Last week, fresh off the fourth-to-last Shuttle mission, STS-131, NASA astronaut Jim Dutton came to speak at OMSI, my local science museum. When I got the email about this event, I RSVPed immediately — after all, an astronaut in my town? How urbane. Surely the intelligentsia of Oregon would come in droves to discuss the boggling phenomenological experience of spaceflight and the uncertain future of NASA with one of our nation’s “right stuff.” As usual, I was wrong; the only adult in the museum unaccompanied by a least one small child, I felt somehow like a pervert, as though the harried parents in the diaper-smelling conference room thought me maladjusted for harboring an adult interest in space. A tiny blond boy, boogers cresting the threshold of his button nose, repeatedly poked my friend in the arm. I waited in line to meet NASA astronaut Jim Dutton between gaggles of grade-schoolers, all rendered desperately antsy by the fluorescent overhead lighting. Do I regret this embarrassment?
No way. First of all, the above image is now in my possession, one more piece of Universe ephemera for the archives. Second of all, Dutton was an excellent speaker: with the clipped, professional vocabulary of an ex-military man and the warmth of a young dad, he narrated a video of his mission, explaining its objectives (to install a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module nicknamed “Leonardo” on the International Space Station) and dropping conceptual aesthetic bombs about things like the smell of space (a “metallic odor, almost like something burnt”) and the beautiful pink and yellow glow of the plasma as it lights up around the Shuttle in re-entry. Basically, Dutton divulged all manner of the kinds of sincere insidery things I love learning about being an astronaut. He spoke with fondness about spending hours in the International Space Station’s new cupola module, gazing down at the Earth, and made a point of saying that while space itself is impressive, it just doesn’t hold a candle to the view of our planet. He confided that the interior of the famous Astrovan used to ferry astronauts from the Operations and Checkout Building to the launch pad is “not very exciting,” adding that he was “a little disappointed.” He said he felt enormously pleased to stick the STS-131 mission sticker on a wall of the Space Station before heading back down to Earth, a little ritual not many people know about. He also showed footage of the first ever sushi dinner in space, with his crewmates Japanese JAXA astronauts Naoko Yamazaki and Soichi Noguchi preparing handrolls for the Space Station crew, as well as some insane videos of Naoko doing a Japanese fan dance in zero-gravity, playing a miniature koto in full kimono, and tossing bits of dried ume plum into floating water droplets, images which I will herewith seek desperately to find.
Above all, Dutton seemed genuinely hopeful about NASA’s future, despite the fact that his first shuttle mission was also his last; when asked about a post-Shuttle world, he explained to the kids and adults alike that many commercial firms are now building vehicles to replace the old bird, and that “exciting, real progress” is being made. “We’re all waiting anxiously to find out” what happens, he said. Maybe this was PR, but it was nice to hear — just as it was nice to hear an astronaut, with sincerity, repeatedly emphasize that while the Space Shuttle was special, the International Space Station, “as a nation, and as a world, is something to be very proud of.” Ad astra indeed!
Below, Dutton answers a fourth-grader’s question about “how come you don’t burn up in the atmosphere when you come back to Earth?” Charming.