Shuttle crew visits, educates campus

by Jen Tutak | 5/23/02 5:00am

Five members of NASA's most recent Hubble Telescope repair team, including Dr. James Newman '78, spoke to a crowd of over 700 in Leede Arena last night.

They were all part of mission STS-109 aboard the space shuttle Columbia, spending 12 days in space last March in a successful attempt to repair and refurbish the Hubble Telescope.

In addition to Newman, the visiting astronauts included mission commander Scott "Scooter" Altman, payload commander John Grunsfeld, pilot Duane Carey and mission specialist Rick Linnehan. Also a mission specialist, Newman was one of the astronauts who participated in the spacewalks to upgrade the telescope.

Two members of the team -- flight engineer and primary robotics operator Nancy Currie and mission specialist Mike Massimino -- were unable to make the trip to Dartmouth.

Following an introductions by Provost Berry Scherr and former astronaut Research Associate Professor of Medicine Jay Buckey, the crew members presented the College with a Dartmouth pennant that Newman had flown in space. They then showed a video and several slide photographs documenting their mission.

The presentation included footage of the space walks, as the astronauts wore special head cameras when they went outside to work on the telescope. Carey, the photo-TV coordinator, also caught glimpses of life inside the cramped shuttle, including astronauts on the exercise bike and a very crowded deck during lunchtime.

The audience, composed mostly of community members, was ready with a plethora of questions afterward.

One young boy asked seriously how astronauts went to the bathroom and whether they liked to just float around while they slept.

Commander Altman diplomatically answered that NASA equipped their shuttle with special toilets and special sleeping bags; however, he emphasized that using both required practice.

Other children asked how much air was in the spacecraft (enough for two more days than the actual mission); how much a spacesuit weighs (370 pounds, though they become weightless in space); and how it feels to float in space ("surreal" and "magical").

Eleven-year-old Victoria Chandler enjoyed the presentation. "I thought it was really good," she said. A fifth-grader at Thetford Elementary School, she is still deciding if she would like to one day be an astronaut.

The crew's visit also included a special lecture to Buckey's "Life on Mars?" interdisciplinary course and a dinner with the students afterward at the Thayer School.

The astronauts had several ties to Dartmouth, which enabled them to make it one of their last stops on their post-mission tour. Buckey flew with Altman and Linnehan in 1998 on STS-90, and the local Creare company helped make a part for the mission.

Newman, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, was the student manager of Dartmouth Dining Services while at the College, and has fond memories of living in McClane. Though he has truly roamed the "girdled" earth, he has still managed to attend all of his class reunions so far.

During their presentations to the community, the mission crew was more than happy to talk about life as an astronaut.

According to Newman, people will actually grow an inch or two in space because gravity is no longer pulling down their bodies.

As for space cuisine, "We don't go there for the food," he said. Over the course of his four flights, he did think it had improved selection had expanded. Newman and Altman agreed that the beef ravioli was one of their favorite entrees while in space.

During their 12 days on the shuttle, the crew had one half-day off which they spent watching Altman's favorite movie, "Top Gun." He was actually the pilot who flew Tom Cruise's F-14 fighter jet during the filming of the movie.

For the rest of their free moments, the members of STS-109 liked to send emails home or just sneak a glance out the windows to admire planet Earth below.

For rookie space walker Massimino, the sight of the curvature of the world below was a spectacle to finally behold.

"It's a planet," he told Newman in awe. "Now I know why you keep coming back."

Another astronaut was captivated by the view of the thin blue line of atmosphere. "It seemed so fragile and small, that's all that we have."