DOTHAN – Wiregrass teachers got the rare chance to ask a NASA astronaut about his recent journey into space during a Troy University Wiregrass Math & Science Consortium meeting at the Dothan Campus. Members of the Consortium spoke with NASA Mission Specialist Doug Wheelock via teleconference about his October mission aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
Wheelock told the teachers that he experienced lift off from the shuttle’s flight deck. From that vantage point, the airplane pilot and engineer was able to experience all the sights, sounds and smells of lift off.
“Sitting on the shuttle was like riding on an I-beam or a steal beam,” Wheelock said. “You can feel the vibrations pass you.”
The astronaut explained that he wore mirrors on his wrists so that he could peek out of overhead windows. The mirrors offered a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant flame trenches below him.
During the mission, Wheelock completed three spacewalks. He and a fellow astronaut worked to mend a solar array while out in space.
“Going out the hatch for the first time is a more eye-opening experience than launch, landing and everything else combined,” Wheelock said. “You realize your life is in your own hands. You need to stay tethered. Your suit becomes your best friend. It is your own spaceship.”
Wheelock spoke about the Earth’s beauty, the vast darkness of space and the brilliance of the stars. The planet’s blue water, white clouds and brown deserts captivated him. Ocean reefs, snow-capped mountains, lightning storms and the aurora were all visible from space.
“The visuals are so dramatic and stark and in your face,” Wheelock said. “It is hard to concentrate at first. The experience becomes increasingly profound.”
The shuttle orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, according to Wheelock. That means the astronauts watched the sun rise and set every 45 minutes.
The temperature was in constant flux. When they were positioned in the sun’s direct rays on the daylight side of the Earth, the heat climbed as high as 350 degrees. Conditions quickly fell to 275 degrees below zero, when the sun’s rays disappeared behind the Earth.
Sandy Armstrong, co-director of the Consortium, speaks regularly with Wheelock and was present at Kennedy Space Center with several other Wiregrass teachers during the launch last fall. She said Wheelock is committed to helping teachers and students in rural areas of the country learn about space.
“This was a rare opportunity for our teachers to communicate with an astronaut who recently returned from space,” Armstrong said. “This was his way of keeping Wiregrass teachers and students connected to the space program.”
For more information about the Troy University Wiregrass Math & Science Consortium, call 334-983-6556.