Former astronaut discusses impact of Sputnik

George “Pinky” Nelson figures if he stays healthy, he’ll live long enough to see humans walk on Mars.“I’m just sorry it won’t be me,” says Nelson.

Nelson, though, has already enjoyed more than his share of space exploration. The former NASA astronaut rode on three different space shuttle missions from 1984 to 1988 and has logged more than 400 hours in space.Since 2002, he has served as director of science, mathematics and technology education at Western Washington University.

The local public will have an opportunity to ask questions of the astronaut when Nelson speaks Wednesday on “Sputnik Plus 50 Years: The Enduring Impact.” His talk, which is free, will begin at 5:15 p.m. in Communications Facility room 110.

Nelson, 57, has never forgotten how Sputnik captured his imagination when the Russians launched the first earth satellite when he was 7.

He also has never forgotten how he benefited from the renewed stress on science and mathematics education in the 1960s and ’70s during the halcyon days of the Space Race.

Question: As a huge space buff, I’ll never forget being inspired and captivated by Sputnik. At the time, it seemed the world had been turned on its head, didn’t it?

Answer: I’ll be talking about the long-term effects of Sputnik. It’s one of those events that keeps being brought up in other contexts when the United States is compared to another country. It all started because the Russians were able to fly something over our heads. Suddenly, we felt vulnerable for the first time since World War II.

Q: Wernher von Braun, the great German rocket scientist who went to work for our side after World War II, was really disappointed when the Russians beat us into space, wasn’t he?

A: Von Braun was the visionary who really wanted to get to the moon first. He was one of those remarkable people you need to accomplish something like that. Von Braun pushed us into space.

Q: Who could have guessed that 35 years after the last of the six manned landings on the moon (from 1969-72), that we would not have gone to Mars.

A: I know I’m disappointed. Given our current glacial pace (of space exploration), I’d say we won’t get back to the moon or to Mars before the 2020s at the earliest.

Q: Where else might we explore — the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn seem to offer the best opportunities.

A: I really like the idea of exploring the asteroids (the so-called “minor planets” between Mars and Jupiter). You could maneuver right up alongside some of them and it wouldn’t be hard to take off. We might also be able to explore the dark side of Mercury (the planet closest to the sun), but we’d have to take off before that side became exposed to the sun.

Q: What a lot of people forget about Sputnik is that the Russians launched a second, much larger, satellite a month later with the tragic dog, Laika.

A: I’ll be talking about what a remarkable feat it was for the Russians to launch a nearly 200-pound object into low-earth orbit at 17,000 miles per hour (25,000 mph is the escape velocity required to escape Earth’s orbit). And their second satellite weighed half a ton! That poor dog lasted only a few hours before he died, although no one really knows the true story.

Krushchev hadn’t originally paid that much attention to Sputnik, but then there was all this talk and the Russians quickly wanted to launch a second satellite in honor of the 50th anniversary of the communist revolution. What’s really amazing is that the Russians rushed that huge satellite into production in a month. Today, we couldn’t do anything like that in a month!

Q: What really seems to excite you is exploration of all scientific types.

A: If you look back on 100,000 years of human activity, the largest return on investment has always been based on exploration, pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge. But I’m trying to gain a perspective. With all our needs for exploring for ways to improve our energy situation on Earth, is it really important whether we reach Mars in 10 years or 50 years?

Q: Energy does seem to be a crucial frontier.

A: If we don’t find a way to provide enough energy for a reasonable standard of living for the planet and at the same time not destroy our environment, then all bets are off. Remember, in the 1960s, we had half as many people on Earth as we do now. But I think we’ll eventually be able to do both — explore space and solve the energy problems.