For This Astronaut, Taking a Hike Was a Blast

For This Astronaut, Taking a Hike Was a Blast

(Butch Wilmore leans against a wall in Kilbourne Hole. Photo: Kayla McKiski)

By Katherine Wright

Barry Wilmore didn’t have to be out in the sweltering heat of the New Mexico desert. Unlike the team of scientists he was joining, he volunteered for the gig.

A 54-year-old astronaut and Navy pilot veteran, Wilmore spends most of his time these days helping NASA engineers design a new rocket to send American astronauts to Mars and other places. Rocks and sand are far from Wimore’s mind, but when a call came in to the astronaut office in Houston requesting an astronaut for simulated spacewalks in the desert, he jumped at the chance.

“I’m adventuresome, I like getting out next to nature,” said Wilmore, who’s known around NASA as Butch. “To be bluntly honest, I have young daughters…I haven’t been able to do this type of thing in quite a while.”

For six days, Wilmore traded his air-conditioned office at Johnson Space Center for the dusty desert of the Potrillo volcanic field. Joining the scientists of NASA’s RIS4E project, he helped test the kind of geology instruments that astronauts of the future might use on the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids. In a series of simulated moonwalks at an old volcano crater called Kilbourne Hole, Wilmore directed the researchers to interesting looking rocks and geological features that the team then zapped with a series of lasers to characterize the rocks’ chemicals and minerals. The results of these tests will help scientists devise the right instruments for space geology so that they can be ready and waiting for an eventual mission lift-off.

“You can’t just go,” said Wilmore. “You’ve got to do the science, the planning, the designing first. That’s one of the great things NASA does, looking forward.”

(L.-R.): Geologist Elizabeth Rampe, field team leader Jacob Bleacher, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, and RIS4E member Ben Feist prepare for a simulated Extravehicular Activity, or EVA, in Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Briana Lionetti)

Wilmore’s first exposure to studying desert geology came soon after he began his astronaut training in 2000. As a trainee, he spent time exploring Taos, about 400 miles north of Kilbourne Hole. There, and in the classroom, he was taught to visually distinguish different rocks and regolith, the layer of material covering bedrock. All astronauts since the Apollo missions have gone through such training to varying degrees. “If you’re going to a new planet you want to assess what type of rock, dust, and sand that you have and what you want to sample and bring home,” Wilmore said.  It’s something he might have been doing as early as next year, had NASA’s plans not changed.

The space agency was working toward a return to manned missions with a program called Constellation that would take humans to the moon and then Mars. “We were going to the moon, that was part of the plan,” Wilmore said. ““I was in the group of people that would have been selected to go.” But in 2010 NASA canceled the Constellation program, taking away Wilmore’s chance of setting foot on a rocky astronomical body.

“For me personally that won’t be an option now,” he said, but added that he’s happy to help lay the groundwork for the next generation of astronauts who will eventually make it there. “That’s important too,” he said.

Butch Wilmore prepares to go on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

Wilmore, who has master’s degrees in both electrical engineering and aviation systems, works with the engineers who are designing and building NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful new rocket that will open a new era of American space exploration.  As the astronaut office’s representative to the SLS program, Wilmore is tasked with making sure the system works well from the astronaut perspective. “I’m involved with some teams doing cockpit evaluations and launch and abort scenarios,” he said.

SLS’s first launch is planned for next year when it will send the Orion spacecraft on a short test flight—less than two minutes—high into Earth’s atmosphere.  The first manned mission, a trip around the moon, is planned for 2021. NASA’s goal is for the SLS to launch spacecraft that will land American astronauts on an asteroid and eventually Mars.

Wilmore isn’t bitter about the opportunity he lost when the Constellation program was canceled. Going to the moon “is not the be all and end all,” he said—and he’s still logged plenty of time in space. In 2009, Wilmore piloted the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS), and back, a mission that lasted 11 days.  Then in 2014, he flew to the ISS for a six-month stay. “Living in space is fantastic, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.

Butch Wilmore on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. (Photo: Terry Virts/NASA)

Wilmore’s time at the space station included 26 hours of space walks, teaming with another astronaut, Terry Virts, to lay more than 800 feet of cable to prepare docking sites for SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft. “They called us the cable guys,” he said. Space walks are “pretty wild,” Wilmore said.  “There wasn’t an hour that didn’t go by where I didn’t go, ‘I cannot believe I do this. I get to go out in a one-man space capsule and work in the vacuum of space.’”

While on the ISS, Wilmore was responsible for maintaining some of the space station’s systems. But science is the main reason he and other astronauts go up into the cosmos. They carry out experiments devised by researchers on Earth and downlink the results. Wilmore changed out the gas bottles used in combustion tests, rewired electronic devices and flicked switches on the myriad experiments he brought to space with him.

He also played with zebra fish that had been sent into space to study how their bones held up. In zero gravity, a fish tank has no “up” direction. Instead the fish swim instinctively toward a light attached to the tank. “I would shine the flash light on the side and they would turn and start swimming sideways,” said Wilmore. “It was kind of neat.”

Wilmore’s role in the zebra fish osteoporosis experiment was to extract the fish from their main tank into a smaller vessel so that they could be flown back to Earth alive. To do this he had to suck them out of the tank through a tube and then eject them into smaller chamber. Wilmore’s first attempt did not quite go according to plan: the fish got smooshed. “I thought, how do I tell the ground?” he said. In the end he decided on, “ ‘I hate to inform you, but fish number one has expired.’ I didn’t say I’d smashed it.”

(Butch Wilmore leans against a wall in Kilbourne Hole. Photo: Kayla McKiski)

By Katherine Wright

Barry Wilmore didn’t have to be out in the sweltering heat of the New Mexico desert. Unlike the team of scientists he was joining, he volunteered for the gig.

A 54-year-old astronaut and Navy pilot veteran, Wilmore spends most of his time these days helping NASA engineers design a new rocket to send American astronauts to Mars and other places. Rocks and sand are far from Wimore’s mind, but when a call came in to the astronaut office in Houston requesting an astronaut for simulated spacewalks in the desert, he jumped at the chance.

“I’m adventuresome, I like getting out next to nature,” said Wilmore, who’s known around NASA as Butch. “To be bluntly honest, I have young daughters…I haven’t been able to do this type of thing in quite a while.”

For six days, Wilmore traded his air-conditioned office at Johnson Space Center for the dusty desert of the Potrillo volcanic field. Joining the scientists of NASA’s RIS4E project, he helped test the kind of geology instruments that astronauts of the future might use on the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids. In a series of simulated moonwalks at an old volcano crater called Kilbourne Hole, Wilmore directed the researchers to interesting looking rocks and geological features that the team then zapped with a series of lasers to characterize the rocks’ chemicals and minerals. The results of these tests will help scientists devise the right instruments for space geology so that they can be ready and waiting for an eventual mission lift-off.

“You can’t just go,” said Wilmore. “You’ve got to do the science, the planning, the designing first. That’s one of the great things NASA does, looking forward.”

(L.-R.): Geologist Elizabeth Rampe, field team leader Jacob Bleacher, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, and RIS4E member Ben Feist prepare for a simulated Extravehicular Activity, or EVA, in Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Briana Lionetti)

Wilmore’s first exposure to studying desert geology came soon after he began his astronaut training in 2000. As a trainee, he spent time exploring Taos, about 400 miles north of Kilbourne Hole. There, and in the classroom, he was taught to visually distinguish different rocks and regolith, the layer of material covering bedrock. All astronauts since the Apollo missions have gone through such training to varying degrees. “If you’re going to a new planet you want to assess what type of rock, dust, and sand that you have and what you want to sample and bring home,” Wilmore said.  It’s something he might have been doing as early as next year, had NASA’s plans not changed.

The space agency was working toward a return to manned missions with a program called Constellation that would take humans to the moon and then Mars. “We were going to the moon, that was part of the plan,” Wilmore said. ““I was in the group of people that would have been selected to go.” But in 2010 NASA canceled the Constellation program, taking away Wilmore’s chance of setting foot on a rocky astronomical body.

“For me personally that won’t be an option now,” he said, but added that he’s happy to help lay the groundwork for the next generation of astronauts who will eventually make it there. “That’s important too,” he said.

Butch Wilmore prepares to go on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

Wilmore, who has master’s degrees in both electrical engineering and aviation systems, works with the engineers who are designing and building NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful new rocket that will open a new era of American space exploration.  As the astronaut office’s representative to the SLS program, Wilmore is tasked with making sure the system works well from the astronaut perspective. “I’m involved with some teams doing cockpit evaluations and launch and abort scenarios,” he said.

SLS’s first launch is planned for next year when it will send the Orion spacecraft on a short test flight—less than two minutes—high into Earth’s atmosphere.  The first manned mission, a trip around the moon, is planned for 2021. NASA’s goal is for the SLS to launch spacecraft that will land American astronauts on an asteroid and eventually Mars.

Wilmore isn’t bitter about the opportunity he lost when the Constellation program was canceled. Going to the moon “is not the be all and end all,” he said—and he’s still logged plenty of time in space. In 2009, Wilmore piloted the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS), and back, a mission that lasted 11 days.  Then in 2014, he flew to the ISS for a six-month stay. “Living in space is fantastic, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.

Butch Wilmore on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. (Photo: Terry Virts/NASA)

Wilmore’s time at the space station included 26 hours of space walks, teaming with another astronaut, Terry Virts, to lay more than 800 feet of cable to prepare docking sites for SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft. “They called us the cable guys,” he said. Space walks are “pretty wild,” Wilmore said.  “There wasn’t an hour that didn’t go by where I didn’t go, ‘I cannot believe I do this. I get to go out in a one-man space capsule and work in the vacuum of space.’”

While on the ISS, Wilmore was responsible for maintaining some of the space station’s systems. But science is the main reason he and other astronauts go up into the cosmos. They carry out experiments devised by researchers on Earth and downlink the results. Wilmore changed out the gas bottles used in combustion tests, rewired electronic devices and flicked switches on the myriad experiments he brought to space with him.

He also played with zebra fish that had been sent into space to study how their bones held up. In zero gravity, a fish tank has no “up” direction. Instead the fish swim instinctively toward a light attached to the tank. “I would shine the flash light on the side and they would turn and start swimming sideways,” said Wilmore. “It was kind of neat.”

Wilmore’s role in the zebra fish osteoporosis experiment was to extract the fish from their main tank into a smaller vessel so that they could be flown back to Earth alive. To do this he had to suck them out of the tank through a tube and then eject them into smaller chamber. Wilmore’s first attempt did not quite go according to plan: the fish got smooshed. “I thought, how do I tell the ground?” he said. In the end he decided on, “ ‘I hate to inform you, but fish number one has expired.’ I didn’t say I’d smashed it.”