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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview With Gary Payton

Aired July 14, 2002 - 07:35   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Space Shuttle has now been flying for more than 21 years. It's a remarkable accomplishment, even though as we speak, the fleet is grounded because of cracks in some fuel lines, is nevertheless a tremendous string of accomplishments.

And that has been encapsulated in a wonderful coffee table book that is just out. It's called "The Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years," edited by Tony Reichhardt and put out by the Smithsonian Institution. A tremendous series of photographs that you probably haven't seen before, as well as accounts from the people who were there. Among them, Gary Payton, who flew in January of 1985 aboard Discovery as a payload specialist on a mission we really can't tell you about. It was the first mission for the military involving a space shuttle. He joins us now to talk a little bit about the book and flying in space and the Space Shuttle and space program in general.

Gary, good to have you with us.

GARY PAYTON, FMR. ASTRONAUT: Good morning, Miles.

O'BRIEN: First of all, your mission, one year almost to the day before Challenger, that in and of itself is an interesting point because what happened during that mission, that blow by or whatever if you will, that problem with the solid rocket boosters, actually happened on your mission to a lessor degree. As you reflect upon that, what comes to mind?

PAYTON: Well, that was the classic case of is the glass half full or is the glass half empty? The night before Challenger, they looked at the data from our solid rocket boosters, which performed nominally during our flight. And again, the night before Challenger, the engineers looked at the results from our flight, believed that the O-rings, the solid rocket boosters would perform OK the next morning. Unfortunately, it was a little bit colder. And they did not perform as well.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's go to some of the pictures. And as we talk about this, your mission was extremely brief, one of the shortest planned schedules for a space shuttle mission, if not the shortest. You probably know that, chapter and verse.

As we look at this picture, I don't know if it comes across on TV, having been close to the shuttles many times, what you notice when you see them up close is how, well, you almost want to use the term beat up. They're kind of patched together with a series of pieces of fabric and tiles. They're kind of chipped. Looks like it's kind of been through the mill, doesn't it?

PAYTON: Well, it's a -- the exterior of the shuttle is actually ceramic, cloth or tile. And during the re-entry back into the atmosphere from space, some deposits, some soot, does stay on the tiles and on those blankets.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Now what goes on board the space shuttle is interesting. There's an awful lot of science that has occurred over the course of the years. Take a look at this image. This is an interesting one. This is one of those studies that we've seen video of, where they take a mission specialist or an astronaut and spin them around, and try to give them a sense of equilibrium. I don't think you probably did that on your mission. But nevertheless, how difficult was it for you to adjust to weightlessness and get your equilibrium going?

PAYTON: The body on about half the people who fly in space, the human body suffers some confusion on the sensory inputs. The eyes sees things and the ear -- inner ear sees contradictory things. And so your body goes through a conflict of sensory input. And on about half the people that fly, that results in queasiness or upset stomachs. The research that is going on to understand that phenomenon is one of the main reasons there is the international space station. How does long duration, exposure to zero G impact the human body?

O'BRIEN: How did it impact you? How did you feel?

PAYTON: Well, I'll confess. I filled three barf bags.

O'BRIEN: Wow. And you were -- you barely got an opportunity to get acclimated to weightlessness when you had to return, which must've been kind of unfortunate?

PAYTON: Well, the acclimation period, again, varies per person. Some people have no problems. In my particular case, it was a few hours. And -- but most everybody is back up to full speed a day after getting into zero G.

O'BRIEN: Yes, whenever we allow viewers to send e-mails to crew members for some of those interviews like you just saw, they often ask what is the view like, looking down at the earth, but also looking out? Take a look at this image. This is of the moon. What -- as you look back in your memory, what are the views that are etched in your memory from low earth orbit?

PAYTON: I remember vividly the opening of the payload bay doors about 45, 47 minutes into the flight. We had taken off from Florida, flying east. And the night side of the earth was over the Indian Ocean, Australia, but by the time 47 minutes into the flight, we were somewhere between Hawaii and Baja, California. And we opened the payload bay doors onto this most beautiful, deep, dark blue Pacific Ocean with white popcorn cumulus clouds floating over the top of the Pacific. O'BRIEN: Yes.

PAYTON: Just stunning. I'm sure Steven Spielberg would have a difficult time replicating that scene.

O'BRIEN: Well, and as Peggy Whitson just said in that tour she gave us, you know, the pictures that we see, even in wonderful coffee table books like this, really don't do it justice. Have you seen anything that comes close to your experience in orbit?

PAYTON: The unfortunate part about any book is the constraints, the size of the page, the...

O'BRIEN: Yes. All right, let's start...

PAYTON: ...view out our window.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. Let's look at this picture. This is just a funny one. Marsha Ivan, probably should've have used a ponytail, but that's -- anyway, that's what happens. You get real big hair up there. And hey, if you're from Houston, Texas, you might as well go with the big hair, right? Let's talk -- let's move to the next one, we'll talk about bailout practice. I'm curious. I've often talked to astronauts who kind of take you aside when you're practicing all this stuff, bailing out of the orbiter. Of course, things changed after Challenger and the techniques and so forth. But nevertheless, they sort of wink and nod and say, you know, like this is really ever going to happen.

Did you have the sense that -- well, were you sort of fatalistic about it, put it that way?

PAYTON: I would say our approach was, again, ours was a military flight. All of five of us on board were GIs, if you would, army, navy, air force, marines. And our flight, we viewed as a military mission. Five GIS going off to do a military mission. And we were going to make sure that we did everything we could to make a successful mission.

O'BRIEN: You never got scared or considered the possibility of the what ifs, necessarily?

PAYTON: Well, the one thing that this book does reveal is the astronaut's prayer. And it's a short one liner. And it's basically God help you if you screw up. So that's the -- one of the main emotions going into one of these flights.

O'BRIEN: If something goes wrong, just make sure it isn't me, right? All right, Gary Payton, payload specialist in January of '85. He's at the Pentagon now working on nuclear -- or excuse me, missile defense strategies.

Thanks very much for being with us. And thanks for being a part of this wonderful book, "Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years."

PAYTON: You bet, Miles. O'BRIEN: Out of -- for the Smithsonian edited by Tony Reichhardt. Thanks for being with us.

PAYTON: Thank you, Miles.