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The Inventivity Pod
Space Pod: Senator Bill Nelson, Astronaut
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What is it like to be an astronaut? We talk to former astronaut and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who became the second sitting member of Congress to fly into space in January 1986 on the Space Shuttle Colombia. Nelson describes his training, his fellow astronauts, the highlights of the mission, and his thoughts on the future of space exploration.    

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Welcome to Radio Cade. I’m your host Richard Miles. And today is part of space pod our series on the renaissance and space exploration. I’ll be talking to former astronaut, native Floridian, University of Florida graduate, and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, welcome to Radio Cade senator Nelson.

Bill Nelson:

Thanks. It’s great to be here and it’s great always to talk about one of my favorite subjects space flight!

Richard Miles:

Space flight right? And , um, we’re going to be talking mostly about space flight today, but I would be remiss in my duties as a host. If I didn’t mention to the audience, the rest of your very eventful life, which began in Florida and is mostly unfolded there. As I mentioned, you were of course , born in Florida, in Melbourne, you attended the University of Florida as an undergraduate. Then after that to Yale and the University of Virginia, you returned to Melbourne to start practicing law. You were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and stayed there until 1991. Then you held several statewide offices in Florida. You ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and you served there until just last year, 2019. So that’s a huge expanse of time. The state of Florida has changed enormously in the last 50 plus years. So I thought maybe we’d start by what are some of the big, broad trends you’ve seen as a kid growing up, start with that up until now with regards to Florida.

Bill Nelson:

Well, my goodness , uh , Florida has remade itself basically because the country has moved to Florida. And so when you look at a political reflection, you see that Florida is so evenly split, just like the country. South Florida is a very international community. You move further North up the East coast, you got a lot of former New Yorkers. You move over to the Southwest coast, a lot of Midwesterners that have come to Florida. And then as you get up into North Florida, it’s more like the old deep South. And so it’s such a varied state reflecting pockets of the entire United States. Indeed the Hispanic folks in Florida are a reflection, not a one particular Spanish heritage, but multiples of all Latin and central and South America, indeed, we are as much of a cosmopolitan mix as any state in this union.

Richard Miles:

That’s absolutely right. I tell friends who are not from Florida. I said, you know, Florida’s really a microcosm of the entire country for precisely the reasons you mentioned really does have this incredible mix of people from other countries, people from around the United States itself. And then it makes for very interesting election, for instance, right? Senator Nelson, let’s talk about your time in space. It’s fascinating, great career you’ve had, but I’ve got to imagine that time and space. It’s one of the highlights and what I’d really like to know and like our listeners to know is the details. So why don’t we start with you’re one of the first, if not the first sitting member of Congress to go to space. So start from the beginning. How did that opportunity arise? And at what point did you say, Hey, I want to go?

Bill Nelson:

Well, I was fortunate having been elected chairman of the space subcommittee and the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington at a time that NASA had just started flying the space shuttle and felt like that it was almost operational in the sense, instead of everything being experimental on each flight, that they decided to start flying members of the crew that were other than the full-time professional astronauts. For example, they started flying PhDs from the universities to conduct research. And so they got to the point that they decided to fly the chairman in the Senate and the house. And I was that chairman in the house, one, a Republican one, a Democrat to continue NASA’s bipartisan approach. And of course it was early in the space shuttle program. And the events that unfolded just 10 days after we landed on earth was the launch of Challenger. Challenger blew up 10 miles high in the Florida sky. And of course space flight with humans was then down for the next two and a half years tragedy was to strike again in 2003 with the destruction of the very orbiter that I flew on Columbia as it deorbited and started coming through the fiery heat of re-entry and burned up on the descent over Texas. So we’ve lost 14 souls just in the space shuttle program. And it’s an underscoring that spaceflight is risky business. You take a fantastic flying machine, like the space shuttle, but it is so complex. There were 1500 parts on the space shuttle call critical one parts, any one of which would fail. That was it. It was catastrophe. Needless to say, when we launched, I definitely knew I was in over my head and I were just hanging on for dear life.

Richard Miles:

So you’re pointing out that two tragedies underscores that space was and remains a risky endeavor. So I imagine once the decision was made that the two chairman to respect the committee is going to go up. It was a little bit more complicated than that, right? They didn’t say, okay, well, there’s your seat over there , congressmen , right? You probably had to go through a battery of physical and cognitive tests and training and so on. What was that like? When did that start? What sort of training was it? What do you remember from those early days where you knew you were going to space and you had to be prepared for it ?

Bill Nelson:

Every astronaut candidate has to pass extensive medical checks and psychological checks. As a matter of fact, I have only had one psychiatric examination in my life and it was as an astronaut candidate because they obviously have to make sure that you’re stable mentally. They can’t take a chance of somebody getting up in space and going nuts. For example, you’ve got to be tested for claustrophobia because you can’t have a crew member that gets claustrophobic because you’re tight, sealed up, no escape in a confined place for a long period of time. And the test for this is they see you up in a bag that has about three and a half feet of diameter. It has an air hose. So it’s inflated. They have you all wired up to see what your heart rate is, and they tell you, they’re going to seal you up in there for four hours and it’s dark and here you are. And so the only thing to do was just to curl up and start to go to sleep. And when I did that and they saw my heart rate was going down and after about 30 minutes, then they came in and got me because they saw that claustrophobia was not going to affect me. I’ve had some of the hot shot, military test pilots that are the astronauts pilots, usually the commanders and the next in command call the pilot. And I’ve had them tell me that they didn’t like that claustrophobia test one bit. And of course they’ve been in confined environments all their life in their military training, but fortunately it didn’t affect me. And so you go through all of that. Fortunately, in my case, I had only about six months to get ready. Normally a crew is together for a year. I had about six months. Fortunately I was already physically in fairly good shape. And so I joined in with the crew and it was just wonderful, I mean, today they are some of our best friends. We love each other. We stay in touch and they were going to be in a big event, down at the Nelson Initiative, down at the University of Florida last spring, but then COVID came. And so we delayed it until next spring. Let’s hope that COVID, doesn’t get in our way, but eventually I’ll have all of them into the University of Florida to discuss our various experiences.

Richard Miles:

And tell me Senator Nelson, where did this training take place? It wasn’t a Cape Canaveral, was it? Or was it in Houston or where, where did you do this training?

Bill Nelson:

It was primarily in Houston, but of course it included the Cape as well, especially when we did the practice countdown .

Richard Miles:

So let’s talk about that. Your actual launch date was January 18th, 1986. And I understand there were a couple of attempts before that, right?

Bill Nelson:

January 12 is when we launched, we landed on January 18 and 10 days later, January 28 , Challenger launched and blew up. And yes, we have the dubious record of the most delayed flight with the most scrubs of any American space flight . We started on December the 19th. It was scrubbed. We went all the way down to T minus 13. I had actually braced my body for the ignition of the main engines that T minus six. And then I heard the launch controls say on the microphone that we are recycling to T minus 31 minutes, and we never got off the ground that day. They gave everybody off for Christmas. We came back early January, the next one, lo and behold, we had a malfunction. Then the third one, another malfunction. The fourth one, we went to the launch pad in a driving Florida rain storm or strapped in ready to go. In case a hole appeared in the clouds. We were going to punch through, turned into a driving Florida lightning storm. And I could see the faces of my crew members with the flashes of lightning through the windows. And we’re sitting out there on top of all that liquid hydrogen, and they wanted to get out of there. Finally, they came and got us the fifth try a beautiful Sunday morning. The weather’s cooperating at the Cape and our two emergency abort sites over in Spain and inaudible in Africa. And , uh , we launch into an almost flawless six day mission only to return to earth and then Challenger launches and blows up. And that was a bad day. Needless to say,

Richard Miles:

I had not realized that you was only the fifth time that you launched. Psychologically that must’ve been tough because I imagine every single launch day, you’re up at some godforsaken hour to get all ready to go out. There you go out to the launch vehicle, and then you come back and the fifth trial , when did you switch to the onboard computer? It’s just like after 30 seconds and then, you know, you’re going right. What did you feel then?

Bill Nelson:

Well, it’s amazing. There are so many things that can go wrong. That what the astronauts do is you just steer yourself not to dwell on any of that. Otherwise you’d be distracted too much. And the first time went down to 13 seconds. We found out after the fact that had the sensor been correct, that it was a gambling problem. Fortunately, the sensor caught it. They scrubbed the mission, but nobody was paying any attention that that morning it was in the 40 degree range. Remember that’s what got Challenger was the cold temperature, 36 degrees at launch. And that 36 degrees was enough to stiffen the rubberized gaskets that went around the joints of the solid rocket booster. And the hot gas is flowed through that and burned into the big external fuel tank of hydrogen and oxygen. And that’s what destroyed it. We weren’t paying any attention to the weather on the first try. Second try, they go down to 31 seconds and alert supervisor had watched and saw that the locks line was too cold and took it upon himself to stop the count. And when they go back in and try to find out what happened, lo and behold, we had drained 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen, and we wouldn’t have had enough fuel to get to orbit the third time we’re scrubbed for a different reason. I think it was the weather over in Spain and Africa. They go in, nobody’s paying any attention. They start taking all of the oxygen and the hydrogen out of the external fuel tank. They found out that a temperature probe in the ground equipment had flowed through the lock slide , into a pre valve at one of the three main engines and stuck it in the open position. Had we launched that day, it would not been a good day, not going up hill, but once we got to orbit, when the three main engines cut off simultaneously, one of the engines would not have cut off and it would blown the rear end of the space shuttle to bits. And so the fourth try, as I said, was this driving Florida rain storm that turned into lightning, needless to say that beautiful day on the fifth try, boy were we happy campers going up hill to orbit.

Richard Miles:

I’ll bet, tell us about those six days. I mean , what were the highs and lows of that experience or is it all a blurred? Did you just start working immediately? And what stood out to you from that six day period.

Bill Nelson:

Every minute on orbit is planned. So you don’t waste a second and they build in the time for you to get ready to go to sleep and to have enough time to sleep. And of course, you’re not sleeping at night because every 90 minutes you’re orbiting the earth and a half hour of that in the dark and the shadow of the earth. And about an hour of that, is in the sunlight. So you put on eye shades and all of that stuff, but every minute is planned and I had 12 medical experiments. So I was very focused on everything that I was supposed to do. I had a protein crystal growth experiment that was sponsored by the Medical School at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. That was a cancer research experiment. I did the first American stress test in space. I actually ran for 40 minutes on a treadmill and that’s not particularly easy in zero G, but all of that was just so fascinating to me. It was just such a great privilege for me to participate and do these kinds of experiments. And so everybody had their own assignments and the crew is very, very busy.

Richard Miles:

Did you have any chance at all, Senator in that six days to just be reflective for a few minutes? I mean, just to enjoy the beauty of being out there or were you just go, go, go the entire time?

Bill Nelson:

Believe it or not, because you’re so busy, you don’t have time to get to the window. So what I would have to do is cheat on my sleep and everybody would be asleep and I’d be very quiet and float up to the flight deck and get in front of the overhead windows and just watch the earth go by. And so of course, those memories are seared into my mind’s eye. Uh , my daughter who has a beautiful voice had made a recording for me and I had a Sony Walkman and I had the earplugs so that I wouldn’t be disturbing anybody. And I’d float there in front of the window, watching the earth go by as we orbited every 90 minutes and I’d be listening to my daughter. And I thought I was in heaven. I mean, it was something. And of course, looking back at earth, it’s so beautiful. It’s so colorful. It’s so alive. It’s this creation in the middle of nothing. And space is nothing. Space is an airless vacuum that goes on and on for billions of light years. And there is our home, it’s the planet.

Richard Miles:

It’s a great story. Looking forward to where we are today. You noted that the two space shuttle explosion basically set the program back NASA back for quite a while, but then it returned. And we now have this new for the last 10 years, private companies getting involved SpaceX and Blue Origin and so on this public private partnership, where do you see the future of the space program going whether public or private, what is NASA’s role going to be? What should it be? And what do you think is possible in let’s say the next 10 years?

Bill Nelson:

Well, fortunately after having flown, and once I got to the Senate, I had a hand in charting that course a Republican Senator from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchinson. And I alternated when she was in the majority she’d be chairman. And when the Democrats were in majority, I’d be chairman. And the two of us worked together. We didn’t work as R’s and D’s. We worked together for the nation’s space program and we charted the course in the NASA legislation of 2010, that set us on the dual course that we’re all on right now, which is to get out of low earth orbit and go explore the heavens . And that’s the Artemis Program that we’ll go back to the moon. But the goal is Mars in the decade of the 2030s as articulated by President Obama and that’s with humans to Mars, the dual track is to let and have commercial companies develop spacecraft and rockets to get us into and explore low earth orbit, manufacturing, the international space station, drug research, all of those things. And so that is what the legislation of 2010 did. And that’s the course that NASA is on right now. And it’s an exciting one. The new rocket, we even specified some of the considerations of utilizing the technology that would be applicable coming out of the space shuttle so that you saved money. And thus we have what is called the space launch system, which is the monster rocket, the largest, most powerful rocket ever with the human spacecraft on the top, which is called Orion. And that’s the one that we’ll launch in a couple of years. And in the meantime, we’re seeing commercial companies such as SpaceX and Boeing that are launching cargo and now crew to the International Space Station instead of NASA having to do those launches, although NASA obviously maintain strict control because of safety. So that’s where we’re going. We’re going to the moon use whatever properties there that we developed for the long venture to Mars. And then we’re going to Mars.

Richard Miles:

One final question Senator Nelson when important factors from the very beginning of the space program, it’s the support of the American public, because these are tremendously expensive programs that can be dangerous programs. As we know from the history of exploration. And one thing that I’ve picked up on in interviewing a number of people is if we just break it down to sort of the technical requirements and the financial pros and cons and so on, it doesn’t seem to be quite enough, but when we introduce or when the American public thinks about the sense of exploration and adventure and discovery , very soon, you get a lot of Americans going. This is really something we need to do as a country, as a nation to be on the forefront of this exploration. And I’m sure you’ve seen the various documentaries, the Apollo 11 documentary that you can’t help, but being moved by our entire history of manned space flight. How important do you think that is? That kind of sense of discovery apart from the economic or technical benefits we get and is NASA doing a good enough job in convincing the American public that we really need to still be out there in terms of leaders in space exploration ?

Bill Nelson:

Well, NASA can always improve its public relations, but let me tell you some of the things that NASA has done aside from the human space flight has been extraordinary. Look at the rovers, going all over Mars right now, look at the probes into the far reaches of the solar system. Look at the probes, going to and understanding the other planets and the moons of other planets. It’s just extraordinary, but you put your finger on something very important. The American people, they visualize the space program as human fly in space. So it was just phenomenal to me that once we had to shut down the space shuttle until we started flying humans just recently again on rockets, but the average person on the street in America thought, well, our space program’s over. When in fact we’re doing all of these gee whiz things with robotic spacecraft. So it comes down to a fundamental truth and that is no buck Rogers, no bucks. And what’s happening now that you have a bunch of buck Rogers going back up into space. It is going to rebut the American imagination into space flight again. And by the way, it’s American rockets that they want to see them going on because we’ve always, since we shut down the space shuttle, we’ve been sending Americans with international crews by means of the Russian space craft to and from the international space station ever since. But Americans want to see it launch from American soil, which we are now doing. And by the way, once you’re in space and you look back at earth and also is just emblazoned on my mind’s eye. I told you that it’s so beautiful, but as a political being, as a politician, as a public servant, as I orbited the earth, I look back, I didn’t see black and white divisions. I didn’t see racial divisions. I didn’t see religious divisions. I didn’t see all kinds of political divisions. What I saw was we are all in this together. As we orbited the earth, every 90 minutes, I saw that what we are citizens of the planet earth, and that ought to be very instructive to our politics in the future that we’ve got to overcome these divisions that be devils . Like we see our politics so divided. Like we see our racial situation so divided. We’ve got to come together. That was a lasting lesson for me, looking out the window of a spacecraft back at our home and our home is the planet.

Richard Miles:

Senator Nelson, thank you very much for joining us today on Radio Cade also thank you for your service to our country, whether it’s in the halls of Congress or in a space shuttle, thousands of miles above the earth, really appreciate you joining us today and wish you the best.

Bill Nelson:

Have a great day. And thanks for what you do with the Cade Museum.

Richard Miles:

Well, thank you. It’s been an adventure, maybe not quite as exciting as going to space, but on some days it feels like that, but really appreciate you joining us. We hope to have you back on show.

Bill Nelson:

Thanks.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak. The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist Jacob Lawson.

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