By Melinda Welsh

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This article was published on 09.08.05

Our man in space

Steve Robinson chats with SN&R about why humans go exploring, how there’s probably life on other planets and what his home ground of Sacramento looks like from outer space

You’d have to live underground to have missed the news: NASA sent seven human beings into orbit on the space shuttle Discovery a little over a month ago, and one of them was a guy born right here in Sacramento. Astronaut Steve Robinson and his crewmates reintroduced the American public to the space-shuttle program following a long hiatus after the shuttle Columbia broke apart in the sky more than two years ago.

I refer to Steve here by his first (not last) name for the simple reason that I’m lucky enough to be friends with the fellow. My husband, Dave, and he are old college pals—they’d worked together at UC Davis’ KDVS in the late ’70s and managed to re-create a friendship many years later, in large part because of a shared love of music and art. Steve had already been up in the shuttle on two other occasions. In mid-July, Dave and I flew back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see our friend blast into space for the third time, but that launch was scrubbed and not meant to be. We wound up watching the launch, Steve’s spacewalks and the Discovery’s landing all from our home television set.

As fate would have it, Steve’s role in the mission turned out to be a bit more extensive than anybody expected. As if just being up there and doing the regular spacewalks wasn’t enough, Steve also turned out to be the guy who got to actually go where no man had gone before. (I’m sure he’s already pretty tired of that joke.) The world held its breath when, for the first time in history, a man in a spacesuit maneuvered under the belly of the shuttle so as to do a space repair. With the help of his crewmates, Steve removed a substance called “gap filler” that had come loose and potentially threatened the safe return of the shuttle. News of his successful completion of this task was huge for a country still living in the shadow of fear left behind after Columbia. It was strange and exhilarating that day and the next to see an image of Steve—him solitary in a stripped-down spacesuit, balanced on a robotic arm under the belly of the shuttle—plastered across the newspapers, beaming from the television screens of America.

Last week, as he and his colleagues got set to tour the country and share word of their adventure, I asked Steve if he’d be OK with me running a tape recorder for SN&R while we chatted a bit by phone. He said sure. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

So, what’ve you been doing since you got back to Earth?

It’s been very busy. When you go and fly a mission into space, you go with the purpose of learning things. So, when you get back, it’s your job to sort of transmit all the stuff that you’ve learned to the people on the ground getting the next missions prepared. It involves writing reports, debriefing with many groups—

You’ve been doing media stuff too, right? I heard you were on Good Morning America.

We’re about to do quite a bit of that. We’re leaving for New York City on Monday to do morning TV shows. I think we get to go to a Mets game, so all is not lost! Oh, and probably the greatest thing is the children’s program at the American Museum of Natural History. So that’s gonna be great. [Discovery Commander] Eileen Collins is gonna be on Letterman. And they’ve scheduled a trip to Japan.

I was sort of surprised—from launch to landing—to have felt really nervous about it all, I mean for your safety. Were you nervous for yourself or the crew of the Discovery?

No, I was honestly more concerned with my family feeling nervous. I think the Columbia accident was on people’s minds. But it really wasn’t on ours. When you set out to do something like this, you sort of have to come to peace with the level of risk. Especially if you’ve been in aviation your whole life, you sort of come to grips with the fact that what you’re doing is important. … You feel that the risk is worth it.

So, you put the danger out of your mind?

Yeah, you put it out of your mind. But it’s not just avoidance—it’s confidence. I went out to the pad with a lot of confidence. I think we all did. We were anxious to fly. We were happy to be there. We believed in the mission. We felt very privileged to be there.

There was one point when I really had the sense that you guys up there didn’t have a clue how much the country had gotten caught up in what was happening with Discovery. I heard you patiently explaining what gap filler was on CSPAN, at 2 a.m. before you went and did that spacewalk, and I thought, “Steve has no idea that all of us here on Earth have been hearing about the dangers of ‘gap filler’ for days now from every news media in the country—”

[Laughs.] I had no idea that was going on! I didn’t think people knew what in the world I was doing up there.

And then NASA grounded the shuttle fleet because of the foam. People would ask me, “How can they ground the shuttle fleet when your friend and six other people are still up there?” That started this pace of daily attention.

Well, isn’t it great that people were paying attention? If there was one refrain I heard when I got back, it was that this was a good-news sort of story. And people are hungry for good news. So, I think it’s great that people paid attention. But I think it was also great that we didn’t know about it during the mission [laughs].

What was it like out there on that robotic arm?

I wish I could describe it fully to you. It’s so unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. … Analogies don’t work very well. I kept feeling like I was trying to put a wide-angle lens on my whole brain to try to take it in. You’re just a dot in the universe. And the universe is vast. And it’s dynamic, and everything is moving. And the shadows … the sun goes up or down every 45 minutes. So, the shadows were going by rapidly underneath. There were lots of spectacular views and surprising sensations. It was a really huge experience for me.

I’ve read the words of other astronauts who come back and try to articulate this really profound sense of what it feels like to look back at the Earth.

Well, we’re not a very articulate bunch to begin with! We’re not immune to the feelings, but we’re not so good at expressing them; that’s for sure. That’s why I was glad to have a camera.

Eileen Collins came back and said she could see erosion and deforestation on Earth from outer space. I thought it was nice to have her talking a bit about that and the responsibility we all have to take care of the planet.

On my first mission, one of my crewmates, astronaut Robert Kirby, came back and said something that I think speaks for us all. He said, “No matter what you thought before you flew in space, after you’ve flown in space you become a conservationist.” I think especially people who have flown airplanes all their lives have always thought of the atmosphere as being virtually endless, much bigger than we are. But, from the vantage point of orbit, it’s anything but endless. It’s very limited. It’s almost minimal. And you can see just this thin, blue haze wrapped around this huge planet. It’s almost shocking how thin it is. It was the opposite of what I’d always sensed—that there was this limitless sky. That’s not what it is at all.

What do you say to people who say we should solve problems on the Earth before we go into space?

Going into space makes a significant contribution to solving the problems here on Earth. There’s no doubt. Some of them are explicit contributions that help the human race develop technology that we use to make not only our lives better and more efficient, but also help so that our existence doesn’t make such an impact on the Earth. Technology is wonderful for that. And the other way we do it … well, this is a rather inspirational business for a lot of people. It sets a high watermark for human achievement. Children growing up today, they know that it’s possible to go to the moon, to live in space. Just knowing that, I think, can motivate people to greater heights than they would have gone before. Just knowing what human beings really can accomplish.

It’s all a very ambitious and almost audacious thing to do. You realize this when you are sitting on the launch pad, and the rocket engines light, and you’re riding this barely controlled explosion and blasting up into the sky, and you’re thinking, ‘Whatever gave us the confidence to try this?’ But here we’ve done it over and over. And I think that I’m one of the people who believe that doing it gives us a healthier confidence that we can solve difficult problems back here on Earth.

I’ve heard you say that exploration is written into our genetic code.

I don’t think we can help it! That is the nature of human intelligence. We want to know what we don’t yet know.

You did a few things up there for the first time in history. The gap filler, of course. But you also did a podcast.

Well, I’d hoped there would be more than one, but I can’t express to you how busy it is up there. Extremely busy all the time. Anyway, the podcast was done on the last day of orbit. I was actually putting away the computers, and I got about 10 minutes. I gathered up the equipment, plugged it in and just started talking. For me, it was exciting because, as you know, I used to be in the radio business. I’ve always loved radio. And this is the modern-day extension of what we always thought of as radio.

You got to be the first one. Does that have meaning for you?

Yeah, it does for me personally. Nobody asked me to do that. I just wanted to do it. I had to explain to our public-affairs people what a podcast was! [Laughs.] And then they were very enthusiastic about it.

That day when we got to see you out at Kennedy before the scrub, I heard you say you were gonna look for a guitar that was supposed to be up on the space station—

I found it!

Wow, great.

To the benefit of me and the detriment of everybody else, I found the guitar [laughs].

We docked [with the space station] on the third day. I probably found it on the fifth day. I asked one of the station guys if he knew where it was, and he actually did. It’s a very nice little acoustic guitar. It’s not normal size; it’s kind of a pint-sized guitar. It sure was fun to be floating around upside down and playing the blues.

How does your being a musician affect what you are as an astronaut?

In my mind, it kinda fits together. Being a musician opens your senses to new ideas. And that’s certainly what we do in the astronaut business. And it also requires creativity. When you’re sort of out on the cutting edge of doing what people haven’t done before, that’s creativity, too.

Speaking of music, I read somewhere that “Vertigo” by U2 was played to wake you guys up the morning of the gap-filler spacewalk.

“Vertigo”? I don’t know. What I liked was when we heard “Walk of Life.” It’s Dire Straits. I think we were all humming that song all day long. It was the perfect song.

Channel 3 here in Sacramento once did a program on you. I think it was after your trip up with John Glenn, and they had you interviewed by a bunch of kids. One of the kids asked if you thought there was life on other planets. And you didn’t say no. You said, “Probably.”

If you just think of the statistics of the universe, I think it’s perfectly possible that there might be some form of life somewhere out there. But it’s also very likely that we’ll never know it because of the distances involved. If it takes light an entire year to get halfway to the nearest star, the sun, why then it’s very unlikely that there’ll be communication between any two forms of life. So, it’s sort of a good-news, bad-news sort of thing.

Do you get tired of having to be the “Right Stuff” all the time? People have an expectation of astronauts that they’re sort of perfect, brilliant, good sense of humor, kind to animals … that must be hard to live up to.

Not for me, ’cause I’m not that way! Because all I know for sure is who I am. I’ve never changed at all. Heck, you’ve known me a long time. You know that. So, no, I don’t feel that I have somebody else’s ideal to live up to. The only thing I’ve ever done in life is be Steve Robinson. I’m still trying to be better at that. Let me tell you why. I have the best job in the world—I’m pretty convinced of that. But it is my job; it’s not who I am. It’s important not to tangle up my own personal identity with this wonderful job.

I know you’ve gotten very close to the crew of Discovery. How much are you gonna miss that family?

Oh, it’s terrible. We’re looking down the road at breaking up the family and flying off down the road, and it’s awful. We were absolutely welded together. We could finish each other’s sentences. We knew each other’s jokes. A couple of us could just look at each other and communicate.

I read that once you got back to Earth, you said you actually wished you’d been able to stay up in space. And I knew for years you’ve been saying that you hope to go up and live on the space station—

Well I’m one of those people who really enjoys being in space. I have to admit I was not ready to come home after just two weeks up there. It’s such a fascinating environment. You don’t even want to sleep while you’re up there. So, yes, I want to go into space again, if somebody lets me do it. But that’s really not up to me. There are lots of people waiting for that very first flight. And I want them to get that first flight. So, we’ll see what happens.

We wondered if all the attention on you would help you get back up there. You know, “Now that he’s been on the cover of USA Today—”

I was on the cover of USA Today?

Well, we saved a whole bunch of such stuff in case your parents or other people didn’t happen to.

[Laughs.] Well, I haven’t seen any of that.

Well, it was you out on the arm under the belly of the Discovery. It was a beautiful, iconic photograph, and it was on the cover of every newspaper in America that next day. That was the point where the country was the most caught up in it all. In that photo, there was this clarity of a single human being out there in the vastness of space under this human-made vehicle, the shuttle. There was something very strong that happened with that photo, I think.

That’s very interesting. My experience of it is so different. Though there certainly was the sense of hanging out there in the vastness of space. People have asked me whether it was lonely.

What do you say to them?

Oh, not at all, not at all. First of all, I felt very secure because my colleagues are the best at what they do. We’ve trained together, worked together, trusted each other. So, I had no sense of insecurity. And then I think I was just trying to take it in as much as I could. There was one point where I could see nothing made by humans. I was facing outward, and it was just me and the universe. What a gift to have at one point in your life! I was just trying to drink it in.

What’s the future for NASA and the space station and the shuttle program?

Well it’s an exciting time to be here. We are seriously getting ready to go back to the moon and to have a moon base there. That’s truly exciting. That’s a big step. If we learn how to do that, that’ll generate a bunch of new technology that’ll help things here on the Earth. It happens every time. But right now, the real question is: Can we make the shuttle safe enough to finish its job and then safely retire it to museums? That’s the question we’re dealing with right now. The space station definitely needs more parts for it to be useful. So, we feel like it’s really important to solve these problems with the shuttle. We have to get to the point where we feel safe enough to go fly again.

After the moon base, it’s on to Mars, right? Will you be involved at that point?

Well, I’m not thinking about Mars personally. That’s well into the future. But I think the moon base is kinda right around the corner. I probably won’t be one that goes to the moon, but I wish I were.

When are you returning to Sacramento?

Well, a couple of us are trying to get back to California soon. And I’ll certainly come back and visit Sacramento. It’s my hometown! I mean, I am anxious to come back and see Sacramento from the ground level. I did see it from orbit. It was very exciting.

You’re kidding!

I saw it from outside. I was out in the spacesuit, and I could see the whole Central Valley laid out before me. We were flying northeast, coming up from below San Diego and coming up over the Sierras, looking right up the Central Valley, and I could see all the way up to Sacramento. The farthest mountain I could see was Mount St. Helens. Sacramento was sort of in the middle view. It was very clear. You could see Tahoe and the Sacramento River. It was a beautiful clear day; it was on the third [spacewalk] after the gap-filler stuff. It probably would have been first thing in the morning for you guys. It was a beautiful sight.

I knew you could see landmasses and oceans and stuff. But I didn’t know the extent to which you could identify a river or city—

Well, often you can’t unless you know it really well. You also generally don’t have time. But actually I was waiting for my partner, Soichi [Noguchi], and I was hanging out and looking around, and I thought I recognized California. And I asked Andy [Thomas] inside the shuttle to take a look at the computer and tell me where we were, and sure enough I was looking at the old home ground. So, I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing it at ground level.