“Space,” Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reminds us, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.”
Here at GeekDad, it’s probably fair to say we think space is about as cool as it is big. Maybe cooler. And while we regularly marvel at real world efforts to explore and understand it as well as celebrate its place in realms of fiction, here’s a GeekDad first: a conversation with someone who’s actually been there.
First, a bit of background: Earlier this year, the NASA Glenn Research Center southwest of Cleveland moved its entire visitors’ center to the Great Lakes Science Center downtown – and while the part of me that reveled as a kid in field trips to NASA Glenn was sad to see the change, it does bring a new level of awesome to the science center and will probably do wonders in terms of reminding people that the space program’s got a significant presence in Ohio, too.
After getting things situated in the new digs — and the NASA displays include some awfully neat things, like an actual been-to-space-and-back Apollo Command Module you can get a close-up look into — the science center declared this week its inaugural Space Week, and loaded the schedule with appropriate programs, including Tuesday’s visit from astronaut Mike Foreman.
Foreman, who comes from Wadsworth, Ohio, has flown more than 50 aircraft and is a veteran of space shuttle missions STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-129 in November 2009. The guy’s spent 637 hours in space, including 32 hours and 19 minutes on five spacewalks, but he still can’t hide the thrill in his voice when he talks about finding himself working alongside his boyhood heroes or floating in a spacesuit and watching the Earth and the cosmos through the visor of his spacesuit.
I sat down with him for a brief GeekDad interview for a few minutes prior to his presentation. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which he also shared with my daughter and a friend sitting nearby.
GD: Talk a little bit about what interests you had as a kid, and what got you started on the road to becoming an astronaut.
MF: I was really into math and science in school, growing up. And I was really inspired by a couple of things. First off, when I was 8 or 9 years old, which is when I decided that being an astronaut would be a cool job … we heard a lot about hometown heroes — John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Neil Armstrong — because they were from Ohio.
I liked to go to the Cleveland airport and watch airplanes land. And I saw this hangar that said NASA on it, across from the airport, so that kind of inspired me as well. It’s neat to be back here, sort of where my inspiration first was generated.
GD: What was it like, after a long career as a pilot, finally getting into NASA and getting accepted into the astronaut program?
MF: It was the coolest thing: I was inspired by John Glenn as a kid, and I get to Houston, and John Glenn is training with another crew three doors down from my office. And I’d bump into him in the elevator or in the hallway, and that was just a thrill.
GD: You were recently named chief of External Programs at NASA Glenn – talk about that job and what it means in terms of outreach and education and reaching the next generation.
MF: I’m a big proponent of education, and I love talking to kids in my job at NASA. I’m an engineer by training and education, and I fly airplanes for a living, but this was a chance to do come here and do something a little bit different. You never know who you’re going to inspire. One of these kids might want to come back and work for NASA someday. We’re always trying to point them in that direction and hopefully inspire them to study math and science and engineering.
GD: (After Foreman notes with a laugh that his own dad was not a geek.) What’s it like as a parent, being an astronaut, and do your kids share your interests?
MF: (Laughter) You know how it is with kids: I don’t know if they were thrilled, or if they’re like, “Yeah, the guy’s an astronaut, but he can barely start the lawnmower, so it can’t be too hard.” My oldest son is a mechanical engineer, though – and my wife’s an engineer, so he’s followed in our footprints. My middle son is studying neuroscience, so he’s into biology and psychology. But my daughter, who’s just going off to school this fall, is going to major in theater. But you’ve got to let your kids go where they want to go and do what they want to do.
GD: What are your thoughts on the space shuttle program ending, and also, what might your own future hold in the way of space flight Would you go up again?
MF: All of us that have been shuttle-era astronauts, we’ll be sad to see the shuttle retire, but we all understand at the same time that it’s a program that has served out its usefulness. At the same time, I think we’ll look back in a hundred or 500 years and we’ll say the space shuttle program is what got us into low-Earth orbit permanently: It’s how we built the space station, and the space station is what’s going to get us beyond low-Earth orbit. And learning to live long-duration on the space station is what’s going to help us get back to the moon or on to Mars, or wherever we decide to go.
I’m still eligible to be assigned to a space station mission. Space station missions are six months long, but I would go tomorrow and spend six months in space. The problem is that the training for that is two-and-a-half years, and that’s two-and-a-half years you spend in Canada, Russia, Germany, Japan, and a little bit of time in Houston. It’s definitely worth it, and they’re doing great stuff, but you have to weigh that against other things you might want to be doing.
GD: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but really: What’s it like being up there?
MF: It’s so cool, it’s hard to describe. The weightlessness is awesome. I always tell people it’s amazing how quickly we adapt. Within an hour, your brain has figured it out and knows how to control you as you float across these compartments in the space station and the space shuttle. And looking out the windows, you see these views, and we can take pictures … but they just don’t do justice. And then, of course, being outside on space walks, with your helmet, it’s a whole panorama. It’s just amazing. I wish I could bring this experience home to you even better. I wish we could all be up there right now, having this conversation while we floated inside the space station.
Sign me up: The first GeekDad interview in space!
Space Week at the Great Lakes Science Center runs through next Sunday, July 25: They’re still showing the amazing Hubble movie in the Omnimax dome theater, and they’ve added 1993′s Destiny in Space for this week only. There’s a full list of other activities and some exhibit details at the center’s web site here.