|LOREN ACTON for Montana House District 69|
Big Sky country has a whole different meaning to Loren Acton, but that's because he's seen it like no other Montanan has: streaking around the earth at 18,000 miles an hour.
Growing up on a ranch just south of Lewistown in the 1940s, Loren didn't have aspirations to become an astronaut, let alone Montana's first. The distant youngest of six children, he spent a lot of time alone, reading mostly, not Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, but about real science and adventure, which he found far more entertaining.
When he entered Montana State University, it was his brother who suggested he major in physics. "His advice was pivotal in my life but I was scared to death of flunking out." He got his doctorate in solar physics, "essentially, science of the sun," he says, which led to further study in astrogeophysics and eventually his seat on a space shuttle. "Talk about irony: astronaut wasn't even in the dictionary my wife gave me when I was in college."
Although science came naturally to Loren, his color-blindness made some things, like mineral identification, downright tough. But armed with his degree he made another major decision and applied for a $4,000 fellowship to study upper atmospheric physics even though he didn't know enough about it to fill out the application form. An intense seminar got him the grant, and soon Loren was working with a navy crew to put a solar satellite into space. At the time, satellites were in their infancy and Loren's first launch crash-landed in Cuba. The second attempt did no better, ending up in the Pacific Ocean.
In California he joined researchers at Lockheed, who were developing experiments to be conducted in space. They decided someone from the company should be on the mission to oversee the work a payload specialist. "I jumped at the chance to write up the job description and made sure color blindness wasn't an obstacle." Not coincidentally, Loren perfectly fit the description of the ideal candidate and became Lockheed's first astronaut as well as one of the first scientists selected for a shuttle mission.
The countdown went smoothly until T minus three seconds, when the main engines shut down and they had an abort. Seventeen days later they were back onboard, this time with liftoff after a four-hour delay due to weather in Spain. But five minutes up, one of the three engines shut down and they had to dump fuel to lighten the craft so the remaining engines could get them into orbit. Surprisingly, safety wasn't Loren's main concern. "I worried they would abort the flight and I'd never get into space," he says. In 1985, after seven years of delays, the mission was in orbit, and Loren knew it: About 90 seconds later he became ill. "It's called SAS," he says, "space adaptation syndrome. I had it for four days; it sure put my ego in its place."
The next eight days were filled with scientific experiments but there was always time for sightseeing. "The view is just like you see in pictures, only better. It's really obvious by city lights that most of our population lives along the coasts." He watched magnificent auroras and marveled at the planet's airglow, but more than anything was impressed by lightning storms that lit up cloud banks. "Spectacular!"
The last frontier isn't for the claustrophobe, but being confined in a room the size of a camper didn't faze Loren. "In weightlessness you get to use all the volume. It only bothered me when I put on the flight helmet and had to breathe through a hose." SpaceLab 2's meals made airline food look gourmet: freeze-dried and the water laced with iodine; his six-cup-a-day coffee habit quickly turned to fruit juice to mask the taste. Although space itself is quiet, inside the craft it was anything but: Fans and pumps that keep the environment going are noisy, but "sleep was never a problem, I was dead tired."
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that what goes up must come down, but the automated process of slowing the craft and rotating it for reentry didn't go as planned. It had to be done manually and "even though I had complete faith in our captain," their fuel was red-lined (they were low) because of the dump on takeoff. "Other than that, reentry was as exciting as watching grass grow." Because he didn't have a window seat he played gravity games, releasing a wad of paper to see how quickly it would drop as they left orbit, and did leg exercises to prepare for walking on terra firma again. Landing was smoother than a commercial airliner.
He would have flown again but the program was canceled after the Challenger disaster. Like most Americans he clearly remembers where he was that day onstage lecturing to high school students in Worland, Wyoming. Loren was immediately approached by news media, who "came to talk about it; government employees couldn't. It was a tough day." Although he has retired several times "My interests are a mile wide and a micron deep" he still goes to work at MSU to input and organize data, and through his own grants does research on a telescope that photographs the sun's corona.
As a kid Loren never imagined that he'd go from riding his pony to a one-room schoolhouse to circling the earth at 5 miles per second, from 190 miles up. But knowing what his father experienced puts it all in perspective for him: He was born 15 years before the flight at Kitty Hawk but lived to see his son fly in space. An astronaut is defined as someone who's flown beyond the earth's atmosphere, and that would be Loren. "I remember looking out the window of the space shuttle," he recalls, "and thinking to myself, who'd have ever expected a country boy from Fergus County, Montana, to end up here?"