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Bruins in Space

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By Brad A. Greenberg '04, Photos by Michael Tighe

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM


Why They Go

"If I had lived in the 19th century, maybe I would have been a polar guy," Phillips says. "But for my century, the frontier of exploration was space, and I wanted to be on the frontier."

Wang, now a professor at Vanderbilt University, was a scientist sojourning as an astronaut. On loan from Cal Tech for two years, Wang was part of a mission dedicated to science, and he was there to do research on cell encapsulation in the zero gravity realm.

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John Phillips spent two weeks visiting the International Space Station in March.

There is no substitute for that on this planet. Wang knew that. But he also learned that there's really no preparation for leaving Earth.

"It's something that they teach you what to expect, but in reality you never really do," he recalls. "On the launch, the first few minutes, it's a very violent shaking, like a Jeep on a backcountry road. You can't see a lot, you can't do anything. You just bolt down and go for the ride.

But then the universe beckons.

"After the first few minutes you enter the zero-gravity environment and everything changes," Wang continues. "For the first time, you truly are free. You float in mid air and you tend to overreact to the sensation. You basically move by using fingers instead of hands and arms. You push off with your fingers and stop by using your fingers. The legs start to shrink; you lose about an inch or so. But in that sense, when you shrink, it all goes to your face. We call it chipmunk mode."

Musgrave, who made six trips into space, had more time to get used to and appreciate weightlessness and the view from the heavens. A Renaissance man with seven degrees, Musgrave spent three decades at NASA and at age 62 was the oldest person to enter space until John Glenn flew up as a private citizen in 1998. When he was on terra firma, Musgrave was the CAPCOM at the Mission Control Center.

"I liked being the contact point and making perfect calls, looking after the folks upstairs, maintaining their spirit and taking care of them," Musgrave says. "But I liked looking out the window at the stars, the meteors, the city lights. That's spectacular. Zero Gs is marvelous too."

NASA selected its first female Bruin astronaut in 1978.

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Vance Brand in zero gravity during one of the collective 327 days Bruins have spent in space.

Fisher, who still works in management at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, was assigned to her first flight two weeks before giving birth to her oldest child. She delivered Kristin on a Friday and was back in the office three days later for their Monday meeting.

In 1984, on a mission to recover two failed satellites expensively orbiting Earth, Fisher became the first mother to enter space. And if you think that's no small feat, then you've never had a 16-month-old child at home who you weren't sure you were going to ever see again.

"I flew before Challenger and Columbia, but I don't think you're in this business without realizing that possibility exists," Fisher says. "That was the most difficult thing of the entire year: knowing you could get through training but there is also an amount of luck involved."

Fisher's mission was a success and she was assigned to a second flight, the shuttle that would follow the Challenger disaster. But Fisher and her husband, who also is an astronaut, decided to have another daughter and this time Fisher took a leave of absence. She returned seven years later, in 1996, and did some of the testing of the Space Station's robotic arm before it was transported up.

"The most satisfying part," she says, "is being a part of something you really believe in and feeling that in some small way we are part of the beginning of humanity leaving our planet. It is not going to happen as fast as I, or others, would like. But we're hitting those first steps."

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