Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman

I remember the 80s…a time for heroes, high-five flyers and top gun shuttle pilots. Just as well then that today, thanks to the team at Space Lectures, I met Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman, a veteran F14 Tomcat pilot flying as Tom Cruise’s middle finger in that famous scene in Top Gun and a veteran of 4 Space Shuttle flights.

On STS-90 he was the pilot of Columbia and as Pilot for Atlantis on STS-106 to the International Space Station (ISS). His next mission was as Commander of Columbia on STS-109 on a mission to service the Hubble space telescope. Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman’s last space shuttle flight was as Commander on Atlantis for STS-125, the 5th and final shuttle mission to Hubble.

Meeting Scott in the flesh, I’m surprised how tall he is (6′ 4″), it’s enough to take your breath away. It’s the one thing that at 17 years old stopped him from becoming a pilot in the United States Air due to his ‘sitting height.’ Thankfully an enquiry to the United States Navy helped fulfil his ambition to become a pilot since watching “Sky King” growing up. He got to fly F14 aircraft out of Miramar and his first chance of international relations during a cruise over the sea of Japan. The Soviet Union were flying Bear Bombers and Russian Fighters would come out and have mini dog fights, not unlike in the beginning of the film Top Gun.

"Well, that's my finger"
“Well, that’s my finger”

When Scott Altman came back from the cruise, Paramount Pictures were in town, his squadron was selected to fly the F14 in the movie and he was chosen by his skipper to work with the movie people, feeling the need for speed completing the air combat manoeuvres and scaring the camera crew. This includes the memorable scene in the movie where the plane rolls over to keep up international relations “yes Goose, I know the finger”

“Well, that’s my finger”

He also got to do the tower fly by, called a low transition, lighting the afterburners and getting out of dodge, not once but actually 9 times. They filmed with people in the tower for the first 3 and then evacuated after that. Scott Atman didn’t think he was that close.

From there he went to test pilot school where he took a field trip to Houston where two things happened. He realised that astronauts were real people, something he hadn’t really believed before, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in some other category of human. He met guys who had had similar careers as his, looked around the Space Shuttle like a kid in a candy store and applied to NASA. After his week long interview, which is mainly a physical, he returned back to his base and awaited the call hopefully from Don Puddy, the rumour being that if he called you, you were in. Scott Altman did indeed speak to Don Puddy by telephone “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”

Scott Altman, NASA Astronaut, Pilot on STS-106

When you want to do something though, you don’t give up. He went back to the fleet and got a phone call from NASA while he was on the ship in the Persian Gulf and was asked to comeback for interview with this time saying yes. AT On his first mission to space he visited the International Space Station before, the last crew to go to the ISS before people lived there full time. While there he got to run the lighting, install the treadmill and got to be a space plumber, installing the toilet, leaving a little sign on it saying ‘sanitised for your protection by the crew of STS-106.’

He flew with Yuri Malenchoko, who grew up in Ukraine, became a fighter pilot and one of the guys that Scott Altman trained so hard for in an F14 that he thought he would to go head to head against, each trying to kill each other. Because of space they got to work together on a common mission and instead of being an enemy, was a friend and crewman. As a result, he learned that they were more alike than they were different.

The destination for his final two flights was the Hubble Space Telescope. Looking back at the Earth, it took Altman several days to realise that the little blue band going around the Earth was the atmosphere, comparing the size of the planet to the size of the atmosphere. That’s where our oxygen comes from, that’s what protects us from radiation and gave him a new perspective on the planet.

“It feels fragile, this is our home we have to take care of it.”

Hubble has been in space over 25 years but is not a new telescope. On every servicing mission they put in new technology. His mission was the 5th and his office was the flight deck as the Commander in the left seat with the pilot on the right. Most people think the pilot lands but is actually a co-pilot and goes back to the Gemini days when one was a command pilot and the other was a co-pilot. These astronauts were a bunch of high-powered test pilots, they didn’t want to be called co-pilots. So they called one the Mission Commander and the other the pilot.By the time you launch, you know every one of those switches and what your responsibilities are, what happens if something fails on the right side and how it impacts the switches on the others. One of the other places he trained was the neutral buoyancy lab (NBL). A giant swimming pool 50 feet deep, where you can place the whole telescope down there and float. You can either float in the pool to simulate zero G or in a an airplane on the ‘comet vomit’ doing a parabola which only lasts about 20 seconds.

They trained in the NBL for 6 hours which matches what you would do in space. One of our tests was to repair an instrument that we couldn’t take a whole new box along, which was the classic Hubble repair, take the old box and out and put a new box in, relatively straightforward. One instrument had failed, they knew which card had failed but in order to keep all those cards stable during ascent when everything really shakes, they put 117 screws into it. Altman and his crew had to find a way in which to remove those screws without losing them or going into the worst place possible, inside the telescope and then replace the card, coming up with a fasten and capture plate to do it.

Scott 'Scooter' Altman at Space Lectures
Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman at Space Lectures

They were the first crew not to go to the ISS after the Columbia accident, so they also had to have a plan on what they would if their Shuttle was damaged on launch or while they were on board. They got two Shuttles ready to launch at almost the same time, with the rescue shuttle going up a week later. The Shuttle can only stay in orbit for around 20 days before it runs out of all power.

There is an 8 1/2 minute ride to orbit and right after the engines shut down, you are floating in space. One of the first jobs to do is get the payload doors open as they are the radiators to eject the heat that is building up in all the equipment. If you don’t do that, you don’t get a go for ‘Orbit Ops’ and then you would have to de-orbit and come home. You get a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes which is why you set the clock by mission elapsed time and not the sun, 16 orbits a day. Then you find the Hubble and rendezvous with that, hand fly the vehicle from the aft station using an overhead window and look up to find Hubble approaching until its floating right outside the window and then grab it with the arm to keep it secure.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen by STS-109

The crew’s number one objective was Wide Field Camera 3, a lot more sensitive than the previous camera, but when it came to replacing, not everything moved as it should have done with the torque wrench on it. RSUs, a box containing gyros to help keep the telescope stable, also needed replacing. However, they didn’t fit. Without gyros, there wouldn’t be a Hubble and it meant a longer than normal spacewalk to resolve the problem with a less than high-tech repair by snapping a bar off. That’s the value of having people and robotics to come up with these contingency plans. This was also the last time that anybody visited Hubble.

All good things come to an and on return the Shuttle is a glider, there are no engines and the Mission Commander always takes over at sub-sonic speeds using guidance to land. Once you do get out, it doesn’t feel normal, like having your foot nailed to the floor and causes problems with your inner balance.When Hubble was launched, we didn’t even know some of the questions it had already answered. It clued us into Dark Energy, and along with Dark Matter, we find that 96% f the universe we don’t know anything about. Hubble allowed us to look back into the early universe with the light that it captures travelling for millions and billions of years. Hubble is still going strong, seven years after Altman’s last visit. It’s an incredible universe.

Scott Altman rode on the shoulders of giants, got to meet his own heroes, including Neil Armstrong and he is looking forward to the day that the next wave of astronauts go back to the Moon and on to Mars, flying the new spaceships and standing on a distant planet looking out and realising that we really can reach for the stars.

Nick Cook with Scott Altman at Space Lectures. Photo courtesy of ProffotoEvents
Nick Cook with Scott Altman at Space Lectures. Photo courtesy of ProffotoEvents

Links:

The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Meeting Apollo, Skuylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

Nick Cook

Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, doorstep daytripper, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it. Knows more about swords than is probably healthy for a man.

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