By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
Academy Public Affairs
The pilot for the STS-131 Space Shuttle mission and a 1991 Air Force Academy graduate came to the Academy May 7 to speak with Department of Astronautics faculty members and cadets majoring in the astronautics field during a dining-out at the Falcon Club.
“Col. Jim Dutton is exactly the kind of officer every cadet in this room should aspire to be,” said Col. Marty France, the Astronautics Department head and permanent professor, who first met Colonel Dutton in 1989 when he returned to the Academy.
“At the time, Jim stood out even then as a cadet whom we knew would go on to do good things. … No one who taught in the department back then is the least bit surprised by his success,” Colonel France said. “But all of us are proud of what he’s done, and I couldn’t think of a better person to motivate you and tell you about what’s ahead as you graduate in the next few days.”
Colonel Dutton said he enjoyed seeing familiar faces, but even more so, he rejoiced at meeting those whom he had not seen before.
“I’m always impressed by the quality of people that the Academy brings in, without exception,” said the colonel, a native of Eugene, Ore. “The folks here are very special. It’s easy, when you’re a cadet, to look around and see strong points and weak points in yourself and other people, but I think as you go on in your career, you’re going to realize that you’ve been around a very special group of folks. When you start coming back for things like 10-year and 15-year and 20-year reunions – it seems like forever to you guys – you’re going to realize that you had a special time here.”
He also enjoyed seeing the Academy’s astronautics facilities, which have changed substantially since he graduated in 1991.
“This morning, walking into the lab and seeing you guys flying your own satellite, blew me away,” he said. “The only thing I recognized was the oscilloscope.”
He spent much of the next 45 minutes showing a video production of the STS-131 mission as well as talking about his role and his impression. The STS-131 team, led by Navy Capt. Alan Poindexter, delivered a multi-purpose logistics module to the International Space Station and replaced an ammonia tank assembly on the station’s exterior. The shuttle lifted off April 5 and returned to Earth April 20.
“It’s really fun to be able to share this,” Colonel Dutton said. “You’re the first group I’ve really been able to talk to about the flight. Already the memories start to fade.”
One of the high points during training for the mission is that NASA lets families get involved, Colonel Dutton said. The agency allows astronauts’ families to learn about the mission and even to climb behind the controls of a shuttle simulator.
“When Joey got up in the commander’s seat … his feet couldn’t reach the rudder panels,” Colonel Dutton said. “He actually had one of the better landings of anybody who came out, which was pretty cool.” The colonel’s 6-year-old son did need his father’s help to reach the brakes, however.
Colonel Dutton compared the feeling of liftoff to standing on a steel plate when a bomb detonated.
“The whole vehicle really shook,” he said. “When the solid rocket boosters light, I imagine it feels like … someone hit the back of your seat with a baseball bat. You can feel the vibration through the airframe – all this power behind you – and it feels very normal. It’s very comfortable, but you know you’re going somewhere quick.”
It takes astronauts some time to get their “space legs,” the colonel said, crediting his experience as a test pilot for preparing him for the physical disorientation of microgravity.
“The thing they taught me as a test pilot was how to ignore what’s happening to your body while you think about what you’re doing with your task,” he explained. “When you first get to space, I’d say 90 percent of people feel really bad within an hour. Your inner ear gets thrown off, and it takes a couple of days for your body to adjust. But in the meantime, you’re doing a lot of potentially dangerous things those first couple of days.”
Staying fit is also more difficult in an environment where moving a 1,000-pound piece of hardware takes almost no effort. Specially designed exercise machines allow ISS crewmembers to stay in shape and prevent bone density loss, Colonel Dutton said. Even so, he gained nearly 2 inches of height during the mission and lost about ¼ inch immediately after landing due to the gravity differential.
A lesser challenge – but still a challenge – is making sure one doesn’t misplace objects.
“Stuff just disappears in space,” Colonel Dutton said. “You can’t keep track of things. Everyone was losing stuff because there’s no wall or ceiling or floor, so when you put down your pencil and attach it to something, you can’t find it 10 minutes later because you can’t figure out which wall you attached it to.”
One highlight from the mission was the bond that the STS-131 team quickly formed with the ISS crew shortly after docking. The combined crews – 13 people in all, including two Japanese astronauts – shared three crew dinners together, eating sushi during one of the dinners.
“It’s amazing how tight the crews got” during the 10 days Discovery was docked with the space station, he said. “You really bond up there. It takes a lot of teamwork to get the mission done.”
Another benefit – one that the colonel called addictive – was the chance to see Earth from low orbit. The crew took a series of still photos from the newly installed MPLM, which offered a 360-degree view from the bottom of the station.
“Those are cities at night that you can see passing, and here’s the sunrise,” he said as the video advanced through the still photos. Another set of photos showed a lightning storm over Australia and the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights. “It’s really amazing, how beautiful it was. I never got tired of looking out the cupola: every chance I got, I was down there.”
Eventually, though, the crew had to return to Earth. Discovery landed safely April 20, but it’s a bittersweet event, Colonel Dutton said. The final space shuttle mission, STS-134, is scheduled to launch in November. Col. Gregory Johnson, a 1984 Academy graduate, is the STS-134 pilot and will be the last Academy graduate to fly on a space shuttle mission.