Colorful hot-air balloons filled the skies during a mass ascension on the second day of the 40th annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Oct. 2. (NASA / Jay Levine) › View Larger Image
As hot-air balloons rise in the background, former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane prepares to speak with television reporters at the 40th annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Mullane, a veteran of three space shuttle missions, spoke to visitors at the NASA exhibit about his space flight experiences. (NASA / Jay Levine) › View Larger Image When Mike Mullane was a boy, he gazed at the night sky. He thought about what it might be like to travel to the stars he saw dotting the darkness with their bright glow.
On Aug. 30, 1984, Mullane had a chance to see those stars from a different vantage point – in space.
Mullane had been selected as a mission specialist in 1978 in the first group of space shuttle astronauts, and was now on his first mission, on shuttle mission STS-41D, the shuttle Discovery's first venture into orbit.
Now retired from NASA's astronaut corps, Mullane is a veteran of three space shuttle missions. A resident of Albuquerque, N.M., he attended the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque Oct. 2 to help commemorate the fiesta's 40th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of the now-concluded shuttle program.
In two talks for fiesta attendees, he said physical challenges for astronauts in space, which can include sickness and severe lower back pain when returning to Earth, didn't change his mind about additional missions.
"Looking out the window [of the space shuttle] makes it all worth it," he said.
In order to complete the approximately 10-minute rides to space, shuttles had to reach speeds of more than 17,500 mile per hour to achieve Earth orbit. For comparison, he said a trip from Los Angeles to New York City would take just 12 seconds at that speed.
Though the shuttle program wrapped up earlier this year, Mullane said NASA astronauts remain busy on the International Space Station.
Former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane, right, and members of his family examine a high-altitude pressure suit during a visit to the NASA aeronautics exhibit at the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 2. (NASA / Jay Levine) › View Larger Image He challenged young people to work hard in school and carry on the U.S. space traditions by completing future missions to explore Mars and beyond. Mullane said he expects those missions eventually will happen because "space travel elevates the human spirit."
Mullane's fondest memories include the first time he saw Earth from space and the 45-minute cycles during which astronauts see a sunrise or sunset. Shuttle astronauts also saw the curvature of the Earth, he said.
From the vantage point of space, some earthly events are visible. For example, Mullane said city lights and lightning are seen from space, but the Great Wall of China is hard to see.
Spectacular views were easy to find.
"The aurora borealis looks like green fire shooting out across the sky," he said.
In addition to his mission on Discovery, he also was a mission specialist on shuttle Atlantis' STS-27 and STS-36 missions prior to his retirement from NASA and the Air Force in 1990.
Mullane has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and is the recipient of many awards, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit and the NASA Space Flight Medal.
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