Out of this world
Published: 25 May 2017
During a brief touchdown in Scotland, former astronaut Brian Duffy met Susan Welsh to talk about his career and mission to persuade others to consider a future in space.
Staring into space is something Brian Duffy did regularly at work – and would do so again in a heartbeat given half the chance.
For Brian is a former Nasa astronaut who served as a pilot and commander on four space shuttle missions and who has spent more than 40 days in space.
Now working as an ambassador for the Kennedy Space Centre, he touched down in Scotland last week in a bid to inspire youngsters to follow a career in space and encourage families to visit the centre which aims to educate and inspire.
“I was still in school when the space programme got under way and followed it keenly from the start. I did wonder what it would be like to be an astronaut but being involved in something like that was beyond my wildest dreams,” said Brian, a keen golfer who co-owns a holiday home in St Andrews.
“I’d go to my local library and take out books about the technical side of space travel and orbital mechanics as I was always interested in science and maths.”
Brian was drafted into the US Airforce, which suited him as he wanted to become an airforce pilot.
“I flew all sorts of planes, primarily the F15 which was my main aircraft, then I went on to become a test pilot flying more than 25 different types of aircraft and clocking up more than 5,000 hours of flight time.”
In answer to my suggestion that putting aircraft through their paces was a job which required great courage he said: “It sounds dangerous, right?
“But the truth is, test pilots are the most conservative flyers as we are great planners. While we expand the envelope of flying, we do it incrementally, flying to a point to collect data and evaluate it then, if we need to expand beyond it we will take the next step.
“We are very cautions, we just don’t go out and do things we shouldn’t do,” said Brian, 63.
The switch from test pilot to astronaut came after a friend persuaded him to apply for the selection process.
“At that time I was working on a lot of classified projects, something I really enjoyed doing, but I applied and was accepted.
“You can be the best fighter pilot in the world, the best engineer, the best test pilot, the best physicist but you don’t know anything about flying in space so everyone starts at square one and your knowledge is built up from there.
“At the end of a year you are then eligible to be assigned to a flight and from there, it’s just the luck of the draw.”
Brian became an astronaut in July 1986 and served as a spacecraft communicator in Mission Control during numerous Space Shuttle missions. He also served as assistant director (technical) and as deputy director (acting) of the Johnson Space Center.
A veteran of four space flights, he logged more than 40 days in space.
“My first flight was in 1992 onboard Atlantis which is now housed at the Kennedy Space Centre,” said Brian.
“Taking off for the first time was really exciting. I knew what to expect but my heart was still racing. I couldn’t believe I was there because it’s very unreal but at the same time you are so focused on what you are trained to do so you tend to ignore everything else although it’s hard to ignore the acceleration and vibration.
“Looking out the window at earth for the first time was beautiful and confusing.
“I floated up to one of the two overhead windows – astronaut Kathy Sullivan was already there – and she explained we were looking down on the snow-covered Alps and gave me a guided tour of earth from space. I even got to fly over my house and took pictures of it!
“It was also good to see Scotland as I’m keen golfer and regular visitor to St Andrews.
“What took me by surprise was that earth isn’t as green as I thought it would be. At the time, the rainforest in Brazil was being cut down and we could see that, while the Sahara is much bigger than I thought.
“It’s also a myth the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure you can see from space as large geometric shapes, such as big runways, can be seen.
“Work, naturally, takes priority, but you steal every moment you can to look out of the window.”
On missions three and four, he served as commander, a role which meant being responsible for everything, and in last mission he helped to prepare the International Space Station for its first resident crew.
Last year, he was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. “That was very humbling,” said Brian. “It is amazing to think that I’m among my heroes because people such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn were my heroes. I don’t think of myself as any type of hero.”
His one regret about his fulfilling career is that he never got to walk on the moon. “I’d have liked that but it just never happened.”
Now he’s keen to see youngsters follow in his footsteps.
“I tell the school children I speak to, work hard, go to school, get selected to be an astronaut then come and be my boss and tell me, and that within their lifetime, somebody will walk on Mars.”
As for news that next year people can take a private rocket trip around the moon, he said: “I think they need a professional to accompany them so should invite me along. I’d go back to space in a heartbeat.”
For details of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida visit www.KennedySpaceCenter.com