Since the space shuttle took its final laps around the earth last year, space travel these days has become more of a privatized venture, as evidenced by the recent Red Bull Stratos mission.
But in 1986, space travel was a different experience from what it is now explained East Windsor resident and retired astronaut Robert Cenker during a visit to Peddie School earlier this month.
During Space Shuttle Mission 61-C, a six-day mission from January 12 to 18, 1986, Cenker served as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia.
The then senior engineer with RCA Astro-Electronics Division performed a variety of physiological tests, observed the deployment of a satellite, and operated experiments using an infrared imaging camera. The astronauts themselves also became lab subjects for doctors to study the physiological and psychological effects of being in space.
Cenker traveled more than 2.1 million miles in 96 Earth orbits and logged over 146 hours in space during the mission.
He said, besides the eight minute climb into space, once the body adjusted to zero gravity, life in space felt similar to life on earth.
The food, he said, was surprisingly similar to pre-packaged food eaten at home. But with zero gravity, he had to adjust to the challenge of eating floating food.
Cenker told the students each crew member could bring a cassette tape player, such as a Walkman, and five cassette tapes of their favorite music for the journey. Any other entertainment, he said, came purely from the experience.
“What we did for fun was just look out the window,” Cenker said. “You cannot imagine what it’s like to look out the window from 185 miles up.”
Although NASA has retired the space shuttle, Cenker, who has been self-employed as a consultant in East Windsor since 1990, said the opportunities for future scientists are just as exciting as when he climbed aboard the Columbia 26 years ago.
“Maybe you’ll go live on the space station,” he said. “Maybe one of you will go to Mars.”