The View From Above

The universe.

It’s something that has been mystifying and enchanting humans since the moment we looked up into the night sky.  So many questions come to mind when we look up into that black ribbon of night be-speckled by twinkling unknowns.  The inquisitive human race is constantly reaching out to the silence of space in search of answers.

SO.  MUCH.  SPACE. (Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)

SO. MUCH. SPACE. (Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)

And in the last 100 years, we’re finally making some headway.

As I’ve mentioned before, In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the world with their launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial Earth satellite.  Shortly after that (in 1958), President Eisenhower founded the Advanced Research Projects Agency – what we now know as DARPA.  It’s mission?  To be at the forefront of scientific and technological development.  Basically, he wanted to make sure that there would be no more, ahem, surprises.

Neil Armstrong's footprint still remains on the lunar surface.  (Photo credit: NASA)

Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the lunar surface. (Photo credit: NASA)

Kennedy made history when he declared that we would put a man on the moon before the 1960s were over.  Sure enough, we made some giant leaps for mankind when Neil Armstrong left his footprint in history on the lunar surface.

But for all of this brilliant headway, the human experience in space is only just scratching the surface.  Luckily that’s an itch we love to scratch.

Since then we’ve built shuttles, space stations, amazing telescopes, satellites, GPS systems, landed a robot on the surface of Mars and more.  Space is the final frontier, and for those of us still bound by the laws of gravity here on Earth, many of us long for the understanding if not the actual experience of space travel.

So imagine how exciting it is to shake hands with a man who has actually been to space.

His name is Kevin Ford, and I think I’ll let him introduce himself to you.

Meet Kevin.  Kevin is a Cancer from Indiana who likes planes, the color orange and, oh yeah, living on the SPACE STATION.  (Photo credit: NASA)

Meet Kevin. Kevin is a Cancer from Indiana who likes planes, the color orange and, oh yeah, living on the SPACE STATION. (Photo credit: NASA)

“My name is Kevin Ford — retired Air Force colonel, and I’ve been a NASA astronaut since 2000,” he tells me with a surprisingly humble tone considering that exciting declarative statement.  Which means I had a lot of questions that needed answering.  Starting with what he’s been up to lately.

In this case literally.

“I just came back to Earth in the middle of March,” Kevin explains, which is something few people have ever been able to say.  “So I spent about 144 days living and working in space with an international crew, and just had a great time up there with the science and getting the job done for the International Space Station Program.”

I welcomed him back to Earth, making that the first time I’ve ever said that to someone in earnest. That means he has logged more than 3,789 cumulative hours in space.  That’s, you know, about 3,789 hours more than me.

Which leads me to wonder how one starts a trek into the stars, career-wise.

As it turns out, that journey started in the military.

My education from university was in engineering — aerospace engineering — and I just always knew I wanted to be a pilot,” Kevin tells me. “It was very easy for me to select a career as an Air Force officer and an Air Force pilot.”

He was fascinated with aviation from a very young age, and that led him to pursue his dreams of being a pilot.  He flew F-15s operationally in Germany and Iceland during the late ’80s, then managed to get to test pilot school.  That’s right.  Kevin flew F-16s and T-38s at Eglin Air Force Base, essentially the “let’s hope this works” missions for the Air Force.

In spite of already having one really awesome F16 pilot job, Kevin didn’t stop there.

“I put my eyes on the space shuttle,” he says, “made some applications, got plenty of rejections from NASA.”

Rejection is something that happens to many would-be astronauts it seems.  The process is very competitive.  However, he kept at it and eventually his hard work and dedication paid off.

“Finally, in the year 2000, was accepted into the program.   I just set my goals on being a really great space shuttle pilot and Commander for the next decade or so.”

Which is exactly what he did.

“I had the extreme pleasure of flying in space, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 2009.  That was a two-week trip to the International Space Station,” he says.  “Then turned around, came home, trained for two and a half years, and then went back to the Space Station for an expedition onboard.  I was part of Expeditions 33 and 34 onboard the International Space Station.”

But wait!  There’s more!

Kevin launched on October 23, 2012 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, alongside Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. The three flight engineers were welcomed aboard the International Space Station on October 25 by NASA Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

In November 2012, the Soyuz undocking that marked the end of Expedition 33 also signaled the beginning of Ford’s tenure as Expedition 34 commander. He landed in the steppe of Kazakhstan on March 15, 2013 after spending 144 days in space, orbiting the Earth 2,304 times, and traveling almost 61 million miles.

So one wonders what one does, exactly, during that time on the space station?  Other than float around of course (and I presume there is a lot of floating around that goes on).

“Well, we all train to live and support each other up there.  We have to have a lot of medical training, and just kind of just how do you manage life in a zero-gravity environment?  How do you get by in medical emergencies?  How do you handle Space Station emergencies?  How do you do the science onboard, and carry out space operations – arriving and departing vehicles?  So, there are a lot of technical skills that you get trained on.”

Well that’s a relief.  It’s always good to be prepared for contingencies.  Especially when those contingencies are in space.

“You also get some specialized training in certain things that only you might be qualified on,” he explains.  “There are robotic operations that go on.  There’s the possibility of going outside and doing space walks.  That’s a lot of very intensive training.”

There’s a lot involved before, during and after you head up to the Space Station and start carrying out the mission.  It must be worth it, though, to have the chance to man the Space Station that orbits our planet.  I asked Kevin what he hoped to achieve when he was flying high.

“One of the things that we as astronauts wish is that everybody could be an astronaut, and get to go up there, and then back down.  It’s just such a magical place, really.”

Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (pictured) and Tom Marshburn (out of frame) completed a spacewalk.  (Photo credit: NASA)

Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (pictured) and Tom Marshburn (out of frame) completed a spacewalk. (Photo credit: NASA)

I second that motion.  Even the photos look magical.  

“I really just think that what we have in our space program is really a gift for future generations,” he says with a knowing smile.  “The exploration we do out there — and just to be a part of it.  Everybody has a role.  I’m not the boss.  I don’t make any decisions about what happens on the International Space Station.  I just am asked to do a certain job, and to perform it as well as I possibly can. The program really does benefit all of humankind.”

From dreams of flight, to test pilot glory, to starry days in space, Kevin Ford has certainly led a life worth all the wonder that comes with it.

When I asked him what he thought helped him climb all the way to the top, he credits the military for helping his space dreams come true.

“I wouldn’t have got to space, clearly, without my Air Force career.”

“There’s no way, in my personal case,” he says.  “We do have people who come through other avenues.  We have physicians, and submarine officers, and everything, but the personality I had – you know, the love of flying and everything – and the opportunities that I got in the Air Force, to fly F-15s and F-16s and get graduate degrees, is just – I’m very spoiled and very lucky.  And so I appreciate that.”

I guess you could say it gave him a different perspective on the world after the military lifted him up.

“When I was up there, looking down into the atmosphere, thinking about the places I’ve flown – I saw so many places that I’ve lived in my life.  From Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia – I was able to find it with my eyes – to Korea, and Germany, and Turkey, when I was deployed there.  To see all those things, and think back on my Air Force career.  It was really remarkable at the opportunity I got from it, and, actually, it got me all the way to the Space Station.”

From formation to the Space Station: the Air Force led the way.  I wonder if that is something the USAF might want to consider putting on their recruitment signs.  Just astronaut food for thought, as they say.

I am a huge proponent of the space matters movement; the idea that the world needs to understand just how significant and incredible our progress into space is for the human race.  Science fiction often emphasizes this point in its own way, but for astronauts, like Kevin Ford, it’s as though they understand it on a completely different level.

And I think I know why.  The idea that mankind should never cease to reach for the stars is they kind of understanding and clarity that is perhaps best gained after you glimpse that view from above.

I guess that means we’ve got nowhere to go but up.

Want to see more?  Watch the whole interview here:

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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