On January 12, 1986, soaring at 212 miles above the earth, Commander Robert Gibson gave the order. “Gentlemen, we are set now, you can remove your seat belts and move freely about the capsule.” First time astronaut and 38-year-old East Windsor resident Robert Cenker recalls this moment as the most vivid during the six-day mission. “I remember slipping out of that harness and my arms just floated up. My helmet weighed nothing on my head,” says Cenker. “I looked down at that chair and realized that my body would never settle in it again for the next six days. It was scary, amazing, awesome, and something I can still feel.”
Cenker, an aerospace engineer, had burst the bonds of earth on the seventh flight of NASA’s new marvel: the space shuttle Columbia. She was the first vehicle to fly into space and to fly back under her own power. The seven-man crew’s primary mission was to offload into orbit Cenker’s own baby — the Ku-1 telecommunications satellite, which he had designed for RCA at its West Windsor plant.
Cenker relates his adventure in space, one which only 448 others in all of humankind have experienced, when he gives a free talk on “Six Days in Space” on Thursday, March 30, at noon, at Mercer County Community College. Call 609-586-4800, ext. 3729.
Cenker may have been born and ideally trained to be an astronaut, but he had a hard time of convincing NASA recruiters that that was the case. A native of Unionville, he attended Penn State University, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. He then earned an electrical engineering degree at Rutgers before becoming an associate fellow in the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
As a senior satellite designer throughout the late-1970s and l980s, Cenker worked for RCA during the heyday of telecommunications satellites. “These were those first fast years of the Internet in the sky, before 9/11 brought it tumbling down,” says Cenker. “We just couldn’t get the commercial stuff up there fast enough.” Twice before Cenker had submitted his resume to NASA, and both times NASA had refused him for astronaut training. Then one day in l985 RCA’s senior vice president of research asked him if he wanted to take a ride on the Columbia. Cenker considered the idea for “three tenths of a nanosecond, and then accepted.” To this day, Cenker finds the selection process a bit of a mystery.
Interestingly, after his first mission, Cenker twice again applied for career astronaut duty, and despite his successful space experience, he was twice again turned down. “You just cannot believe the caliber of these people who finally make it,” says Cenker. The last time NASA called for applicants over 10,000 resumes landed at its door. Admissions officers claim that after weeding out the daredevils and otherwise unqualified, 8,000 exceptionally capable individuals still remain to fill 40 slots. Those who pass this microscopic filtering are all NFL-level specialists.
“I had fallen victim to the romantic profile of astronauts as hard-bitten men, living life on the edge,” says Cenker. “Once I arrived for training, I encountered some of the warmest, most interesting, and of course, intelligent, folks I’d ever known. Meeting them alone made the experience worth it.”
Cenker’s own flight crew grew and remained close. Commander Gibson and pilot Charles Bolden had both flown four previous missions. Steve Hawley, George Nelson, and Frank Chang-Diaz served as mission specialists. Cenker’s own title of “payload specialist” was shared with Congressman Bill Nelson, only the third sitting Congressperson to enter space. “Actually, I was on board mostly to observe, and as a backup if trouble occurred,” says Cenker. “The launching of the Ku-1 satellite was designed to be fully automatic.”
Jet jockey launch. After four frustrating wave offs, the Columbia at last took off at 6:55 a.m. on January 12. There is so much happening so quickly at lift off that the commander and pilot truly need that fighter-jet reaction time. If some error is detected within the first 10 seconds after launch, the commander orders the pilot to steer the craft and land it at a specified South African Destination. A few seconds later, the shuttle has already passed that point, and they must try for a northern European spot. An instant later and it is too late to abort there, so the pilot is ordered to make a quick trip once around the earth and bring her down. It is to make such split second decisions that career astronauts, like as Gibson and Bolden, train exhaustively for two years.
Cenker, as a crew member, had to remain alert to obey any orders, yet like the other mission and payload specialists, he had no specific liftoff tasks. His six months of intensive training had left Cenker with a much greater sense of calm than he had anticipated.
From the ground control center, Cenker’s wife, Barbara, watched the successful launch. As she rose to leave, one of the scientists sat shaking his head at the monitor and announced, “Ya know, one of these days we are going to lose one of these things.”
Encapsulated. As the shuttle Columbia began its 96 earth orbits, the crew began a series of experiments. After monitoring the Ku-1 launch, Cenker tried out a new infrared camera designed by RCA and Sarnoff. It was uniquely sensitive to one-tenth degree differences in temperature within its field of view.
He also conducted several tests with “microgravity,” a field he continues to study to this day. “Researchers call it microgravity, instead of zero gravity,” explains Cenker, “because theoretically, even the shuttle and our seven bodies exhibit some minute gravitational force, even in space.” Astronomers Hawley and Nelson had planned to photograph Halley’s comet from the aft deck window, yet the delayed launch had brought the comet too close into the sun’s path for any good shots.
On January 18, after 2.1 million miles and 146 space hours, the space shuttle Columbia uneventfully touched down at NASA. Six days later, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing Cenker’s good friend Christa McAulife and six of his other training comrades.
Challenger specter. “I remember Christa (McAulife) asking what would happen if this certain program failed during a mission,” says Cenker. “Then we will all die” was the response. “She simply nodded matter of factly,” says Cenker. “Both of us knew that the opportunity to make our journeys far outweighed the very, very calculated risk.”
Following the disaster there was talk about safety issues and poor judgment in taking nonprofessionals like McAulife on dangerous space missions. But Cenker says, “I had worked with Christa McAulife and let me assure you she was uniquely qualified in every way. As to safety, NASA runs the safest venture in the world. The Oregon trail is littered with an unknown number of graves per mile. In our little bubble today we have forgotten that living involves risks.”
NASA politicized. Today, despite the unfortunate loss of the Challenger, and, in 2003, the Columbia, manned space travel goes on. Commercial launches have cycled into an upswing, as telecommunications demands increase. Cenker continues to consult with NASA and do research with Lockheed Martin in the field he grew to love — microgravity. But compared with the commercial launches, Cenker has noted what he terms as “a real case of analysis paralysis due to the politicization of NASA.”
Cenker does not imply that NASA officials are constantly striving to curry favor with certain senators or with the whims of the current administration. Rather, he says, with every action it takes NASA fears that it might be called to task by either one of these groups for wasting taxpayer dollars. He says that NASA is being bound up by expensive indecision over saving money. “It is tragically ironic,” says Cenker, “that the very concern with overspending is dragging a two-and-a-half-year project out to more than a decade.”
Yet in the end, Cenker believes that space travel will clear this hurdle and will flourish. The benefits of this travel? As with Columbus’ journey, they remain nonspecific, but sure. About 50 years ago, researcher Jack Shakley discovered that certain metals in certain conditions did, then did not, conduct electricity. Because society allowed this man to pursue this science for science’s sake, we now have the semiconductor and the transistor.
But even beyond the inventions, Cenker says that we must go on, deeper into space.
As the little boy playing in the yard instinctively races out to see what’s beyond the back fence, so must humankind, by its very nature continue to explore. It is what we are; it is what we do.