by Malcolm Curtis|American International Club of Geneva E-News No. 4 2012
It’s not everyday you get to rub shoulders with an astronaut, but the American International Club of Geneva’s July 24 luncheon provided just that opportunity.
Not one but all six flight crew members from the last mission of the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) were the featured guests at the special event, held at HP’s
regional headquarters in Meyrin with help from the US Mission to the UN.
Mark Kelly, Endeavour’s commander, outlined the scientific importance of the mission, which transported a “cosmic particle detector” developed in Geneva to the International
Space Station in May 2011.
Otherwise known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, the detector was assembled at the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Kelly described the sophisticated device as a “15,000- pound, 1.5- to two-billion-US-dollar cosmic particle detector” that is already beaming back to CERN information about billions of cosmic rays.
Such data is expected to provide scientists with clues about the origins of the universe and such phenomena as dark matter, black holes and anti-matter.
“It is certainly the most significant scientific thing the space station will ever do,” Kelly said.
The former US Navy captain joined other members of the crew in describing the experience of rocketing beyond the atmosphere and spending time on the space station,
developed by 15 countries.
The other crew members included NASA astronauts Gregory Johnson, Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff and Andrew Feustel, in addition to Italian Roberto Vittori from the European Space Agency.
They presented a video of the mission showing how Endeavour docked on the space station and how the cosmic particle detector was installed using a robotic arm.
During the mission, the crew received an unprecedented call from Pope Benedict via a televised link-up.
The astronauts wowed the audience with anecdotes about coping with zero gravity and taking space walks outside the space station to do repairs.
Endeavour crew members also freely responded to questions from the audience of 55 AIC members and invited guests.
Andrew Feustel admitted to being “scared to death” when asked about his first experience walking in space.
“It’s really scary,” he recalled. “The first time you go outside, that first instant, I remember that sensation of not wanting to move.”
“It becomes mind over matter at that point. You realize that you’re out there to do work and you only have a limited amount of time to do it.”
Michael Fincke talked about his experiences spending more time living on the space
station — one year — than any other American astronaut.
The Endeavour crew spent two years preparing for the mission, including hours of
training in a pool that simulates what it is like to walk in space.
The pressurized space suits each weigh 150 kilograms and are difficult to move in.
Feustel likened hand movements while wearing the suit to “putting on three or four pairs of gloves and trying to plant flowers.”
Kelly reminded everybody of the boggling technology involved in getting the men up to the orbiting station in the first place.
The shuttle fired into space with the aid of propulsion systems and fuel “that get that thing going from a dead stop on the launch-pad to 17,500 miles an hour in eight and a half minutes.”
The 16-day mission was the last for The Endeavour and the second-last NASA shuttle flight to the space station.
A decision made by the administration of former president George W. Bush ended funding for the shuttle program, which wrapped up with the flight of the orbiter Atlantis last
Under a commercialized plan, the US government is now providing smaller amounts of funding for competing private companies to find ways to reach the space station.
Kelly said companies such as California-based SpaceX have already succeeded in
transporting cargo to the station, which is funded until 2020.
But he said such craft are a “long way off” the capabilities of the Endeavour.
The astronauts proved to be very down-to-earth as they lined up at the buffet table with AIC members for lunch.
Later they graciously volunteered to pose with dozens of members for photos that are posted on the AIC’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AICofGeneva.
AIC President Edward Karr described the event as an opportunity to “live a few moments with our heroes.”
The astronauts, who later visited CERN to exchange scientific information, were all made honorary members of the AIC.