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Five minutes with astronaut Mike McCulley on Lewis & Clark, the final frontier, and human nature

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Humans are a strange species. One can be pushing 60 and a chance encounter with a childhood hero turns him into a little boy.

I outed an astronaut today.

I’m standing in a crowded elevator and next to me is Mike McCulley, a space shuttle Atlantis commander. You’re humble correspondent immediately blurted, “You’re an astronaut,” unleashing a shower of questions from the other riders: When? Who? You? Can I take your picture?

Poor guy could barely get out of the Capitol building.

I blame John Glenn for my sudden star-struck reaction. When he blasted off into space Sister Mary Lucy’s kindergarten class collectively held its breath to help his rocket escape earth’s gravity. Forty some years later when Glenn was preparing to return to space on a Discovery mission my 2nd grade son, out of the blue —well, he was trying to delay going to bed — asked, “Did you hear what John Glenn is doing?”

Wow, I thought. The old Buckeye was still inspiring children. Now, that’s cool; inspiring across generations.

McCulley walked the halls of the state Capitol Wednesday as part of 2015 Florida Space Day — a lobbying effort by the aerospace community for state support. Its legislative agenda includes seeking a couple of tax refunds for the industry, a sales and use tax exemption and the governor’s proposed $10 million for Space Florida business development.

McCulley agreed to a five minute Q & A to talk about life in space, Lewis & Clark and human nature. However, once securing the interview, your correspondent once again lost his cool and became star struck.

Q: What’s it like going into space, living in space?

McCULLEY: Well, that’s actually three questions. There’s the getting there, which is the rocket ride. Eight and a half minutes of high energy — huge amount of energy, actually — and it’s a ride. High G-forces and vibrations, speed, speed, speed until you get to eight-and-a-half minutes later when you obtain orbital velocity. That’s the first part — getting there.

Then, there’s the being there. Living, working, eating in zero gravity is different because from the time you are conceived you’ve got gravity for everything you do so without gravity it is different.

Q: How so?

McCULLEY: Like a screwdriver. Down here on the ground, you’ve got gravity pushing your feet down and you got traction. So, you turn the screw and it backs out but if you are floating and you try to take a screwdriver what is going to turn is you and the screw is going to stay right where it is.

Q: What did you think of the view?

McCULLEY: That’s the best part. I loved working, living and experiencing zero gravity but the view is —one of the reasons I loved being a pilot so much was because you are up higher and you see more. 

From the shuttle you can see the curvature of the Earth. You can see the atmosphere from the top. If you get the sun angle right you can see an oil spill from hundreds of miles away.

You see the beauty of the oceans and the mountains. Cities are mostly all gray. What you really see well is contrast —like blue water and white beach. 

Q: The sugar-white beaches of Panama City can be seen from space?

McCULLEY: Yes. Florida actually sticks out because it is a peninsula surrounded by water; it is a contrast. 

Q: Talking about Florida, Space Day is an opportunity to promote the aerospace industry. Why is spending tax dollars to support the industry and scientific research a good investment?

McCULLEY: Look! Let’s go back to Lewis & Clark. Go study Lewis & Clark. What they did. They headed out across the West and went all the way and had hardship and people died and they did it on a budget from Congress.

So, they get back and they’ve opened up the West and they learned all sorts of things. They get back and they go back to Congress and Congress has a big stick in its butt because they had overspent their budget.

Columbus had to go beg the Queen of Spain to get the money to go exploring —Where you going to go? What are you going to get?’— They thought they were going to get riches but what they got was the New World.

You invest in exploration.

Q: It’s the final frontier?

McCULLEY: It is. You know the Norwegians rode across the dab gum North Atlantic; they were the first ones actually, probably, to be in North America. They couldn’t find anything they liked so they turned around and went home. 

But you explore. It is human nature to explore. What is around the corner? What is over the hill?

Anyway, we are almost out of time. That’s getting there and being there and it’s three parts, getting back. It takes about an hour to get back — eight –and-a-half minutes to get there, an hour to get back. You fly it back and you land. Then your mission is over and you go figure out what you did and what you learned.

NOTE: McCulley agreed to a five-minute interview. He said, “we are almost out of time,” at the five-minute mark of the recording. Astronauts are so cool!

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