Straight Talk About Space Tourism From Guion Bluford

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Guion Bluford was the first African American to travel in space, serving as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. He then went on to complete three more NASA missions, compiling 688 hours in space by the time he retired. Bluford spoke at the Grand Rapids Public Museum as part of the “Roger That!” celebration honoring astronaut Roger B. Chafee from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Presented with the opportunity to ask a real, live astronaut any question I wanted, I asked about his thoughts on space tourism and colonization.  He felt that we were far off from colonization and was not bullish on tourism.  Since I still had his attention I followed up and asked, “Why not?”

His answer was graphic.

“Because You Will Barf.”

“The human body is not designed for zero-G”, Bluford said.  “You put your suit on, the ship takes off and it’s exciting! It’s SO FAST! And then you’re up so high, and going so fast and you look out and there is the horizon! And it’s curved! You see the atmosphere and you keep going – and you notice everyone around you is barfing. And then you start barfing. Only 30% of the population can handle zero gravity, and this includes trained astronauts. ”

“Now think.  If you were taking a 12 hour flight to Bejing, and you knew that 70% of the people on the plane were going to be puking all around you; you might consider a different means of transportation. A boat, maybe.”

“I Want to Make People Pay Me to Have a Good Time.”

Guion Bluford did not want to be an astronaut when he was a child.  He loved math and model airplanes, and followed those passions where they led.  He was more determined to have a good time, and be paid while doing it.  Bluford applied to be an astronaut in 1977 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in aerospace engineering, undergoing pilot training in the U.S. Air Force, flying combat missions in the Vietnam War, and receiving a master’s degree and PhD in aerospace engineering.

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Working In Space

Walking is very different. “Don’t take too large of a step” advises to Bluford.  Otherwise, you can’t get back.  It’s not like walking in Earth’s gravity.  He explained that at first, astronauts were tethered – otherwise, one giant step in space meant a crew member would go into orbit around the Earth and his wife would just have to look up and wave and say “Well. There goes my husband” every time he went by. Then NASA developed a scooter that allowed the astronauts to control their movement better.

Malfunctions have higher stakes in space then they do on Earth.  Bluford recounted a story about a satellite that was to be launched during one mission.  The rocket malfunctioned, and the satellite ended up going into the wrong orbit.  At that point, there wasn’t anything they could do. “When the people who owned that satellite found out; they were PISSED,” Bluford said.

Eating In Space

Guion Bluford loved the food in space. He explained that there was an entire division of NASA responsible for space meals.  For his first couple of missions, he said, they just told you what to eat, but then they lightened up and let you choose.  Taste buds tend to get numb during the missions so he liked spicy things like shrimp in hot sauce and ate it as much as possible.  And the freeze-dried ice cream we all think of as “astronaut ice cream”? It has never actually been in space.

In addition to the meals, there were snack drawers with things like trail mix and M&M’s.  The drawers also had packets of cashews, which Bluford ate “every last one of on the entire ship” within the first couple of days of being in space.

“You have to be careful” he said. Your meal floats away. The astronauts learned to Velcro their meal trays to their knees and eat one thing at a time. Dabbling in different dishes doesn’t work without gravity as whatever you are not eating tends to drift off. A sure-fire way to identify a rookie astronaut was to see who forgot to put a cap on their straw. Otherwise, their drink comes up through the straw and away it goes.

The Worst Thing About Being In Space

The worst thing about being in space isn’t being in space at all, according to Bluford.  It’s the training.  It takes two and a half years and is extremely intense.  People burn out, he said.  There is only so much you can remember anyway.

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The saddest thing about a shuttle mission comes from the mission checklist.  There are experiments, measurements, satellite launches, and payload deliveries.  “You are always working” said Bluford.  “When you hit the point on your checklist when it says ‘bring vehicle home’ – that’s very saddening.”

Space is fun, and Guion Bluford wanted to stay there as long as possible; he succeeded in achieving his early goal of getting people to pay him to have a good time.

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