Astronaut urges people to actually reach for stars - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

Astronaut urges people to actually reach for stars

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Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010 11:00 pm

Typically, the monthly breakfast meetings of the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce attract businessmen and women.

Last Thursday, there were teens, even kids, and others who might not typically attend.

They came to hear a NASA astronaut, Captain Scott D. Altman. "It's good to visit Tucson," Altman said about the trip to his wife's hometown. "It's a slightly different climate than Houston."

As a kid, Altman watched the TV show "Sky King" and decided he wanted to be a pilot. With encouragement from his parents, he set off in pursuit of that dream.

In 1981, Altman was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, after discovering he was too tall to be a pilot by Air Force standards. In the Navy, he logged more than 5,000 flight hours in more than 40 types of aircrafts, and made an appearance in the popular film "Top Gun" as one of the stunt pilots.

In 1995, he applied for and was accepted into NASA's astronaut program.

"NASA was a whole other place," said Altman. One of his first crew members was a Russian pilot. "For a long time during the Cold War, I saw these men as my opposition that I would be fighting against, and now he was my teammate." When it comes to space, "the world is united together instead of being torn apart."

Altman made his first trip into space as a pilot on STS-90 in 1998. "Looking back at the Earth is an amazing treat," said Altman. "It's a great planet, and the ability to look back and actually see it is truly phenomenal."

Since then, Altman has logged more than 51 days in space, has orbited the Earth 803 times, and has flown more than 20.6 million miles.

The destination of his last two flights was Hubble Telescope, one of the largest and most versatile outer-space telescopes as well as a tool "to discover the universe we live in," according to Altman.

His most recent flight on the Atlantis shuttle took place last May, when he and his crew spent seven days working to service the telescope. They overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws, and at one time had to manually pull off a stuck handrail. "It wasn't exactly high-tech," Altman said, joking about the inconvenient turn of events.

Altman's wife Jill, former Tucson resident, was asked what it was like seeing her husband launched into space.

"I was a Navy wife," Jill responded. "I didn't think anything scared me. But when you see that rocket take off, you can't help but be scared and think of the Challenger.

"But at the same time, I wish every American had the opportunity to drive to Florida and see the take-off of a shuttle. It's the most patriotic and awe-inspiring experience."

Scott Altman took the opportunity to turn to the younger members of the crowd.

"I used to think that I might be one of the first to walk on Mars," he said. "But we're not ready for that yet. We have to pass on the torch to the next generation and instill that inspiration.

"The desire to explore is something I believe we all share, and working together, we can literally reach for the stars."

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