Date Publication Category Author Illustration
09/29/1991 SUN FOC knell C

Astronaut first saw stars at Buhl

Although he has seen the heavens from a perspective few of us will ever have, Jay Apt studied the projections on the domed ceiling in the new planetarium an d pointed out the stars with the enthusiasm of a grade-schooler.

"Ah, there's the Southern Cross. And where's the False Cross? That must be Can opus, right? This is not a view I've had before. Over there, that must be the False Cross," said the astronaut, pointing upward at a star field with thousan ds of points of light. "Where are the Magellanic Clouds? Can we put them up th ere?"

Apt himself was "up there" this spring as a crew member of the space shuttle Atlantis , which made 93 orbits of the Earth between April 5 and 12 and launched the Gamma Ray Observatory.

The Gamma Ray Observatory is an instrument designed to unlock some of the secrets of the universe by "looking back in time" to its very beginning. The satellite observes gamma rays, the most energetic form of radiation in space, that left exploding stars and expanding galaxies billions of years ago.

Apt and fellow astronaut Jerry Ross made two "spacewalks" - one an unscheduled repair mission to loosen a jammed antenna - that totaled nearly 11 hours. It was the first time an American astronaut had walked in space in over five years.

Surprisingly, the former Pittsburgher said the view of the stars one gets floating is space is not much better than someone with good night vision can get from earth on a clear night.

"For one thing, the stars don't twinkle because you're above the atmosphere. The second thing is that since you only have 37 minutes of night every hour and a half when you go around the Earth, you don't get dark-adapted that well. You don't see as many stars as you see when you've been outside for an hour and get your dark sight.

"You see the colors much better than you do down here," Apt explained. "I think that's because they don't twinkle. All of the light is focused much better in your eye. You can get your color receptors, which have a threshold below which they don't record, to give you data on more stars, basically. But really, you don't see any more stars than you do from the ground. You see the Milky Way very well, but it's just as good as your dark sight on the ground. You see the Magellanic Clouds in the Southern Hemisphere."

Apt's assignments with NASA have included developing techniques for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gamma Ray Observatory and developing techniques for assembling and maintaining the proposed space station. All require working outside the spacecraft.

"It's wonderful. You can get a little bit (of the feel) floating in a pool but it's much better up there, " Apt stressed. "It really is great. Your body adapts very quickly to weightlessness and you don't think about it much. You move very slowly and you don't move nearly as fast as you do on the ground. You want to be moving slowly in all of your actions.

"But looking at the Earth is really what holds your attention. It's just marvelous. One of the neatest things was seeing a meteor burning up below me and that gives you an idea of really where you are. I do a lot of flying at night in high altitude airplanes and this is better."

According to the astronaut, the common belief that space is becoming cluttered with debris is a myth.

"There was none of that. That's vastly overblown. We did see another man-made object in orbit. We were lucky enough to see, besides the satellite we deployed, the Soviet space station Mir on one occasion. That was a very nice feeling - looking out and seeing the only other folks to be in orbit around the planet at the same time, about 100 miles from us. We actually talked to a flight engineer aboard Mir by using an amateur radio."

Apt was in Pittsburgh last month to present a banner to The Carnegie Science Center that he had taken with him aboard Atlantis . The banner reads, "1991, A Banner Year for Jay Apt and The Carnegie Science Center."

Helping him unfurl the banner were seven members of the Young Astronauts, a youth organization at the science center's Allegheny Square Annex, formerly the Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. Among them was Bethann Cigich, 11, of Trafford, a student at the Trafford Middle School, in the Penn-Trafford School District.

Dr. Jerome "Jay" Apt, 42, was born in Springfield, Mass., but moved to Pittsburgh with his parents at the age of 2 months. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Apt Jr., still live in Pittsburgh.

A 1967 graduate of Shadyside Academy, Apt earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from Harvard and his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined NASA in 1980 and was selected for astronaut training in June 1985.

Visiting the new science center brought back memories of his own youth, Apt said, when he was entranced by Buhl. As a teen-ager, "I spent many, many hours exploring science and engineering at the old Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. On Saturdays, I would take the streetcar from my home (in Point Breeze) and change downtown.

"In the middle of winter, going over to the North Side wasn't that easy. But once you got to the planetarium, it was always warm inside. We felt the world of science was just opening to us and it was. People I knew who went to Buhl in those days learned so well and so broadly they are now in the forefronts of medical technology, metallurgy, computer science, aeronautics, and laser physics. There are several of us who are involved in the space program."

During his recent visit to The Carnegie Science Center, Apt said he hoped the wonders within its walls will have the same effect on today's youngsters as the Buhl Planetarium had on him in the late 1960s.

"This facility is going to lead the youngsters here into a marvelous future, one that's going to make it better for all of us. Make no mistake, America needs their help. As I go around the world I see that this country needs as many young people to get into the fields of science and technology as possible. Because if we don't, our standard of living is going to collapse in the wake of tremendous competition from abroad.

"When I was at Buhl, we benefited tremendously from the abrupt realization in November of 1957 (the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik ) that the United States had been too complacent about educating its youngsters ... not only that Johnny couldn't read or Johnny couldn't do math but Johnny didn't even dream about the future.

"The same is true today. Survey after survey shows that America's youngsters do not have a grasp of the most basic issues of science or even geography. They do not have a grasp of the very basic tools of mathematics. We rank not only behind Japan and Germany, but behind Thailand, behind Sweden, and behind approximately half of all Third World countries in the level of understanding our youngsters have of science and engineering. It is critical that this country develop facilities like this one. This is our beachhead on the province of the future."