Former Astronaut Guy Gardner speaks about flying in space at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Sept. 13. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Guy Gardner, a former NASA astronaut who piloted two shuttle missions aboard the orbiter Columbia, told an audience of about 50 men and women that he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an astronaut. Gardner gave a video presentation about “Flying in Space” at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., on Thursday, Sept. 13, as part of the church’s monthly Men’s Luncheon and Speaker Series.

Even as a young child growing up in Virginia, he would sit for hours and read his science fiction magazines and dream of traveling into space. But in 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American launched into space, Gardner’s dream of becoming an astronaut became more than a childhood fantasy.

Gardner asked attendees to imagine themselves getting ready to blast off on the shuttle. He said he and his fellow astronauts looked like “orange Gumbies” wearing their orange, bulky, pressure suits as they climbed aboard the shuttle. Imagine being strapped to a seat bolted down to four million pounds of high explosive rocket fuel and then somebody lighting the fuse, Gardner said .

“There is a lot of shaking and vibrating as you are pushed back into your seat from the acceleration of six million pounds of rocket engine thrust,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the sheer force of 3-Gs makes breathing hard, let alone attempting to pilot the space shuttle.

“Finally after eight and half minutes, you accelerate to a speed of 17,500 miles a hour (about five miles a second),” he said. “Now, imagine being up in orbit 200 miles above the planet as you float over to the window. What do you see?’ It’s not that picture of the blue ball floating in space. That’s what the astronauts got to see on their way back from the moon.”

Gardner said the space shuttle is only about “300 miles above this 8,000 mile diameter planet, so it fills your field of view.”

“As you look down you can see all the different colors and the topography of the earth,” he said.

He said at the speed of 17,500 miles a hour you can travel around the earth in 90 minutes. Gardner added that the sense of speed you experience is “not that great,” noting that human beings judge speed by the rate of the angular change their looking at.

“That’s why if feels like you’re traveling a lot faster along a dirt country road at 40 miles a hour, as mailboxes and trees fly by you, then if you’re out on the interstate at 65 miles a hour,” he said.

The audience erupted in laughter when Gardner added the hardest part of being in space was getting up out of bed every 45 minutes. If you miss the sunset don’t worry there will be another one in 45 minutes.

He said being up in space is like looking out the window of a commercial airliner and seeing the cities and towns going by, but instead of cities and towns you’re looking at countries, continents and oceans.

“It is awesomely awesome to look at the Earth from space,” Gardner said.

From their chairs in the auditorium attendees could imagine themselves looking out the window of the space shuttle as they saw photos of Greenland, the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Tibetan Plateau, the Coast of Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, an active volcano in Japan, a hurricane, and many more breathtaking photos shot from space.

Gardner, who currently is president of the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Media, described his experience in space as “exciting, fun, meaningful and awesome.”

Gardner’s new mission is helping to prepare underprivileged “deserving young men to be useful and respected members of society” by learning a trade in carpentry, masonry, paint and coatings technology, machine tool technology, power plant technology, and horticultural, landscaping, and turf management.

Following the video presentation, Gardner answered questions from the audience.

One attendee asked what he thought of the recent demise of the Space Shuttle program.

He replied, “it’s about time.”

“Personally, I think it was the right thing to do because of the risk associated with it and the expense,” Gardner said. “The shuttle was simply a vehicle to get the parts of the space shuttle in orbit.”

He described NASA’s role in the space station as “being in the truck driving business.”

“Now that the space station is complete and the space shuttle is retired, NASA can focus their efforts on exploration beyond the earth’s orbit,” Gardner said. “I think it’s a very exciting time it just doesn’t look that way because we’re not putting people up in orbit as often.”

He added that the space station still has a new crew of astronauts every six months and that NASA is considering extending that time to study the long-term effects of space travel.

When asked why the United States continues to spend money on the space station and space exploration, Gardner said, “I happen to believe as an individual if I am not moving forward and embracing new challenges then I am moving backwards.”

Gardner ended the presentation by pointing out that you don’t have to be an astronaut to have an “exciting, fun, meaningful and awesome” life you just have to have a “relationship with the creator of the universe.”