From ND To NASA: Stories From Outer Space

Jamestown Native Rick Hieb Shares His Experiences In Outer Space During 3 Space Shuttle Missions


Space flight is one of the most astonishing achievements in human history.

We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Most statistics say only between five and six hundred people have ever been to space.

One of those people is North Dakota native Rick Hieb.

On Friday, he talked about his journey from North Dakota to NASA, and North Dakota’s long legacy in space flight. You can watch that story by clicking here.

Now he is sharing his experiences during his three space shuttle missions with us, including some space flight records he set along the way.

“Personally, I think if you’re not afraid during the launching of a rocket, you need to go get some more training, because you should be afraid,” Hieb says. “It’s a very, very complex system.”

Years of preparation and thousands of people help get those shuttles off the ground. After all that prep time, former astronaut and Jamestown native Rick Hieb says the engines only run for about eight minutes during shuttle missions. Then the fun starts.

“I have a physics degree. I get it,” Hieb explains. “I understand how orbital mechanics works and all that stuff, but nonetheless, when the engines shut off and you’re floating , it’s like wow, it’s real.”

Hieb experienced the realness of space three times, on Space Shuttle missions in 1991, 1992 and 1994. He says the reality of space travel is pretty nice.

“Floating is just as good as you think it’ll be,” he says. “It’s just so fun to push off a wall and just drift. Or if you have a tool in your hand you’re gonna spin it and watch it spin, or an ink pen, you’ll spin it and watch it spin. Later in your mission, your crew mates, you can spin them! Everything’s a toy in space flight.”

And of course, he had a unique vantage point from the Earth’s orbit. But most astronauts aren’t as far away as you might think. Space Shuttles and space stations are only a couple hundred miles above the Earth’s surface, or roughly the distance from Fargo to Bismarck. The earth takes up almost half of the field of vision for astronauts in orbit.

Hieb adds that, “You can look down and very clearly see human occupation, cities, rivers.”

He says you can even see highways with binoculars. But that’s just the fun inside the shuttle. Hieb spent 17 hours outside of the shuttle on space walks, including the only three person space walk ever during STS 49 in 1992, when they captured a crippled satellite to attach new rockets to it to get it into the proper orbit. At the time it was the longest spacewalk in history: over eight hours.

And when there’s nothing separating you from the cosmos, Hieb says the views get even better.

“Suddenly, instead of this hole you look through, you’re kind of just there.” he says.

But as amazing as his stories sound and as much as you might try to imagine being in his floating shoes, Hieb says one of the drawbacks of sharing his sky-high adventures is you just had to be there.

He explains, “It was quite a profound sense of awe and also a profound disappointment I couldn’t think of how to articulate that to anybody other than ‘Oh, this is great!’ ”

The 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 1994 coincided with Hieb’s third and final Space Shuttle mission, so he got to celebrate that milestone from space.

Now he’s gone full circle, or full orbit.

He is commemorating 25 years since his last space flight.

Categories: Local News, Morning – Features, North Dakota News