Astronaut sends LHJH imaginations into orbit



Excitement and chatter floated through the air as the students at Liberty Hill Junior High filled gym bleachers, preparing to welcome a visitor from space. No, not a little green man, but NASA astronaut Captain Daniel Bursch.

Bursch spoke with the students about his experiences during his more than 200 days spent in orbit just outside of Earth’s atmosphere, about 200 miles above the planet.

“We go 17,500 miles per hour to exit the atmosphere,” Bursch explained to students. “If you’re trying to go that fast in the atmosphere, basically the spacecraft will burn up, so we get out of the atmosphere, and it turns out you don’t have to make it that far out.”

Students listened intently – with interest clear in their eyes – as Bursch explained what the launch experience was like and the weightlessness of space.

“You go through this violent launch, a lot of shaking, and in eight and half minutes the engines go off and instantly everything floats,” he said. “It’s a weird experience. We don’t have a simulator that can simulate the entire launch just bits and pieces of it.”

Before becoming an astronaut, Bursch served in the Navy as a navigator, reaching the rank of captain.

“When it came time to select what part of the Navy I wanted to go in, a lot of people forget the Navy flies, and so I went into Naval aviation,” said Bursch. “My eyes weren’t good enough to be a pilot, so I became a navigator instead.”

Although he didn’t begin to seriously consider being an astronaut until much later, the interest in space was with the captain from the moment he witnessed the first moon landing.

“My first memory as far as being interested was when we first landed on the moon in 1969,” said Bursch. “I happened to be 12 years old at summer camp listening on the radio. I remember thinking it would be so cool to do one day, but didn’t think about it until after I was out of college.”

It was during his time with the Navy’s test pilot school when the captain became interested in applying to the space program. Bursch began applying to the space program in 1984 and was accepted six years later in 1990.

A point the captain stressed throughout the presentation was that almost anyone can become an astronaut.

“The basic requirement to be an astronaut is to have a college degree and three years of experience in that degree,” said Bursch. “NASA prefers science and technology and engineering majors, but I did fly with a NASA pilot that was an English major.”

During his time as an active astronaut, Bursch traveled to the International Space Station four times, each time on a primary mission.

“On my first mission, we had a communication satellite we deployed from out of the cargo bay of the space shuttle,” he said. “Most of the time in the space shuttle, you’ll be talking to the ground almost every minute, updating them constantly.”

Another requirement for the captain before heading into orbit was to learn Russian. Knowing Russian was required because each mission Bursch went on was a joint effort by both the American and Russian space programs.

Bursch shared photos from space of San Francisco Bay, an active volcano in South America, and Mount Everest. The captain said that the most breathtaking aspect of being in orbit was the view that was right outside his window.

While the reward was worth the risk for Bursch, he stressed just how easily things could go wrong, mentioning the infamous 2003 Columbia space shuttle incident.

“We lost the Columbia when it reentered because it had a piece of debris from its orange tank come off and strike the wing, that’s all it takes,” he said.

After overcoming the danger of leaving the atmosphere, the threat of space debris becomes an issue, as evidence of small impacts is noticeable on the outside of the ISS.

“You know how the front of the car can get dent marks? That’s what it looks like outside the space station because we have micro-meteorites that hit the station,” he said. “It is a problem, and a lot of people think if we put too much junk up there, we won’t be able to leave the atmosphere eventually.”

After every extended trip out of the atmosphere, Bursch says that adjusting to gravity proves to be the most challenging aspect of returning to the ground. He described for students the feeling of moving after losing bone and muscle density in orbit, sharing that every movement from standing up to raising his arms feels like an intense workout.

“My arms felt like they weighed 20 pounds each,” he said. “After being weightless for so long it felt like my arms were doing curls. Eventually, after time your body gets used to it.”

Along with the loss of bone and muscle density comes the feeling of being off-balance, a result of the inner ear – responsible for equilibrium – not sensing gravity.

“Your inner ear doesn’t sense gravity anymore,” said Bursch. “It doesn’t sense up or down. When you come back down, it’s like your brain doesn’t know what happened. Suddenly your brain is getting all these signals from your inner ear, and a lot of people get sick to their stomach.”

As the presentation neared its end, the experienced space traveler shared a few final words with the students.

“It’s great when you have a vision and know what you want to do today,” said Bursch. “But don’t be afraid to make changes, and if you don’t have anything yet, have a passion yet; eventually, it’ll come. When it does, set your sights on that goal and go for it.”