Bruce Melnick is literally one in a million (or should that be one in a billion?). As a member of one of the world’ most exclusive clubs, he talks to STYLE about a career that really was out of this world.
Selected by NASA in 1987, Bruce Melnick is one of just over 600 people to have reached the Earth’s orbit. The former US Coast Guard and now retired astronaut, he was lucky enough to have the Kennedy Space Centre as his office, while his 9-5 included preparing Shuttle Orbiter cockpits prior to flight.
During the five years he served in NASA’s astronaut corps, Melnick logged up more than 300 hours in space. He flew as a mission specialist on the Shuttle Discovery STS-41 in October 1990 when the Ulysses spacecraft was deployed, and served as an engineer on first flight of Shuttle Endeavour.
How did you get into space exploration and what inspired you?
The inspiration came when I was a young boy. I always liked aeroplanes, and then when I was 11 Alan Shepherd flew into space and I thought “Wow. How cool would that be.” You know back then, there wasn’t any virtual reality, there wasn’t any video games or things like that, we’re talking 1961 here. You wanted to experience space you had to go, but no-one in my family had even been to college. At that point I was going to be a fisherman.
All the science, engineering and math subjects came really easy to me, and my mom said “Look Bruce, you can go to college. You’re smart enough, your grades are good enough, if you don’t like it, you can always come back and be a fisherman, but see how you do”. I went on to the academy and became a pilot, and all that time I’m watching the Gemini flights and the Mercury flights, and in the forefront of my mind I’m thinking I didn’t have any chance. Nobody from the Coastguard gets to be an astronaut. But then, after going through flight training and getting my Master’s Degree, NASA started soliciting applications for the new shuttle programme so I applied. That’s another thing my mom inspired me to do; she would say “Just apply. It doesn’t cost you anything, then if you get selected you can decide if you want to do it. Just never look back and say, ‘I wonder if I’d applied for that I would have gotten selected’.” Ten years later, after applying six times, in 1987 I got selected as an astronaut.
What was your first mission?
It was very short. The primary objective was to launch a satellite called Ulysses into a polar orbit around the sun. In order for it to get enough gravitational assist to get around the poles of the sun, it had to go up to Jupiter first, so we did that. Then we had some experiments on board. But it was a quick flight. Four days up and back.
How do you feel just before take-off?
You know you’re lying there on your back, the hatch closes, it goes really quiet after everybody’s strapped in. People wonder are you scared, are you nervous, are you anxious? On both my flights I lay there and fell asleep! I was so relaxed.
What’s you most memorable experience?
There are so many: Seeing Earth for the first time from space. You look down at that beautiful blue marble and that’s something you never forget. Then, just floating around in a spaceship, it’s so effortless, and it’s amazing how your brain adapts. If you wanted to get up and walk out of a room on earth, you’d just get up and walk out. You don’t even think about it. But you get up into space and you’re in zero gravity, you have to push yourself off very gently because there’s nothing to stop you until you’re right on the other side. After about maybe 12 hours in space, your brain has already figured it out and you just automatically know how to get to where you want to be.
What’s the food like on a mission?
If you’ve done any backpack camping or been in the military, you’ll have an idea. Most of the foods are either freeze-dried, you rehydrate them and either heat them up or chill them; or they’re MREs – Meals Ready to Eat – like cookies, crackers, fruits. It’s not so bad. I could live on bread and water though to be in space.
Has space travel has changed you?
Firstly I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet. There have still only been 610 or so people who have had the experience, so I feel obligated to give back and share those experiences with people. The second thing is seeing that very frail atmosphere; I came back with a much greater appreciation of how we need to protect the world.
Why is space exploration important?
As human beings we like to explore. We started out as groups of different people on the planet. A group in Asia, a group in Africa, a group in Europe and we all started migrating all over the place. So, we’re explorers. It’s our innate make-up. We want to know where we’re going, where we came from, what else is out there, why are we here. But the other side of it is the technological advances. When you look at the things that have been developed from our space programme, they’ve affected every human being on the planet.
What do you think is next for space exploration?
Artemis. But let me just back up a little bit. You know NASA basically developed human space travel. We’re perfecting it, but it’s never going to be perfect. We have a high energy, potentially explosive way of getting to space, but we’ve made it comfortable enough where a lot of people want to try it. So in that regard, NASA’s handed the transportation side of it to the private sector, and there doing it very well. Next year we’re going to fly Artemis around the earth, with four people in it. After it does a few laps around, it’s going to do a lap around the moon and come back. The year after that we’re going to actually land on the moon. Where we go from there is to build a lunar base so you’ll be able to see what it’s like to do some in-situ mining. Trying to make it self-sufficient with the minerals and the materials that are there on the lunar surface. It’s all in preparation for getting to Mars and that’s the end goal.
It seems a long journey to Mars?
It takes about nine months to get there if the planets are lined up properly, that’s the thing. Then to get them lined up again to return home it’s about a 21-month round trip. So, you can do it in less than two years.
When do you think we’ll go to the moon and then to Mars?
I think we’ll be at the moon in two years. It’ll be a while before we build a complete colony there, probably five years from now. We’re looking at having the gateway built, so that we’ll be able to fly to the gateway in a lunar orbit. From there it’s a lot easier to get to Mars, because you don’t have to fly against Earth’s gravity.
Is there anybody else out there?
Aliens? I think they’re out there. Probably every star has planets around it. You look out with the naked eye and you see there are trillions and trillions of stars. Then you go look at what the Hubble space telescope saw and you see trillions and trillions of galaxies which have trillions of stars in each galaxy. The new James Webb telescope sees beyond that, like almost to the end of the Universe. So, of all those – how many zeros do you need – those trillions and trillions of galaxies and so many more stars, to think that we are the only place that has life around it is crazy.
2023 IS THE YEAR TO “WATCH THIS SPACE” AT FLORIDA’S KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX
At Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where the epic story of the US space programme comes to life, 2023 is the year for holidaymakers to “watch this space”. With thrilling new attractions, educational experiences and events, as well as 80+ rocket launches scheduled at the neighbouring spaceport, the visitor complex is ready for lift-off in 2023!
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers a mix of interactive exhibits, incredible attractions, thrilling simulators, behind-the-scenes tours, larger-than-life 3D space films, rocket launch viewing opportunities and much more.