MAURER: My rascal cousin is back in space

July 27, 2009

At precisely 6:03 p.m. July 15, space shuttle Endeavor blasted off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for its scheduled linkup with the International Space Station. My cousin, Indiana astronaut David Wolf, is on board. David, a veteran of three space flights, is serving as the lead spacewalker for this mission. Upon completion, he will have logged more extra-vehicular time than any man in history.

David was no ordinary kid. His father, Dr. Harry Wolf, confided that David was a rascal growing up who spent much of his playtime taking things apart and setting things on fire. Today, he can also put things together. He recently built a “chopper,” a high-performance motorcycle that shoots flames out the exhaust.

David earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University and a medical degree from Indiana University. He has received 15 U.S. patents and was named the NASA Inventor of the Year. He joined NASA in 1983 in the medical science division, developing various research payloads and operational systems. David qualified for space flight in 1991 and flew his first mission in 1993. On a subsequent mission, he spent 119 days aboard Space Station Mir. That trip included a spacewalk in a Russian spacesuit.

Spacewalkers must spend the night before in a “campout” procedure that reduces the atmospheric pressure slowly from 14.7 to 10.2 pounds per square inch in order to force nitrogen from their bloodstreams. This prevents decompression sickness once a walker moves into the vacuum of space. Decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends, occurs when nitrogen bubbles in tissues and blood vessels expand if atmospheric pressure is reduced too quickly, much like when a bottle of soda is opened.

The main objective of the current trip is to deliver and install the Japanese Experiments Module, a facility where science experiments will be exposed to the extreme environment of space, enabling research that cannot be performed on Earth.

Janie and I were guests at the originally scheduled launch June 13. We were also honored to be invited to an intimate gathering of the seven crew members and their immediate families. A prerequisite for admission to this family cookout was a physical examination performed under the slogan “no bugs on board.” After we were certified as reasonably healthy, we met the crew, which included another Purdue graduate, Commander Mark L. Polansky, and the only female member, Julie Payette, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut.

At the cookout, I was so excited about the adventure that I mentioned to the astronauts that I would like to go along. David replied, “It’s OK with me, but we’ve got a lot of training to do tomorrow.”

Pre-launch instructions directed us to board buses in the middle of the night that would take us to Banana Creek, a premier viewing site at the Kennedy Space Center. Before retiring, I requested a wake-up call for 3:30 a.m. and reread the briefing materials. I failed to notice the paragraph in the orientation letter that read, “Space Shuttle launch dates are affected by many variables and can periodically change, sometimes at the last minute.”

At 2 a.m., our mission specialist called to inform us that a countdown problem had delayed the flight a few days. I was disappointed but fell right back to sleep—until the phone rang again at 3:30—“your wake-up call.”

I’m sorry we were unable to return to Florida for the eventual liftoff. At age 52, David may be on his last space mission. We missed an extraordinary opportunity.

David mentioned that he’s looking forward to some R&R in Indianapolis, which he hopes will include attendance at Mickey’s Camp in August. His last appearance at Mickey’s Camp was as keynote speaker. He enthralled campers with his home movies of life on Mir. I can’t wait to debrief cousin David on one of life’s greatest adventures.•   


Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.


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