Former astronaut Curt Brown stood in front of nearly 1,500 guests at the NBAA 14th Annual Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference last month and fought back tears as he remembered seven fellow astronauts who had died just two days earlier in the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. “I came close to canceling [this appearance],” he told the audience, and then asked for a moment of silence to honor those lost.
When the moment ended, Brown paid his comrades further tribute by telling stories of past shuttle missions, projected views of Earth from space, an insider’s view of a mission and anecdotes, both humorous and serious.
“If you hear a joke, or something that sounds even close to a joke, please laugh,” he told attendees.
His favorite mission, he said, was the one that took former astronaut John Glenn Jr. back into space. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, you rode the mission with John Glenn.’ I say, ‘No-no-no-no, he rode the mission with me.’”
Speaking to an aviation audience, he described the launch, from zero to 18,000 miles per hour in 8.5 minutes, reaching a max acceleration–“front to back”–of three gs. “It gets out of town in a hurry.”
During the last 40 seconds of ascent, the speed increases by 4,000 mph, he explained. “So every ten seconds you increase your speed by 1,000 miles per hour. I’ve never been in [any other] vehicle in my life that continues to get stronger and stronger and stronger the faster and higher you go. It’s burning weight at the rate of 3,000 pounds per second–the weight of your car per second is going out the tailpipes.”
He described the return from space at Mach 25 and the “very small” window for reentry, both in terms of friction heat buildup and aerodynamics. He talked of the shuttle’s impact with the atmosphere as the reinforced carbon nose and wing leading edges reach temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees F. And he told of the dead-stick landing and touchdown at 195 knots on a runway that had to be at least of 8,000 feet long.
“It’s a team sport,” he said, referring to the shuttle team–doctors, scientists, pilots and mission payload specialists–as a family. “We back each other up.”
In scenes projected on giant screens, he showed the “family” from his six missions, launching satellites, performing science experiments and even a view of the space potty, along with an explanation of how it works. There were the dramatic views of Earth–the big blue marble–from space. It is strange in space, he said, to go from sunrise to sunset every 45 minutes, as the shuttle races around the world in its orbit.
He did not go outside the shuttle for a space walk. He speculated, to much laughter, that perhaps it was because he was a pilot, and only more expendable members of the crew were allowed such excursions.
At the close of his talk, the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was applause, said one pilot in the audience, that was as much in support of the space program as for the man who had presented it so eloquently.
“I had six friends on that vehicle that I knew very well,” said Brown of the ill-fated Columbia. “They thought that what we do in space is important enough to give their lives for, and we should not let their deaths stop what we are doing in the space program.”