A Legendary Astronaut

5 October 2005


In 1991, as a science investigator on a spaceflight experiment, The First International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-1), I had the privilege to meet and work with many amazing people, including eight astronauts, who were crewmembers for the flight. In preparation for the flight, one of my jobs was teaching the payload crew about the optical instruments being used in the flight. Although crewmembers learned a lot about all of the experiments and the instruments, one technique stood out because if its novelty, and this would be only the second time holograms would be made in space. So, I spent a good deal of time teaching the astronauts about holograms and holography. Their interest in the subject amazed and excited me. Unfortunately, the crew changed twice because of untimely events, and I wound up repeating the material several times.

Among the first crew was a brilliant astronaut by the name of Sonny Carter, who was also a  Naval fighter pilot, a chemist, and medical doctor, who specialized in body responses to microgravity. I was amazed by his incredible memory and how fast he could learn. Sonny was one of those guys whom everyone liked, and I liked him from the first minute I met him. I was surely glad that he was on our flight. Most of the training I had done with Sonny was at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida, which required me to travel from California for each session.

One day a teacher friend, knowing I was involved in the space program asked me if I would be interested in joining her with her freshman high school class to hear an astronaut speak at the University of Southern California, USC. Upon further discussion and learning that the astronaut was Sonny Carter, I immediately responded positively, thinking it would be a nice chance to say hello to him before our next training session, which was about a month away.

Upon arriving at the auditorium, we discovered standing room only among hundreds of enthusiastic teenagers. After a truly inspiring (at least to me) talk, the kids swarmed Sonny, who was happily signing autographs. At that point, our group, who had lost some its enthusiasm after standing at the back of the room, almost hopelessly distant from Sonny, was anxious to leave. I thought to myself, "Okay, I will be seeing Sonny in a few weeks, and I’ll just tell him then that I enjoyed his talk." So we left.

A few weeks later, while on my way to work, I heard the news of an air crash in which Senator Tower was killed. Almost as a footnote, the announcer added, "Also on the flight was astronaut Sonny Carter." Many thoughts ran through my mind as tears ran down my face, but the one thing I that stayed in my mind for a long time was that I had missed an opportunity provided by the universe to see someone I truly respected one more time.

Fourteen years later and long after the name Sonny Carter had drifted from memory, I joined a tour at the Johnson Space Flight Center. Our first stop was the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts train for operations in a weightless environment. As our bus parked in front of the building I hardly noticed the name of the facility. Upon entering the building, I faced a larger than life photo of an astronaut in his orange flight suit covering the entire lobby wall. It was a familiar face and I knew immediately that I had met this face before. Then I looked more closely at the name of the laboratory, THE SONNY CARTER, LOW BUOYANCY LABORATORY. It was as though the universe had finally decided to give me a second chance to see Sonny once more. Beneath my breath I whispered, "Sonny, that was a truly dynamite talk you gave those kids at USC. I enjoyed it also. I wished I had waited in line to say hello."

Sonny Carter (1947-1991)