Space travel got in my blood at an early age and never got out.
The space race was just starting when I was a kid and it was very exciting. When NASA started launching rockets, my best buddy and I started building them in my basement. We even had our own launch pad.
I started out as a U.S. Navy pilot, which increased my chances of becoming an astronaut as nearly half of all the astronauts that had flown before were Navy pilots. That’s what NASA thought they needed back in those days, and it stayed that way for a long time.
To be picked to be an astronaut you had to be in almost perfect health – NASA could select from millions of people so why not start with the healthiest?
They also looked at your education and experience. I had flown 25-30 different types of aircraft and had an aeronautical engineering degree. I fit the package that they wanted but there is no definitive way to become an astronaut – people come from all backgrounds and walks of life.
When we got to the space program NASA started selecting applicants who were not pilots, called mission specialists. In my class we had the first non-pilots, the first women and the first African American people. We were a well-rounded group and I was very fortunate.
Training was pretty primitive back in those days. How do you train to go into space in a vehicle you’ve never flown before? It was their best estimation. The first simulations were pretty rudimentary but as we progressed through the Space Shuttle Program they got better and better.
By the middle of the Program we had simulators that could be put into vertical positions, launch and actually fly up a way off the ground, so when you got in the shuttle to fly, it was like you had been there before.
It was up to us to maintain our own workout ethic and stay in shape – there was nobody standing over you telling you to do 20 press ups or 40 jumping jacks. You had to take a minimum of one physical a year but when you got into active flight status and were assigned to a mission, you’d get one almost every month until your flight.
A lot of people in my class loved to run but I hated it, so I played on an astronaut basketball team – we were actually pretty good! – and was part of a great softball team that travelled around Texas.
I first went into space in 1984 as part of the first crew of seven on an Earth observation mission, aboard space shuttle Challenger.
The best word to describe going into space? Indescribable. There’s no simulation that can take you from zero to 25 times the speed of sound in eight and a half minutes.
For the last three or so minutes you’re subjected to continual acceleration at three times the force of gravity, being pushed back in your seat as you got faster and faster and faster.
You can try to simulate it all you want to but until you’ve got in that thing and done it for real, you’ve never really experienced it. It’s a unique adventure.
Sitting up front as one of the pilots, all I could think about was: I better do my job. I remembered everything I’d been taught and was ready to handle any situation.
That’s the beautiful part about the launches: in the simulator, while you were working on one problem the training team would inject another failure into the system. But during my actual launch I was ready and thought, ‘just throw it at me, I can handle it.’
So we take off… and nothing goes wrong! All the lights stay green. It was one of the most benign, enjoyable, exciting things that I’ve done. You’re in the world’s most complex vehicle, surrounded by some of the world’s most talented individuals, being controlled by the sharpest people in the world on the ground. It’s hard to describe the excitement of being one of the people that got to do that.
On board we all worked 16 hour days with a half hour to have breakfast and get ready then half an hour before bed to have dinner.
I say ‘work’… it was a joy to me, a pleasure, because I was just so excited to be up there doing all these things in microgravity. I would look out of the window and see the Arctic go by and 45 minutes later, the Antarctic was coming up. Those memories will stay with me forever.
I had a flight plan with stops and checklists that I kept chained to my waist but we’d practiced the mission so many times on the ground I hardly had to open it.
During our flight, almost nothing went wrong. We had a couple of minor problems but we not only achieved 100 per cent of our mission objectives, we got through the extra stuff NASA had put on our stand-by list to do if we had time.
For meals, we could eat anything we wanted – I liked a filet mignon with green beans and mashed potatoes.
All the meals are pre-ordered before you go then pre-cooked, vacuum packed and thermally stabilised before lift-off. Once you’re up there, you pull out the aluminium pouch, put it in the oven for five minutes, cut the top off and squeeze your steak out – I like mine medium rare.
I was in space for almost nine days. It only took a day or two to regain my ‘Earth legs’ after we landed. The biggest thing you lose is your sense of balance. The dizziness lasts for several hours but it can take several weeks to get back to normal if you’re up there for longer.
I do miss space. I wouldn’t mind taking someone up there and back every day. I think that’s going to be the future of space travel, but there are so many things we have to do and learn before we can have commercial space flights, or the big one – go to Mars.
We first have to be able to recycle and re-use everything we take with us. We need to start using these types of technologies here on Earth first otherwise we’re going to run out of all our resources – we’re going through them at an astronomical rate.
I now work at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, scheduling the visiting astronauts, giving talks and doing special tours. I’ll be there until they kick me out but you never stop being an astronaut.
I’m a member of the Association of Space Explorers, and was president for three years. To be in that group you have to have flown into space above 50 miles and around Earth at least once, so it’s a very select group of people.
We do face a problem with how to keep the public interested in space travel if you’re not doing something spectacular every year, but the things we do in space are spectacular.
Each and every mission does unique things to better life here on Earth.
Jon McBride is an ambassador for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. For more information, go to KennedySpaceCenter.com
Jon was photographed at The Trafalgar St James, London. For more information, go to trafalgarstjames.com
How to get involved with My odd job:
My odd job is a new weekly series from Metro.co.uk, published every Sunday.
If you have an unusual job and want to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.