Of the roughly 500 people who have ever been to space, 30 were Hoosiers. Here, a few of them describe the thrill of liftoff, the horror of mistakes, and the transcendence of that view.
A North Central High School and Purdue grad, Wolf holds the record for the longest—and perhaps most terrifying—spacewalk.
There’s an old astronaut joke at launches: There are only three possible outcomes for lunch. Either we’ll be having it back in the crew quarters because we had to call the thing off, we’ll be having it in orbit, or we’ll never have lunch again. There is a sense of finality to it.
For me, though, spacewalks were always more nerve-racking than launches. The chances of getting hit by a fatal micrometeoroid are about one in 250 every time you leave the ship. There’s so much debris out there. We track everything bigger than a nickel, but anything smaller can still tear a hole in a suit.
Systems fail pretty regularly, too. During my first spacewalk, I got trapped outside the Russian space station Mir. The air lock failed to repressurize, and we tried for eight hours to fix it. My suit was running out of everything. The first resource that runs out is the carbon-dioxide scrubbers that remove that gas from the suit. When those are done, you’re in your last minute or two of life. Mine were done. So we decided to shoot from the hip and try to use another module of the station as an air lock. Just by chance, I had been sleeping in the module we were trying. I could see a picture of my family on the wall. I thought to myself, So this is how it ends. But we managed to take that module to vacuum and repressurize. It was a rare thing to survive. I look back at it with horror, but at the time, it was just another problem to solve.
In addition to doing a lot of spacewalks, I was a reentry specialist. You start to pick up speed as you enter the atmosphere, and that’s a rough ride. Pretty soon, you’re literally in the middle of a tornado of fire. When you look through the upper windows of the shuttle, you’re looking up through a vortex of 3,000-degree plasma. Inside that fireball, the shaking is violent. As you get lower, you’re moving so fast that whole states spin by in the blink of an eye. I remember watching Texas move below us in a second or two. You know you have to get stopped by Florida or you’ll end up in the Atlantic, so you’re constantly adjusting your approach.
These days, I serve the cause from the ground. I’m an adviser on the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. He’s pretty passionate about this subject. Pence wants us to remain the leading space-faring nation. Some people think we’ve given up on space travel, but we’ve had people there continuously since 2000. We just don’t launch shuttles from American soil—those happen in Russia now. The lack of launches and landings here makes it feel abstract.
By 2024, we’ll return to the moon. The idea is to build a permanent base camp for trips to Mars. Whenever we do venture that far, though, those astronauts won’t have one of the advantages I did. For me, looking back at Earth from the space station was always comforting. They’ll watch Earth disappear into a tiny blue dot and Mars won’t yet be in view. They’re going to feel really lonely.
The Indy-born astronaut spent 197 days last year in the International Space Station, where she learned as much about Earth as she did about the universe.
I first became interested in space when I was 7 or 8 years old. At the time, my dad was teaching at Purdue University. We watched every shuttle launch together. Once I decided to become an astronaut, I trained in a lot of interesting places. I’ve worked in Antarctica. I’ve worked in underwater laboratories. NASA likes using extreme environments like that to simulate living on the International Space Station. You’re fairly isolated, you can’t be rescued quickly, communication and resources are limited. You learn a lot about yourself and how you work under pressure.
I finally caught a ride to space last year. People always assume that we’re really nervous at liftoff, but I felt absolutely calm. Once I arrived at the base of the rocket, everything felt so familiar. It’s about eight minutes and 40 seconds to space, so it’s a good long ride. But you’re enclosed in a pressure suit with the visor closed and locked, so you’re insulated from a lot of the noise.
When the rocket runs out of fuel, it feels like you come to an abrupt halt. At that point, you’re in space. And to me, it felt like my entire world shifted 45 degrees. Your brain is trying to figure out what to do in zero gravity. Your body’s position sense is dependent on the inner ear, and the inner ear is dependent on gravity. Some astronauts report that they feel like they’re hanging from the ceiling. For me, the control panel looked tilted and farther away, but it resolved in a couple of hours.
Once I was aboard the space station, the thing that surprised me most was how important trash management is. We live with our trash up there. We’re waiting for the occasional cargo vehicle to come and pick that stuff up, then send it into the atmosphere where it burns up. Until that time, it’s packed tightly in special bags and stowed away. If you don’t pack that bag correctly, the odor will begin to overwhelm the area. And you’re living with that for months.
A good portion of our time on the station is spent conducting science experiments. It definitely feels sterile inside, and one of the ways we try to make it feel more human is playing music. We all bring up our own mixes and wireless speakers. So I could go from one module to the next and hear everything from Mozart to Van Halen.
I lived in the International Space Station for 197 days, which is a pretty long time. It goes without saying that I missed my family. I also missed Earth itself, though. I could see it from a beautiful, unique perspective up there. But I missed the wind. I missed the rain. I missed the smell of the soil. I missed the grass. When I got back, I had a new appreciation for how connected we are to this planet.
To be honest, though, I was almost more inspired by how far our technology has come. I remember staring out of the station’s window and watching a cargo vehicle approach from hundreds of meters away. I watched it perform its maneuvers and park, just like you park your car. These things happen so often up there, it’s easy to forget how spectacular the engineering and science involved are. I had a moment there where I thought to myself, Wow, look at what we can do.
Born in Bedford, Walker became the first commercial astronaut in 1984.
One of my earliest memories is of watching Disney’s Tomorrowland programming in the 1950s. At the time, we were still unsure if there was life on Mars or Venus. There were so many questions to answer about space. I was inspired by the mystery and adventure of it. The whoosh, bang, roar of rocketry had a lot to do with it, too.
I was a mechanical engineer, and my employer, McDonnell Douglas, wanted to conduct some research in space. So NASA trained me, and I became the first commercial astronaut—essentially, a paying passenger. My job was to produce a prototype of an anemia-fighting protein that grows much better in zero gravity.
In 1984, we attempted to launch four times, but we halted because of some mechanical difficulty. Once, one of the rocket engines started before it was supposed to, scrubbing the launch just two seconds before liftoff. We finally took off in August. There’s no simulator that can completely prepare you for 6 million pounds of thrust. But that was quickly replaced with, You know how long you’ve wanted to do this. You’ve trained to do this. Here we go! I tried so hard to take it all in—the sounds, the disappearing Florida horizon.
In space, the experience of weightlessness is weird, and accomplishing things takes some practice. You don’t swim like a fish—there’s no water to push against. I experienced some space motion sickness during that first flight. NASA monitored my symptoms, and when I returned to space in 1985, I became a test subject for that problem.
The next year, McDonnell Douglas and I were planning an expanded mission that would include production of large quantities of the anemia pharmaceutical. We expected such great things, and we all looked at Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was going to be aboard the Challenger mission that year, as a great step forward. I was at a speaking engagement at the Air & Space Museum in San Diego the night before the Challenger launch. The next day, I was packing my bag and watching it on television. The networks had become a little jaded after covering so many launches, and after 30 seconds or so, they switched away and said, “Looks like another successful launch.” I was about to leave the hotel room when the station cut back to the launch with the news that Challenger had exploded. I had a flash of adrenaline and dropped to my knees to pray for the crew. I knew that we had turned a corner.
I continued to work with NASA on contract to design the International Space Station. For every astronaut you see doing these marvelous things in space, there are thousands of people on the ground working to support them. So much thinking goes into, What if this piece fails? What then? We’ve been bitten a few times, obviously. But when the world is watching a successful launch, what I see is the incredible amount of intellectual creativity on the ground that made it happen.
Jerry L. Ross
Raised in Crown Point, Ross traveled to space seven times over 17 years, tied for the most in history.
I was in the fourth grade when the first satellites were launched into space. For a kid in the middle of nowhere, it totally captivated my imagination. My mom started a scrapbook of Look and Life magazine clippings to help me follow all the launches. I decided then and there that I was going to become an astronaut.
I joined NASA in 1980 and made my first space flight in 1985. After that, it was every few years for me. I was lucky. Some people wait their entire careers and never catch a flight. I joined NASA at a time we were sending a lot of shuttles up. I was there for the first shuttle launch, and I stayed until after the last one landed—the entire 135-flight program.
My first mission was to carry up three communication satellites. NASA prepares you so well, but the amount of vibration at liftoff was a lot more intense than I expected. About 15 seconds into that first one, I thought to myself, Jerry, what are you doing here? It was scary. I’ve likened it to someone putting you in a cardboard box and kicking you down the stairs.
Every mission thereafter had its moments, but the sixth one was really unique: We started building the International Space Station. I led a team that did three spacewalks and basically laid the cornerstones. Now, you can barely see the small pieces we put in place. But it had to start somewhere.
For me, spacewalking was the pinnacle of the experience. You’re moving at a terrifying speed, but you don’t feel it because there’s no air out there, no drag. The view is even more spectacular than it is in the ship. On one of my missions, I remember being on the end of a long robotic arm high above the space shuttle. The rest of the crew told me to take a break because they had to concentrate on fixing something. So I turned off my helmet-mounted lights, leaned back, and stared out at the vastness of space. I had this strange feeling come over me that I was one with the universe, that I was doing exactly what God had intended me to do.
Being an astronaut is a dangerous job, though. You have to make peace with it. Every person on both the tragic 2003 Columbia crew and the 1986 Challenger crew were my good friends. I was at the Kennedy Space Center when the Columbia astronauts got suited up. I traveled halfway out to the launch pad with them, and I was waiting at the end of the runway to greet them where they were supposed to return. When the spacecraft disintegrated upon reentry, I had to deliver the news to some of the family members. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
The Montpelier native flew jets in the Air Force before joining NASA, but nothing compared to the thrill of space travel.
Just a couple of days before my 14th birthday, my oldest brother took me flying in a little Cessna. We flew from Hartford City near my high school to the Indy Metro Airport, and I was absolutely hooked. From then on, there was no question I was going to fly for a living. I joined the Air Force as soon as I could. That’s where NASA gets most of its shuttle pilots, and it was there that I first started to think about space flight.
When I joined NASA in 2000, I didn’t know it was going to be almost 10 years before I’d catch a ride to space. The shuttle accident in 2003 delayed things for a couple of years. But it’s a pretty good job on the ground, too. Even flying the shuttle simulator is pretty exciting. I spent thousands of hours in there. It feels very real—nothing like a video game.
If I was nervous about anything on my first flight day, it was about throwing the wrong switch. That would scrub the whole launch, and everyone would have to go home and do it another time. But everything went fine. We launched at midnight because the launch pad in Florida had to be directly below the International Space Station. Our mission was to take up 15,000 pounds of supplies, the most famous of which was a treadmill called The Colbert. Somehow, Stephen Colbert got NASA to agree to name it after him.
Flying a shuttle is completely different from flying a jet. It fires like a rocket for the first nine minutes, then it floats like a satellite after that. Little thrusters rotate it and move it slowly this way or that. Rendezvousing with the space station basically meant landing on it. So we approached at one inch per second. Finally, a couple of little latches on the hatch caught, and we were there.
On board the station, we had a fish aquarium that was part of an osteoporosis study on bone loss. Eventually, I had to get the fish out of the tank in zero gravity. If you think about it, that’s not easy to do without getting water everywhere. Luckily, I had practiced with plastic fish. Generally, you’re doing that stuff for scientists on the ground, not NASA. You get on the radio and you’re talking with researchers from a university. They’re watching on camera, and they tell you what to do. Basically, they’re using your hands and your environment.
When I was on my own time, I would sit in the cupola by myself and watch the station orbit the entire Earth in 90 minutes. You watch the dark change to light, every city, everything man has ever built below you. It gives you some perspective on how small it is. The diameter of the planet is only 7,000 miles. It’s just this tiny, perfect rock. The atmosphere looks so thin that the slightest breeze seems like it could blow it away. I had the distinct feeling that we are really vulnerable.