Retired NASA astronaut reflects on two Shuttle missions, future of human spaceflight

Two visits to low Earth orbit have forever changed the outlook on life for former NASA astronaut Byron Lichtenberg. Even though he’s now retired form the space agency’s astronaut corps, he’s still using those experiences to inspire the next generation of aerospace professionals.

As a professor at LeTourneau University, he’s currently working with students to put a miniature CubeSat into orbit. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with Dr. Lichtenberg, where he remarked on the profound impact of seeing Earth without borders and the shades of colors on a map. Gazing down from the Space Shuttle at 300 miles above our planet, Lichtenberg spoke about working on behalf of all humanity, as a global citizen.

Lane Luckie and Byron Lichtenberg 1
Lane Luckie moderates a Q&A with retired astronaut Byron Lichtenberg at the Galactic Gala held by the NASA Columbia Museum in Hemphill, Texas.

I have had the privilege of serving on the board of directors of the NASA Columbia Museum in Hemphill, Texas, which serves as a memorial to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy and as an educational facility dedicated to creating science and technology-inspiring learning opportunities for children and adults.

The museum held a gala fundraiser on October 5, where I moderated a Q&A with Dr. Lichtenberg. Questions from the audience touched on range of topics, from unexpected experiences in orbit, NASA’s plans to return to the Moon, anticipated challenges for the first mission to Mars, and his son’s unique proposal in simulated weightlessness.

Watch the presentation by clicking the video below.

His biography details an extraordinary career with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and several successful private ventures, before entering higher education. Here is the introduction I read at the gala:

Dr. Lichtenberg has flown two space shuttle missions as a Payload Specialist. In this capacity, he represented over 100 scientists with experiments from all parts of the world. As the first NASA Payload Specialist astronaut, Dr. Lichtenberg flew his first mission, SPACELAB 1, in 1983 aboard the shuttle Columbia where he spent 10 days in orbit conducting 72 different experiments in 5 scientific disciplines. This mission was the first flight of the European developed Spacelab module and was a demonstration flight for the different types of science that can be conducted in orbit including life science, materials science, Earth observations, astronomy and solar physics, and upper atmospheric and plasma physics.

During his second flight, ATLAS-1, in 1992 aboard the shuttle Atlantis, Dr. Lichtenberg conducted 14 experiments during 9 days primarily studying the upper atmosphere and the sun. During this mission the crew created the first ever artificial aurora by firing a beam of electrons into the lower atmosphere to produce spots of light similar to, but much dimmer than the “Northern Lights.”

Dr. Lichtenberg received his bachelor of science degree from Brown University in 1969 in aerospace engineering. Following a tour of duty in the Air Force during which he flew 138 combat missions in Vietnam (earning 10 Air medals and 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses), he returned to graduate school at MIT. He received his Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1975 and his Doctorate in biomedical engineering in 1979.

Dr. Lichtenberg also continued his flying career by flying F-100 and A-10 fighter aircraft in the Massachusetts Air National Guard from 1974 to 1992. During this time he received numerous commendations including the Meritorious Service Medal.

In 1984, after his first spaceflight, Dr. Lichtenberg co-founded Payload Systems, Inc., a spaceflight science and engineering support services company. They are probably best known for flying the first commercial experiments aboard the Soviet space station MIR. They were purchased by Aurora Flight Sciences which has subsequently been purchased by Boeing.

He has been a Co-Investigator on a series of space experiments designed to study the vestibular system (the human inner ear organs of balance) adaptation to spaceflight, and also how human eye-hand coordination and mental performance changes in space. From these experiments he has written numerous scientific articles.

Dr. Lichtenberg is a founding member of the Association of Space Explorers, an international group of astronauts and cosmonauts dedicated to the advancement of space exploration for all people, a member and former Board Member of the National Space Society, and a member of the Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi engineering and science organizations. He also is a founder of the X-Prize Foundation dedicated to commercializing space transportation and was part of the initial cadre of the International Space University. He has been on numerous committees for NASA and the National Research Council.

As Chief Technical Officer and founder of Zero Gravity Corp. (ZERO-G,, a company dedicated to providing a weightless experience using a Boeing 727 airplane), he is still working to make space travel and the experience of being an astronaut available to all people. ZERO-G has flown over 1,000 people in weightless flight since 2004, and is probably best known for giving Dr. Stephen Hawking his first weightless experience. Zero-G has supplied reduced gravity research flights to NASA since 2008.

He is the Chairperson of a NASA Standing Review Board to independently assess the Commercial Crew Program, developing commercial vehicles by Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

He is a retired airline captain from Southwest Airlines and is now a professor at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas teaching entrepreneurship and engineering.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Gray Television. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2019 Lane Luckie


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