Imagine sitting in a relatively small plane attached to a large tube, listening to a countdown, at the end of which two huge rockets ignite, creating 6 billion pounds of thrust and hurtling the plane and the tube to over 17,000 mph in a matter of seconds.
That was the experience that 81-year-old retired astronaut and U.S. Air Force Col. Karol Bobko shared in a talk at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City on Dec. 20, as part of the run-up to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 moon mission in July 1969.
Bobko, who was born in New York City and lived in Seaford as a teenager, took the audience step by step through the space shuttle’s launch process, explaining the different parts of the partially reusable spacecraft and “spaceplane” and describing how each part functioned.
Bobko then dived into his launch experiences on each of his shuttle missions. “The lights are [pointed at] the shuttle, if it is at all dark, and so you get kind of an eerie glow,” he said, describing the drive to the shuttle. He shared how he was led through the guard gate and took a bus to the shuttle and an elevator up to the launch pad. Looking down while on the launch pad, he recalled, he hoped the huge tank holding the rockets’ solid fuel would be directed properly during the launch.
“You get the wind that’s coming off the ocean, and you get the hissing and creaking of the shuttle itself as the wind blows on it and as the oxygen and hydrogen expand and are vented off,” he said. “So
it seems like an animal
Bobko described the 20-minute hold that occurred once the crew of seven astronauts — pilot, mission commander and payload specialists — were secured in the shuttle. “The holds are designed by NASA to allow everybody to catch up and make sure that the launch goes on time,” he said. At the end of the hold, the team underwent another 20 minutes of preparations before the shuttle was shot into space.
Space shuttles were launched by their own computers, Bobko said. Thirty seconds before the launch, the computers picked up any navigation problems and solved them. At T-minus 20 seconds, the noise of water valves opening became audible, as the spaceship was drenched with 300,000 gallons of water to protect it from sound waves generated by the rockets’ blast. The rockets ignited at T-minus six-seconds, reaching 90 percent of thrust in three seconds, and “you’re on your way.”
Bobko then showed several videos depicting different angles of a launch in slow motion as he pointed to the different shuttle parts on the screen. The talk concluded with roughly 25 minutes of questions from the audience.
Bobko was asked when he decided to become an astronaut. He said his interest was aroused initially when his father suggested that he apply for the first class at the then new U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1955.
In addition to the bachelor’s degree he earned from the academy, Bobko also holds a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
After graduating from the academy, he trained as a pilot at Bartow Air Base in Florida and Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. In addition to his NASA experience, he has logged more than 6,600 hours of flight time in several different aircraft, including F-100s, F-104s and T-105s, according to his NASA biography.
Another questioner wanted to know if astronauts were allowed to take any personal items with them into space. Bobko said that each astronaut could nominate 20 items for a “personal preference kit” that would accompany them on their missions. The items had to be pre-approved by NASA headquarters and were weight-limited, he said. Deciding which items to take was a quick process, he said. He brought several shuttle medallions with him on his missions, because “your siblings and parents and aunts and uncles and everybody and friends want one of these medallions that have flown in space,” he said.
On a more personal note, one audience member wanted to know how many astronauts got sick in space. About half, Bobko said, usually on their first flight. He himself suffered a bout of motion sickness on his first liftoff but never again had any difficulty.
He logged 386 hours in space as a NASA astronaut from 1969 to 1988, he said. During that time, he completed three missions, including the April 1983 flight of the Challenger as pilot. The Challenger exploded on a later mission in 1986, just 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members. Bobko “knew very well” three of the crew who died — Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith and Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka.
He commanded two other shuttle missions: the Discovery, in April 1985; and the Atlantis, in October 1985.
While on the Challenger, Bobko and his crew conducted the first shuttle spacewalk, carried out materials-processing experiments and recorded lightning activities, according to NASA. The Discovery mission included deploying two communication satellites and performing an echocardiograph — using sound waves to create live images of the heart — and electrophoresis — a technique used to separate charged molecules, like DNA, by size. The Atlantis crew’s mission launched the Magellan space probe from the shuttle’s caargo bay.
While on one of the missions, Bobko said, he was sleeping in his chair when he heard clicking noises. “I found as the commander that the nice place to sleep was just in the commander’s chair and loosely hook up the belt buckles, so you were kind of in a little cage,” he said. He turned around and noticed one of his crew members taking pictures of the Earth from out the window. Bobko asked why he wasn’t resting, and the crew member answered, “This may be the last time I orbit. Who knows what’s going to happen from now? I want to get enough of an experience and get as many good pictures as I possibly can.”
Bobko now lives south of San Francisco with his wife, Frances, and works for a company that operates and maintains NASA flight simulators. He has one son, who lives in Manhattan, and one daughter, who lives in San Francisco.
He said that being an astronaut was a wonderful experience. “People treat you very well,” he said. “You meet lots of great people [and] have what I consider really important problems to solve and the satisfaction of that happening.”