Soaring in space

Former astronaut shares his journeys into the final frontier

Sailing 200 miles above the Earth in the space shuttle, the planet doesn’t look like the “big blue marble” astronauts can see from deep space. For shuttle astronauts, the Earth is a patchwork of dusky brown deserts and rippling azure-green ocean currents. They can see the muddy funnel of the Nile Delta and the dizzy swirls of the Bering Sea.

Capt. Rick Hauck, A62, describes the feeling of being launched into space at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. © MELODY KO

And, looking over the curve of the horizon, there’s the thin, thin band of palest milky-blue that blankets the Earth.

“You can really see the fragility of the Earth’s atmosphere,” says Frederick “Rick” Hauck, A62, who has flown on three space shuttle missions. “One thing we astronauts are always focused on is how fragile the Earth’s atmosphere seems to be.”

Hauck and dozens of other veterans of the NASA space program are also focused on the importance of science and engineering education and the promise it holds for the future of both the Earth and space travel. In November—some 48 years after he took his first physics class in Robinson Hall—Hauck returned to the Medford/Somerville campus to present a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronauts Scholarship Foundation (ASF) to Kyle Bradbury, E07.

The foundation, established by the six surviving Mercury astronauts and supported by nearly 70 others from the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs, awards annual scholarships to students involved in cutting-edge work in science or engineering. Bradbury, an electrical engineering major, is working on the potential of using chaos theory in the development of communications systems. His research was spurred by work being done by his mentor, Joseph Noonan, professor of electrical engineering.

Hauck, a Tufts trustee emeritus, sits on the ASF board. Since 1994, ASF has provided more than $100,000 in scholarships to Tufts students. The work rewarded by the foundation does not necessarily have to be related to space exploration.

Twists and turns
Hauck, who majored in physics, knows full well that a career can take many detours before you find yourself walking across the bridge of a launch pad in the early dawn, preparing to be strapped into a space shuttle orbiter. His original plan was to become a thermonuclear physicist. But after being commissioned as a Navy officer and completing a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at MIT, he became a Navy pilot and eventually entered NASA’s astronaut program.

“I found I loved flying, and I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was, being paid to do something I loved so much,” he told Bradbury and the audience gathered at Nelson Auditorium. “Life takes many twists and turns, and you will find opportunities presented to you. You can only excel at something that you love doing.”

What it’s like to see Earth from space.

During his shuttle missions, Hauck said, he often found it difficult to sleep, so he would listen to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony and watch the Earth. “In order to calm down, I would look at the Earth every orbit. It’s very calming, very peaceful,” he said. Hauck shared a gallery of photographs he had taken on his shuttle flights, offering views both familiar—Cape Cod, reaching into the ocean like a huge flexed bicep—and singularly arresting—the fierce eye of a 140-mph typhoon.

“You can see the sides of clouds and the sides of mountains while in orbit,” Hauck said. One of his photos shows the wall of the Andes mountain range, in jagged profile, while the forefront of the photo is smudged with smog from fires burning in the Amazon rainforest.

“From the space shuttle, I didn’t see the [Earth as a] blue marble like you can from outer space,” he said. “You can see bridges, roads, the desert. You can see the road across Saudi Arabia, from Jeddah to Riyadh … you can see ships’ wakes in the ocean.” While “you rarely see straight lines” from the shuttle, one exception is the Sinai desert border between Israel and Egypt—noticeably darker on the Israeli side, because of irrigation, he said.

“My favorite was looking down on the Himalayas,” Hauck said. Among the mass of craggy, slate-gray peaks, mighty Everest looks like little more than a pinprick.

Former astronaut Rick Hauck presents a $10,000 check from the Astronauts Scholarship Foundation to Kyle Bradbury, E07. © MELODY KO

‘Very honored’
Hauck’s first space shuttle flight was on the Challenger in 1983, along with fellow rookie Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. His second flight was on Discovery in 1984, the first space salvage mission, during which two stranded communications satellites were recovered.

Hauck was tapped to be the commander of his third shuttle flight, again on the Challenger, scheduled for April 1986. That flight never took place. In January 1986, the Challenger exploded just seconds after liftoff, and the shuttle program slammed to a halt.

In 1986, Hauck returned to space, commanding the crew of the redesigned Discovery, the first shuttle flight to follow the Challenger tragedy. “I was very honored to be asked to do that,” he said.

“Was I scared?” he asked, referring to the question he is most often asked about that flight. “I’m proud to say, ‘yes.’ ” Paraphrasing fellow astronaut John Young, Hauck said, “If someone’s not afraid of launching in a rocket, they’re either lying, or they don’t understand what they’re about to do.”

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at