Astronaut speaks space to students

David Hyland

When astronaut Susan Helm first went into space, she didn’t realize the height to which she had gone.
“I grew two inches taller in space,” Helm said. “That I did not expect. That was because the spinal column elongates without the effect of gravity.”
This was just one of many stories and experiences Helm, a former Air Force engineer, shared Friday at a lecture at Akerman Hall. Before an audience of more than 100, Helm discussed her numerous space shuttle missions as well as various questions about the future and direction of NASA.
A lack of high-profile missions and shrinking budgets have brought NASA under fire in recent years. Many fiscally conservative lawmakers have taken shots at a space program they argue is unfocused.
William Garrard, who heads the University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, disagrees. He said NASA’s focus is to conduct more, less-expensive missions, similar to how it operated in NASA’s early days.
“I think NASA has really come back to what it was in the ’60s,” Garrard said.
The cost of the Viking probes to Mars in the mid-1970s cost $3 billion in equivalent value to 1997 dollars; this summer’s Pathfinder mission cost $250 million, according to NASA estimates.
An important difference now, however, is the space agency’s current projects don’t enjoy the same widespread popularity of the Apollo program in the 1960s.
Helm said the disinterest stems from the program’s evolvement to a point where space exploration is commonplace.
“Back then, there was all this celebrity attached to the space program and in particular the astronauts,” Helm said. “We don’t feel that now; I never get recognized. Those guys got recognized like they were movie stars.”
Despite the low profile of each mission, Helm said the importance of each is crucial to the eventual accomplishment of major goals, like the planned mission to Mars.
“What we’re really taking are baby steps to getting more and more adept at living in space,” Helm said. “Baby steps are hard to see.”
Although Helm said she would like to travel to Mars, she might be too old when manned missions are scheduled to begin.
Such a possibility is not out of the question, however. Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. and Apollo astronaut John Glenn announced he was returning to the space program. The 77-year-old Glenn, D-Ohio, is scheduled to fly on the space shuttle in October.
From the time of Glenn’s Apollo mission, NASA and the University have had a long history of partnerships. The space agency has given grants to University departments like aerospace engineering, physics and astronomy. NASA also helped in the construction of Shepherd Labs on campus.
Because of budget cutbacks and NASA’s new willingness to form partnerships with private contractors, many other University collaborative programs have been halted. Both Garrard and Andrew Vano, University professor of Design for Aerospace Engineering, deplore the loss of a joint-design program between students and NASA.
Despite the slim budgets, the University still cooperates with NASA on some projects. Vano, a former aerospace engineer for NASA, and his students are designing a new spacecraft — a reusable launch vehicle, which they hope to use and launch in collaboration with Northwest Airlines.
“Space is really a destiny for mankind,” Vano said, “We’re on the shores of this huge ocean, and we’re going to explore it.”