Shuttle flight touched 'depths of his soul'

Piloting the space shuttle Columbia on the longest space-shuttle flight in history was "three times better than any expectations that I ever had," said LDS astronaut Richard A. Searfoss.

"The whole experience touched me to the depths of my soul," he told the Church News after he returned to earth from the 14-day flight that ended Nov. 1. "The visual impact of seeing the earth beneath was just stunning. It was a spiritual and inspirational experience every time I would go to the window."Brother Searfoss, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who is a Primary teacher in the League City Ward, Friendswood Texas Stake, piloted Columbia on its Spacelab Life Sciences-2 mission. Columbia was launched Oct. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"The very first time I got up to the window and saw the planet below, it struck me what a beautiful plan the Lord has," Brother Searfoss related. "I never got used to that view, how incredible a creation the earth is and then to think that the Lord said His greatest creation is His children. It reinforced my testimony to look out and know the earth is part of a great plan for us."

The primary focus of the Columbia mission was medical research and Brother Searfoss, 37, participated in the research, as well as performing his duties as the pilot.

He became an astronaut in 1991 and began service in the Astronaut Office Mission Support Branch.

During his shuttle flight, he spent a lot of time at the window because one of his duties was earth observations. He took nearly 5,000 photographs of the earth, documenting such things as geological formations, ocean and atmospheric circulation, "and anything else that looked interesting from orbit."

While in orbit, he never forgot that his family was the most important thing in his life.

The astronauts were allowed to take a few personal items on the flight, so he took a photograph of his family. He hung it over his mid-deck locker with a fabric fastener so he could look at the picture of his wife, Julie, and daughters Megan, 10, and Elizabeth, 8, whenever he passed by.

"Looking at that picture kept me charged up and going," he emphasized.

While in space, the Columbia crew was able to speak by ham radio to children in selected schools around the world. Megan's school was on the list and Brother Searfoss said he enjoyed talking to her.

After landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the Columbia crew members completed the post-landing checklist and went through some medical tests before they were transferred to the NASA facility on the base.

"When they let us out of the vehicle, there at the doors were my wife and daughters and I experienced another flood of emotions," Brother Searfoss remembered. "The great adventure I had been on was wonderful, but seeing my family again was the highlight of the past couple of years."

He explained that the shuttle flight had three distinct and different phases - takeoff and ascent, orbit, and re-entry and landing.

During ascent and re-entry, he was responsible for monitoring a number of systems such as the main engines and the hydraulic systems. The ascent and reentry went smoothly, according to Brother Searfoss.

During orbit, he said he had to make a "mental turnaround" as the shuttle became a space station for two weeks. He was the operator on some experiments and a subject on others.

"There were a lot of housekeeping kind of chores," he pointed out, "like vacuuming air filters for the avionics and preparing meals."

Some other duties continued to relate to his assignment as Columbia's pilot including engineering tests, test firings of shuttle thrusters and navigational exercises.

He also went through a daily routine of physical exercise as assigned by doctors.

He was the subject in cardiovascular experiments, taking an echocardiogram and undergoing tests of vascular compliance in the arms and legs. He said the mission involved experiments on the whole human physiology and data analysis would be ongoing for years. The weightless conditions of space stripped away the masking factors of gravity in the experiments.

"The picture we got of physiology in zero gravity is the most complete we have," Brother Searfoss noted.

The benefits of the mission will be in two complementary areas, he explained. One is learning how to develop the capability for a long human presence in space. The other is finding applications for people on earth for a number of diseases and illnesses such as balance disorders and cardiovascular problems like irregular blood pressure.

There was another physiological phenomenon scientists were able to study, according to the LDS space shuttle pilot. "As soon as you get in orbit, the bones start to degenerate much more rapidly than on earth," he said. "That means we can try to come to understand another process that gravity changes and be able to pin down how it works."

The intense collection of physiological data on the mission will take years to evaluate and put into use, he reported.

Taking the photos of the earth from the shuttle was very enjoyable, explained Brother Searfoss. "It was a tremendous time of year; the atmosphere was clear and it was a long mission."

Those conditions worked together to provide some outstanding photo opportunities. He related that from orbit, "Salt Lake City jumps right out at you," because of the Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Wasatch Mountains.

To prepare for re-entry, the astronauts had to stow everything away and close the shuttle's bay doors, then run through extensive checklists. "Everything worked like clockwork," according to Brother Searfoss.

Then he continued, "As we descended into the atmosphere, [shuttle commanderT John Blaha said, `Get ready for the glow.' "

At that point the shuttle's heat shield began to glow a brilliant orange color and Brother Searfoss saw "2,200 degree stuff going by" just inches away from the shuttle. He reached out to touch the windshield, expecting it to be hot, but it was cool to the touch. That helped him appreciate the genius of the American technology behind the shuttle.

"Lots of people over years and years figured out how to do this," he related.

The re-entry glow lasted 10 to 15 minutes as the shuttle approached the California coast at Mach 7. As it began to slow at a lower altitude, Brother Searfoss recalled that the nature of the craft changed in his mind.

"When we went sub-sonic, I felt like I was in an airplane," he said. "I was comfortable and felt like `I've been here before.' "

His appreciation for others began with the members of the Columbia crew. "We came from a tremendous variety of backgrounds," he explained, "but we got along great. Everyone was committed to making it go well. It was a great example of teamwork."

His appreciation extended also to the "entire team that got us going, many who we as a flight crew don't even meet. The space shuttle is one of the best team things going on in the country today."

He was happy to return home and see his friends in the Church.

"My first Sunday back was Fast Sunday and I had a great opportunity to share the feelings I had with some of the people in my ward," he said.

Although he pointed out that many of his feelings from the shuttle mission are hard to explain, "it helped me appreciate my relationships with people more; certainly more with family, but also with people I work with and people on the streets. It was good to step back and see the big picture. It's obvious it is all part of a great, wonderful plan." - Greg Hill

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