Favorite Things: 220-mile-high club

An astronaut on reaching heaven and falling back to earth.


INTERVIEW  JOSEPH L. GARCIA

This man has gone beyond the heavens, and the stars have painted a smile on his face. Captain Barry Gilmore is a pilot and an officer in the US Navy, a former football player, and a Southern boy through and through, born and raised as he was in Tennessee. He also has the distinction of being the 515th person in space, first flying to the International Space Station for mission STS-129 in 2009 and Expedition 41 in 2014, which he assumed command of in its tail end.

Official portrait of astronaut Butch Wilmore in EMU suit.

From these missions, he has spent a total of 178 days in space. And from this vantage point, he has seen all of creation, but his down-home Southern accent served as perfect music to this interview by High Life, showing how firmly he has his feet planted on the ground, despite leaping up to literally the highest height there is. Plucked out of thousands of applicants from all fields, ranging from the academe to the military, Mr. Gilmore seems to be a lucky man indeed, to savor views that not even the greatest fortunes in the world can readily buy. Mr. Gilmore, in this interview, offers surprising insights into life at the very top; above all human failings and foibles, and seeing all that there is—is this what God sees?

What’s the best thing about being in space?

The view is amazing. Day, night—looking at the whole southern tip of Africa, looking at the Mediterranean and seeing cities, countries at night; northern aurora, southern aurora—flying through the southern aurora—you know the auroras, right? Flying through it, I mean, it’s just, wow!

Here I am, lil’ ol’ me, experiencing all of this. All that’s spectacular—and just the thought that there are very few humans who are there when you’re there. When you’re out on a spacewalk and all, there’s just you and your buddy. There’s nobody else in the universe doing this, you know?

The bright sun greets the International Space Station in this Nov. 22, 2009 scene from the Russian section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members. Image courtesy of NASA.

What does it feel like when you go back down to Earth?

The trip from space back to Earth is fantastic. You’re traveling 17,500 miles an hour, and you use the atmosphere to slow down, so you’re enveloped in a fireball. It builds up a lot of heat and friction. Plasma develops around the capsule, and it’s wild and shakin’, and you can see it going by the window, and it eventually chars the window completely over where you can’t see out, and then, of course, you’re falling back to Earth, and the parachute comes out and the capsule’s spinnin’ and floppin’ and all, because as the parachute reefs and opens up, all those sensations, you feel all that. It’s a thrilling ride. It’s amazingly thrilling.

The body takes some time to adjust back to gravity, so it takes time for everybody. In all of two days, I was stable. For others, it takes longer. It’s like people that aren’t used to being on boats. They go on a long boat ride, and they feel like they’re still on the boat. It’s similar when you come back. You kind of feel the Earth’s moving, and it’s really not.

How does it feel to be one of the privileged few to see the earth from space?

I feel humbled. I had the desire to do it, and for whatever reason, the good Lord allowed me to, and it’s humbling. There’s 75, 80-ish people in the whole world right now who are in a position to be assigned to fly in space. To be one of those is just mind-boggling.

How has being in space changed you?

It’s made me more humble. Here I am getting to do it—why me? Why did the good Lord allow me to do it? I meet people every day, all the time. I got to say, there are millions of people that would love to fly in space. And here I am. I was the 515th human to leave the planet when I flew the shuttle back in 2009. In all of human history, I’m the 515th human with the chance to do it. How many people, with their own eyes, have seen the Earth, and seen rivers and continents?