Astronaut: Keep reaching for the stars
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK -- Rick Hieb believes America is still a country where hard work, dedication and education pays off and can lead to amazing and wondrous careers.
"It isn't everywhere in the world where you can choose to do just about any job you want," said Hieb, a former astronaut and Jamestown native. "My family is a blue-collar family like most of the people in North Dakota. We didn't know anybody in Washington, (D.C.), didn't have any friends at NASA. You don't have to have that in this country."
Hieb addressed a crowd of about 100 people of all ages bundled up and cuddling because of the chilly autumn air at the Cottonwood Campground amphitheater next to a roaring campfire inside the South Unit of the national park on Saturday evening as part of inaugural Dakota Nights astronomy festival, which kicked off Friday evening, had a full day of events Saturday and wraps with more events today.
"It has been a great success so far," Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said Saturday evening.
The park staff set out to get an astronaut to the festival from the get go and were excited when they found Hieb, who at one point held the record for the longest spacewalk, said Park Ranger Linda Morton, the lead organizer of the festival.
"As it turns out, they don't just put contact information on the Internet for astronauts," Morton said.
Hieb works for Lockheed Martin, an aeronautics, defense, security and advanced technology company based in Houston. The park staff was able to contact the company, who heard their request and sponsored Hieb's trip back to his home state.
Hieb presented a highlight video of his time at NASA and his three flights on the space shuttle, answered frequently asked questions and took questions from the audience for more than an hour.
While the stars are beautiful from Earth, Hieb said our planet is the coolest thing to look at from space.
"When you're looking out the window, you're looking at Earth," Hieb said. "At night, it's city lights, it's lightning storms, it's meteorites re-entering."
Hieb graduated from Jamestown High School in 1973 and earned a bachelor's degree in math and physics from Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, Idaho. He then got his master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.
Hieb started with NASA in mission control shortly after graduating from college and was accepted as an astronaut in 1986. He flew in missions in 1991, 1992 and 1995 and retired from NASA in 1996.
The first two missions Hieb flew involved satellite maintenance. His time at NASA predated the International Space Station, so his last flights involved experiments, some on objects and animals and others on the astronauts themselves.
His first flight was shortly after Operation Desert Storm. He remembers seeing giant plumes of smoke from the oil well fires in Kuwait during the day and giant fires at night.
"Earth is just so much more interesting because it's everchanging," Hieb said.