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From brother’s plane to shuttle

10/20/2009

Unique odor of space impresses area native and pilot Kevin Ford

Brian Francisco
The Journal Gazette
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Courtesy NASA

Blackford County native Kevin Ford is seen on the aft flight deck of the space shuttle Discovery in this Aug. 29 photo.

To hear Kevin Ford tell it, he’s had a soaring career in energy management.

The Blackford County native was the pilot of the space shuttle Discovery for its voyage to the international space station in August and September.

“The flying of the space shuttle is such a short part of the mission – 2 1/2 minutes,” Ford said last week by telephone from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It is a lot like flying a glider, completely unpowered.”

The NASA shuttle is largely on autopilot except when it docks with the space station and lands back on Earth.

“You have to manage the energy you have to get to the runway,” Ford said.

Because most of the shuttle’s fuel is used during the launch, “we fly it just as optimally as we can,” Ford said. It’s a “team effort” by the seven-person crew to make sure speed, trajectory, roll and fuel consumption are always correct.

“My job is to monitor the engine performance very closely,” Ford said.

Ford, 49, is the brother of David Ford, a Republican state senator and attorney who died from pancreatic cancer in 2008. David was a pilot, too; Kevin’s first ride in a plane was as a teenager with his older brother at the controls.

Kevin said he carried a picture of David in his shuttle flight notebook.

During a crew wake-up call one morning, mission control in Houston played the Indiana University fight song as a tribute to David, an IU alumnus; Kevin mentioned at the time that David “was the first one to ever strap me in to the cockpit of an airplane.”

Kevin Ford, 49, who grew up in Montpelier and graduated from the University of Notre Dame, is a retired Air Force colonel and test pilot who joined NASA in 2000. The two-week Discovery mission was his first space flight.

Space.com reported Sept. 5 that Ford said he was surprised by the smell of space when astronauts returned from working outside the space station.

“It’s a little bit like a burnt smell, a metallic smell,” he said last week. “It’s hard to describe. It’s like describing what a strawberry smells like.

“It’s very noticeable. I had never heard anyone talk about it.”

About the only hiccup in the mission was when a small jet thruster failed before the shuttle was to link up with the space station. The crew switched to a large, more powerful thruster that behaved “in a more sloppy fashion,” Ford said.

It was a tricky maneuver where inches can make the difference 200 miles above the Atlantic.

“The picture out the window is never quite as pretty because you might be 2 or 3 degrees off the attitude rather than a half-degree,” Ford said.

The attitude is the position of an aircraft in relation to a line, such as the horizon.

Docking “takes attention and focus. We practiced it a lot in simulations,” Ford said.

The Discovery mission got a publicity boost by delivering to the space station a treadmill named for TV comedian Stephen Colbert. It was a consolation prize for the host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” – he won a NASA poll to name a room at the space station only to have it called Tranquility instead.

“We didn’t use it,” Ford said about the treadmill. “We took it up there in literally hundreds of pieces. I do understand they have finished assembly.”

Ford will spend coming months making reports on the mission and visiting Sweden and Spain on NASA assignments. He will then return to his duties as a capsule communicator at mission control.

“I’m hoping at some point to get into training for another flight,” he said – and perhaps a long-term stint aboard the space station.

Where does Ford stand in the debate over whether NASA should send astronauts or robots on a return trip to Earth’s moon and on to Mars?

“If humans want to go there, we have to go there,” he said. “I’m in favor of it.”

Unlike with robots, “when you get there, you can do work that wasn’t planned and isn’t mechanical,” Ford said. “But it’s a lot of money. … We leave it up to administrations and taxpayers.”

Ford said if such missions are approved, “I’m happy to do it.”

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