Astronauts share stories of space travel at MSU

October 12, 2017 10:51:47 AM

Isabelle Altman - [email protected]


Astronaut Charlie Duke got into the NASA spacecraft for the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 only to see his seat was labeled: "Typhoid Mary's seat." 


It was a reference to Duke catching the measles two years earlier and getting astronaut Ken Mattingly sick days before Mattingly was supposed to go to the moon in Apollo 13, the infamous mission in which an oxygen tank exploded, causing the crew to shut down power on the ship and miss their chance at walking on the moon.  


That was one of the many stories Duke, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise and NASA engineer Jerry Bostick told the packed Bettersworth Auditorium at Lee Hall on Mississippi State University's campus Wednesday night, which celebrates MSU's new partnership with the Astronauts Scholarship Foundation. 


Bostick was a senior at MSU in the early 1960s, a civil engineering student who had already accepted a job with Boeing when he was told to go interview with a NASA recruiter from Langley Research Center. 


The recruiter had come to campus and had no one to talk to. Bostick wasn't supposed to tell the recruiter he already had a job. 


"Unfortunately I don't remember his name, but I wish I did," Bostick said. "Because he convinced me that if I wanted to be a structural engineer that the only place in the world to be ... was Langley. So I called Boeing and said, 'Forget it, I'm not coming.'" 


That's how his NASA career began, he said: at and because of MSU. 


It didn't take long for Bostick to realize he didn't like doing research at Langley -- he wanted to work on "real problems," he said. That was how he became involved in NASA's Apollo program. 




Sharing stories 


On Wednesday, Bostick focused mainly on interviewing the two astronauts. Between his questions, and questions from the audience, the conversation ranged from story to story, touching on everything from childhood heroes -- Duke's were World War II veterans while Haise's was the editor of the local newspaper -- to the possibility of putting people back on the moon or even Mars -- Duke said he thinks it will happen, though Haise pointed out that as more private companies consider dipping their toe in space travel, it might become a game of investments and returns. 


They also talked about their own experiences in space.  


Duke, a lunar module pilot for the Apollo 16 mission, was only 36 when he left a picture of his family on the moon in 1972. To this day, that's still the youngest person to have ever set foot on the moon. 


What he remembers most is the beauty, he said -- the brightness of the moon and the jet black of space. 


"I was in awe," he said. "Being on the moon is awe-inspiring, it's beautiful, it's emotional, its wonder, just looking at the beauty. ... That excitement lasted for the whole three days we were on the moon." 


He also talked about "the dumbest deal I ever did in space" -- jumping and nearly falling over onto his back, which could have crushed his equipment and killed him. At the last minute, he managed to twist right and break his fall. 


"It was a crazy thing to do," he said. "We were just having fun and we thought having the moon Olympics would be a great thing to do. But then after that it wasn't so much fun because it was scary. ... It lasted just a few seconds and then I realized it was OK." 




Apollo 13 


Haise reminisced on the Apollo 13 mission. He, mission commander Jim Lovell and command module pilot Jack Swigert were 55 hours into the mission when the oxygen tank exploded. The three astronauts had to "rough it" in the lunar module for four days when they turned off the power in the "mother ship," Haise said. At the time, Haise said, it was disappointing to not be able to land on the moon -- he was supposed to go back in a later mission that was canceled -- but now he thinks he was lucky to be involved in moon missions at all. 


Bostick said he thought the first big mistake NASA made was ending the Apollo program. 


"And the second one was the cancellation of the shuttle program," he added. 


But Duke pointed out the political climate was changing in the '70s. 


"We had accomplished everything Kennedy envisioned: Go to the moon, return safely," he said. "And I think in the last missions, if we killed somebody, if we left somebody on the moon, it was going to really change the political future for NASA. So they wanted to not do that, and they wanted to divert the money to space shuttles." 


The three are all retired from NASA now. Haise now spends his time traveling the country and talking to students -- but he doesn't necessarily tell them to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). 


"I don't tell them to be an engineer or a scientist," Haise told The Dispatch at a press event before. "I tell them to figure out as early as they can what they like to do and what's interesting in school, what they enjoy, what they don't mind doing what they don't like, and try to focus on a career path that will best utilize those attributes, because we're all different. We're all born with some talent." 






The Astronauts Scholarship Foundation awards $10,000 in scholarship to 45 students each every year. This year is the first year MSU students will be eligible for the scholarship. It's one of only 35 universities involved in the program -- and the only one in Mississippi, MSU president Mark Keenum said. 


Keenum, who grew up during the space race and said he was 8 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, said he felt "like a kid in a candy store" meeting the astronauts and Bostick. 


"Today our nation continues to be a leader in space travel, in space disciplines and disciplines that we excel at here in Mississippi State," Keenum said. "I'm so proud of the success of our Mississippi State University students excelling in science and technology, engineering and mathematics." 


It was Mercury 7 astronauts who started the program back in the '60s, Haise told The Dispatch. 


"The basic theme is to pick the best of the best, students who potentially are going to make a difference," he said.