04 Aug Former astronaut a leader in Wisconsin Spaceport
Madison, Wis. – Viroqua native Mark Lee was only a teenager when American innovation put men on the moon. But by the time Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong and Col. Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module to trample the scientific aspirations of their Soviet counterparts, Lee’s desire to be an astronaut was already deeply ingrained.
His dream coalesced around an earlier era of space exploration. Rear Admiral Alan Shepard, Jr. became the first American to journey into space on May 5, 1961 and Lee, a third-grader in a one-room country school, was awed by the prospect of space exploration.
“I thought it was just the coolest thing,” Lee said. “Launches in those days were national events, and the whole country stopped to watch.”
Lee, who currently is the flight hardware program manager at the Madison aerospace company Orbital Technologies Corp., did not remain a spectator for long, and following a long and distinguished carreer in space, Gov. Jim Doyle recently appointed Lee to the newly-formed Wisconsin Aerospace Authority.
The WAA, also known as the Wisconsin “Spaceport,” received the state’s benediction earlier this year when Doyle signed a bill to create the $15 million space and science project, which was advanced by Sheboygan area businessmen and community leaders and will be developed at the Sheboygan Armory.
As a member of the WAA, Lee will help build the aerospace industry in Wisconsin, and he has a compelling retort for anyone who scoffs at that prospect – his career as an astronaut has taught him something about possibilities.
The original astros
It was the orgin of the nation’s space program that first captured his imagination. At that time, Alan Shepard was among seven elite military test pilots selected by the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 for Project Mercury. Joining him was another heroic figure, Wisconsin native Donald “Deke” Slayton from Sparta. The Wisconsinite in a spacesuit further spurred Lee’s imagination.
It would only be a matter of time before Lee would earn the gold wings awarded to astronauts with completed space missions, and his achievements would put him in a privileged circle of space travelers with ties to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin astronauts include Slayton, Capt. Jim Lovell who lived in Milwaukee and studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Capt. USN Dan Brandenstein of Watertown, Col. Brewster Shaw, Jr., who received bachelor and master of science degrees in engineering mechanics from UW-Madison, and Col. Jeffery Williams of Winter, who currently is working as a flight engineer on the International Space Station.
In four space missions, Lee would spend a total of 33 days traveling more than 13 million accumulated miles in 517 orbits of the Earth and earn the distinction of being one of only eight people in history to fly untethered in space.
Confidence to fly with the best
Lee was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy shortly after the July 20, 1969 moon landing. “I’ll never forget one of the first days there,” he said. “They have everyone stand up and they say, `tell us how great you were in high school.'”
Accomplished peers spoke of perfect grade records combined with multiple varsity sports achievements. “There was a state champion wrestler from Okalahoma, one guy went to three years of college before going to the academy; you doubt whether you can compete,” Lee recounted.
But after his first semester, Lee looked at how he fell in the rankings and his confidence grew. Competing with some of most physically and intellectually gifted people in the country taught Lee he could do almost anything.
After earning his bachelors degree in civil engineering, he went on to pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas and flew F-4 fighters at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. He then spent two-and-a-half years at Okinawa Air Base in Japan flying in the 25th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Following the assignment, he began studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering in 1980, specializing in graphite/epoxy advanced composite materials. He applied this knowledge to resolving mechanical and material deficiencies in airborne warning and control system aircraft at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachuestts and resumed flying with commander responsibilities in 1982 at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Two years later, Lee was selected as an astronaut candidate.
In his first mission in 1989, the crew of the Atlantis successfully deployed the Magellan Venus-exploration spacecraft, recognized as one of NASA’s most important scientific missions. Lee said his most emotional mission was his first because it was only the fourth one after the 1986 Challenger disaster and people still worried about whether everything was fixed.
Lee said the same fears exist today, three years after the 2003 Columbia accident. He said that astronauts’ family members are never able to relax until they are back on the ground, but a crew member cannot afford to think about failure.
“Pilot mentality is not that you’re going to go up and have something go wrong, it’s you’re going to fly and things are going to be successful,” he said.
Lee’s second mission in 1992 kept him in space for the longest continuous period, almost 11 days. Aboard the Endeavor, Lee served as payload commander on a cooperative mission with Japan involving 44 life science and materials processing experiments.
Lee said he truly “experienced space” on his third mission with the Discovery in 1997, when he flew untethered outside the shuttle to test a self-rescue jetpack. “Being your own satellite, flying around with a jetpack – it just doesn’t get any better than that. The view, the freedom, the exhilaration are hard to describe. The view is overwhelming,” Lee explained.
“It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I got goose-bumps. You just think: `I can’t believe I’m looking at this, it’s just beyond description,'” Lee said. “The freedom and the distances overwhelm you at that point.”
One of his most rewarding missions was his last. In it, Lee and his crew performed maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. Lee said it was gratifying to work on an instrument that has contributed so much to science and society.
“You don’t feel the pressure until you’re out there working on a $2 billion spacecraft. You want to make sure everything goes right.”
Lee’s initial reaction to the idea of putting a spaceport in Sheboygan was: “It’s going to happen,” he said. “There are going to be commercial vehicles going to space over the next 20, 30, 50 years and the states that move out front now and get a part of that business are going to benefit.”
There is no reason Wisconsin can’t follow the ambitious projects already underway in New Mexico, California, and Florida to pave the way for the thousands that will want to send rockets up for thrills or experiments, he said.
“It’s not likely that we’ll have anything jutting out like Cape Canaveral,” he added, but already players are emerging to invest in Wisconsin’s first steps into space.
“Wisconsin is seen as a place that can contribute greatly to the research community, and space is just a new frontier,” Lee said, pointing out that the WAA is no burden to taxpayers and eventually the programs they will sponsor will help the state support high-tech jobs.
Educational programs like Rockets for Schools, an assortment of Wisconsin finance companies and firms like Rocketplane that develop orbital vehicles will pioneer the efforts, but ultimately, society will follow their lead.
“It’s like when we first started flying airplanes. Only the wealthy were able to fly,” Lee said. “It will be awhile before the cost comes down but I don’t think it’s going to be a long time. I think within 15 or 20 years it will be fairly affordable for a thrill or ride.”
Benefits of space flight
Some assert, however, that space travel is fruitless. But Lee notes that items like cell phones, radar, digital technology, medical monitoring equipment and miniature computers were a direct result of needs that existed in the infancy of the mission to launch people to the moon.
“People that are skeptical really haven’t evaluated the benefits we’ve gotten from the space program,” Lee said, pointing out that NASA publishes a book cataloging the thousands of product spin-offs that originated with the space program.
“I may not be a fan of auto racing, but by pushing vehicles to the limit…it’s made all of our cars better,” he said.
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