Tag Archives: space shuttle

Charles Walker: the first commercial astronaut

Charles Walker on the Space Shuttle in November 1985

Last night I attended another one of the monthly Arizona Space Business Roundtable events held here in Tucson to bring together the business-oriented space community of this city.

The speaker was Charles Walker, who had flown three shuttle missions in 1984 and 1985, but not as a NASA-employed astronaut but as an employee of McDonnell-Douglas, making him the first astronaut to fly in space under the employ of a private commercial company.

Walker’s job then was to monitor and maintain a drug-processing unit designed to produce large quantities of pure biological hormones that on Earth were simply not possible. Gravity polluted the process, while weightlessness acted to purify things. If successful the hormone produced could be sold to fight anemia, especially in individuals taking radiation treatments. The image on the right shows him on his third and last shuttle mission, launched November 26, 1985. He is working with a handheld protein crystal growth experiment, with the larger hormone purifying experiment on the wall behind this.

According to Walker’s presentation yesterday, this third flight in November 1985 demonstrated the process worked and could produce as much as one liter of hormone, enough to easily make back the cost of the project and leave room for an acceptable profit. They were thus ready for fullscale production on future shuttle flights, only to have the entire project die when the Challenger shuttle was lost on January 28, 1986. With that failure President Reagan declared that the shuttle would no longer be used for commercial flights.

Their business plan had been dependent on the artificially low launch prices NASA had been charging them for shuttle flights. Without the shuttle there was then no affordable alternative for getting into orbit.

The process is still viable, and the need for these drugs still exists. Whether they could now be flown on the new cheaper private rockets, on board future private space stations like Bigelow’s B330, remains unknown. A new company would have to pick up the pieces, as McDonnell-Douglas no longer exists, having been absorbed into Boeing.

I personally suspect there is real money to be made here, should someone decide to go for it.

What struck me most while watching Walker speak was the same thing that has struck me whenever I have seen or interviewed any astronaut: He appeared to be such an ordinary down-to-earth human being. He could have been anyone you meet anywhere.

What made him stand out, as he described his upbringing and how he became an astronaut, was not his intelligence or any physical attribute, but his clear willingness to stay focused on his goals, to work has hard as possible to make them come true. What made him succeed was an unwavering commitment. He wanted to get to space, and by gum he was going to do it!

Charles Walker on first flight, August 1984
Walker on his first flight in 1984.

For example, he was too young to fly in the initial space race in the 1960s. When he finally was old enough and ready in the 1970s, NASA’s space program was being shut down. That option seemed dead. So instead, he began looking for another route into space, and found it with private industry and possibility of making money by using weightlessness to produce medicines in space that could not be produced on Earth.

Obviously, luck is always a factor. Had his project been a little delayed, only a year, it would have never flown, and he would never have gone into space. Similarly, he needed to be in the right place at the right time to get this particularly job in the first place.

At the same time, “Luck is a residue of design,” as said by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodges in the 1950s. Walker didn’t give up when the Apollo program died in the 1970s, and thus he put himself in the right place at McDonnell-Douglas when this opportunity arose.

We should all pay close attention. If you have a dream, you need to follow it, with a fearless wholehearted commitment. If you do, you still might not get it as you dreamed, but you will increase your chances, and regardless, you will end up doing far better for yourself and everyone around you.

And you still might end up like Walker, bouncing around in weightlessness out in the vast reaches of outer space.

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Coming and going

There are really only two important stories today concerning space exploration. The story that is getting the most coverage is the big news that the space shuttle Discovery is making its last flight, flying over Washington, DC, as it is delivered to the Smithsonian for permanent display.

Of these stories, only Irene Klotz of Discovery News seems to really get it. This is not an event to celebrate or get excited about. It is the end of an American achievement, brought to a close probably three to five years prematurely so that the United States now cannot even send its own astronauts to its own space station.

The other news, actually far more important, has gotten far less coverage, and includes three different stories all really about the same thing.
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ULA, NASA’s prime contractor for operating the space shuttle, on Friday laid off nine percent of its work force.

USA, NASA’s prime contractor for operating the space shuttle, on Friday laid off nine percent of its work force.

I honestly have to ask: why did it take so long? The last shuttle flight was in July of last year. It couldn’t possibly have required that many people to prepare these spacecraft for display in museums.

Update: Typo corrected. Thank you Erik.

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The space shuttle program officially ended on Wednesday

The space shuttle program officially ended on Wednesday. Note however:

Closeout of the shuttle program is an enormous effort expected to take two years. The program occupied 640 facilities and used more than 900,000 pieces of equipment with a value exceeding $12 billion, according to NASA. Much of the work will take place at Kennedy Space Center, where orbiters have been maintained and prepared for launch. NASA requested $89 million for shuttle transition and retirement work in the 2012 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, but Congress has not yet approved a budget.

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Catching up with the future of the U.S. space program

As I have been traveling for the past week, I have fallen behind in posting stories of interest. Two occurred in the past week that are of importance. Rather than give a long list of multiple links, here is a quick summary:

First, NASA administrator Charles Bolden yesterday announced the museum locations that will receive the retired shuttles. I find it very interesting that the Obama administration decided to snub Houston and flyover country for a California museum. In fact, all the shuttles seem to be going to strong Democratic strongholds. Does this suggest a bit of partisanship on this administration’s part? I don’t know. What I do know is that it illustrates again the politically tone-deaf nature of this administration, especially in choosing the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight to make this sad announcement.

Second, the new budget deal (still pending) included NASA’s budget, with cuts. While requiring NASA to build a super-duper heavy-lift rocket (the program-formerly-called-Constellation) for less money and in less time than was previously allocated to Constellation, the budget also frees NASA from the rules requiring them to continue building Constellation. Since the Obama administration has no interest in building the super-duper heavy-lift rocket and has said it can’t be done, I expect they will use the elimination of this rule to slowdown work on the heavy-lift rocket. I expect that later budget negotiations will find this heavy-lift rocket an easy target for elimination, especially when it becomes obvious it is not going to get built.
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The 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s spaceflight

I am on the road today, so posting will be light. Though I have many things to say about today’s historic anniversary, fifty years after the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin, I simply won’t be able to post them. However, I plan to express some of my thoughts on the John Batchelor Show at 11:30 pm (Eastern time) tomorrow. Listen in live, or on his podcast posted shortly after the live show.

The ironies, however, are amazing, and quite depressing. On the same day we celebrate the start of manned space exploration, NASA administrator Charles Bolden will announce where the United States’s three retired shuttles will be put on display. Note also that he does this on the thirtieth anniversary of the first shuttle flight. It is almost as if the Obama administration’s desire to kill the American government space program is so strong that they have to rub salt in the wound as they do it.

I say this not so much because I am in favor of a big government space program (which I am not) but because the timing of this announcement once again illustrates how astonishingly tone-deaf the Obama administration continues to be about political matters.

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