|San Rafael principal, Garth Johnson with Charles Walker, astronaut.|
Emery County students had the privilege of hearing from Astronaut Charles D. Walker. He visited with students and shared what it means to be an astronaut with them. “You need to get an education. After high school I attended college and then pursued an advanced degree in engineering. I would never have been able to see the things I have and expand the human presence in space if not for a good education.
“Anyone who does significant things has a good education. If you have a good education you can control your future instead of having someone else tell you what to do. Ever since high school I knew I wanted to be a part of space exploration, maybe in design and manufacture as part of the launch team. But, after obtaining my college degree, I thought why not go with them and be an astronaut. I obtained more education and worked toward the things that would look good to NASA. I got a chance to do exactly what I wanted to do and it has been a great experience,” said Walker.
He told the students he also has interest in astronomy and paleontology. He would like to return to the Emery County area again to explore the geological formations in the area.
“I am impressed with our planet, when you look at it from above the atmosphere and ride on a rocket it is tremendously thrilling. You are pushed back in your seat with up to three times your weight holding you back and it’s hard to take a breath. It is easy to let out a breath. From standing still to traveling at 18,000 mph is quite a thrill. You go from three times your normal weight to weightlessness in about eight minutes. When you first experience weightlessness it is exciting, your stomach goes to your throat and you just want to float. The rookies all release their straps and float like they are swimming. It’s really hard to control it and they look like they are swimming through the air. Swimming on earth is the closest thing we’ve got to weightlessness. The rookies float around and bump into things and get bruised up.
“We have straps on the floor to hook our feet under so we can stand to do our work. You have to figure out how to move around. You have to figure out the center of your mass and push against it and focus; you can push off a wall or ceiling to get where you want to go.
“There are 12 big windows which offer a panoramic view and you can look at one third of the world at a time. Earth is truly a living planet. You can’t see cities or trees, but on the nightside the lights are aglow and look like miniature pieces of jewelry. We travel at five miles per second. The earth is just wondrous to view. The atmosphere is just a blue band, like a thin veneer surrounding the earth. It’s such a thin thing, but it keeps all of the air on the earth. Space is just inky blackness, black infiniteness, it’s almost hypnotic, the blackness of it. It can be very disorienting. The stars look like diamond sharp points of light with no twinkle.
“Space travel is dangerous. I have lost friends in both the Challenger and the Columbia disasters. It’s risky business. We volunteer for our missions, no one is forced to go. We know it is risky, but so much comes from it. Space flight provides good jobs, high tech jobs. The discoveries made in space are put to use on earth. The steel bridges being used now, don’t rust and this coating was developed by the space program. Medical research has been done that benefits patients back on earth. One discovery on how the lungs work and how we breath are bioprocesses not known previously. This testing was done in space where gravity was not a factor. Space flight is hard work, but it is producing benefits for earth.
“The ride home is like an airplane flight through fire. After about 40 minutes the gravity grabs hold of the craft and pulls it back into the atmosphere at 20 times the speed of sound. It just slams into the air faster than the air can get out of the way and the shuttle heats up. Just outside the windows it is 2,500 degrees and if you look out you can see a pale glow, it looks like a pastel painting. When you look out during flight the gas in front of the windows looks like you’re inside a neon tube.
“The reentry is the most dangerous part of the mission. You don’t have a jet engine, you’re like a giant glider. You hit the runway at 200 mph and a parachute slows you down and after two miles you come to a stop. You’re glad to be back, but you feel like a ton of bricks after the weightlessness of space. Your brain doesn’t recognize weight anymore, but there’s nothing like being home,” said Walker.
Walker fielded questions from some of the students. One student wondered if humans would ever go to Mars. Walker predicted maybe in 20 years there would be a flight to Mars and perhaps settlements there in a 100 years from now. He told of how the Russian space shuttle program is starting to take tourists into space and there might be a future in doing that as an economic endeavor. One student wondered exactly what the astronauts do in space. Walker said they conduct a lot of scientific and medical experiments. One such medical experiment was to explore how muscles lose mass in space and bones lose calcium. This helps with the research on osteoporosis, which is the loss of bone strength. The space research deals with how the body gets rid of calcium. Walker said he lost 5 percent of his bone mass while in space.
Walker said they also take pictures from space for research purposes. They monitored a lake from space to help determine why it was being depleted. Walker told the students you do not get as tired in space, so you do not need as much rest. One student was interested in the money that astronauts make. Walker said beginning astronauts can make $80,000 a year to start and in 10-20 years they might make $120,000. “But, we don’t get paid mileage,” joked Walker, but we do receive hazardous duty pay.”
“I encourage you to get a good education and put yourselves in control,” concluded Walker.
He presented the schools with posters of astronauts and the mission patches from each mission.