It is one of the smallest clubs on Earth.
The men and women who have left this planet reflected about why they were compelled to try to venture into space, and described an experience that remained fresh and compelling despite the Columbia disaster.
Senator John Glenn, 81, was one of the original Mercury astronauts, made famous in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff. When he thinks about it, he said, it is hard to describe just how incredible it feels to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
“You try and imagine in advance what it is going to be like, and it is better than anything you could possibly imagine,” he said. He marvelled at how far the Nasa programme had come since its infancy. “In the early days, we were concerned about whether we could even do these flights and whether your eyes would change shape and things like that,” he recalled.
Colonel Jack Robert Lousma, who joined the Nasa team in 1966, also witnessed the space programme’s growth. In 1982, he was the spacecraft commander of the space shuttle Columbia’s third test flight.
“We understand that you can be killed doing this, but it is something that comes with the turf,” he said. But he said the risks were well worth the rewards. “Going through the launch is an exhilarating ride,” Lousma said. But when it is time to come back home, he said, “You know you have to stick your neck out a little bit more.”
He described the sights and feeling of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at night: “First, there is a pale peachy glow and the deeper you get, the peach colour changes to orange and then to white and it looks like a fluorescent light and then you pop into daylight.”
Captain Winston E. Scott has flown on both the Endeavor and the Columbia space shuttles. He said that one of the things that struck him about the shuttle was how small it was. “It may look large on TV, but with seven people on board, it is like living in a Winnebago.”
Some experiences in space are just plain strange. “It is a weird feeling sleeping in space because you don’t lie down,” he said. “You float.”
Norman E. Thagard, a veteran of five space flights, recalled that four of his friends who came to Nasa when he did in 1978 were killed on the Challenger. “You are just numb for a while,” he said.
Senator Bill Nelson, who flew on the shuttle in January 1986, said that he was well aware of the hazards. “Space flight is a risky business,” he said. “When I flew, there were some 1,500 parts on the space shuttle, any one of which had it failed it would have been a catastrophe for the mission.”