Want to be an astronaut?
“Do stuff. Learn stuff,” says former NASA astronaut Rick Hieb.
Speaking Saturday at the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, Hieb shared his experiences as an astronaut and how his early life readied him for the job. Looking back, Hieb said that his eagerness to accept challenges and figure things out played a central role in preparing him for the demands of space travel.
Speaking to a nearly full house in the museum’s auditorium, Hieb showed a video that included scenes from all three of his space shuttle missions in 1991, 1992 and 1994. And he had lots of stories to tell.
The 1992 voyage was assigned the task of capturing and repairing a wayward communication satellite. This project involved three incidents of extravehicular activity, and the third required three workers to participate in a spacewalk – the only time to date in which three astronauts have been outside the spacecraft at the same time. The final EVA lasted 8½ hours and succeeded in repairing a satellite.
Being an astronaut is a risky business, he said. A total of 280 men and women have become astronauts, and 14 have died, a very high, 5 percent rate of loss.
When asked for his response to the recent proposal by President Donald Trump for a Space Force to defend American interests and satellites, Hieb feigned a yawn and suggested that the proposed activities for a Space Force were already being handled by existing agencies. A Space Force would mostly become a relabeling process, he said.
Eating in space was a topic Hieb took up with considerable pleasure. The menu seems to have included a lot of sandwiches – ham salad, chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad and PB&J – all made on tortillas rather than bread to avoid crumbs floating around in the cabin. Salt and pepper had to “squirted” onto the food because shaking doesn’t work without gravity.
And what happens when a meal goes badly? He recalled capturing vomit with a towel as it flew about the cabin.
Hieb was left mostly speechless when it comes to describing the appearance of the Earth from space. He noted that all his fellow astronauts who have tried have come up short, and he doesn’t know how to improve on their efforts.
Hieb also talked about the rapid growth of knowledge during the era of space travel. We have learned, for example, a great deal about the enormous expanse of our universe. In the past decade alone, he said, astronomers have concluded that many, perhaps most, stars have planets orbiting them like our own star, the sun.
The Hubble telescope, focused for 100 hours on a tiny portion of sky that we can see looking through a swizzle stick straw, recorded three stars and 10,000 galaxies.
If each of those galaxies is something like our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which comprises roughly 100 billion stars, “Well,” Hieb said, “you do the math.”
After leaving NASA, Hieb worked as an executive at Lockheed Martin for 14 years and currently is on the faculty at University of Colorado Boulder.