After watching “A Beautiful Planet,” we went to the Essex Hotel in Manhattan to meet Barry “Butch” Wilmore who is a NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy test pilot. He has been to space twice, including a trip to the International Space Station, which included three spacewalks. Here are a few of the questions we were able to ask him:
We saw on “A Beautiful Planet” that a piece of equipment got lost for weeks and then one day floated back. Did you ever lose anything really important on a ship? If so, did you ever find it?
Yes, a torque wrench. Very important. We didn’t think we had a spare initially, but there was a spare in another module that was controlled by the Europeans. It’s very easy to lose things in zero gravity if you’re not careful because you have to ... use Velcro to stick it to the bulkhead. If you’re not careful it floats off and you don’t notice it and it finds its way into something and it’s gone. There was a piece of the space walking suit, I took a bolt off, and I went to show it to a guy and as I showed it to him, it went right out of my hand and floated right behind one of our racks. We looked for four hours and couldn’t find it. It was a little bolt that closed off a hole in the space walking suit because I was working on them. The next morning it was floating — our lab is 14 feet in diameter — it was floating right dead center in the lab. It’s easy to lose stuff in space without gravity to pull it down.
Did you feel claustrophobic in space?
Its 2-1/2 years of training before you launch and you go to the space station. There’s a whole lot of things you do in that training. You do a lot of medical stuff. And you have MRIs and they have to give you the safety briefs before everything in NASA. I’m not claustrophobic and I don’t know any astronauts that are because if you are, you’re definitely going to have issues. You’re snug, very packed in there together.
Why did you decide to be an astronaut?
I was always inquisitive. My mother says my first word was not Mom or Dad it was Why. So that was in me. I got an electrical engineering degree in college and I had this patriotic tug to do my part for my country. So I joined the Navy. I thought it would be challenging to land jet airplanes on aircraft carriers. That’s the path that I went and I was selected in that process and I made it. I wound up flying four deployments in an F-18 Hornet. I flew those in the fleet and had a master’s degree and finally left engineering, went to test pilot school, and then they were selecting shuttle pilots. So I put in an application and they said, “We don’t care, we don’t want you.” And then I put in another one and they said, “OK, come on down, we’ll interview you.” They interviewed me and they said, “Yeah, we want you.” When did I want to be an astronaut? When I was younger than you all I wanted to be an astronaut, but I also wanted to be a garbage man because I didn’t think they had to take baths. A lot of things I wanted to be but [I] seriously thought about being an astronaut . . . at the time I was flying in the Navy. You couldn’t fly any faster or any higher than the space shuttle at the time. That’s kind of what drove me that way.
What is the scariest part of blasting off into space?
Fretting over making a mistake. . . It is amazing because what you’re doing you’re literally leaving the planet. It’s not like flying an airplane where you’re still in the atmosphere, you’re literally leaving the effects of the planet and you know that and you’re going from sitting still on the launchpad and when you’re finished, you’re going 17,500 miles an hour. But you go from 0 to 17,500 in 9 minutes and that’s acceleration and you feel all that and there are stages that come off the rocket bang and pyrotechnics that are firing and it simmers and it’s just an amazing ride.