From AFA to a life in space
Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission, STS-133, launched on Feb. 24 and came back to Earth March 9. Mission Specialist Alvin Drew spoke about his recent experiences in a phone interview on May 31.
Drew graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1984 with just the technical degrees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were looking for but that wasn’t all he had going for him. “Preparing for the military provided the right temperament and the ability to make life or death decisions and work in critical operations,” he said. “Also the academy gave me mentoring and guidance.”
He then explained that before entering the academy, he spent a year at the University of Delaware.
“I took all the physics precursors I thought I would need to get an engineering degree,” he said. “When I got to the academy they didn’t want to accept those credits but they let me take the final exam. If I passed, they would accept the credits.”
He passed the freshman exam and in his second year he passed the sophomore, junior and senior finals.
“The next day I received a summons to the dean’s office,” Drew said. “I thought ‘Oh no! No one has ever tested out of physics at the academy before and they’re going to think I cheated.’”
His fears were ungrounded. Instead they asked him to consider getting a degree in physics. An academic counselor told Drew that coming out of the academy with the right degrees, becoming a good pilot and then a test pilot might lead to astronaut training.
“He laid out my entire career path in about 30 seconds,” Drew said. “I was 17 — I jumped at it.”
Drew was accepted for astronaut training in 2000 and went into space on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2007.
“Being in space was and wasn’t what I expected,” he said. “I was surprised at how familiar it all seemed but then I had been living in an office with about 100 other astronauts hearing all their stories. I wish I had written down what I expected space flight to be like before I started astronaut training.”
He described his first space walk as “exhilarating.”
“I was a little nervous,” he said. “Some people don’t react well to space walks but I thought it was great. Space was spectacularly beautiful. I had seen Earth from the inside of the shuttle but this was different — there was nothing between me and space but two layers of glass. It gave me the sensation of really being in space.”
He said he stared at the Earth for a little while and then had to get to work.
“You have about 10 seconds to process everything and then you have to get back to what’s on your dance card,” Drew said.
On each mission, astronauts have scheduled free time but it isn’t really free time. Instead it’s a time for catching up on various projects. “The most relaxing time is about 45 minutes before bedtime,” he said. “I always found a quiet spot where I could see Earth... A sleeping bag keeps you from floating around and kicking someone in the head. There are no pressure points so you stay in the same position all night. It was the most comfortable sleep I’ve ever had.”
His favorite part of his Discovery mission happened during a space walk.
“We were installing a bridge between segments of the track that would allow the robot arm to go farther out into space and we were having trouble with a bolt,” he said. “Usually these kinds of technical issues take minutes and minutes to talk over but this time we did 45 minutes of trouble shooting in about five minutes. It was like watching a triple play — in baseball everyone knows what has to be done and they do it. It gave me goose bumps.”
Drew doesn’t know if his future includes more missions and he is in no hurry — he wants to use his technical degrees for awhile.
He also has ideas about manned space exploration versus robotic exploration.
“My take is that some parts of human space flight are overly risky but without humans in space, robotic exploration is irrelevant,” he said. “Robots are a small investment to see if we want to go there. Then we make bigger investment to send people.”
On May 24, NASA announced its plans for human space flight in a new deep-space program. Shuttles were designed for low earth orbit.
“The shuttle program laid the foundation for further exploration,” Drew said. “My advice for future astronauts is don’t be discouraged. We will get back into space.”