First female to walk in space awes crowd at Community Center presentation

First female to walk in space awes crowd at Community Center presentation

■ BY SUSAN ERWIN

Retired NASA astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan explained to a curious crowd at the Boca Grande Community Center on Wednesday, December 11 her perception of what liftoff into space felt like traveling at nearly 18,000 miles per hour.

“It was like being in an earthquake and being inside of a fighter jet at the same time,” Sullivan said.

As the first American woman to walk in space, coupled with her experience as part of the team that launched, rescued, repaired, and maintained the Hubble Space Telescope, she recalls being thrown to the media with colleague astronaut Sally Ride because it was a very juicy story. 

“They’d seen astronauts before – just none who looked like us with our 1980s hair and makeup,” she said. “We were doing interviews from noon well into the evening news hour.”

She said training to become an astronaut was like going through a super-condensed, intensive program where students studied any and every engineering aspect that would possibly have a bearing on space flight or being in space.

“We trained for a year in engineering, space flight physiology, solar physics, meteorology and system design – it didn’t matter what our backgrounds were, we were all going through it together, and we learned from each other.” 

She was assigned her first mission in 1983 for a seven-day flight in October of 1984.

She said that during countdown, astronauts have a whole team of people working with them on the mission, but they also know they could be moving rapidly toward becoming chopped liver. Audience members chuckled at her jest.

She was assigned to another mission the following year. She trained for hundreds of hours with fellow astronauts in simulation diver tanks at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on the space telescope. The assignment was to try to repair and solve all problems with existing tools before the next mission.

“We had to be sure that any tool we might need to use in space was on the flight that we delivered to orbit.”

Astronauts worked to create platforms that would anchor their feet and weight to parts of the telescope.

“When you’re in zero gravity and you’re trying to turn a bolt with a wrench, that bolt isn’t going to move – you are.”

Deployed in 1990 and orbiting 340 miles above the Earth’s surface, the Hubble Space Telescope’s debut was delayed when it was discovered the optical mirror did not work due to a dimensional miscalculation. 

“It was off by 1/50 of a human hair,” Sullivan said. “It was an unthinkable error. Congress and the media erupted in outrage.”

Dedicated astronauts pushed forward and fought to save the telescope over the course of five grueling service missions. The error was eventually fixed using optical correction mirrors.

“In the years since this fix, every scientific instrument on Hubble has been upgraded or replaced with an improved version, so the images today look even better and sharper still,” Sullivan said. “It’s a vastly improved machine since it was first deployed.”

Sullivan said the Hubble Space Telescope has revolutionized our understanding of the universe, revealing thousands of galaxies in what seemed to be empty patches of sky, transforming our knowledge of black holes and revealing dwarf planets with moons orbiting around other stars. Because in-flight repair was designed for maintainability and upgrade, NASA scientists were able to fix serious defects in the Hubble’s mirrors – leaving literal and metaphorical “handprints on Hubble” – which prompted the name for the book.

The Hubble Space Telescope should continue to work through 2025, but scientists and engineers are already working on the next generation of a space telescope using newer technologies.

“Once it comes down, it will never return to space; it will go directly to The Smithsonian Museum.”

When asked what advice she has for young people pursuing a passion, she replied: “Be adventurous. No one has the right to edit your curiosity.”

 

‘How much fuel does it take to get into space?’
This question and others answered when it was The Island School’s turn to meet Dr. Sullivan

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

Some people stand out in a crowd, and for all different reasons. Some draw attention for their looks, some for their charisma … and some for their heart. Bobbi Sue Burton is one who most people would say falls into all three categories, but her heart is bigger than all of Southwest Florida.

A multitude of hands shot up in the air when Dr. Kathryn Sullivan finished her presentation at The Island School on Wednesday morning, Dec. 11 and asked if there were any questions.

Any questions? Are you kidding?

While the adult lecture in the afternoon focused on political topics regarding space travel and more technical aspects of space travel, she had a lot of fun that morning talking to the kids and explaining the basic science of what it’s like in zero gravity.

Surface tension was a topic that was explored more than once, and Sullivan promised them an experiment they could do in the classroom that would help them understand. 

The questions asked were not as basic as one would think. When Sullivan asked how long they thought it would take to get from the launch pad in Florida to England during space travel, the first student to raise their hand almost got it right – eight-and-a-half minutes.

When one student asked why the blood didn’t rush to an astronaut’s head that was pictured sleeping strapped to the wall upside down, she explained that because of a lack of gravity the way blood flows in a human body changes, as does the shape of one’s heart and their height.

PHOTOS BY SHANA PERRY

It was an amazing hour for all who attended, and we thank Dr. Sullivan very much for her time.