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Zan Thompson

Walking on Air at Johnson Space Center

November 17, 1985|ZAN THOMPSON

HOUSTON — The dark, slender, good-looking young man stood at the foot of a flight of steps leading to a mock-up of a space orbiter in a high-ceilinged building the length of 1 1/2 football fields. He faced a television interviewer with a two-man crew. He had a relaxed smile as he stood straight-backed in a NASA blue jump suit with a shoulder patch of the flag of Mexico high on his left sleeve.

His name is Rudolfo Neri Vela and he is a payload specialist on Shuttle Mission 61B, which will launch into space Nov. 26, at 7:29 p.m. EST, and return on Dec. 3 in the middle of the afternoon at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

This was my first trip to the Johnson Space Center outside Houston, and my amiable NASA hosts invited me into a huge building where three crews of astronauts were going through three different exercises.

Rudolfo Neri almost lost his slot on the crew of Mission 61B when the Mexico City earthquake tore up lives, plans and the dreams of astronauts. Neri had been chosen by his government to deploy a communications satellite in space. Then Mexico City was torn asunder. At first, both governments thought that Neri's part in the shuttle mission would be scrubbed along with the other plans knocked askew by the killer earthquake.

They Found a Way

Then, men who were determined to save the first Mexican participation in the NASA orbiter program found a way. Rudolfo Neri Vela would still go, would still shepherd the communication satellite Morelos. NASA will take the young scientist and they will set the Morelos communication satellite in kind of a parking corridor where it will stay for 2 1/2 to 3 years, when the Mexican government hopes to have the financing necessary to activate the satellite.

When I read the academic backgrounds of any astronaut, it leaves me feeling that I'd be out of conversation right after saying, "How do you do." The 33-year-old Neri is from Chilpancingo, in the state of Guerrero. He received his bachelor's degree in mechanical and electronics engineering from the University of Mexico, took the master's program in science, specializing in telecommunications systems, at the University of Essex in England. He received a doctoral degree in electromagnetic radiation from the University of Birmingham, England.

All the astronauts in their NASA blue jump suits look like small boys in their zipped up one-piece playsuits, and I am delighted that Rudolfo gets to go and park his satellite for a better day.

Christie MacAuliffe, the schoolteacher chosen to represent all those dedicated men and women and their charges, was in the great big bay with the rest of her group. She has been at Johnson Space Center for two months. I saw two more women astronauts going about their training repetitions, looking like women from across the street or the office across the hall and carrying the aura that lit up Magellan and Marco Polo, wearing that relaxed air of ability and knowledge that fit them as casually as their jump suits.

Air of Sure Pride

Each space center staff member who explained his part of the program did so with the air of sure pride of a kid displaying a wagon he had made all by himself.

A helium-filled shape the size of a wandering whale hung under the high ceiling. It's a model of the Hubble space telescope, part of the Galileo program that will be delivered into space in August of 1986. Robert Johnson, who explained the telescope, said: "They'll be able to see to the edge of the universe."

As with most conversation with these men, he said it as casually as if the astronauts would be looking through a child's kaleidoscope and he was talking about seeing back of beyond.

Like everything that is part of NASA, Johnson Space Center in Houston is magic and mundane at once. Kids playing with erector sets and Lego blocks in space. On Shuttle System 61B, the astronauts will build their first structure in space. The mock-up is on the floor of the hangar, a triangular-shaped tunnel, it will be the first step in building a space station.

It was a rare privilege to be among these men and women, to see them going through the exact motions they will in space, matter-of-factly, unruffled. But surely each one knows every man and woman in the group is shot with luck, touched with dreams, filled with vision new to the imagination of man. Imagination they are turning into reality.

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