NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria likened the space industry today to aviation in the 1930s when planes were safe and capable but so expensive only rich people could afford to fly.
Lopez-Alegria spoke Wednesday morning to students at Pace Early College High School and Manzano and Stell middle schools as part of the Association of Space Explorers 32nd Planetary Congress hosted by Texas A&M University. The annual event gathers astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world to discuss human activities in space and future plans for low-Earth orbit and beyond.
NASA astronauts traveled to McAllen and Brownsville from Houston to give presentations about space flight to students and later regrouped at the SpaceX launch facility at Boca Chica Beach.
Lopez-Alegria has flown in space four times, the first three on shuttle missions and the last in 2006 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station. He described flying into space as a 100 on a scale of 100 and making a space walk as 150 on the same scale.
Describing a launch, he said the shuttle effectively sits atop 750 tons of slowly exploding TNT at speeds reaching four times the speed of sound. It goes from thrust to float at an altitude of 400 miles. The ISS, and shuttle flights before it, orbit the Earth 16 times in a 24-hour period. Night lasts 45 minutes.
The sensation of weightlessness is caused by the spacecraft “falling” into its orbit and floating around the earth, he said.
“ A lot of you are going to get into space some day,” Lopez-Alegria said. Those who do will come to “see the Earth in a different perspective and also see the fragility of Earth,” he said, calling it the ‘overview effect.’
“You get to see the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity,” he said.
The astronaut’s own motivation to pursue space travel came during the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. He said he was 11 and on the beach with his parents when the landing took place. To him it seemed as though the waves in the ocean slowed down as the landing module touched down, he said.
Lopez-Alegria said that just as the government of Spain financed Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World, modern governments have sponsored mankind’s initial expeditions into space. Now as then private enterprise is taking over where government left off. Richard Branson’s Virgin Gallactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are three examples.
One student asked Lopez-Alegria how big a part physical condition plays in being an astronaut.
“You just have to be healthy,” he said. “You can stay ‘til you’re 70. I stayed 20 years and flew four times, but I had colleagues who were older than me when I got there and who are still there.”
Lopez-Alegria was born in Madrid, Spain, but came to the United States with his parents as a toddler and grew up in Mission Viejo, California. He started his presentation in Spanish before transitioning into his native English. He also speaks Russian.
Following his first space flight he served as NASA Director of Operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.