Ballistic Entry Everybody wonders what it's like to be an astronaut, but fewer wonder what it's like to be an astronaut's spouse. Don and Micki Pettit were about to find out the answers to both of those questions.
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Ballistic Entry

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Ballistic Entry

Ballistic Entry

Ballistic Entry

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Everybody wonders what it's like to be an astronaut, but fewer wonder what it's like to be an astronaut's spouse. Don and Micki Pettit were about to find out the answers to both of those questions.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now on SNAP JUDGMENT, the Path episode continues. We're going wherever the trail leads, even if that trail takes us to outer space. For real, right after the break. Stay tuned.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Path" episode. Today we're trailing people who for whatever reason are following their own path. And our next story - perhaps you know the feeling - first day on the job, you're praying nothing goes wrong. But then of course, something does. And it turns out that some people, they've got more on their mind than others. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg talks to Don and Micki Pettit who share their story.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Don Pettit was 29 years old and had just gotten a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, when he did something a lot of people talk about doing but which almost none of us ever actually do. He applied to be an astronaut.

DON PETTIT: For that year there were about 6,000 applicants, and I think they chose something like, 10.

ROSENBERG: So Don applied again. And again. And again.

PETTIT: After the third rejection, I had been knocking on NASA's door for about 11 years. And the fourth time - well, here I am.

MICKI PETTIT: I wasn't prepared to be an astronaut's spouse. I had no idea what that meant.

ROSENBERG: This is Don's wife Micki. She had married Don a few years before he was selected, and she says that for a long time the full reality of Don's new job just didn't register.

PETTIT: The first time I actually felt that Don was going to be an astronaut was when he did a spacewalk simulating in the pool, and watching him suit-up for that.

ROSENBERG: Why? What about that made that click?

PETTIT: Probably the suit. You know, it's the suit that you think about the astronauts. These guys can walk around and nobody knows who they are. But as soon as you put the suit on them, they're recognized. And so maybe it was getting in that suit that you go, oh, my goodness, this is really going to happen.

ROSENBERG: Was there ever any talk between you two that by some measures this was the most dangerous job in the world?

PETTIT: No. It's kind of like, you don't mention he who can't be named, and you kind of kick the can down the road. At least that's what I did, personally. But you just kind of don't talk about it.

PETTIT: We didn't really sit around and go, yeah this is dangerous, you know, and I might die from this flight, Micki. But Don and I did discuss Challenger.

ROSENBERG: For an entire generation the Challenger disaster of 1986 requires no introduction. Children across America had tuned-in from their classrooms to watch America's first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, go into space on live TV. Instead, they got to watch the face of McAuliffe's parents when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after the launch, killing everyone on board.

PETTIT: So yeah, you know, it could happen. You don't want it to. You don't think it will, but you know it can. It's always back there. It's always back there if you're not married to an astronaut when you watch a launch on TV, right? It's always there.

ROSENBERG: Don's first assignment wasn't technically a shuttle mission. He was going to spend four months on the space station, helping build it and running various experiments. But a shuttle would be taking him there, and a shuttle would be taking him home.

PETTIT: And about two days, three days before the launch, the spouses got to go on a pad tour and the shuttle was on the pad. It was in its position. And we actually got to go in and see the white room where they would enter the shuttle. We got to go up to its top and touch its nose. And I kind of tried to picture Don and what he was experiencing.

PETTIT: And there's a really nice beach at the Kennedy Space Center itself, and Micki and I went for a nice, secluded walk on this beach.

PETTIT: And I assured Don that I believed in what he was doing and I would be OK. And we held each other and you know, it was kind of like, this could be a goodbye.

PETTIT: Goodbye but not farewell.

PETTIT: There's stadium seating, grandstands, where you can view the launches. And the spouses used to watch from those stands, but after Challenger they were sequestered and watched from a private rooftop, and watched as a group together. I went up to the top of this roof. It was at night and you could see the shuttle lit up in the distance.

PETTIT: And I'd been on this rocket, on the launch pad, a couple of times before. However, there wasn't any fuel in the rocket. And now the rocket is like, this sleeping giant because it's breathing. You can hear it panting and groaning and popping as this cryogenic fuel steams off from the tanks, and it's highlighted in the light. And I wasn't expecting that. And the closer you got to the rocket, the more it seemed like it was a living entity all on its own and that you knew what was going to happen when it woke up.

PETTIT: What can I say? It's like - it's dread. It is downright dread because my life could change drastically. Not just my life, but a lot of people's lives, very shortly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Announcing, through PA system) T-minus 90 seconds and counting.

PETTIT: At about T-minus 90 seconds or something like that, I just thought I was going to throw up. And then as the clock starts ticking, you see the arms move away from the shuttle. You start seeing the smoke, you start feeling the (imitating rumbling noise).

PETTIT: And you could feel the rocket kind of sway back and forth on the launch pad because the engines are going at 100 percent. It's like a racehorse that's still in the chocks, kind of jumping up and down from excitement. And then the solid rocket boosters light, simultaneous with blowing the bolts that hold the whole stack on the launch pad. And once those bolts go, you're going somewhere. You're going somewhere up and you're going up fast.

PETTIT: And then my dread turned into awe and wonder. And you're watching it and you want it to go. And it's like, go, go, go, go, go, [bleep], go, go, go.

ROSENBERG: Don, meanwhile, was being pushed back in his seat so hard that in his suit he weighed the equivalent of 750 pounds.

PETTIT: And at main engine cut-off, your engines cut off abruptly. You go from weighing 750 pounds to weighing zero pounds, and that's when you know that you are in space. And when you first see the space station, you're probably 50 to 100 kilometers away. It's really, really bright and it looks like a star. And you know that's where we're headed.

ROSENBERG: Don's crewmates on the station would be two living legends of the space program - Nikolai Budarin, a cosmonaut who had already spent several months on Mir, and Ken Bowersox, a veteran astronaut who'd flown four shuttle missions.

PETTIT: And so I was very much the inexperienced fellow. And life on station is like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool. Things do not work like they do on Earth. Things are counter to your normal intuition.

ROSENBERG: For example, one of the first things a rookie astronaut will notice is that in zero gravity even the smallest rooms feel bigger - much bigger because you're not just using one floor, you're using six because the walls and ceilings are floors, too.

PETTIT: So the shuttle is pretty roomy, but the station is voluminous, and you feel lost. You feel, wow, I need to grab onto something but there isn't anything that I can grab onto and I'm just floating out here in the middle. And floating up to a window and looking out at Earth, you get to see views that are impossible to have when you are on Earth. Now on Earth, you look up and you see a meteor burning up. Well, when you're above the atmosphere, you see the meteorites burning up below you. And during my spacewalk where I was looking down at Earth, I saw a meteorite, traveled between my legs, 400 kilometers away.

ROSENBERG: What was the coolest thing you ever saw?

PETTIT: Oh, gosh, one was a total solar eclipse. It was over the Indian Ocean. I've never seen one from the surface of Earth and I understand the physics. But to be able to look out the window and see the projected shadow of the moon on Earth, it's such an amazing moment.

PETTIT: And then - and you wanted me to talk about then now?

ROSENBERG: Yeah.

PETTIT: And then Columbia - it just changed everything.

WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, the best laid plans - the stunning conclusion right after the break. Stay tuned.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, "The Path" episode. Now, when we last left, astronaut Don Pettit was on the space station just finishing his first spacewalk. The mission was going well, but then the nation received news that no one wanted to hear.

PETTIT: Columbia, it just changed everything.

ROSENBERG: Columbia was a shuttle that had just gone up on a mission that was separate from Don's mission on the space station. But they'd been up there at the same time, even spoken over the radio together, and now Columbia was supposed to be landing back in Florida.

PETTIT: February 1, 2003. It was a Saturday, and it started off like all Saturdays. We were doing our communication with mission control when General Howell came on, and he told us that they just lost Columbia. And Sox and I - and Nikolai was there - and we looked at each other, and it's like, what do you mean lost Columbia? It took a while to register what was going on.

ROSENBERG: What was going on was that the shuttle had broken apart on a re-entry at what's called entry interface. That's where the Earth's atmosphere effectively starts at 400,000 feet.

PETTIT: And as soon as it became apparent what had happened, I wanted to hear Don's voice just because I wanted to hear his voice. And when I finally did get to talk to Don, he was still hopeful that they were alive.

PETTIT: Because we have spacesuits, we have parachutes, if the spacecraft breaks up, possibly someone could parachute down to Earth.

PETTIT: But he hadn't seen what we had seen, the footage from, you know, the Texas television channels of the breakups that had been seen in the sky. And so I had to make him understand that that was not going to happen. I don't know if I was mean or not. I might have been. I said, Don, don't you get it? And his voice changed, and he said, of course I get it, Micki. They're my friends.

PETTIT: Willie McCool and I were really close. And he helped me a lot in my earlier training days. And then we both loved to play chess. And so we were playing a ship-to-ship game of chess where he was making moves and I was making moves, and we each had our little chess set that could be folded flat. And I still have that chess set, and the pieces are still in the same location that they were at that time.

ROSENBERG: Who was winning?

PETTIT: Willie.

ROSENBERG: With the shuttle program now on hold, Don, Ken and Nikolai weren't stranded on the space station. They had a backup craft, a Russian Soyuz capsule that they could take down and land in Kazakhstan. And both Don and Micki said they had a great deal of confidence in the Soyuz. Prior to Columbia, its track record was about as good as the shuttle's. But on the flip side, its track record was about as good as the shuttle's.

PETTIT: And in some respects, each time you fly, you're rolling dice with the universe. The only way for us to get home is to roll the dice one more time, and we knew that was the name of the game when we started this mission.

ROSENBERG: After six months in space, Don, Ken and Nikolai all piled into the Soyuz and departed from the space station while Micki watched from mission control in Moscow along with Ken Bowersox's wife, Annie, and the head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe.

PETTIT: It really looked more like a theater. Like, the stage was way down below, and you sat above it. And I also remember it was very dark because it only put lights on where you needed lights. And we could hear Nikolai's voice communicating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKOLAI BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

ROSENBERG: This is Nikolai's voice from that re-entry. It was recorded by Don, actually, from inside the capsule.

PETTIT: And we're told that there would be this period of non-communication. And that's the most intense because they're going through the atmosphere. They're going to burn up. They're going to do it then.

ROSENBERG: Meanwhile, back in the Soyuz, Don was still recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everything OK over there, Don?

PETTIT: Yeah. That was a nice kick in the pants, you know.

And then when you hit the upper atmosphere, your spacecraft separates into three pieces. And Sox was excited. Sox was saying - because this was all happening in Russian - I see our propulsion unit burning up. And I looked out my window and, ah, I see our living habitat burning up.

ROSENBERG: What did Nikolai say?

PETTIT: He was quiet. I don't recall him saying anything at all. And he was probably thinking, that's not right. You shouldn't be able to see those. And we had no idea that that was the first indication of our malfunction.

ROSENBERG: Their malfunction, as they later learned, was that their capsule was coming in sideways, forcing them into something called a ballistic entry. And a ballistic entry means pretty much exactly what you might guess it means. Instead of gliding back to Earth, Soyuz was about to plummet at around 17,000 miles per hour.

PETTIT: And once you enter a ballistic entry, the physics is set. You know that you're going to enter the atmosphere steeper. You know things are going to get hotter. You know that g-levels are going to be higher. And you know that you are going to land way off course. And the highest g-forces I had experienced up to that point were around four, four and a half Gs. That's like a gorilla sitting on your chest. So Nikolai was reading off the gravity levels. (Speaking Russian). Four.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

PETTIT: Five.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

PETTIT: Six.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

PETTIT: And it's kind of hard to turn your head, but I did and I could see these little streamers of liquid running across the outside of the window. But these streamers were not water. These streamers were glowing red, hot bits of metal and at that point in time, our g-levels were at eight to nine Gs.

ROSENBERG: But back in mission control in Moscow, they didn't know about the ballistic entry. They had heard Nikolai's voice punch through again, and so they assumed Don and the rest were just fine.

PETTIT: But it became apparent by the intenseness of the conversations that I was hearing in Russian and the look on the people's faces that something was not right. And then when it really became apparent was when Annie and I were shuffled into a room. We were told in this room there would be something for us to eat. Now, Annie and I are both proactive and wanted to know what was going on. We didn't want to be handled. And, you know, to the credit of the men - and they were all men - they were pretty frank about everything and told us that they hadn't located them. The helicopters didn't know where they were.

ROSENBERG: And the thing to remember here is that this was the first landing since Columbia. And now, just like Columbia, there was no spectacular explosion, no mayday distress call. The ship simply failed to arrive.

PETTIT: I was like, God, this can't be happening. This cannot be happening - not this, not again, not another damn landing that doesn't work. And that didn't just comfort me. Sean O'Keefe was sitting behind me going, where the hell are they? What I was hearing was people coming in and out with their cell phones going, have you heard? Have you heard? Have they found what's going on? Like, I was going to get any more information than them? I didn't think so. So what are you supposed to do? You just got to wait.

And I think it was somewhere around four hours that we waited when somebody comes in and says, we got them. The helicopters have spotted them. They're OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

ROSENBERG: As you can hear, Don and the crew were more than OK. They had survived the eight-and-a-half G re-entry and made it through the atmosphere. This is the sound of them celebrating when their parachute deployed.

PETTIT: And at that point, I commented to Nikolai, now we can live for another day. And he commented back. He said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUDARIN: (Speaking Russian).

PETTIT: And we went thump, roll, roll. And we were once again reunited with Dirk. And when the hatch first opened, the smell of crushed spring grass hit us to say that we had arrived. And the countryside where we'd landed was just flat. There was nobody around. We had landed so far off course. And we just laid in the dirt, face-up, sort of three people radiating out like spokes on a wheel, and our senses were being overloaded with the sound of springtime birds chirping, the wind rustling across the top of us. And we could see some puffy clouds overhead in a blue sky, and it was just a moment where we were having a communion with Earth.

ROSENBERG: That's when the helicopter spotted them and radioed in the good news. A little less than a day later, they were back at the airport in Moscow where Micki was waiting.

PETTIT: So we'd go out there, and it's like this slow-motion gauntlet of people and cameras in your face, and I'm seeing somebody in front of me going, Micki, this way. And I'm following that person, and I go up to the plane and get on the plane. And then there's Don looking like - looking like a wreck. But he looked so (laughter) - but there he was.

ROSENBERG: How was this for a first mission?

PETTIT: (Laughter) Well, there was nothing typical about this mission, was there?

PETTIT: No, there wasn't.

PETTIT: (Laughter) Oh, lord. How was this...

PETTIT: What a way to get introduced to spaceflight.

WASHINGTON: Since that first mission, Micki's watched Don launch two more times. And all told, Don has now spent over a year in space. And when asked whether he has any plans to retire, Don said no way. I'd have to drag him out feet-first.

A special thanks to Don's crewmate, Ken Bowersox, who helped us immensely with this story, and Chris Jones, who first covered these events in Esquire magazine. For links to his book, "Out Of Orbit," and to some really fun videos that Don made while in space, check out our website snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Leon Morimoto.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: It that time. We're packing stuff up - moving down own path. But, if you want more SNAP, not to fear. Subscribe to the amazing SNAP JUDGMENT podcast and get days of SNAP storytelling free for the asking - the best deal in storytelling history. And tell a friend before we had to shut this down. Subscribe now at snapjudgment.org. You'll find behind-the-scenes pictures, movies and full-on episodes - snapjudgment.org.

(MUSIC)

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