One of the highlights of Prince Sultan's tour of the United States was a stop at the Science/ Engineering Magnet School in Dallas, Texas - "S/EMS" - a special school reserved for bright students in the Dallas Independent School District. At S/E a total of 136 students, from grades 9-12 in 17 high schools, spend a half day with eight top teachers at Magnet taking vigorous advanced courses in engineering, science and computerization.
After greetings from School Principal Helen Shafer and a tour of the school, Prince Sultan gave the students some personal background and showed a film of Mission 51-G - with the sound track turned off so that he could provide his own personal narration.
To the pupils at Magnet, this was particularly interesting since it permitted the prince to add information not in the film script. He told them, for example, that he had a small personal recorder with him, but when he tried to use it to record his emotions during the liftoff, the "G-force" was so strong he couldn't talk. Though he had experienced strong G-force before while flying jets - G-force is the pull of gravity - it was only for a few seconds: in the space shuttle it lasts up to three minutes during launch.
Prince Sultan went on to say that when they were in space launching the three payload satellites - one of them Arabsat-B, the second Arab space satellite - the whole shuttle jolts when the satellite is spring-ejected. "It's not a scary jolt," he said, "but you can feel it."
After the film, Prince Sultan agreed to accept some questions - and was immediately swamped with queries. Indeed, the question-and-answer session went on for an hour and could have gone on longer. The Prince's schedule, however, required that he go. First though, he told the kids to form a line and he patiently signed pictures of himself from press kits passed out to the students at the start of the program. It was, said one observer, "the sort of warm gesture that many people forget when they become famous. Prince Sultan did not forget and the kids of Dallas won't forget either."
What follows are excerpts:
Student: What are the different types of astronauts and what type are you?
Prince Sultan : O.K. You have four positions on the shuttle. The first one is the commander. Then the pilot, mission specialists and payload specialists. You also have observers, like Senator Garn. [U.S. Senator Jake Garn of Utah, who in April 1985 became the first senator to fly into space]. I was a payload specialist as was the French astronaut Patrick Baudry. I was a payload specialist because I accompanied our own satellite and NASA [permits] each payload to be accompanied by a payload specialist... Usually a payload specialist is named about a year ahead of time... comes to NASA about six months ahead to work on crew training. And before they come to NASA they usually train in their country, with their experiments, satellite or whatever. But in our case, the selection program had to be done in three months. I was among many others, about 30 other people, and had to go through the committee selection program, the medicals and all of that. When I came to NASA I only had two and a half months to train, so we actually had to do double shifts... We had a lot of scientists with us, so I was working almost 16 hours a day for two and a half months. Usually a payload specialist trains about six months, a mission specialist, a commander or a pilot, a position like that, is usually longer: two years minimum of training and then even longer to wait for a mission. But of course the shuttle missions are becoming more frequent so perhaps they will get to go up sooner.
Student: What was it like during the take off?
Prince Sultan : It was almost more than I bargained for. I had trained very hard, but when you are going Mach 13 or 14 [13-14 times the speed of sound, approximately 10,000 miles an hour] you are accelerating about three times your weight. A pilot would know what that is like, but when you're doing it upside down, that is almost equivalent to four and a half, to six and a half... When I fly a jet, I... pull, sometimes, maybe nine G's, but this acceleration goes on for about two minutes. And... you can't change your mind about it.
Student: Do you hope to go up again?
Prince Sultan: I hope so.
Student: How long does it take to get used to the earth's gravity once you come back down?
Prince Sultan : That's a very good question. About a day and a half. The medical report on us when we came back was one of the better medical reports for all of the crews. But it's hard to get used to, because you are used to things floating. When I was getting my medical exam and had all those wires hooked up to me, I had a cup of water in my hand that I was holding out. A paper cup, thank heavens. I was talking to my father on the phone and I just let go of the cup and it fell right to the floor.
Student: Was it fun up in space being weightless?
Prince Sultan : It is a lot of fun, and I've always maintained they should send high school kids up in space so they could come up with some new tricks. But... it's not all fun and games. When you go up, you spend the first two, three days in misery. All the fluids in your body move up into your chest and head. Your back hurts, your head hurts. And I don't like to take pills so I just had to bear it.
Student: What's the worst part in space?
Prince Sultan : The worst part is sleeping. We slept well, we had eight hours of sleep every day, but no matter how you sleep in space, you don't relax. Expecially the first two days... Here, when you lie down on a bed you relax. But in zero-G [no gravity], no matter what position you take, it's the same, so your body doesn't feel any different from when you work and when you stop. So the best thing you can do, is find a corner and strap yourself down to something. But after three days or so you start to get used to it.
Student: How many sunrises and sunsets did you see?
Prince Sultan : You go around the earth once every 90 minutes, so you see 16 sunrises and sunsets every day. And that's one of the parts about space travel: the days seem longer. When you wake up in the morning, you can't wake up and order breakfast and sit around. You get out of your sack and you start work. You get your papers and you start work, so you immediately have to be in that mental frame. And when you wake up you have the sun shining. But then a half hour later it might be dark and you say, "I just got up. What happened?"
Student: What did you miss most when you were up in space?
Prince Sultan : You miss space most in space. There were seven people in the shuttle. Don't let those cameras fool you, they have fish-eye lenses which make it look bigger. NASA tells you it's three dimensional because you can float, but it doesn't make any difference - it's still crowded. When I came back, all I wanted to do was go out and sleep in the middle of a big empty parking lot.
Student: I noticed in the film you were wearing two watches, why?
Prince Sultan : That's very good, hardly anyone notices that. The reason I wore two, was because one was Florida time, which I used for my prayers and my personal things, and the other was for mission elapsed time, which starts at zero when you lift off. A good observation.
Student: Did you make a lot of friends here while you were training?
Prince Sultan : You know I went to school here [in the United States] and I have also traveled around a lot. I think I have been to 42 states and I know about your history, but don't quiz me on it.
One thing in space you notice... the first day and the second day you notice countries: you [and the other astronauts] say, oh there is my country, and there is my country. But then the third day as you go around, you start noticing continents, not countries. You miss the countries completely. The fifth day you miss the whole thing completely; at least mentally, you see only the earth. It becomes... one place, one ball. That's why, when I was over L. A. or wherever, I would call that my home, not just when I was over Saudi Arabia.
You know, I hear a lot of people talk about wanting to go find other places to live. To Mars and this and that. It's nonsense. I think we have the best one right here, we really do. And God has given us the best place to live. We don't have to waste time looking for somewhere else and adapt ourselves to it. I think maybe we should use our time to try and maintain it. It really is beautiful. It really is.