It's one thing to talk about satellites. It's another thing entirely to have actually been in orbit yourself.
Dr. George D. “Pinky” Nelson, former NASA astronaut and director of the Science, Mathematics and Technology Education program at Western, will give a lecture entitled “Sputnik Plus 50 Years: The Enduring Impact,” at 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday in Communications Facility 110. The lecture is free and open to the public.
A comet in the night sky sparked Nelson's interest in astronomy when he was 4 years old and visits to the local planetarium fed his interest in what was beyond the earth's atmosphere, he said.
When Nelson was 7 years old, another point of light appeared in the night sky. Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit earth, was launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957. The satellite, visible from Earth, created excitement and fear in the United States, Nelson said.
“Here was this satellite you could see that the Russians put in space, and it was flying right over us,” Nelson said. “The worry was that the Russians could drop a bomb on us anytime, anywhere they wanted.”
To compete with the Soviet Union, the United States boosted research in space technology. Less than a year after Sputnik 1 went into orbit, NASA was established. Soon, the United States would take on the task of building a rocket big enough to go to the moon, Nelson said.
Sputnik also led to an increase in spending on science education, Nelson said. The national focus on outperforming the Soviet Union opened doors for aspiring astronomers like Nelson to learn more about science and space.
According to Nelson, the space race had a great influence on the way we think about science education in the United States to this day.
“Whatever the current worry is gets substituted, so when Sputnik happened, it was ‘the Russians have bigger rockets then ours.' Then it became ‘the Japanese and the Germans are going to buy us off.' Now it's ‘the Chinese and the Indians are going to beat us,” Nelson said.
The effect of such rhetoric is not necessarily good or bad, he said.
“Some of it's positive, and some of it's goofy,” Nelson said.
After high school, Nelson went on to earn his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvey Mudd College in 1972. He received his master's degree and doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Washington in 1974 and 1978, respectively. The same year Nelson earned his doctorate, NASA informed him he was selected as an astronaut candidate.
Though he had always followed the space program closely, becoming an astronaut wasn't always his goal.
“I thought it would be fun,” Nelson said. “But it wasn't really anything I thought I could do. When the opportunity came to apply, I had all the qualifications, so I jumped at the chance.”
Nelson first escaped Earth's gravity on April 6, 1984 as part of a five-person crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The crew went into Earth's orbit with two main objectives. The first was to deploy the Long Duration Exposure Facility, a satellite meant to examine the effects of long-term exposure of different materials to the vacuum of space. The second was to retrieve and repair the Solar Maximum Mission satellite and return it to orbit.
Nelson became a human satellite on April 8, 1984, when he left the space shuttle on his first spacewalk. He was wearing the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, the space suit he helped develop for NASA. Nelson was not tethered to the shuttle. He used a propulsion backpack called the Manned Maneuvering Unit to travel from the shuttle to the Solar Maximum Mission satellite.
Nelson attempted to grasp the satellite with a tool called the Trunnion Pin Acquisition Device so that it could be pulled into the payload bay in the shuttle and repaired. He was unable to attach the tool onto the satellite, however, and the satellite began tumbling.
“I remember standing in the payload bay watching the satellite tumble, just thinking, ‘I have a Ph.D. in physics and I can't tell you which way it's going to move next,'” he said.
Technicians on the ground sent commands to the satellite that helped slow the tumbling motion. The next day, Nelson and his team grabbed the satellite with a mechanical arm called the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) and brought it into the payload bay.
“It was really fun,” Nelson said of the spacewalk. “You're functioning at two levels. You're at the professional level where you've got a technical job to do, and you do that. But as a human being, you're having a blast.”
Parts of the mission were filmed with an IMAX camera and used in the IMAX film “The Dream is Alive.” The mission ended on April 13, 1984, when Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base.
Nelson returned to space two more times. On STS-61C, Nelson was aboard the space shuttle Columbia from Jan. 12 to 18, 1986. Then, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, 1988, Nelson was aboard Discovery on the first space shuttle flight since the Challenger accident in 1986.
Nelson left NASA in 1989, having logged a total of 411 hours in space, including 10 hours of time spent outside the shuttle. He went on to become assistant provost and a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. Also, He directed Project 2061, a national initiative to reform science, mathematics and technology education. Nelson joined Western's faculty in 2002.
The science reform work has been his biggest challenge, and his work at Western is as interesting as anything he has ever done, Nelson said.
“My main goal has just been to lead an interesting life,” Nelson said.