An astronaut’s view of Earth

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Barbara Ruben

Joseph Allen (right) and fellow astronaut Dale Gardner, shown in 1984, walking in space outside the space shuttle Discovery as they retrieve two malfunctioning satellites, hence their humorous “For Sale” sign. Allen, a physicist who later went on to become chairman of defense company Veridian, flew space missions on two NASA shuttles in the 1980s. Allen is shown today in the inset photo.
Photo courtesy of NASA

Joseph Allen didn’t pine to be an astronaut as a child. He never imagined himself blasting off into the dark unknown, peering back down at the round orb of the Earth and walking untethered outside of a space shuttle, unaffected by gravity.

That’s because there was no such thing yet as an astronaut in 1940s Indiana, where Allen grew up. Allen, who flew aboard the space shuttles Discovery and Columbia in the 1980s, instead imagined he might become a cowboy or a race car driver or perhaps an explorer of the nearby Wabash River.

“But I was too timid to be a race car driver, I was too small and couldn’t sing like the cowboys in the movies, and I just had no idea at the time I would end up being an explorer of sorts,” said Allen, who is now 77 and lives in Washington, D.C.

Instead, he became a physicist, doing graduate work at Yale University, where he was when John Glenn first orbited the Earth. Later, Allen became a staff physicist at the university’s Nuclear Structure Laboratory.

By the time he retired from the work world in 2003, Allen was chairman of the 8,000-employee defense firm Veridian. But sandwiched between were nearly two decades with NASA and two life-changing missions into space.

Launching a career

The first astronauts had been test pilots, but in the mid-1960s, NASA put out a call for scientists to rocket into space as well.

“I was 30 years old, and the space age had begun. I was curious, but you know what say about curiosity killing the cat,” Allen said of his initial enthusiasm for applying to NASA. “My wife was very upset. She didn’t like it at all.”

Because Allen was one of 14,000 PhD scientists who applied to fly in space, he figured he didn’t have a chance. But in addition to his scientific credentials, Allen was a national wrestling champion and had been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was also fleet-footed, able to run a mile in just under five minutes.

So in 1967, he was chosen to be one of 11 scientist-astronauts at NASA. “I was astonished I was selected. I think in large part it was because I was in such good physical condition,” he said.

Intense training followed, from which Allen emerged as the top astronaut in his class in acrobatics, instrument flying and academics.

Allen worked as a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 15, the fourth flight to the moon, and on the flight tests for the space shuttle. He also served as NASA’s assistant administrator for legislative affairs in Washington.

A moving experience

Finally, on Nov. 11, 1982, it was his chance to blast off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for six days on the first fully operational space shuttle, Columbia, with three other astronauts. It was also the first shuttle flight that launched communications satellites into orbit. They also took their sense of humor into space, displaying a sign that read “Ace Moving Co.”

Once in space, Allen was awestruck by the view back home. “It was the most glorious experience of my life. The beauty of the Earth takes your breath away,” he said.

Orbiting the Earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour, Allen viewed a sunrise or sunset once every 45 minutes from the shuttle’s windows.

“I felt as if I was flying in heaven. The atmosphere is so beautiful and delicate, and you can really understand that if something happens to it, that all of life will cease to exist. I think in the minds of every space traveler there is such a respect for the beauty and fragility of planet Earth and how imperative it is to preserve it.”

Allen was supposed to have done a space walk on his first trip, but couldn’t due to a space suit malfunction. But on his second launch on the Discovery in 1984, he finally got to step off the space shuttle wearing a Buck Rogers-like jetpack. Handheld buttons controlled his movement.

The beauty of being unfettered in space was tempered by the fact that it was “slippery,” and difficult to control his movements, he said.

“Space is incredibly slick. There is no friction. You had a button to stop you. It was called the OJ button — the ‘Oh, Jesus’ button,” he recalled with a smile.

Had there been an Apollo 17, Allen would have been in line to land on the moon. But further lunar landings “just weren’t in the cards,” he said with regret.

No fear of flying

The sense of wonder Allen felt while in space obliterated any feeling of fear. Allen’s first flight came four years before the disastrous launch of the Challenger, which broke apart just over a minute into flight, and 21 years before the Columbia itself would disintegrate when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

Allen said he didn’t even feel claustrophobic, noting the shuttle’s large windows to view the infinite space all around him.

He attributes part of his success to his small size. At 5 feet, 6 inches he said the shuttle may have felt more spacious to him than to a 6-foot-tall astronaut.

More importantly, in his compact body his brain is closer to his heart, giving him an advantage in how many g-forces he could withstand upon take-off and landing. A g-force is defined as a force acting on a body as a result of acceleration or gravity.

As a child, the combination of his small size and indefatigable sense of curiosity led Allen into a few mishaps. Once, he tried to figure out how Santa could fit down the chimney. He climbed into the chimney of a barbecue pit in his backyard and promptly became stuck so badly be could barely breathe, let alone call out for help. Finally, a neighbor found him, and the chimney had to be dismantled brick by brick to free him.

That experience reverberated years later  when it came time to put on his space suit.

“The space suit is like a tortoise shell in the middle, and your head pops out the top. Every time I climbed into the suit, it took me back to being stuck in the chimney, and I’d get panicked,” he said

As the smallest and smartest boy in his class, Allen would get picked on on the playground. “I was a nerdy little kid. The other kids must have hated me. I raised the grade curves. So they beat me up,” he recalled.

That’s how he got into wrestling. His father initially tried to find him boxing lessons, but when he couldn’t, he enrolled Allen in wrestling instead.

“Athletics changed my life. I was never again beat up on the playground — and it may have been the key to being selected by NASA.”

From astronaut to corporate CEO

When he left NASA, Allen went on to found Space Industries International in Houston. He served as chief executive officer, initially planning to sell products to NASA with less mark-up than other companies.

For some reason, that concept didn’t take off, but the Defense Department became a large client. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was on the company’s board of directors.

Allen moved the company to Washington, later changing its name to Veridian. Since its  founding in 1985, the company grew from 10 to 8,000 employees, before Allen sold it to General Dynamics in 2003 for the astronomical price of $1.5 billion.

Since employees owned a lot of stock in the company, many walked away as millionaires. “That was such a good feeling to see them benefit like that,” he said.

But what hasn’t been good in Allen’s book is the constant cutting of NASA’s budget, which has dwindled from 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966 to less than 0.5 percent today. The final space shuttle fight was in 2011.

“We led the world in space exploration and let it fritter away,” he said, placing blame on the shoulders of Congress. “Our Congress is feckless. They are gutless wonders.

“If you’re interested in going into space today, your best bet is to sign up with the Chinese or Russians,” which currently have more robust space programs than the United States.

For Allen, traveling into space shouldn’t be the province of one or a few countries. It has the potential to profoundly change anyone’s view of the world — and of the cosmos.

“There is not one astronaut or cosmonaut who has gone into space who is not convinced there is some great ‘maker.’ Some might call it religion,” he said.

“You cannot take a look at the beauty of the Earth and think this is just random. It’s impossible.”

In 1984, Allen wrote the coffee table-size book Entering Space: An Astronaut’s Odyssey, which covers not just Allen’s contributions to the space program, but a history of NASA itself, as well as more than 200 color photos, many of which Allen took from space. Copies are available from