Father’s Day may be over but we would still like to honour these fathers. For many children who dream of becoming an astronaut, their dream remains just that, a far-fetched dream. But, that was not the case for former International Space Station commander and NASA astronaut, Dr Leroy Chiao.
WORDS NURULHUDA SUHAIMI
The 1969 Apollo 11 mission – the first spaceflight that successfully landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (the first humans to do so) – was what sparked Dr Leroy Chiao’s dream in becoming an astronaut. “I was eight years old then and I wanted to be like the two astronauts on the Moon. I could think of nothing more exciting than flying in space,” he says.
A Dream Come True
Fast forward 21 years, Dr Chiao took a step closer to his dream when NASA selected him in January 1990. When asked about that fateful day when he received the call from NASA, he said, “I was elated of course! It was early in the morning in California and the Chairman called me and woke me up. It was a life-changing phone call.”
After becoming an astronaut in July 1991, Dr Chiao went
on four spaceflights between 1994 and 2005.
Being able to fly into space – not just once but four times! – must provide one with countless unforgettable experiences. For Dr Chiao, the most memorable moment for him happened during his third mission.
“We were the second major assembly mission of the International Space Station programme. I was on my second spacewalk of the mission, and for a few minutes, I had my spacesuit boots fixed to the Shuttle robotic arm and was being moved from one part of the station to another.”
“During that time, I was face down to the Earth and could not see either the ISS or the Shuttle out of my peripheral vision. I watched the continents and clouds roll by and felt like a satellite flying over the Earth.”
Dr Chiao adds: “Another very memorable moment was landing after my space station mission. I had been the commander, so I had overall responsibility for the success of the flight. Also, this was the only long mission I had been on (six and a half months). Shuttle missions were typically 10 to 14 days in duration.”
“When the rescue team opened the hatch to the Soyuz spacecraft, I smelled muddy grass. It was a
wonderful smell because it triggered a flood of memories of being on the Earth. I knew I was home!”
Training for the Role of a Lifetime
With the seemingly glitz and glam appearance surrounding an astronaut’s job, flying into space is, at the end of the day, serious business. Astronauts have to undergo intensive training and preparation before they can qualify for a spaceflight.
Dr Chiao gives us a glimpse of the work astronauts do: “Astronauts are always training, and it includes spacecraft systems lectures and sessions in the spacecraft simulators. We also train on mock-ups and simulators of the experiments we will execute. We fly the T-38 aircraft to stay proficient in the flight environment.”
“We train on all aspects of the space flight, including for robotic and spacewalking operations. We train on malfunction and emergency procedures. Once we get to space, we put all of this into practice.”
Fatherhood vs. Astronaut
So, does an astronaut dad wish to see his young twins, Henry and Caroline, fly into space too? Dr Chiao says, “At times, my kids have talked about flying into space, but we encourage them to find their own true passion.”
“My son wants to be a neurosurgeon and my daughter an engineer,” he adds.
Last Words for Dreamers
Don’t tell your child “That’s impossible!” if they say they want to be an astronaut one day. As Dr Chiao’s story proves, nothing is impossible as long as you work towards your goal.
Dr Chiao’s advice to all the little ones out there dreaming of becoming an astronaut: “Follow your passions, work hard, keep trying even if you fall down. There are no guarantees in life, but the most important thing is to try!”