Loren Acton is part of an exclusive fraternity who have boarded a space shuttle and felt the rattle and roll and pull toward the outer limits of our atmosphere. And then went right through it.
And for now membership to that fraternity is closed.
When the Atlantis lands this week, NASA’s three-decade old shuttle program will come to an end. In that time there have been 135 missions with 358 astronauts, including Acton, a Montana native and research professor at Montana State University.
Acton, 75, was raised in Lewistown and ever since he was a kid had an interest in science. In 1959 he graduated from MSU with a degree in engineering physics and in 1965 he earned a doctorate from the University of Colorado. During that time America’s space program was just getting underway and Acton said the public excitement was palpable. Soon after college he began working for a space technology company based in California.
It was there he got the opportunity to fly.
During the shuttle program’s early stages, NASA was looking for scientists who would work on experiments in space. At the time Acton was working on a device that could take images of the sun without being obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. In 1978 he was chosen to go up in the shuttle, upon passing a physical. Although there were delays, by 1984 Acton was training full time with his crew and on July 29, 1985 they launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an eight-day mission.
Twenty-six years later the memories of the life-changing trip are still vivid.
“You get on, light the fuse and away you go,” Acton said in an interview last week. “It’s a job, but there is an element of excitement and wonder … It was work, and I definitely overdosed on the work, but it’s amazing to be a human and take part in (space flight).”
Acton said the mission had its challenges, but the crew completed everything it had planned thanks to the relentless work schedule while in space. Acton said they usually worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes longer. But the overtime was worth it.
“It was hard work in a very intense environment,” he said. “(But) one felt a responsibility to do an almost perfect job because a lot of work had gone into getting you up there.”
But the ride wasn’t over for Acton when the shuttle returned to earth on Aug. 6.
“I never had the experience of people wanting to interview me. They wanted to know what you’ve got to say and for a kid from Montana that’s quite the experience,” he said.
Upon his return, Acton continued his research. He said he could have pursued other opportunities space flight had given him but science was “just too much fun to quit.”
Even though most people his age have retired, Acton continues to work as a research professor in MSU’s Department of Physics. The presence of an experienced astronaut is an excellent asset for the department, according to Angela Des Jardins, who is director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
“He’s always willing to come and talk to kids,” Des Jardins said.
By connecting with future generations, Acton hopes he can inspire young people to get involved with the space program. With the conclusion of the shuttle program, the United States will no longer send humans into space, something that clearly riles Acton.
“We’re in a position where the United States can’t put its own astronauts in space and that’s stupid,” he said, adding that many other astronauts share similar views.
“They want to cut funding for NASA. What does that say about America’s commitment to space?” he asked. “We built (the shuttle), used it and didn’t change it for 30 years and that doesn’t make sense.”
But Acton said that other countries pushing the limits of human flight will force the United States to get back into the space race.
“I believe that we will,” he said. “I’m not so pessimistic to think it’s a lost cause because the United States understands competition.”
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