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Payton recalls heady days in space program

By Jonathan Turner, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Rock Island native Gary Payton remembers being taken out of class in 1962 to watch the historic Mercury 7 liftoff of John Glenn as he prepared to orbit the Earth.

Now 50 and an administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, D.C., Mr. Payton said he never dreamed the heady days of NASA in the '60s would lead to his own indelible experience in space.

``I realized then I was watching history, and the same thing when we watched Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon,'' he said. ``But even after the last moon flight in 1972, I barely viewed myself in those molds. I viewed myself as trying to be a pilot, to be the best pilot I can.

``I never really set my sights on being an astronaut or anything like that,'' Mr. Payton said.

However, in 1958, when NASA was formed, the young Rock Islander was smitten with future space travel. Mr. Payton remembers sending away for what he now calls NASA ``propaganda.''

``Like anybody, I was interested in airplanes and stuff,'' he said. ``The basic theme of aviation was `higher, faster and farther.' The logical extension of that eventually leads you to space.

``It was more of an interest in the `gee-whiz' aspect. It was not much more than typical little-boy childhood,'' Mr. Payton said. ``What I did do was got serious about being in the Air Force.''

After graduating from Rock Island High School in 1966, and spending a year at Bradley University, Mr. Payton entered the U.S. Air Force Academy, which offered an accelerated, cooperative graduate program in astronautical engineering from Purdue University.

``I wanted to learn how things fly in space, vehicle design,'' he said. However, his first focus was on being a military pilot.

``My view was to bounce between engineering jobs, and part-time flying,'' Mr. Payton said. After 1981, when NASA's space shuttle program began, he got the opportunity to become a payload specialist on a shuttle flight.

``It was a program the Air Force started, to have government satellites fly on the shuttle,'' Mr. Payton said. ``The military wanted to make sure that their payload and their mission objectives were met.''

While he didn't reveal what the actual work was, Mr. Payton was involved in the space program's first clandestine military mission. He trained for more than a year with the four other Discovery crew members for the three-day flight in January 1985.

Mr. Payton originally was scheduled to fly on the Challenger in December 1984, the same shuttle that blew up during liftoff in January 1986. Challenger did fly three times in 1985, he said.

One of the crew members who perished, Ellison Onizuka, was a close friend of Mr. Payton's and accompanied him on the Discovery mission for the Department of Defense.

``It was like a punch to the solar plexus,'' he said of the shuttle disaster. ``What happened in Challenger wasn't supposed to happen at all.''

Mr. Payton said flying in space is a ``very humbling'' experience. ``Just the beauty of the earth underneath you. If you know the DreamWorks logo, that doesn't do it justice.''

He said the intense training, which includes motion simulators, doesn't ``come close to replicating the physical environment.''

During space flight and zero-gravity, your ears become ``very sensitive'' to the rotation of your head and acclimating back to the Earth's gravitational pull was strange.

Mr. Payton has been in charge of the technology side of the Strategic Defense Initiative program, and today is deputy associate administrator for space transportation technology in the Office of Aero-Space Technology.

He manages the reusable launch vehicle program, which seeks to cut the cost of getting space vehicles from the ground into orbit.

``What I'm trying to do is to make it easier to fly each time. Now, you have to assemble each launch vehicle, shuttle or unmanned, piece by piece on the launchpad,'' Mr. Payton said. ``That takes work forces of hundreds and hundreds of people.

``That's like taking a trip on United Airlines and having the plane built on the runway before you take off,'' he said. ``What we need to do is move to a vehicle that doesn't require assembly.''

Technical success will lead to fully reusable equipment, offering trips in what resembles airplanes more than today's launch vehicles, Mr. Payton has said.

``Within my daughter's lifetime, she's 18, you'll see space tourism as a real possibility,'' he's said.

Despite flagging public enthusiasm for NASA in the years leading up to last fall's John Glenn shuttle flight, its value and results remain high. ``If you look at what we're getting out of the space program month by month, dollar for dollar, we're getting a lot more than in the '60s,'' he said.

Mr. Payton said many people labeled the Apollo program with the basic phrase, ``Go get me a rock.'' Today, NASA is focusing on an international space station, finding water on Mars, and exploring the Earth from space.

``Now what you see is, remember the pictures from the Hubble telescope in Time magazine, the Pathfinder that bounced around the surface of Mars,'' he asked. ``We're doing both human and robotic missions.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.