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In Their Own Words - NASA Astronaut James P. Dutton, Jr.
NASA Astronaut James P. Dutton Jr.: Well, for me, I was one of those kids that wanted to do it from a pretty young age. I had that goal. I'm not sure exactly where it was, somewhere in grade school. And at that time, it was really one of probably many, you know, career aspirations. Along with playing in the NBA, or something like that, which didn't work out at 5-foot-9. But, about junior high school, I started to get a little more serious about the idea. Had a librarian from my middle school who on the career day helped me to look up NASA's address and write to NASA asking about how to become an astronaut.
And I got a brochure back from them telling me that, you know, you need to study math, science or engineering. And talked about the requirements for a pilot astronaut, which is what appealed to me the most. And, so, that's when I really started to set my sights on one of the service academies and just kind of took it step by step from there.
Well, the little bit that I got to fly the shuttle, which was just about 30 seconds flying around the heading alignment coming prior to rolling out on final, it flew almost exactly like the STA. Just felt like I was back in that airplane. You're partly so focused on the task, that by the time we were wheels down, I sort of went, 'I can't believe we just did all that for real.' But at the same time, I remember as we were coming around, looking down toward the, we had some clouds down below and toward the Vehicle Assembly Building, and trying to pick out the runway and just thinking, 'I can't believe this is like the real one,' because I had seen that picture so many times from the shuttle trainer.
As far as the actual launch, a couple things surprised me. One was the engine start. I thought it seemed a little bit more chaotic in the vehicle in terms of the vibration when the engines started than I remembered from our sim (simulator). So, that initial startup from to 100 percent on the engines is about six seconds prior to launch, and so I remember noticing that. The vehicle just shook in a different way than I had expected. And then when the solid rocket boosters lit, it felt like a bomb had gone off under your seat, you know. And basically, that's what happened, 6 million pounds of thrust, you know, instantly it's an immediate hit.
They're small jets that fire as the SRBs come off, but also, we have forward jets that fire to protect our windows from any debris coming off the solid rocket boosters. So, you see this big flash out the front windows once they come off and then it
gets really smooth. It's pretty rumbly inside the vehicle while you're on the solids, and then once you get off them, you're sort of on railroad tracks. It's quite a ride, the 3 g's, you weigh three times what you normally weigh. Then, of course, you've got the suit on with different valves and things, so stuff's poking into you. It's really not bad, but you're aware that you're heavy. And then you go instantly from weighing three times your normal weight to weighing nothing. And floating up in your seat, and straps and all kind of stuff, you know, books floating up and dust comes up. So, it's really neat how quick that happens.
Well, I had high expectations and they were all exceeded. They really were. There's very little that I felt really surprised by. I think the veterans on our crew made a real effort to every time we were in the simulator talk about what's going to be like living up there, what it's like operating in zero-g, things that surprised them on their flights. So, we were, I think, really well prepared by those folks.
And then we were fortunate enough on our return, we came back over the U.S. for our landing. So, we hit sunrise on orbit somewhere around the West Coast, but we really couldn't see the ground because it was still dark on the ground. And,
about the time we were over Wyoming, we picked up the sunrise on the ground looking right down on the Rockies. It was absolutely gorgeous and we were at 40-miles-high. We'd been at 200 miles for 16 days, so it looked really low and fast at 40-miles-high, which was kind of funny.
I mean, it's very fulfilling to have been blessed to go up and fulfill that dream. You know, to have experience what I had hoped to experience all these years, knowing that each step of the way, you're just very fortunate to make it to the next gate.
You know, there's health issues, there's professional career things that can come up that can divert you. So, I just sort of marveled. I mean, even to the last minute, I knew that anything can happen and it was nothing to take for granted. So I felt very, very thankful.
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