Astronaut William Readdy landed in Louisville this week, and on Wednesday he shared his insights and wisdom with an intimate crowd at Proof on Main. This special event was a luncheon organized by Elizabeth Rounsavall, director of research and analytics at Louisville-based venture capital firm Chrysalis Ventures.
Readdy was in town for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education Annual Conference, which is being held in Louisville from Aug. 11-14. The Challenger Center is named for the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986. The shuttle carried school teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, and one of the shuttle’s missions was for her to teach school lessons from outer space.
The astronauts’ families formed the Challenger Center in the wake of that tragedy to complete the mission of space-based education. The Center strives to teach school children the STEM-related skills they need to help create the next generation of engineering talent. They do this through Challenger Learning Centers, of which there are over 40, including in Louisville at the Academy @ Shawnee. The core of each Challenger Learning Center is an interactive computerized simulator with a Mission Control room patterned after the NASA Johnson Space Center and an orbiting space station.
Readdy, 62, is a NASA veteran, having been to space on three separate missions, logging over 672 hours of space time. He retired from NASA in 2005, and now is the head of Arlington, Va.-based Discovery Partners International, which helps private firms apply technologies first developed for space exploration.
He is also a past chairman of the Challenger Center and was awarded the agency’s top honor, the President George H.W. Bush Award, which has only been awarded six times since its inception in 1995, including to the former president, and First Lady Barbara Bush.
With his mustache and intense eyes, Readdy still looks every bit the astronaut today, though he’s just a bit grayer than the picture presented in his official bio.
As our lunch at Proof concluded, Rounsavall thanked Readdy and gave him a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, a site almost as uncommon as an astronaut.
He then made a few impromptu remarks. He noted how the Challenger Center’s mission is not only to teach children, but, just as crucially, teach teachers. “So now they feel confident teaching the STEM subjects,” he said. “Every one of those teachers is going to see 30 kids. They are the ones that inspire and educate.”
Once the teachers get over their phobias of these subjects, he added, they allow the students to engage with the equipment, which enables them to feel like they are at mission control, solving real problems.
After his remarks, IL got a chance to interview Readdy one-on-one. He answered each question thoroughly and eagerly, a combination of hard-nosed, data-driven scientist and poet.
Kentucky has a large aerospace industry; in fact it exported $5.6 billion worth of products in 2013, the most of any industry in the state. How much, we asked, should space exploration focus on commercialization efforts, and how much should be for the sake of discovery?
He said the two work together, noting how Charles Lindbergh flew a solo mission in 1927 across the Atlantic, but just a handful of years later such trips were common, as commercial aviation took off. It wasn’t government that drove the industry, he said, though it has a part to play.
“The role of government is to break the trail, develop the technologies and make them available,” he said.
He noted that every part of technology in my iPhone–which I used to record his interview–was first developed by the space program, funded by the government. Though over time private industry, driven by a commercial imperative, improved upon all the technology, by multiples.
“That phone right there’s got more computing power than the entire mission control during the Apollo era,” he said.
Next we had to ask: What’s it like to see Earth from space?
“There’s a lot to that question,” he said. “On the shuttle we would actually fly into orbit upside down, so you had the Earth in the window as you were flying this trajectory. So you get very focused toward the end of your 8 minute and 32 second ascent and you finally get to the point where the main engines are throttled back to idle and you’re still accelerating at 3Gs, and then instantaneously they shut down, and it’s almost like hitting a brick wall. ”
Then all the shuttle’s various checklists and pencils float on their tethers, he said, and your arms float, but the focus remains on doing the job at hand, as there are tasks to complete, and switches to throw.
“Finally someone on your first flight bangs you on your arm and points up, which is actually down, and there you see the Earth for the first time out the window,” he said. “And I would say the universal reaction is just your mouth drops wide open, it’s just such a feeling of awe.”
He adds that he couldn’t help but think that just a little over eight minutes before he was on the launchpad on his back, on Earth, and now he’s in orbit, going 5 miles every second, around the world, 18,000 miles an hour. The planet is orbited every 90 minutes, with sunsets and sunrises every 45 minutes.
Things look different from above. “Australia looks like Mars,” he said. “It’s got the reddest dirt in the interior you can imagine. The tongue of the ocean off the Bahamas is the deepest blue you’ve ever seen. Oddly enough there are only two places on the planet you ever remember as being green. And they are actually opposite places on the planet: Ireland, and New Zealand. Both of which have similar rain patterns.”
The Aleutian chain, in the wintertime, combines a deep blue ocean with flowing ice, which combine to resemble cream poured into coffee, he said. In the distance are cinder-cone volcanoes that make up the Ring of Fire, some covered in snow, but active.
The most amazing sight, he said, was flying through the Aurora Borealis, as he got to pass through these undulating curtains of colored light.
“You have difficulty ever tearing yourself away to get some sleep,” he said.
How did these experiences change him? “If it transformed me, as an engineer and pilot, into an advocate for the planet. Everyone should have a chance to go do that if they want,” he said. “You can de-orbit, come home, and spend the rest of your life on terra-firms, but you can’t ever erase any of those things.
“What stays with you is the fact that from space the Earth is a single planet, obviously, but it also appears to have a single ocean and a single atmosphere,” he said. “And what man has built, what man has done, appears insignificant compared to the grandeur of the entire planet.
“As you’re going 5 miles a second you go over trouble spots in the blink of an eye. None of that is apparent to you: the cultural, political, religious, racial, all those kinds of things are invisible to you. What a nice idea. If you could transport the world leaders up there, maybe you could transform their ideas.”