Without thinking, as we paused at one of the three-dimensional exhibits,
I asked Dad the question I always asked:
"What's it like, out in space?"
Mother shot me a frightened glance. It was too late.
Dad stood there for a full half minute trying to find an answer, then he shrugged.
"It's the best thing in a lifetime of best things."
- From The Rocket Man, by Ray Bradbury
As he stepped out of the silver NASA van onto the rain- slicked apron by Launch Pad 39B, Al Sacco Jr. looked out on a spectacular site. Rising 240 feet atop the huge octagonal pad, space shuttle Columbia seemed to have come alive.
Its giant orange fuel tank burgeoning with supercold liquid hydrogen and oxygen, the shuttle hissed and spit and exhaled cold jets of billowing vapor. Metal creaked and groaned. Valves opened and shut with resounding clanks and bangs. Machinery on the spindly gantries buzzed and hummed. And in the middle of it all, the gleaming white skin of the orbiter blazed in the brilliant light from xenon spotlights, seeming to inhale and exhale as the shadows of the vapor clouds played across it.
It was Oct. 20, 1995 - just before 7 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Sacco and the six other members of the crew of STS-73 were about to board Columbia for the seventh attempt to launch into orbit the second United States Microgravity Laboratory. As one of two payload specialists on the mission, Sacco would spend 16 days inside the lab conducting science in the microgravity environment of space. But right now, his mind was on the beautiful view before him and on the incredibly dangerous thing he was about to do.
Strapped tightly into a seat in the orbiter's middeck, Sacco would be propelled at speeds nearing six miles a second, riding on rocket engines capable of cranking out nearly seven and a half million pounds of thrust, into a world without air and where a collision with a bit of space junk could result in instant obliteration. But he was also about to realize the dream of a lifetime: to go where only 326 other human beings have gone before and to see the Earth, the universe - and his own life - from the vantage point of 150 nautical miles up. It was an experience that would change him forever.
Al Sacco's voyage into space began more than three decades ago in Belmont, Mass. The son of a former professional boxer and successful restaurant owner, Sacco grew up in a tight-knit Italian-American family that believed in hard work. Sacco did work hard - in school, on the athletic field at Belmont High School, and in Mario's, his father's restaurant - all the while eagerly following the Space Race and dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut himself.
He studied chemical engineering at Northeastern University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in the same discipline at MIT. With a NASA grant, he designed a regenerative life-support system to convert metabolic carbon dioxide from the air inside spacecraft to water. In 1976 he submitted his application to the astronaut corps, but was turned down. Assuming his dream of spaceflight was at an end, he joined the faculty at WPI, where he is now, 18 years later, head of the Chemical Engineering Department.
In 1983, a conversation with a fellow faculty member started Sacco down a new path that would ultimately take him to that rainy October morning in Florida. The late Len Sand, a chemical engineering professor and renowned expert on zeolites, convinced Sacco to think about the microgravity of space as a possible breeding ground for large and highly valuable versions of these aluminum and silicon crystals, which are used as sieves and catalysts in many industries - especially petroleum refining.
From that conversation came a student-built experiment that flew into space as part of a package of WPI experiments in 1990. That experiment led, in turn, to a major space-based zeolite research program, supported by NASA and Battelle Advanced Materials Center, that flew an experiment on the first United States Microgravity Laboratory in 1992. As that experiment was in development, Sacco learned that NASA need ed two payload specialists for the mission - scientists who would train to be astronauts and then carry out a host of scientific experiments in orbit.
Sacco was one of four scientists ultimately chosen to compete for the two flight slots. He spent more than a year in training only to learn that he would be a stand-by. Devastated, he carried out the duties of an alternate payload specialist during the USML-1 mission, which included working long shifts at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama as the primary communication link with the astronauts orbiting overhead. After the shuttle landed, he returned to Worcester, an exhausted and emotionally drained almost-astronaut.
"We live in a success-oriented society," he says. "The fact that you train to be an astronaut and do everything the other crew members do means nothing if you don't fly. I could see that in people's faces when I'd give talks. They'd ask me what it was like in space, and I'd tell them I hadn't been there. You could see their faces sink. It made me feel crummy."
A few years later, NASA began gearing up for a second USML mission, and once again the call went out for payload specialists. Sacco's name was submitted and, out of the thousands of candidates, he was chosen to be part of a pool of fewer than 15 contender s. As before, he was grilled by a panel of science experts, who narrowed the field to six. Then Sacco underwent a battery of physical tests, made a presentation to a NASA review panel about why he thought he should be chosen, and submitted to an FBI background check before returning to Worcester to await the verdict, hoping his expertise and his experience with the first USML mission would make a difference.
They call them flashbulb memories - moments so powerful they become permanently seared into our brain tissue. For some, they include the day John F. Kennedy was shot, or the morning Challenger blew up. For Al Sacco, the flashbulb exploded the day he got "The Call."
He was sitting in the family room of his home in Holden, Mass., with his wife, Terri, watching a rerun of an old Star Trek episode. As the Enterprise and its crew boldly slipped among the stars, the phone rang. It was Kathy Thornton, the astronaut best known as a member of the crew of space walkers who helped repair the nearsighted Hubble telescope. "I didn't know Kathy," Sacco says, "but I'd read that she'd been chosen to be payload commander for the USML-2 mission. So I knew this was going to be very good or very bad news."
Getting right to the point, Thornton said simply, "Al, welcome to the USML-2 crew. You've been selected to fly." Sacco was elated. The official announcement of his selection came two weeks later, and then in the spring of 1994, he began the lengthy process of training. For 18 months, he learned everything he could about the 20 experiments slated to fly on USML-2. And he learned, once again, how to be an astronaut - how to prepare for the rigors of launch and reentry, how to eat, sleep and go to the bathroom in microgravity, what to do in the case of innumerable problems and malfunctions that might occur on the orbiter, and how to survive (or at least attempt to survive) the truly serious malfunctions that can threaten the survival of the shuttle and its crew.
Sacco says the training was easier this time around because he had been through it before and because there would be a ride into space at the end of it all. But the thrill of being a payload specialist, and not an alternate, also brought with it a tremendous weight of responsibility. "The hardest part of the mission was worrying about whether I was going to screw up somebody's experiment," he says. "Some experimenters had worked 10 years to get on the shuttle. They were going to have two or three days of my time. If I messed up, God knows when they'd get to fly again."
Despite the pressure, Sacco says he thoroughly enjoyed the launch preparations, in large part because of the chemistry of the USML-2 crew. There was Thornton, a veteran of three space flights who holds master's and doctoral degrees in physics; mission specialist Catherine "Cady" Coleman, making her first shuttle flight, who holds a doctorate in polymer science and engineering; Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, on his first flight, who holds a master's in aeronautical engineering; Navy Commander Kent Rominger, the orbiter pilot, also making his first flight, who has a master's in aeronautical engineering; Navy Commander Ken Bowersox, orbiter commander and veteran of three flights, who has a master's in mechanical engineering; and Sacco's fellow payload specialist Fred Leslie, a NASA research scientist with a Ph.D. in meteorology.
"We just had one of those mixes," Sacco says. "We were a group of people who really gelled."
The space shuttle Columbia has a number of distinctions. It was the first operational shuttle in NASA's fleet, kicking the shuttle program off with its first flight in 1981. In the 17 trips into space it had made prior to USML-2 (constituting 2,500 orbits and 64 million miles), it had developed a reputation as a reliable vehicle in orbit. But it also can be tough to get off the pad. In fact, it holds the record for the most consecutive launch cancellations. During the USML-2 mission, it would come within a hair's breadth of breaking that record.
Due to mechanical problems, computer glitches and bad weather (including a visit by hurricane Opal), the launch of STS-73 would ultimately be delayed six times, enough to tie Columbia's record. For the crew, the delays took a mental toll. "You'd get up in the morning and start trying to make peace with yourself, knowing that in a few hours you might not be around anymore," Sacco says. "You'd get psyched up to do something just to have them say, 'We're canceling - see you next week.' I would feel devastating disappointment, tempered by a feeling of relief that, 'Geez, I've got a little more time."
By NASA protocol, astronauts must go into quarantine seven to 10 days before a flight to minimize the risk of catching something that might be a problem in orbit. By the time Columbia finally flew, the quarantine for the STS-73 crew had stretched to 34 days. "I only got to see my wife in certain areas, most of the time," Sacco says. "I never got to see my sons, my daughters or my granddaughter. They did let us go home for 12-hour periods as the delays continued. But I think the experience was more trying for people on the outside than it was for me. I had the benefit of being part of an outstanding crew. They were my family, too. We would commiserate together, laugh together, cry together."
They also played together. Sacco says he and the other Columbia astronauts passed the time between launch attempts shooting skeet, riding all-terrain vehicles through the Florida swamps, and doing aerobatic maneuvers in T-38 jets out over the deep blue waters of the Atlantic. "I got in between 10 and 15 hours in high-performance aircraft over the course of that month - that's a lot," he says. "I had a ball."
The seventh launch attempt was set for Thursday, Oct. 20. As Sacco and the other crew members arose at 3:30 a.m., the prospect for a launch seemed dim. The weather was rainy and the forecast offered little hope for clear skies. Sacco showered and pulled on a pair of slacks and a dark blue shirt with the USML-2 patch over the pocket - the uniform the crew had agreed to wear that morning. He opened the door to his room just before 4 a.m. and stepped into the hall as Kathy Thornton was leaving her room. "Well, Al," she said. "I think we're going today."
Corollary: The Z Team
Preparations for the launch of a U.S. manned spacecraft have always been a mix of public and private rituals. The first public event that morning was the astronauts' breakfast. The crew sat around a large table and chatted with reporters as breakfast was brought out. Once upon a time, astronauts ate steak and eggs on launch morning, but that tradition was largely left behind before the dawn of the shuttle program. On this morning, no one ate steak and eggs. In fact, no one ate much of anything. Most of the crew was following what came to be called the "Thornton Protocol."
Sacco says astronauts can spend up to six hours strapped into the shuttle before a launch. Anticipating that they may need to urinate during that time, they wear diapers under their space suits.
But Sacco says the shuttle seats place an astronaut's head about six inches lower than his body, which can make urinating difficult. "Kathy learned from experience that if you eat or drink anything on launch morning, your bladder fills up and you get the worst case of having to go to the bathroom you've ever had," he says. "This happened to me during the launch dress rehearsal. I found it impossible to go lying on my back with my head down. It was the worst six hours I ever spent."
The Thornton Protocol calls for avoiding drinking for 12 hours prior to launch. Sacco says it works. So on the morning of Oct. 20, he ate only a handful of dry Cheerios and drank nothing.
From the breakfast room, the astronauts went to the suiting-up area to change out of their casual clothes and into the bright orange pressure suits they would wear for launch and re-entry. Before suiting up, they pulled on their LCGs, or liquid cooling garments (essentially long underwear with plastic tubing stitched into it - water flows through the tubes to keep the crew comfortable inside the insulated suits). Like warriors being dressed for battle, the crew went before the photographers once again as technicians helped them into their pressure suits.
The Operations and Checkout Building, which houses the crew facilities, is just a few miles from Launch Pad 39B. To get there, the crew and the suit technicians ride in streamlined silver vans. The image of the astronauts striding confidently out of the building to board those vans has become one of the signatures of the U.S. space program. But before the STS-73 crew could make that walk, they had to make a decision. Lopez-Alegria had arranged for a friend to make special baseball caps for the crew. The attractive caps featured "STS-73" printed in gold against the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag.
The crew agreed to wear the caps on their ride to the pad. Lopez-Alegria and Sacco suggested that everyone put them on with the bills facing backward, in the style preferred by young people today. Bowersox objected, fearing the gesture could be seen as frivolous and undignified. The crew lobbied him as they descended in the elevator to vans, but he remained unconvinced. Finally they took a vote, and at 6:25 a.m., the seven emerged into the glare of TV spotlights and strobe flashes, smiling broadly, waving, and sporting a look that would go a long way toward meeting a personal goal of Sacco: erasing the image of scientists and engineers as staid, up-tight geeks. "That's my son's favorite picture from the whole mission," Sacco says.
The ride to the pad took 15 minutes. Police cars escorted the caravan and a helicopter flew along overhead as the vehicles made their way through the lush greenery of the Florida swamps. Emerging from the vans, the crew walked to the elevator that would carry them to the White Room, the small enclosure surrounding the shuttle's hatch. The NASA television feed would show them striding down the 65-foot-long orbital access arm and into the White Room several minutes later, but along the way, there was a brief stop to make.
"There is a bathroom on the 195-foot level," Sacco says. "We all decided to use it, which required taking off our suits. The suit techs were not happy. That was the only record we set on this mission. All seven of us used the bathroom, got back in our suits and made it to the White Room with no delay in the timeline. We were really good at getting in and out of those suits, having done it so many times before."
Bowersox, as commander, was first to crawl into Columbia; Sacco was next. He pulled on his Snoopy cap (the white and black cap with a built-in communications headset that astronauts wear under their flight helmets) and crawled through the hatch into the middeck, a 2,600-cubic-foot space that serves as the crew's living room, dining room, bedroom and bathroom. He settled into his seat against the sleeping compartments on the far wall. Technicians helped him buckle and tighten the lap belt and two shoulder harnesses.
It took more than two hours to get the rest of the crew strapped in: Rominger, Lopez-Alegria and Coleman on the flight deck, and Leslie and Thornton side-by-side in the middeck. The hatch was closed just after 8 a.m. and the suit techs made their way back down to the vans. With a tremendous bang, the cabin was pressurized and Columbia was ready for liftoff.
Inside the shuttle, tensions and spirits were both high. The crew bantered over the intercom and good-natured barbs flew back and forth. Sacco was kidded about a bet he'd made that he wouldn't eat NASA spaghetti sauce in orbit. Having grown up in an Italian family, he knew good tomato sauce when he tasted it, and the NASA stuff wasn't it. He didn't know that the crew had brought aboard a freeze-dried version of his wife's sauce for him to enjoy.
For nearly two hours, songs were sung, jokes were told and bladders were discussed as the men and women of Mission Control watched the weather. At some point, Sacco fell asleep. He awoke at the T-20 minute mark, as the count entered a planned hold, then dozed again. The count stopped again at the T-5 mark for a final check of the weather. The dreary skies had parted and sun now shone down on Pad 39B. Through their headsets, the crew heard the verdict from the launch director. "Looks like you folks are going flying today."
Leslie, who was seated between Sacco and Thornton, punched the still sleeping Sacco in the side. "Al, we just went by the five-minute mark." Sacco experienced what he describes as a mild anxiety attack. "For about 30 seconds, I had a vision of my life. I saw my kids being born. I saw my brothers and sisters as we grew up. I had a vision of everyone I really care about. I thought, 'What am I doing here?' Then it all went away and I felt at peace with myself; at peace with everybody around me. I accepted th at what was going to happen was going to happen. It was like being in the hands of God."
With 90 seconds to go, the crew pulled down their visors and turned on the flow of oxygen in their suits. Sacco, Leslie and Thornton exchanged glances and held hands across Leslie's chest. As the count reached the 6.6-second mark, the onboard computer started the three main engines. Sacco heard a muffled roar and felt low-frequency vibrations through his seat as the engines revved to 90 percent of full thrust, rocking the shuttle forward. With a twang, the shuttle came to a stop and began to rock back again. Just then, the clock reached zero and the two solid-fueled boosters erupted with a boom that resonated through the cabin. The shuttle leaped from the pad.
Emerging a few seconds later from a massive cloud of smoke and vapor, Columbia rolled gracefully and headed for space. "When the solids lit, the whole thing started to shudder a lot more," Sacco says. "I felt a compression in my chest as we gradually went uphill to about 2.4 Gs. The vibrations felt as though we were driving over railroad tracks. All the while, we could hear Ken and Kent calling out altitudes and speeds."
The crew waited in near silence for the separation of the solids. No doubt, thoughts about the Challenger explosion - caused by a breach in a seal in one of the boosters - played across their minds. "There are a number of phases of flight that are just as dangerous as those first two minutes," Sacco says, "but that is the only period for which we have no contingencies. For other phases there are contingency plans, which I have to admit, in all honesty, are not likely to help very much, but at least you ca n do something - you can keep your mind active until you obliterate."
The boosters blasted away with a sound like cap guns firing, and suddenly the ride grew smooth and strangely quiet. The main engines continued to burn, but the shuttle, now traveling several thousand miles an hour, was outpacing sound. "All you can hear is your own breathing and the voices over the intercom," Sacco says.
With the solids safely away, the crew became more animated and talkative. As the shuttle climbed to 50 miles - traditionally considered the point where the atmosphere ends and space begins - Bowersox called out, "You're all astronauts, now." A cheer erupted from the entire crew.
The shuttle, having throttled down, began to accelerate again, climbing up to 3.2 Gs. Sacco concentrated on his breathing, but, he says, the hours he'd spent hitting 6 and 7 Gs in the T-38s made 3.2 seem easy. And then, eight and a half minutes after they had ignited, the main engines cut out as the shuttle reached orbit. "We went flying forward in our seats," Sacco says. "It was the most violent portion of the whole ride. I thought I was going to go right through the bulkhead in front of me. No one had told me about that sensation."
Now drifting through space, the shuttle ejected its external fuel tank and began automatically switching on electrical systems, fans and lights, filling the middeck with noise. Still trussed tightly to his seat, Sacco had no sensation of weightlessness. He and Leslie had been instructed to stay put for at least a half hour to get their space legs and to be sure they weren't going to become sick. [Sacco says none of the crew experienced any nausea.] Thornton undid her straps and began to help "safe" the orbiter. Despite the sight of her floating by him, Sacco remained unconvinced that he had arrived in space. "Are we in orbit?" he asked Thornton. "Damn right, we're in orbit!" she replied with a smile. Finally, Sacco pulled a pen out of his pocket, held it in front of him and let go. It didn't fall. "Damn right!" he thought.
Releasing the buckles on his harnesses, Sacco rose from his seat and into what he calls "the three-dimensional world of microgravity," a world where Isaac Newton's second law of motion (a body in motion will remain in motion until compelled by external forces - or a space shuttle wall - to change that state) governs every move an astronaut makes. He says he felt right at home. "It sounds strange, but I felt more normal floating in microgravity than I do walking on the ground. It was like I had come back to something that was natural for me. The thought did cross my mind several times during the mission that this is where mankind belongs."
Sacco busied himself with housekeeping chores - helping other crew members out of their pressure suits, stowing the suits and the seats, checking circuits breakers, and so on. Two hours passed by in an instant, and then he heard his name over the internal intercom. Bowersox was calling down from the flight deck, "Tell Sacco to get up here immediately!" Fearing he had made a blunder, he drifted up through a passageway and into the flight deck. Before him, shining through the shuttle's forward windows, was the most awe-inspiring sight he had ever seen.
"There was the Earth - sitting right in front of me," he says. "It was a gigantic ball, predominantly robin's-egg blue - bluer than any blue you have ever seen - with clouds and land masses. Around the edges was a thin limb - the atmosphere - that went from the deep blue of the ocean to a white haze to a beautiful sky blue to indigo to the black of space. And that black was the blackest velvet you can imagine. As you looked away from the Earth, you could see millions of stars - galaxies of stars."
For the moment, though, Sacco could not take his eyes off that deep blue planet, for right in the middle, turning slowly under the shuttle, was Massachusetts. "It looked just like a map, it was so clear and sharp," he says. "I could see Logan Airport - I could even see the runways. It's amazing how clear everything is from space."
Sacco says seeing the Earth from orbit is "a humbling experience - a spiritual experience. I had the feeling as I looked out into the cosmos that we are smaller than the smallest grain of sand on the largest beach I've ever been on. I felt that if everyone could spend an hour and a half up there - one orbit of the Earth - that there'd be a lot fewer problems. There certainly would be no environmental problems, because everyone would realize how delicate the Earth is."
During one of his rest periods, Sacco went up to the flight deck alone and shut off all the lights - even the eerie green glow of the computer CRTs. In total darkness, he waited while the shuttle moved into the Earth's shadow. "I let my eyes adjust to the darkness," he says, "and I could see hundreds of thousands of stars. In some places, the stars were so thick they looked like a shimmering veil."
Sacco says that experience has changed him. "I don't know whether it's for good or bad," he says. "But now a faculty member or a student will come in to see me about something, and the problem, while it's important to them, will seem quite tiny to me. It's hard for me to give it the attention I should. It's not that I'm not interested, it's just that I've had an awakening they haven't."
USML-2's payload crew consisted of two teams. Sacco and Thornton made up the Red Team; Leslie and Coleman were the Blue Team. The teams worked alternate 12-hour shifts, so science could be carried out around the clock. After the orbiter was checked out, the Blue Team headed off to sleep while Sacco and Thornton opened up the spacelab, a 23-foot-long cylinder that sits in the shuttle's cargo bay and is connected to the middeck by a long, narrow airlock. The Red Team began setting up experiments designed to grow commercially important protein crystals, study the physics of water drops, and investigate surface-tension-driven convection (experiments that may help develop manufacturing techniques for the International Space Station). There were tests of bioprocessing apparatus, work on processing techniques for semiconductor manufacturing, and studies of microgravity combustion, among other experiments. In all, the work of hundreds of scientists from university, government and industry research labs was packed into the lab and in racks on the middeck.
Among the apparatus on USML-2 was the Zeolite Crystal Growth Experiment, created by Sacco and a team of faculty and student researchers at WPI (see story, page 16). One of Sacco's first assignments was to prepare the autoclaves for his own experiment and place them into a furnace on the middeck. The work went smoothly, which he says gave him confidence to tackle the many hours of science work that lay ahead. In all, Sacco says the Red and Blue teams carried out one of the most successful science missions in NASA's history.
"This one outshined even USML-1, which was a highly successful mission," Sacco says. "I got a great compliment from Gene Trinh at the Jet Propulsion Lab, a payload specialist on USML-1 who is a co-investigator on the Drop Physics Module. He said, 'You guys did much better than I did, and I'm supposed to be the expert.' I've had a lot of people tell me similar things. They said we were so well-trained that after a while they didn't worry about us; they didn't try to interact with us. They just let us do our thing. A lot of people trusted my judgement about things that are not my areas of expertise, and that made me feel really good. A great deal of credit has to go to the scientists and trainers who prepared us so well."
In his 12 hours a day outside of the lab, Sacco slept, rode an exercise bike, communicated with his family by an e-mail-like system, and prepared for the day's science work by reading messages sent up by the experimenters on the ground. He also spent an hour or more just looking out the windows. The crew used some of their free time to tape not one, but two bits of business for national prime-time television.
For one network spot, they threw out the first pitch of the World Series. A baseball had been brought aboard, and Bowersox effortlessly sent the ball sailing toward the camera while the crew waved (a moment that took 35 takes, Sacco says). The television audience then saw a ball appear to fall from the sky and into Jacob's Field, home of the Cleveland Indians.
The other spot was taped for the ABC situation comedy Home Improvement. A big fan of the space program - and of Thornton's high-flying handiwork on the Hubble repair mission - star Tim Allen invited the crew to film a brief segment in orbit and then, after the flight, to come to the studio to tape another bit. The in-orbit segment showed Thornton attempting to use a screwdriver brought along for Sacco's experiment, but spinning around and around from the torque. Footage showing Sacco in a plaid shirt he had smuggled aboard (the look sported by the character Al on Home Improvement) never made it on the show, though it did appear in a segment of the syndicated program Entertainment Tonight.
Several members of the crew also used their personal time to do a bit of teaching. Long before the launch, Thornton, Coleman and Sacco - lamenting the declining interest among young people in science and technology - decided that they had a rare opportunity to do something about it, and to pay tribute to the legacy of Christa McAuliff, the New Hampshire elementary school teacher who died in the Challenger accident. They drew up a plan to do several live telecasts to schools around the nation, conducting science experiments in space while the students did the same experiments on the ground. It took months of work by Thornton to convince NASA to go along, albeit with a smaller number of broadcasts than the astronauts had hoped for.
In the end, four sessions were planned, with schools in Worcester, Kentucky, Montana and New Mexico. During the Worcester broadcast, students at South High School did an experiment on adhesion and cohesion of liquids while Sacco talked about the behavior of liquids in space.
He demonstrated how surface tension holds liquids together by squirting orange juice from a tube. The juice immediately gathered into a perfect sphere, which Sacco gobbled down to the delight of the 22 students in the South High television studio. The four broadcasts were seen by 40,000 students in 12,000 classrooms around the country over the Channel One network.
"The broadcasts were quite successful," Sacco says. "It took some astronauts who are committed to education and the work of many, many people on the ground - people who were willing to organize this all for nothing, because there is no money for this. Fred and Linda Looft and Bob Labonte from WPI did an outstanding job of coordinating everything. The idea we all had was to get young kids excited and to show them that scientists and engineers are not geeks. If we reached just a few of them, then we succeeded."
Sacco said he enjoyed daily life in space and adapted well to microgravity. After a bit of insomnia (which he learned was caused by over-the-counter medication he took for sinus congestion), he slept well. He says that although he rarely felt hungry, he ate everything in sight (and still lost 12 pounds during the mission). Eating in space is not easy at first, Sacco says. With no gravity to hold food on your spoon or in your mouth, it takes practice and concentration to avoid making a mess.
"It took some time to get used to chewing so the food stayed all together in your mouth," he says. "You had to be careful to suck straws clean before you removed them from your lips to keep from sending drops of juice flying into someone's face. I remember having Kent tap me on the shoulder and point to his forehead, where one of my meatballs was splattered. You also had to allow a lot of time to clean up floating food after you'd finished eating."
Brushing his teeth in space was something Sacco never got used to. Without gravity to override it, surface tension causes toothpaste to foam up dramatically. "No one had told me what to do with that foam," he says. "You can't very easily spit it into a ba g - it will just bounce off and hit you in the face. So we spit it into napkins, but the stuff would float around and climb up your face. Then you'd rinse your mouth with water and you'd have to spit that into napkins, too. And all the while, you'd try to brace yourself against something so you didn't float all over the place."
The last day of the mission was a bittersweet one for Sacco. As he helped pack equipment away, break out the seats and space suits for the return to Earth, and prepare large bags of cold fluid (the "liquid load" each astronaut must consume before reentry), he felt anxious to return to his family. But at the same time he was overwhelmed by depression at the thought of possibly never being in space again. When his turn came, he floated for a few final minutes in the flight deck soaking up the view that so few Earthlings will ever see, before returning to the middeck to suit up and strap in.
Speeding over the Pacific Ocean, Columbia turned to point its orbital maneuvering engines toward North America; a series of blasts from the engines slowed the shuttle, which began dropping out of orbit. In the middeck, Sacco felt the push of the engines and then waited for the gradual onset of gravity. As the spacecraft encountered the atmosphere at 17,300 miles an hour, its heat-shielding tiles began to glow bright orange. Through the small window in the middeck hatch, the view went from black to yellow to orange as the shuttle turned into a meteor. Sacco says it looked as if someone had placed sheets of colored paper over the window.
Periodically, Sacco released a pen over his chest and watched it fall faster each time as gravity returned. As the shuttle neared the Florida coast, he picked up his 6-ounce tape recorder and found that it seemed to weigh 50 pounds. Clearly, his body had acclimated to a world without the constant tug of the Earth. Near the end of the descent, the shuttle was buffeted a bit before dropping gently onto its main gear on the landing strip at Kennedy. The nose gear hit the ground with a solid bang. Sacco was an Earth dweller, once again.
After the landing, came a period of adjustment - both physical and psychological. Feeling heavy and awkward, Sacco walked from the shuttle and into a waiting van. Having volunteered for a NASA medical experiment, he, along with Thornton and Leslie, agreed to lie down for several hours rather than walk around the shuttle with the rest of the crew. When he finally stood up again, he felt worse than he had when the shuttle landed. He later learned that lying down right after landing prolongs the aftereffects of weightlessness. The dizziness and weakness went away in a few days, but even several months later, Sacco says his muscle capacity is only about three quarters of what it had been before the flight.
The mental adjustment has taken even longer. In fact, he may never really be the same person he was before "strapping himself to a hydrogen bomb," as he refers to flying in the shuttle. Returning to life as a faculty member and department head has been especially difficult. "I never thought it would affect me like this," he says. "I'm a different person. I feel a bit like a fish out of water here, and I never thought I would, because I've been here 18 years.
"I'm sure this feeling will change in time, but right now I really miss being part of the space program - I miss the adventure. I don't like to think about the fact that I may never go into space again. I'm feeling a tremendous letdown. My family feels it, too. They miss the friends we made in Houston. They will still be our friends, but it won't be the same. That was my home for 18 months. These were people I was prepared to die with, and we became very close. But when you are a payload specialist...when the flight's over, its over. My office is gone, my desk is gone, my phone number is gone - it's like I was never there."
Except for the bottle. The bottle on the mantel. On the shore not far from the launch towers of the Kennedy Space Center is a small beach house. Since the early days of the space program, astronauts have gone there before their flights to share some laughs and drink a bottle of wine. Tradition calls for everyone to sign the bottle and put it on the mantel in the living room. Now there is a bottle there with the signature of Al Sacco. He is a part of space history. Will there ever be another bottle on that mantel for Sacco? "I doubt very much that I will fly again," he says. "Every year you get a little older, and you get a little shakier physically - I'm already on the bubble in a few areas. Plus, this took a toll on me and my family. My daughter has told me she hopes I never do it again. My oldest son didn't think I was coming back. My wife is the tough cookie of the family, but there were times when I saw a loneliness in her eyes - a fear I'd never seen before."
Still, he's not ready to completely rule out another flight. He says NASA has suggested that he apply for an upcoming mission. While he may pass on that flight, if another comes along and the invitation is extended, who knows? "It was the greatest experience of my life," he says. "I've never enjoyed anything professionally as much as that. I love to teach, but this outshone that by a country mile. If something were really to work out..." He pauses, his eyes focused on a point far away - maybe 150 miles away. "I'd go in a heartbeat."
firstname.lastname@example.org Last modified: Thu Jun 10 11:57:32 EDT 1999