Friday, October 7, 2016

Dream Big - Space, Limerick and Two Men's Quests to Reach for the Stars

by Cian O'Regan

Crowds of excited space enthusiasts descended on the Limerick Institute of Technology's Millennium Theatre on Wednesday evening, to hear from Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden, and Limerick's very own Space Tourist Cyril Bennis.

Moderated by the brilliant Dr Niamh Shaw, the evening began when the two special guests were both asked what made them decide they wanted to dedicate their lives to space exploration.
Most Al Worden stories finish with whooping laughter, as seen here!
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)

Worden was able to trace this all the way back to his humble beginnings growing up on a farm in Michigan, when he discovered that a life spent working the land simply wasn't for him;

"I made the decision, albeit at an early age, that I wanted to get as far away from the farm as possible."

Little would this farm boy know that years later he would travel a quarter of a million miles to the Moon to fulfill this promise.

With the full support and backing of his parents, Worden decided to follow the theme of the evening and dream big - firmly setting his sights on attending the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point. However, he soon found out that things weren't going to be that straightforward.

"One big obstacle I had to face was that we didn't have enough money to send me to college," Worden said. "I did all my study at the side, and got myself set for a competitive exam in the state that I lived in, did well enough in that exam to get an appointment from one of the state senators, and that got me into West Point..

All I had to do was keep my nose clean, nose to the grindstone, shine my shoes, make sure my clothes were neatly folded in the closet, get up readily at six o'clock and be out there with the rest of them, do what I had to do, and I found out that I did okay!"

The twenty-three year old Worden graduated from the USMA as a member of the class of 1955, and thanks to a number of senior Air Force officers at the Academy, decided that flying aeroplanes would be his next big move.

"I found out that I had a knack for flying - it was almost second nature."

Having earned his Air Force wings, Worden decided that flying aircraft higher and faster than anyone else was what he wanted to do next. For any pilot with such lofty aspirations, Edwards Air Force Base in the high-desert of California - the kindergarten for astronauts - was the next logical step.

Following in the footsteps of some of America's first space explorers at Edwards(Gus Grissom, Frank Borman, Tom Stafford and Ed White to name just a few), and after spending time at the Empire Test Pilot School in Farnborough, England, Worden was selected as part of NASA's fifth group of astronauts in April 1966.

Cyril Bennis was just a young secondary-school student when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard his Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. A school visit by Glenn on a post-flight goodwill tour to Limerick was the source of inspiration for a young Bennis to reach for the stars.

"At that moment I thought that this is what I want to achieve in my life" said the former mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. "I believe that absolutely everyone has a potential to do something great, and that something great for me I hope is to fly in space."

Like Al Worden, Bennis had the full backing of his parents to pursue a career in space, in particular from his mother.

"I would spend a lot of my time in school dreaming, dreaming of places I wanted to go..
My mother always used to say that I needed a rocket under me to get me going, well now when I make my flight - I'll have four under me!"

Widely tipped to become the first Irish citizen to fly in space. Bennis is due to make two flights with XCOR Space Expeditions. On his first flight, Bennis will zoom to the edge of space - 60 kilometers above the Earth aboard the company's Lynx Mark I spacecraft.

Bennis describing his flight profile using a scale model of the XCOR Mark I
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)
His second flight will be aboard an updated Lynk Mark II, which will take him past the Karman Line(the internationally recognized boundary of suborbital space at an altitude of 100 kilometers), pull 4Gs on the way home, and in the process, become Ireland's first astronaut.

As the night went on, Worden, with NASA and Apollo 15 patches emblazoned on his flight jacket, told stories of his journey to the Moon with the same enthusiasm and excitement as if he had only returned a from the odyssey a few months ago.

As one of the 24 men to have flown to our nearest neighbour, and one of only seven men to have orbited the Moon alone as Command Module Pilot as he did in 1971, you could hear a pin drop as the audience listened intently to tales ranging from launching atop the 363-foot tall Saturn V rocket into space, to what was visible outside the porthole-sized windows of his spaceship Endeavour.

"I had a full panorama of the heavens! Because of the rotation of the spacecraft I would watch the Sun go by, the Moon go by and then the Earth go by." Shaw was quick to ask what goes through a person's mind after seeing something so unique.

"You don't process it much in flight because you're still in awe that you're there.. Those thoughts come to you a couple of weeks after, and you relive what you saw and all those thoughts in your head start to come out."

For Worden, he found the best way express what he saw and felt was through the art of poetry;

"When we got back to Houston, we would get up early and debrief with the whole Mission Control team. Every single second of the flight had to be debriefed, and it took us two weeks to go through all that.

Afterwards I began to have strange thoughts.. I was at home by myself at night, so I'd sit in my living room, turn off all the lights, and these thoughts would come to me. So one day I got a legal pad and I start writing and writing and writing, never really thinking about what I was writing as it was just sort of coming to me. That resulted in a book of poetry!"

Worden discussing his days as a West Point cadet
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)
Bennis, who has yet to see the Earth from space, told the audience that he'd hopefully be able to answer the same question in the not too distant future.


In their closing remarks, both men focused on the power of aiming high, and stopping at nothing until you've set out what you wanted to achieve in the first place.

"I think it's good to have two feet on the ground and be humble about things" said Limerick man Bennis. "If you dream, you can do these things."

Recalling R-Day(Reception Day - the first day of a cadet at the USMA) at West Point, Worden admitted to feeling way out of his depth.

"I went into West Point that day with something like 850 cadets, and I looked at all those guys and I said to myself "I don't know why I'm here. These guys are so much better than I am. They're the star quarterback on the football team, the straight-A student, the student body president - really great, great guys, and I'm just a little kid off the farm competing with these big city kids."

It took me about three months to figure out that they were no better than I was!

If you want something badly enough, you're going to find a way to do it. You've got to have the dream, the goal, the persistence and the determination to reach that goal, and you'll find that if you can go through life with that kind of attitude, you can do anything you want. Don't ever short-change yourself."

Niamh Shaw, who recently attended Elon Musk's keynote speech at the 67th International Astronomical Congress in Mexico,(an event overshadowed by a straight-up weird Q&A session dominated by over-enthusiastic fans of the billionaire) thankfully did not face such a dilemma as she opened the floor to questions ranging from thoughts on conspiracy theorists to the growth of the commercial spaceflight industry.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end as the night had to come to a close. Yet with everyone already smiling from ear-to-ear after hearing such wonderful stories and adventures, we couldn't not take a special Space Week group selfie!

On behalf of everyone in attendance that night, I would like to sincerely thank the Blackrock Castle Observatory for organising this fantastic Space Week event in association with LIT and Lough Gur Heritage Centre, and of course offer my sincerest thanks to the superb duo of Al Worden and Cyril Bennis for their stories and inspiration.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

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