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ivanpaul
20th February 2023

In Conversation: Ex-NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick

We sat down with Bruce Melnick, former NASA astronaut, to discuss his time in space, his role at the Kennedy Space Center, and the ongoing Artemis Program.
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In Conversation: Ex-NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick
Photo: NASA @ Wikimedia Commons

On a cold, Manchester morning in late January, hundreds of miles from the sun-baked asphalt of the Kennedy Space Center launch pads, I was lucky enough to meet Bruce Melnick, a former NASA astronaut.

Melnick flew two missions for NASA in the early 90s, and now holds the role of Ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Before NASA, he served in the United States Coast Guard – where he logged over 5,000 flying hours and received numerous awards.

“Seeing Earth for the first time… You never forget that”

His first mission, STS-41, was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in October 1992.

“Our primary objective was to launch a satellite into a polar orbit around the sun, using a gravitational assist around Jupiter. It was a very short mission; we took off, six hours later we got the satellite out of the payload bay, and about half an hour later we pushed the button to send it on its way to Jupiter and eventually the Sun.”

The satellite, Ulysses, was a joint venture between NASA and the ESA, designed to collect data from the previously sparsely studied polar regions of the Sun. Ulysses would remain in operation until 2009- over four times its intended lifespan. It transmitted back swathes of new data about the Sun, in addition to providing observations of Jupiter and a handful of comets.

Bruce Melnick relaxing onboard the Space Shuttle during STS-41. Photo: @ Kennedy Space Visitor Complex

Although STS-41 was fairly short in comparison to other missions, the team managed to squeeze a variety of experiments into a couple of days before their landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

“We had some white rats on which we were trying out a proprietary protein, that actually created living bone tissue inside a rat on Earth. But it didn’t work in space – [before that] we thought we had the cure – all for osteoporosis in space.”

Another experiment involved igniting a piece of paper, and studying how the flames behaved. A blaze aboard a spacecraft usually spells disaster, but this carefully controlled fire provided NASA with some interesting results.

“What was cool about it was that it saved a lot of money and weight on the International Space Station because we didn’t know how a flame would propagate in space. When you strike a match in space it makes a flame, but the fire doesn’t go up because you’re in zero gravity. So it just makes a fireball, and oxygen can’t get to the heat source so the fire goes out.”

“They were looking at big fire suppression systems on the Space Station, but you just don’t need it, because a flame will just put itself out.”

“The high point on my very first mission was seeing Earth for the first time. That was just like, wow… You never forget that.”

“Exploration benefits everyone on the planet”

The second mission Bruce flew was named STS-49, and it launched in May 1992. The primary mission objective was to rendezvous with a previously launched satellite that was stuck in a useless orbit after a fault during its launch.

They would capture the satellite and attach a new engine, allowing it to reach its planned orbit. Originally designed to be a two-person spacewalk, the team ended up performing the only three-person spacewalk ever.

“The capture bar didn’t work, so we ended up convincing the ground that the only way we could [capture the satellite] was by sending three people out there. They weren’t happy with it, but once it became their idea we got to do it.”

This triple spacewalk remains the only one of its kind, and until 2001 stood as the longest spacewalk ever undertaken.

Three of the STS-49 crewmembers perform the only ever three-person spacewalk. Photo: NASA

Back on Earth, Bruce is clearly passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience with the public; his enthusiasm really comes across. His ambassador role at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex allows him to do just this – by telling them about his time in space.

The Visitor Complex is full of real flight hardware, ranging from capsules from the 60s all the way up to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy – that sent Elon Musk’s Tesla into orbit around the Sun. The complex is also within viewing distance of the regular launches NASA carries out.

“Exploration benefits everyone on the planet. The technology and the things we bring back benefit everyone.”

As well as getting excited about sharing his experiences in space, Bruce is looking forward to NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions – the recent success of Artemis I is just the beginning.

“The launch coming up next year is going to have people on board – sign me up, I’d love to jump on that and do a few orbits around the Earth! They’re going to do a free-return flight around the Moon – it’s going to be great.”

“Then the year after that we’re going to land people on the Moon – we’re going to send four people, and two are going to go to the surface – it’s awesome!”

“Couple of years later we will hopefully have the Gateway up there, and we’ll start constructing the lunar base. It’s happening!”

One of the aims of the Artemis Program, especially Gateway, is to act as a stepping stone for crewed exploration deeper into space.

“One of the hardest parts of getting to space is to reach orbital velocity, and then escape velocity from Earth because our gravity is so strong. But on the Moon you don’t have that problem – it’s only a sixth as strong as Earth’s gravity, so you don’t have to get too far away from it before a fairly weak spaceship can take off to Mars.”

Establishing a presence on the Moon will also offer a chance for us to get used to living on another celestial body before we take the leap to Mars.

“We have never lived that far away from Earth. We’ve gone up in orbit, and we’ve lived on the Space Station for six months at a time, but one of the purposes of the lunar base is to have people live that far from Earth. You still see that little blue marble out there, but it’s not at a reach.”

We may still be a while off landing humans on Mars, but it’s hard not to be infected by Bruce’s excitement. Inspirational and fascinating, it was an honour to meet a real live astronaut.

“The best kind,” Bruce quipped.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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