Hey Mr. Spaceman

“Keep moving, and you just might find another way to get there,”  astronaut Scott “Scooter” Altman tells 2015 Extreme Engineering audience.

Dec 15 2015 | By Jesse Adams | Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers

Early in astronaut Scott “Scooter” Altman’s extraordinary career, he got some bad news from the U.S. Air Force: he was too tall to fly. Undaunted, he became a top Navy aviator who was selected to be the primary F-14 pilot for daring flights in the movie Top Gun and over Iraq as a strike leader before joining NASA and piloting four shuttle missions over some 51 days in space.

Mike Massimino (right) introduced Altman (left) at the Nov. 19 Kraft Center event.

“Keep moving, and you just might find another way to get there,” Altman said as the featured speaker at Columbia Engineering’s recent Extreme Engineering event.

In introductory remarks, Mechanical Engineering Professor of Professional Practice Mike Massimino BS’84, Altman’s crewmate on two shuttle missions, called him “a great friend, a great pilot, a great astronaut, and one of my favorite people.” The talk was held Nov. 19 at the Kraft Center.

Also an aeronautical engineer, Altman talked about his real life experience with the dangerous gamesmanship portrayed in Top Gun, including facing off with Soviet fighter planes in what he termed “pseudo-dogfights where nobody pulled the trigger.” He flew with several actors in the film, including Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, and got to pull off stunts that ordinarily would end a pilot’s career. One tidbit Hollywood didn’t mention, he noted, was that pilots would often wear sunglasses not for fashion but because their eyes got ghoulishly bloodshot from all the centrifugal force.

A decorated veteran of numerous flights on a range of aircraft, Altman was selected for the elite Navy Test Pilot School and then as one of NASA’s class of 1995. He served on four space shuttle missions aboard the Atlantis and the ill-fated Columbia, commanding the final two missions to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope alongside Massimino in 2002 and 2009.

“Scooter” described what it’s like to be in space, from the initial disorientation of the inner ear adjusting to zero gravity to the challenge of eating reconstituted foodstuffs.

“The pace on a shuttle mission is like a sprint all the way,” he said, discussing his work in orbit and getting his crew back safely to Earth. “The one thing you know when you fire the engines the last time is that you’re going to hit the ground, the challenge is putting a runway beneath you.”

Altman retired from NASA in 2010 to become vice president of operations at ASRC Federal’s Engineering and Aerospace Solutions group, but continues to fly.

“Back in ’95 I thought we’d be going to Mars by now, and it didn’t happen,” Altman said. “But I always hope that someone that I get to speak to will be the first one to get there.”

Extreme Engineering is sponsored by Columbia Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association, and the Columbia Space Initiative. Altman’s talk is the third in the series of the newly established program. In October, legendary submariner Capt. Alfred Scott McLaren shared his thrilling career highlights serving aboard five nuclear submarines and as president of the American Polar Society and president emeritus of the Explorers Club. The School plans to host at least two Extreme Engineering guest speakers each semester.