Down to earth
Lightning-like explosions of flame outside the space shuttle Discovery illuminates the ship’s darkened interior. Right then as he looked out the small window at the pyrotechnics around him astronaut Col. Alvin Drew remembered the re-entry attempt of another shuttle.
“I saw a video of the final minutes from the Columbia voyage when a mission specialist was sitting in my seat filming this flame and Cmdr. Rick Husband said: ‘You definitely don’t want to be out there now’ and 10 minutes later they were,” said Drew, who was in Penticton on the weekend. “I couldn’t help but thinking about someone sitting in the same seat, getting the same view and having that same thought.”
However, as she had throughout the previous 13 days, the shuttle performed flawlessly and landed safely at the Kennedy Space Station in Florida on March 9. It was Discovery’s final flight after 39 voyages, 365 days in space and 148 million miles.
“If you look at the dynamics of re-entry it’s not a lot different than skipping a stone across the lake out there near you,” said Drew, who flew one other shuttle mission in 2007. “You hit the top of the atmosphere and you kind of bounce off a little bit, you hit it again and make a smaller bounce and the rock skids along and then sinks into the water, that’s pretty much what we do.
“At 225,000 feet the first thing you notice is the air you’re hitting is turning to plasma and you’ve got this big blow torch that’s going on and these big tongues of flame.”
Just as exciting was liftoff, which came down to the wire with just two seconds remaining in the launch window.
“We had been having problems with the range control mechanism, which is one of the key items in case we start veering off course and heading into Jacksonville or some other populated area,” said Drew. “The range safety officer was concerned that if this happened at a critical moment while we were going up and they needed to ... ah basically destroy the shuttle, it might not work.”
Once the solid rocket boosters and the ability to remotely end the mission are gone, it is then up to the crew members to determine their own fate in the event of an emergency.
“We simply looked at it from a professional perspective,” said the mission specialist. “We were of the opinion we could do our own range safety (if the remote failed) and if we were a hazard to some big populated area, none of us minded going for swim.”
But again no problems, although the lateness did cause a rather unusual predicament for the crew when they determined what to do if the autopilot failed.
“So what we wound up doing was having this impromptu seminar on guidance while we were upside down travelling at mach 10 at about 250,000 feet above the earth,” he said. “I guess in a geeky way it was sort of fun.”
After docking at the International Space Station it was time to get down to work including two space walks by Drew and Steve Bowen. Exiting the station, he became only the 200th person to set foot in that domain, something he will never forget.
“I think we were over the Amazon, it was some tropical jungle because I could see a big brown river system and a green lush canopy forest and the white puffy clouds,” he recalled. “It was somewhat like just going out for a gorgeous afternoon except I was floating 400 kilometres above it and going by about 18,000 miles an hour.
“You do get this overwhelming sense of insignificance. You see the limits of the earth, you see how thin the atmosphere is and you realize that everybody you know and care about and everything you’ve ever experienced exists on this little tiny island down there in space.”
And looking in the opposite direction was just as incredible.
“Seeing this blackness that according to astronomers is about 13.5 billion light years deep, the earth seems very insignificant, and boy I feel pretty small,” said Drew.
Once back inside the station he found his love of space was not lost on those who know him, including many at Mission Control who described his expression afterwards like a kid in a candy store.
“I got a note from one person who said: ‘so much for giving us this aura of detachment,’” he said with a laugh. “I’d never make it as a poker player. You try to give this sense of ... well you’re used to being a military pilot so you try to seem somewhat cool and detached, but everybody’s saying: ‘oh man you seemed like you were having the best time of your life,’ so I guess it was that obvious, I was having the best time of my life.”
Now at age 48 and the United States space program in doubt, Drew is unsure of what the future holds.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “A year ago I had a much firmer idea but now I don’t know.”
But regardless of where life takes him, Drew’s personal mission will be to promote space exploration and provide similar opportunities to young astronauts following in his footsteps.