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Robert Satcher takes off on 8-day NASA mission

Iris Monica Vargas
Robert Satcher takes off on 8-day NASA mission
Space shuttle Atlantis mission specialist Robert Satcher is greeted upon his arrival for a launch dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday, Oct. 19, 2009. Atlantis launched last Monday. (Photo: AP /John Raoux)

In an era when elementary schoolchildren can create exciting new worlds and explore them with the click of a computer mouse, will we again see bold explorers like Lewis and Clark or the Mercury Seven astronauts?

Will we follow modern Jasons and their Argonauts through space in an age in which the nation’s deficit is soaring and equally alluring worlds within human cells offer the potential to cure disease and extend life?

Robert Lee Satcher says, yes, we will.

Satcher was one of many millions of people around the world who watched on television in grainy black-and-white as the Apollo XII astronauts first bounced on the lunar surface in 1969.

Since then, hundreds of American astronauts have gone into space on U.S. rockets and shuttle systems. Only 14 have been African Americans. On Monday, Satcher, a 44-year-old physician who trained at Harvard Medical School and whose grandparents were sharecroppers in Alabama, became the 15th as the NASA space shuttle Atlantis successfully blasted off its Florida launch pad.

Like many little boys in 1969, 5-year-old Satcher — the son of a college president and a high school business education teacher, and nephew of former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher — was watching those moon-landing images and imagining that someday he too would travel there.

Satcher is part of the crew that is marking the transition from building the International Space Station to stocking it with enough spare parts to ensure its long-term survival.

“I’m very much looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m very excited about it. This is something that I thought about when I was a kid, yes, but I never thought that I’d have a chance to do it. “

During the planned eight-day mission orbiting 250 miles above Earth, he will live inside the space station, which is about the size of a five-bedroom house.

Construction of the combination house, workshop, laboratory, and observatory began in 1998 and is now a collaboration among 15 nations. It is likely to continue operating until 2020.

“I think that during the next few years we’ll see there was a lot to be discovered by taking advantage of the space station,” Satcher said.

Satcher, who also completed a doctorate in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that although medical school didn’t prepare him to be an astronaut, it was likely a factor that drew NASA’s interest. “They usually bring in two or three physicians to each class of astronauts,” he said.

Having physicians in the astronaut corps, he said, can be a valuable tool for researchers who study the process of how human bodies adapt to the hazards of space, such as microgravity and radiation, an important puzzle to solve if humans are to venture further into space.

But will the United States play a key role in future space exploration? A new rationale may need to be found to justify the high cost of new missions. That rationale might be the de facto justification for all exploration: that curiosity is part of the human DNA.

“We’ve always wanted to explore the unknown,” he explained. “If you look throughout history, that’s something that people have always wanted to do,” he said.

But there’s a cultural component as well, Satcher added. “Human space flight is the ‘crown jewel’ of technological development,” he said. “A lot of pride and ego are involved with being able to accomplish these things.”

New exploration would not require the United States to start from scratch. The nation has been to the moon before, and it has gained additional knowledge from the shuttle flights and the space station, he said.

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount by maintaining a presence in Earth’s orbit for the last 15 years,” he said. “That’s going to be a great benefit to us as we move forward.”

Going to the moon, he said, was only the “dress rehearsal” for going to Mars and other planets. Currently, NASA’s wish list includes a manned Mars landing by 2030. “But if this country decided to, we certainly could be there a lot earlier than that,” Satcher said.

Three Mars exploration rovers have already been to the red planet, sending back thousands of images.

“The Apollo era was a special time because it was the first time anything like that had ever been done,” he said of the moon-landing program. “Obviously there was also political turmoil in the U.S. and in the rest of the world. Everybody was looking for something to be inspired. Of course you can’t duplicate that. But I have no doubt that it would occur the same way now if the leadership decided that now is the time.”