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VOL. 43 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 26, 2019

A Tennessean’s dream of walking on the moon

It’s a longshot for Mt. Juliet astronaut, but ...

By Tom Wood

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A Tennessean on the moon? It could happen. In his July 20 remarks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of man first landing on the moon in 1969, Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. is planning a return trip to the moon “within the next five years, and the next man and the first woman on the moon will be American astronauts. We’re going back.”

That’s good news for Murfreesboro native Barry (Butch) Wilmore, who grew up in Mt. Juliet and graduated from Tennessee Tech before a stellar Navy career that propelled him to acceptance into the NASA Astronaut Corps in 2000.

Wilmore, who has flown two space missions, including a 5½-month stay aboard the International Space Station 2014-15 for 178 total days in space, says he would jump at the chance to go to the moon, but won’t be sorry if he doesn’t get selected.

“You know, it’s all well out of the individual astronauts’ hands. We’ve got 40-something people here eligible for assignment, and I think all but a handful would desire to go to the moon – me included,” Wilmore says, speaking in a telephone interview from Johnson Space Center, where he is training for the upcoming Boeing CST-100 Starliner, SpaceX commercial crew missions and the possibility of a moon shot.

“But whether or not that happens, I’ve had a very wonderful time, wonderful career, great opportunities. So, if I didn’t go to the moon, it wouldn’t kill me. Everything’s fine, as far as that goes.

Flight Engineers Barry Wilmore, left, and Reid Wiseman prepare for a spacewalk in this 2014 photo aboard the International Space Station.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Nasa

“But if I was asked to go, certainly I’d go.”

Wilmore, who would be either 61 or 62 in 2024, the target date for the next moon mission, says he’s physically ready for a trip to the moon anytime NASA says go.

“I’ve been in the gym about every morning at 5:30 or 6 for like the last four decades, so I feel like I’m in good shape still,” he says with a laugh. “The body’s holding up, and so right now this is where the Good Lord would have me, so this is where I’m at.

“We’ll see what happens, I can’t say one way or the other. But if they said, ‘hey, do you want to go to the moon?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, I’ll go to the moon, you betcha.’ But will they say that? Right now, I’m assigned to duty on Earth. So time will tell.”

Backup role

Because he was on the Space Station when the crews were selected, Wilmore explains, he is ineligible for initial flights for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew aircraft.

“But what did happen was that I was in position – because of my background, my test-piloting background – I am the backup for the front seats on the first two launches of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft,” Wilmore says.

Members of a 2014 expedition to the International Space Station included NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore, center, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyaev, bottom and Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, top. The photo was shot during a farewell ceremony as they entered the spacecraft Soyuz TMA-14M before the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

-- Ap Photo/Yuri Kochetkov, Pool

“So if anything happens to any one of those four people – the commander and pilot positions, one guy – me – backing up all four of them. So that’s what I’m doing. And typically, historically, with NASA here in spaceflight, if you’re completely trained, you would flow into a follow-up mission.

“They haven’t made any assignments for the follow-up missions yet, but since I’ll be fully trained, it just makes sense that they would most likely fly me on the third flight. If I didn’t fly in on one of those backup roles on the first two flights.”

And it stands to reason that same process would hold true for future moon missions. So if Wilmore isn’t selected for the initial 2024 moon landing, he could go on another trip as long as his health and desire to go remain strong.

Besides his extended stay on the space station, Wilmore has made four spacewalks. I asked him to explain, in a few sentences, what that was like.

A 2015 file image from NASA-TV showing astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore beginning a spacewalk to wire the International Space Station in preparation for the arrival of the international docking port for the Boeing and Space-X commercial crew vehicles.

-- Nasa-Tv Via Ap, File

“Amazing. That’s one word, that’s not a couple of sentences. Amazing,” he says. “You know, a lot of times in life, expectations of events that you’re looking forward to, a lot of times reality doesn’t meet your expectations. But space flight? Reality far exceeds expectations.

“It’s just an amazing place to go, and the weightlessness, and just what you see with the view and what you’re experiencing, and knowing where you’re at.

“On a spacewalk, it’s just you and whoever else you’re doing the spacewalk with. There’s nobody else in the universe doing that at that moment. It’s just very, very special. Very unique.

“And my No. 1 question (for himself). I can remember vividly being outside the space station and thinking, ‘Goodness, why me? How in the world did you get here?’ But there I was. Pretty amazing. Very amazing.”

Moon not in her future

In his remarks, Pence said the next manned mission to the moon will also put the first woman on the moon.

Would another Murfreesboro native, Rhea Seddon, who made three trips and spent a total 30 days in space, be interested? Seddon would be 77 in 2024 – the same age as John Glenn when he made his last space voyage.

The question drew a quick laugh and an emphatic no.

“That would be very exciting, but the training, preparation and the time invested –certainly, I’d have to go back and re-learn a lot of different things, so I’m going to leave that to the younger folks, the younger generation,” says Seddon, who flew Space Shuttle missions in 1985, 1991 and 1993.

“And I’m cheering, so that they will have at least one woman on the team that gets to go to the moon, so that we will have a woman on the moon sometime soon.”

A series of successful moon missions could also lead to a manned mission to Mars within the next 50 years – at least that is in planning stages.

Both Seddon and Wilmore say that’s the next logical step of space exploration.

“Hope so. It’s not unreasonable,” Seddon adds. “We can do it if we want to. If we can go to the moon in 10 years, we should be able to get to Mars in 50.”

Wilmore notes the two key factors that will determine future space exploration are money and determination.

“This is not an inexpensive process, to launch people from this wonderful planet and go and do things in our solar system. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t keep us from doing it. Doesn’t keep us from figuring out how to get things done or tackle the hard problems,” Wilmore points out.

“We can figure them out. Science and technology continue to advance, and we’re there where we’re going. But it’s not inexpensive, so it takes a national resolve and a purpose to do these big things. So that’s the main thing.”

Even more than money, Wilmore adds, it will take leadership and national backing of those plans to make future space travel happen.

“So 50 years from now, if the national resolve is that we go forward, keep pressing forward, eventually we’ll get to the moon and on to Mars like we’d like to, we’ll be there,” Wilmore continues.

“But if the national resolve is not that, it makes it hard. We deal with many, many issues in our country and on this globe that are important, and this is one of them, as well. We’ve got to continue to advance our technologies and reach out, you know, explore – exploring in the laboratories, exploring in the depths of the ocean, and we need to do the same in the heavens. That’s my push for it.”

Finally, the question that mankind has pondered for thousands of years. Are we alone in the universe?

“I think we will (learn the answer). I think there are a lot of places out there that might support life, maybe not like our life,” Seddon says. With the billions and billions and billions of places that it could be, there sort of has to be one.

“But they may be so far away, we won’t ever really be able to contact them. But, you know, NASA has a program to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s a small program, but if they find out that it’s there, it will be quite an occasion.”

Wilmore chooses to focus instead on human spirit instead of alien life.

“I have an opinion on that. I don’t have enough time to go into it all, though,” he says. “Human space flight is … it’s the thing that people dream of – and me included. And it motivates tens of thousands of people around the globe to go ahead and press and do those wonderful things.

“Maybe they don’t wind up flying in space, but they do wonderful things for their countries and our country, and our globe. So, I think it’s something that sparks and inspirates. It’s certainly been that for me, and I think it’s been that for many, and will continue to be.”

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