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Although Americans don't visibly go "ga-ga" over the space program now, there's still magic happening, a former astronaut said.
"One thing people don't realize is the amazing coming together of 16 nations to build (the International Space Station) and the management of that with rare problems among partners," said Roy Bridges Jr., a Gainesville native who was a pilot on the eight-day Spacelab 2 mission in July 1985. "What brings out the best in people up there? It's a pretty amazing thing that's happening there."
Times are different, too, he said.
"With Kennedy and the Cold War ... there was a paranoia that you don't find today," he said. "There was the giddiness of the first time we ever stepped off the planet, and you can't have that feeling but once."
Bridges graduated from Gainesville High School in 1961, the same year Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
"You could say the timing was right to keep my interest," he said. "It's very unique to fly in space. Not many people have that opportunity, and it's just a beautiful sight from above - and out of this world."
Bridges received a bachelor of science in engineering science from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1965 and a master of science in astronautics from Perdue University in 1966. He was chosen by NASA to be an astronaut in 1980.
"I grew up in a relatively poor family on a farm, and the probability of a poor kid from Pendergrass getting the opportunity to go to the Air Force Academy and into NASA is an improbable dream," he said. "I had to pinch myself several times just to make sure it was real."
Bridges accompanied six others on the Challenger mission that launched July 29, 1985, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and landed Aug. 6 at Edwards Air Force Base in California after 126 orbits of the Earth.
It was the first mission to operate the Spacelab Instrument Pointing System and carried 13 experiments in astronomy, solar physics, the ionosphere and life science. The shuttle launched with an engine failure, and at first the pointing system and a solar telescope didn't work.
The astronauts corrected flawed programming to complete the experiments and saved enough fuel to extend the mission by a day. The shuttle's engine failure was nerve-wracking but not unmanageable, Bridges said.
"We practiced a dozen different emergencies in the simulator in Houston, but the timing was the best thing," he said. "If the failure had occurred 30 seconds sooner, we would have had to abort in Spain, so I joke that we would have had a speed record for doing a transatlantic crossing in 37 minutes."
It was the only failed engine of all the shuttle missions.
Bridges insists that NASA's work is stronger than ever, even if it isn't in the public eye as much.
"Flying is one of the most challenging things humans can do, and the progress is built up over several decades. The International Space Station is almost an incomprehensible engineering feat," he said. "We have to start somewhere, like a couple of hundred miles above the Earth, before trying to camp out on the moon for weeks or months at a time or, in some point in the future, go to Mars. Those are infinitely harder to do than the space station."
Although some of the "firsts, like walking on the moon, are behind us," there are an increasing number of opportunities for the future, he said.
"The more we know, it seems like we don't know very much. We have challenges to dig into," he said. "It opens people's eyes that we can do a lot of really neat things to help people with science, technology and math, and I can see students now going into those fields."
Bridges retired from the Air Force as a major general in 1996 and worked as center director for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida until 2003, where he managed facilities and activities related to the processing and launch of the space shuttle.
He then became center director for NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia until December 2005, where he was responsible for aeronautical and space research programs.
"I really love what I do. Obviously I miss NASA, and it was a thrill to work for them," he said.
Bridges, who celebrates his 66th birthday today just before the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing, said he looks forward to having his two granddaughters visit his home with his wife Benita in Virginia.
"They're 11 and 7, and we've been doing activities around here," he said. "We have them for another couple of weeks, and I'll probably tell them some stories about what I did."