A chat with NASA Astronaut, and University of Alabama grad, Bob Hines
APR's Pat Duggins had the chance to talk with NASA Astronaut Bob Hines. The veteran crew member of the International Space Station's Expedition 67 is only the second University of Alabama graduate to fly in space. Two time Space Shuttle pilot James Kelly is the other. Astronaut Hines is on campus for UA Space Days this week. Duggins began his conversation by asking the NASA veteran what inspired him to pursue a career in space.
Pat Duggins -- Obviously, part of your job (visiting the UA campus) is to come and inspire students to aspire to space, that sort of thing. Can you talk about the story that got you going when you were that age?
NASA Astronaut Bob Hines -- Absolutely. I mean, I've loved airplanes for as long as I could possibly remember. So I don't even know that there's an origin there. I was just born with a love of airplanes from the get-go. But the thing that got me interested in space was watching the STS-1 launch, which is the first Space Shuttle mission and watching it launch and take off, there had been a big hiatus in the space program for a long time (after the Apollo moon landings,) and I was only six years old. So, that was the first real space event that I got to see. But at the end of that mission when it came back, and the Space Shuttle landed, like an airplane — that just connected the dots for me, and it was the two things, my love of flying that all of a sudden merged with space, and it became just a passionate hobby for me, that I followed for a really long time, but never really thought I could be an astronaut. Those guys were super heroes to me. And, so I just never really dawned on me until much later in my career that it was a tangible thing that I could strive for and achieve.
Pat—I was talking with (Astronaut) Bob Crippen (Pilot of the first Shuttle mission that Hines watched,) and he said that on the trip back (re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere,) it was like flying through a neon tube. Can you compare that description to what you saw on Crew Dragon (Hines’ SpaceX spacecraft.)
Hines -- That's, that is really interesting, they (Crippen’s crew) had the benefit of having their windows in the front of their spacecraft as they were coming back. So, he could see that…for us, they’re (the windows) on the side of our spacecraft and the heat shield is, forward and it's kind of down near the bottom of the spacecraft. So, we got to see the flickering results of flying through that through that “tube.” And, it was still pretty spectacular seeing the bright pinks and oranges as they went past the window. But, what really stood out to me was how fast we're going. As we hit enter interface looking out and seeing the West Coast of the United States goes zipping by... I'd look at a (control panel) display for a couple seconds. And next thing I know I look out the window and there goes St. Louis. And then right after that, you know one more look inside. And next thing I know we're over Jacksonville, Florida coming down and our parachutes are opening. I mean, it was so fast as we were across the United States, it was amazing.
Pat -- Being a test pilot, obviously you’re used to a aircraft with a control stick. And there’s not one on Crew Dragon. Can you talk about the adjustments that meant for you?
Hines -- Yeah, it absolutely took some getting used to not having a physical control stick. Everything on Dragon is touchscreen related. But thankfully, the regimes of flight where we would take over are things happen slow enough that the touchscreen actually works out pretty well. There are regimes such as maybe landing on the moon, where that may not work quite as quite as well. But when we're docking, and we're looking at a display, and our targets are on the display, having the touchscreen controls right there on that display are very, very intuitive and very well designed. And so it was it was a dream dream to fly.
Pat -- Pick your favorite moment on ISS, your 170 days there, what would it be?
Hines -- Oh, boy, it's tough to pick just one moment. But you know, certainly, I think one of the most special times was that first hatch opening and you come in and you see, you see the real space station for the first time, it’s pretty incredible. But really, when I think of my time on “on station,” it’s thinking about my crewmates and the time that I get to spend with my crewmates, especially when we're all just hanging out in the cupola (ISS’ glass observation dome) looking at the Earth as it passes by underneath us, often in just stunned silence at the amazing beauty that we're watching.
Pat – Seeing STS-1 (the first Shuttle launch) was the thing that got you going in space. What's in your toolkit as far as like inspiring the next generation?
Hines -- Oh, wow, it is I don't know that it's my toolkit. But the amazing things that are going on in the space program right now, I think are they're inspiring for me, and I think they're inspiring for everybody. The Artemis program is the next step that NASA is taking as we move on to the Moon and eventually onto Mars. And, we are well on our way with that we had our first Artemis-1 launch about a year ago now— the incredibly successful first flight of the Orion capsule, which went and flew around the moon and launched aboard the Space Launch System rocket (Artemis) in such an incredibly successful test flight. Our next one we have assigned our crews to go fly on it'll be the first crewed test flight of SLS (Space Launch System) and Orion (Artemis crew capsule.) They also will go around the moon and they'll be the first people around the moon in over 50 years. And after that the next mission we're supposed to be landing on the moon. So it's, it's really close. It's happening fast and it's really, really exciting.
Pat -- In my office, I've got a signed photo from the astronaut class of 1998, and half of those guys were preparing to fly Shuttle the other half were preparing to fly Soyuz (Russian spacecraft) to go to ISS. Now you've obviously proven your mettle on the International Space Station. Any thoughts about tossing your hat into the ring for an Artemis flight to the Moon?
Hines -- I think the entire Astronaut Office has our “hats in the ring.” So we're all kind of waiting in line to go to Space Station. That’s what we have right now. It (the space station) is 24/7 365 continuous operations and so we are all in line to support those operations. And, as the Artemis flights come available, we'll be pulling astronauts out of that line in order to support those Artemis flights. So the number one priority right now is keeping Space Station operating. And you know, right up there with it is the Artemis-2 flight and getting that crew out there around the moon and getting them successfully back. And so we are all laser focused on making that happen.
Pat – I saved my most controversial question for the last. America is kind of dependent on SpaceX to get to the space station. And everybody's read the headlines about (SpaceX owner) Elon Musk. Do you have any personal feelings about America’s ability to fly Americans to space dependent on a somewhat mercurial billionaire?
Hines -- Well, I tell you what, I think we're thankful for someone like Elon, because he's been so innovative, he has changed the industry. There are things that we I mean, six or seven or eight years ago, if we had talked about landing a rocket on a boat, so that we could reuse it (SpaceX successfully lands its spent booster rockets on a floating barge.) We'd have thought you were crazy, right. But here we are watching SpaceX do things like that. And it's not just SpaceX, there are so many partners out there in industry, that are doing innovative things that are pushing forth the low Earth orbit economy. And so guys like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and all the other companies that are out there that are pushing the envelope of what's possible in outer space are really paving the way for us to get back to the moon and eventually on Mars.