The Need to Explore

Former astronaut Capt. Kent Rominger had a not-so-rosy view of America’s crewed space program as it now stands: “The truth is, as a nation we’re in limbo.”
Speaking in Clark Planetarium before hundreds, most of them youngsters, Rominger was answering a question from the audience about what will replace the space shuttle. “We really don’t know,” he added. “Up until a year ago there was a program called Constellation,” designed to take humans to the moon and eventually Mars.

[Former astronaut, now ATK official, Kent V. Rominger speaking Saturday in Clark Planetarium at the Gateway. Photo by Cory Bauman]

He said Constellation would have used two rockets, a lighter vehicle to lift crews to space (Ares I) and a more powerful workhorse (Ares V) to carry heavy payloads. Boosters used in the soon-to-end shuttle program are built by ATK in Utah, as the solid rocket motors for Constellation were to be.
But Constellation was cancelled by the Obama administration, and at least for the immediate future, American astronauts visiting the International Space Station will be paying passengers aboard Russian Soyuz space capsules.
Rominger spoke Saturday afternoon to introduce the IMAX film “Hubble 3D.” A retired Navy test pilot, he has flown space shuttles five times — aboard Columbia in 1995 and 1996, Discovery in 1997 and 1999, and Endeavour in 2001. Today he is vice president for strategy and business development for ATK’s space launch systems.
He outlined Constellation’s program, as adopted earlier by NASA. “The plan was to put an outpost on the moon, figure out how to live on a different planet, and then go to Mars.” As a test pilot, he learned that the way to make progress is to start with an easier goal — such as sending crews to the moon, which was first accomplished in 1969 — and work up.
“Now the vehicle carrying humans has been cancelled,” Rominger said. Still, other proposals are being studied, including one by ATK. “There are actually some good options out there.”
There is no question that a heavy-lift vehicle is needed, he said.
“We want to go to Mars. We need to explore, and the best way is to go to the moon first.”
Rominger related some of his impressions of trips into space, including unusual situations:
*** Seth Jarvis, the planetarium director, asked about reports that the International Space Station is noisy. “Early on the astronauts wore hearing protection around the clock,” Rominger said, but now the sound level is under better control.
*** While the shuttle was docked at the station, a malfunction knocked out most of the station’s computers. “It actually broke. The station was crippled,” he said.
Astronauts were able to communicate with Earth through the shuttle’s radios, and they cooperated with experts on the ground to fix the problem. The fact that all ten astronauts, from both the station and shuttle, functioned as a team helped facilitate the repairs.
*** Astronauts need to work out in orbit, often using a stationary bicycle. “I was required by NASA rules to work out at least every other day …. Because you’re always floating, your muscles atrophy very quickly.”
When long-term space station crews are about to return to Earth, they carry out arduous exercises “just so they can walk” after they land.
*** No showers are available in space. “We have a little hose with a wash rag and soap and shampoo … You actually get very clean with this sponge-bath arrangement.”
*** Sleeping in space can be difficult at first, and sometimes a light sleep medication is needed. On earth, lying down — with gravity pulling on the body — is a cue to sleep. “Sleeping in space is different,” he said. “It was just so strange, floating” Rominger said of his first flight. “In space you’re floating whether you’re working or you’re asleep … There’s really no difference to trigger you to fall asleep.”
*** Photographing from orbit is delightful. “The Earth is still so close, so it’s not a marble-size planet … You can in space, with a telephoto lens, see pyramids” in Egypt. Astronauts can see the Earth’s curvature, gorgeous waters of the Bahamas and giant hurricanes. “They’re huge,” he said, showing a photo of one. “This hurricane would easily cover the state of Utah.”
It’s often said no borders are visible from space, but Rominger showed a photo where a boarder was clearly delineated. Different soil types were easy to see on either side of the line between Egypt and Israel because of differences in soil cultivation.
Lake Powell, the Great Salt Lake, and an aurora that the shuttle flew through were among the wonders he displayed.
*** More wall-space is used in the space station than would be the case on Earth. “Unlike your home, the floor is just as good as the wall, which is just as good as the ceiling — they’re all the same. You can use that real estate for whatever you have to do.”
*** On the flight back through the atmosphere, glowing plasma flows across the shuttle’s front windows. It forms into spheres and bursts. The plasma is “an incredible orange-mango color.” It is a hostile color, appropriate for such a demanding environment.
*** “We land fast. We land probably 100 miles per hour faster than any aircraft around.”
Following Rominger’s talk and question-and-answer session, the planetarium showed the large-screen movie about the Hubble. Stunning 3D views of astronauts working on the great space telescope filled the screen, along with Hubble photography (changed slightly to make it seem three-dimensional) and images of the shuttle taking off.
For the movie schedule, prices and times, see the Clark Planetarium website, browse HERE.

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