.

It only takes about 45 seconds for the shuttle to reach the speed of sound, and the wind rushing past sounds like a bunch of screaming banshees. That was really amazing -- the sense of the power coming through the shuttle's skin as this howl built up.

Was the climb to orbit a smooth one?

There's a real kick in the pants, a sense that someone stamped on the accelerator, after the region of maximum dynamic pressure, when they call a "go" to throttle-up. That was very pronounced.

There's a sense of relief as the solid fuel boosters peel off, and then a nice ride to orbit. There was a steady low rumble from the whole vehicle's resonant vibration, a steady thrumming. That was different. On my previous flights it felt like we were on a smooth, electric track.

It's a satisfying feeling, because you know you're running like a bat out of hell for orbit, as it should be. Then, all of a sudden it's gone, and you're weightless, and it's, "Man, let's get going."

On Feb. 10, you and astronaut Robert Curbeam began the first of three spacewalks. What was it like to step out into the void of space?

Like walking outdoors into a really bright, sunshiny day, and with the same mental uplift. I felt very comfortable coming out and grabbing onto the handholds, because I'd done it hundreds of times [in NASA's training pool].

Your focus zooms in and out. Either you're heavily focused on what you're doing with your fingers, or you can step back and appreciate what you're doing.

You make sure you're tethered and it's safe to take a gander around. You can look at the space station, the orbiter and down to the horizon. You get this sort of emotional choke-up at that point where you say, "Holy smoke! I'm really out here." And for a moment, at least, you can let yourself feel the beauty of it all.

Is the view from your spacesuit different from the view from inside the shuttle?

I tried to compare the two. [In the spacesuit] there's not as much stuff around you, and it's quieter. There's only the noise of your radio headset, and a fan pumping air by your head. Aside from that, there's just the world silently rolling by, in sunlight, or twilight, or inky blackness.

As you worked to attach wiring and cooling lines to the Destiny lab, Curbeam radioed that ammonia had begun leaking from a connector he was working with. How alarmed were you by that?

I looked up from what I was doing. It was dark, and I was looking up into space, and the sun was catching this geyser, and I heard him say, "Hey, I've got a leak."

I thought it would be like a soda pop bottle, or air from a bicycle tire. But I looked up and saw this stream cross the sky and I thought, "This is more serious than his voice gave away."

Both of us regarded the first EVA [extra vehicular activity] as a very tense time, a critical time. ... And one thing had to follow another to get everything activated. This [leak] was a wrench for a couple of reasons. It could have disabled a cooling loop, driving other things off the end of the schedule. There were a dozen electrical connections we hadn't started yet.

While it potentially could have been serious ... there was only a minor loss of ammonia, and the [connector] that leaked was on the side that wasn't going to be used any more. In the end, we had the extra resources [oxygen and electrical power to complete the work].

And you probably were happy for the extra time outside.

In principle, that's true. But it didn't count for any extra looking-around time. By then we were tired. We were both relieved to get back inside and get the suits off. [The suit's] your friend, but it can only be your friend for so long.

What was it like inside the new laboratory?

It was like a brand, spanking-new addition on a house.

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