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Features

Shuttle diplomacy

Since Bill Nelson joined the Columbia crew, he has strived to prove that it was not a political stunt.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 2, 2006


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Bill Nelson, whose healthy habits helped him prepare for space, prepares to eat a grapefruit as he travels on the shuttle Columbia in 1986.
[Photo: NASA]
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[Photo: Associated Press (1998)]
A portion of a 1998 campaign ad shows Nelson boarding the space shuttle Columbia in January 1986.

WASHINGTON -- When payload specialist Bill Nelson was training for his space shuttle mission in 1986, he enthusiastically chewed wads of cotton for scientists who wanted to study his spit. He poured apple juice over raw oats for a fat-free breakfast. He started some mornings by singing to his crew mates, "We're all in our places, with bright shiny faces."

Shortly after the shuttle reached orbit, over the Indian Ocean, Nelson dug out his Bible and read from the 19th Psalm, the one that begins, "The heavens declare the glory of God." Later, aided by weightlessness, he danced the Twist.

At first, the astronauts didn't know what to make of him, said Cmdr. Robert "Hoot" Gibson.

"You looked at him and said, 'This can't be real.' "

His launching pad

The story of Florida politics is a study of characters - Walkin' Lawton Chiles. The scholarly Sen. Bob Graham, documenting his world in tiny notebooks. Janet Reno, former U.S. attorney general, her little red pickup truck too full of baggage for Florida voters to hop in.

And then there is Nelson, the last statewide elected Democrat, now seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate against U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, a Republican from the Sarasota area.

His trip aboard the space shuttle Columbia, back in January 1986, would help define him, personally and politically. It affirmed his faith in technology and American ingenuity. It made him a celebrity and provided a launching pad for a statewide political career.

Most important, the flight provided a public identity for a politician who was always a bit on the bland side. Instead of the generic 8- by 10-inch glossies of himself in a business suit that most politicians send to constituents, Nelson could send out photos of himself in his sky blue NASA flight suit, cradling a model of the Columbia.

He still does.

A different dream

Melbourne High School, 1960. Bill Nelson was a senior. The school stationery sported a rocket. His classmates were the children of the engineers working frantically at Cape Canaveral -- on land his grandfather had homesteaded - to ensure that the United States matched the Soviets on the space front of the Cold War. He and his friends would watch the Atlas and Redstone rockets blazing over the Atlantic.

Many boys growing up in Melbourne back then dreamed of the moon and beyond. Not Nelson. He would stake his flag in the rocky soil of politics.

Reaching for space

Washington, D.C., 1983. After nine successful shuttle launches, NASA worried manned flight had become ho-hum. To nurture public interest, the agency hit on an idea: launching ordinary citizens into space.

Two members of Congress were among the first to ask: Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who ran the Senate subcommittee in charge of NASA funding, and Bill Nelson, a two-term congressman from Melbourne on the House space subcommittee, whose district included Kennedy Space Center.

NASA invited Garn, a retired Navy pilot, first.

Nelson worked, meanwhile, to enhance his chances, physically and politically. Already a health nut who never smoked and rarely drank, he embarked on a daily regimen of 4-mile runs and workouts in the gym. By summer 1985 he had positioned himself to become chairman of the space subcommittee. He went to see NASA's administrator, James Beggs.

The formal invitation arrived that September.

Nelson flashed the thumbs-up at reporters. "I'm a happy boy," he said.

'It's all part of it'

Nelson, then 43, arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston for full-time training in October 1985 after a series of mental and physical exams, including a test that involved folding his 5-foot-9 frame into a rubber capsule about the size of a beanbag chair to make sure he wasn't claustrophobic. Nelson dozed off and passed.

He took a two-bedroom apartment with his press secretary, David Dickerson. Nelson's wife, Grace, and their children - Bill Jr., almost 10, and Nan Ellen, 8 - would stay in Washington. He visited most weekends and flew up for key votes.

Nelson would be one of two non-astronauts on the flight. The other was Bob Cenker, a quiet engineer for RCA, which was paying NASA $14-million to launch a TV satellite from the Columbia.

The others were straight from NASA's corps of famous overachievers, including a Navy test pilot called Hoot; a Marine Corps officer who overcame segregation in South Carolina to lead his class at the Naval Academy and pilot the Columbia; and a mission specialist who emigrated from Costa Rica as a teenager, taught himself English, and earned a doctoral degree in applied plasma physics from MIT.

The astronauts were leery of Nelson.

"He's not an air crew member, he's not an astronaut. He's a politician. There was even a little bit of resentment against him," said Hoot Gibson, the mission commander. "But he came with his heart open and his mind wide open and I have to say, certainly at least in my case, he won me over."

Pinky Nelson, a physicist and mission specialist on the flight and no relation to the senator, said, "He jumped right in, was very easy to work with, was happy to be there, contributed what he could, got out of the way when he needed to."

Bill Nelson was not, as they say, mission-critical. But he would conduct 12 experiments in space, including one for cancer researchers aimed at helping understand the development of proteins.

He spent hours with the others in the shuttle simulator, learning every screw and latch in the orbiter. He flew in the NASA plane known as the Vomit Comet, which replicates weightlessness through a series of steep climbs and dives.

Before bed each night, he read the shuttle technical manuals.

"You always knew when something concerned Bill because he would come back to it over and over and over until he was sure he understood it in his mind," said Charles F. Bolden Jr., the pilot.

For a NASA experiment on space sickness, Nelson chewed wads of cotton as he went about his days at Johnson, depositing them in plastic bags for scientists to study his spit.

"I said to him, 'Don't you get tired of having to do that every three hours?' " Dickerson, his press secretary and roommate, recalled. "And he would say, 'Oh no, it's all part of it! It's all part of it!' "

Fellow astronauts say his enthusiasm approached the nerdy, but they appreciated his earnestness and self-discipline. Gibson, now a pilot for Southwest Airlines, and Bolden, an aerospace consultant, remain his friends today.

"In some ways you would tend to look at him and go, this isn't for real, this is an act, nobody's this perfect," Gibson said. "He didn't drink much, didn't use bad language like us nasty pilots . . . he's very, very religious, and I think this is Bill to the core. He does all things because he really believes in them, and he is shaped by them."

A changed perspective

What Bill Nelson took with him to space: a cassette tape of songs recorded by his daughter, Nan Ellen, then 8, who still sings at her daddy's campaign appearances; a pocket Bible; Florida grapefruit; blood donated by the mayor of Orlando, for an experiment.

The crew photographed a cyclone off Australia. They circled the Earth nearly 100 times. As they zoomed over the Florida peninsula, Bolden said, the others would tease Nelson that he was looking down and thinking, "Someday, all of this will be mine!"

Back on Earth, Nelson already was facing criticism that he was on the world's greatest political stunt, space junk that would remain trapped in his orbit for the next 20 years. "That has always been one of the difficulties: What did he contribute? Or, worse, what did he prevent from being accomplished?" said Dickerson, who left his staff in 1990 and is now a lobbyist.

"But 10 days later it was a lot easier to quantify. That was Challenger."

Close to a disaster

Jan. 28, 1986. Within an hour of Challenger's destruction and the loss of its crew, the lobby of Nelson's Capitol Hill office was packed with reporters.

Aside from being head of the House subcommittee that oversaw NASA, only days earlier he had been in the shuttle. Months earlier, when NASA extended the invitation, he had actually been scheduled to fly on Challenger, but technical issues caused a reshuffling of the crew. He knew those aboard. He knew what they were doing when they died.

He also had gained insight into problems investigators would cite for helping cause the disaster: poor communication. Failure to listen to astronauts' concerns. Pressure to meet an aggressive launch schedule.

The demand for Nelson's expertise after Challenger solidified his role as a congressional expert on the space program, an image he nurtures today. He also published a book with the late Jamie Buckingham, his pastor in Melbourne and a renowned Christian author, called Mission:n American Congressman's Voyage to Space.

Nelson's staff is sensitive to accusations that he still milks the flight for political gain. But when he formally announced his re-election campaign in May, his press release mentioned the shuttle flight. He mentioned it in his debate against Harris last week. A campaign ad airing across Florida begins with a shot of the space shuttle blasting off as Nelson drawls, "When I flew in space. . . ."

"Oh, puh-leeze!" said Carole Jean Jordan, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, echoing the sentiment of many Republican leaders.

"Go ask Nelson," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., sneered one day after the pair tangled over oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. "He's the astronaut."

Reliving the memories

Nelson, now 64, isn't bothered. He has always maintained that the flight made him a better overseer of NASA, now as a member of the Senate space subcommittee.

In September, when Atlantis headed home after visiting the space station, Nelson postponed his run to watch the 6:21 a.m. landing at his suburban Washington condo.

"He aims for the lights, and at 1,500 feet starts pulling up the nose, and at 500 feet the pilot drops the landing gear," he said. "It's basically a big bulky glider with short stubby wings, and it glides like a rock."

Dust and smoke rose where the wheels hit, the parachute deployed. Atlantis rolled to a stop.

"So all those emotions came back - you hear the intensity in my voice," Nelson said as he recounted the landing. "I'm suddenly reliving what happened 20 years ago."

Fast Facts:

Space shuttle flight STS-61C

Shuttle: Columbia

Launch: 6:55 a.m., Jan. 12, 1986, Kennedy Space Center.

Scrubs and delays: 6, a NASA record

Altitude: 212 nautical miles

Orbits: 98

Distance: 2.5-million miles

Landing: 5:58 a.m., Jan. 18, 1986, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Duration: 6 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes, 51 seconds


[Last modified November 1, 2006, 18:08:59]


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