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Friday, May 6, 2016

Joe Allen may circle the Earth but always lands back at DPU

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Former astronaut and DePauw University alumnus Joe Allen is all smiles as he leaves the Meharry Hall podium with a framed copy of the poster heralding his appearance as part of the university's 175th Anniversary Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series.
More than 50 years after graduating from DePauw University, Joseph P. Allen IV still has his head in the clouds even though both feet are back on the ground.

Although he's certainly too kind and mild-mannered to say it, that certainly isn't exactly the place -- although the direction would be up -- that the former astronaut sees the heads of those who decided to mothball the American manned space effort and retire the Space Shuttle program.

The 74-year-old Allen returned to his alma mater Thursday night to present "Reflections from the Edge of the Earth" as part of DePauw's 175th Anniversary Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series.

Allen, who was involved with NASA for nearly 20 years, was asked about the future of the American space program near the end of his lecture before a full house at Meharry Hall in East College.

"I hope there is a future for Americans in space," he said. "I want our grandchildren to have opportunities to be astronauts.

"It's the best job title in the world but not always the best job," he said to laughter.

With American manned space missions currently dormant for the foreseeable future, Allen didn't mince words on what he thought of that mothballing decision.

"It's a terrible example of bad national leadership at every level," the 1959 DePauw graduate said.

Allen was recently among the former astronauts who had flown in Discovery to participate in a Washington, D.C., ceremony when the shuttle was presented to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum for public display. He and the others walked along under the wing of the craft as moved into position for presentation to the museum. Discovery was decommissioned following 39 missions and 148 million miles of space travel.

Equally as proud of his years with NASA (1967-1985) as his DePauw education, Allen treated students, staff, alumni and longtime classmates to vivid photographs of space he captured on his two space shuttle missions.

Allen was aboard Columbia for the first operational mission of the shuttle in 1982 and Discovery two years later when he helped deploy two new satellites and retrieve and repair two others (Westar 6 and Palapa).

In the case of Palapa, Allen used a Buck Rogers-style jetpack to maneuver untethered to the crippled orbiting satellite, moving it into position to be grabbed by the robotic arm of the shuttle.

For more than one orbit of the Earth (about 90 minutes), the diminutive Allen held that 1,200-pound (but weightless in space) satellite in place while repairs were made.

"If I had known as I sat in class (back in a 1957 clinical mechanics class) that some day I would be a satellite myself, I'd have been a better physics student.

"I'll tell you a secret," Allen added. "It's very hard to keep your heels locked into holding plates when your knees are knocking."

The retired astronaut was asked if his background as a DePauw wrestler (he's in the school's athletic Hall of Fame) contributed to his ability to complete that unique and incredible task in space.

"When you're a marathon runner and a wrestler, you become very aware of your fatigue level," Allen noted.

He explained that astronauts in space are actually "floating inside their spacesuit."

"You do that for eight hours," he said, "and you wear yourself out. When you move a joint, you're actually releasing gas, so there's resistance there every time you bend a joint."

Allen shared a number of experiences from space, including the incredible journey from launching pad to liftoff to orbit.

He described the 8.5-minute trip to orbit as "like an endless train wreck."

"It's a genuinely thrilling ride to go into orbit," Allen said, explaining that the shuttle orbited 350 miles above the Earth at speeds of 17,500 mph.

Once in orbit, Allen had another eye-opening experience in looking down on the Florida launch site.

"You've been once around the Earth, and you look down and can see these long lines of traffic made up of your family and friends and neighbors who came to see you off -- still stuck in traffic. Pretty amazing."

The DePauw grad admitted to being "just in sensory shock" during his first launch in 1982 as he tried to take in everything around him at once. Two years later he was "able to drink it all in" in a much more relaxed manner.

These days Allen sees himself as an educator. Noting that he comes from a long line of teachers, including his father, Perk Allen, who taught at DePauw, Allen said he enjoys speaking to school groups about space and his experiences as an astronaut.

"After my first spaceflight, I realized when I would go into a school, I wasn't just a father or grandfather or a coach. You're somebody different to those students, and it's a real honor to be able to do that."

Such an honor, in fact, that Allen says his speaker's fee varies by audience.

"If you're IBM," he said, "it's $15,000. If you're an elementary school, it's free."

An old rival tried to manipulate that fee, the Crawfordsville native said.

"Wabash College tried to hire me -- for free -- they tried to tell me they were an elementary school."

With a wink, Allen indicated that was just a little DePauw jab at its counterpart 28 miles to the north.

Looking back on his roots, Allen recalled making that Crawfordsville-to-Greencastle trek as a child each weekend to visit Putnam County relatives, including grandparents who resided at 636 E. Seminary St.

"I'm very much a product of Greencastle," he said, noting that he had originally planned to attend Purdue University until he was offered a Rector Scholarship by DPU. "Our family's Greencastle history goes way back," he continued, noting that one of his relatives actually taught in East College "when this building was new."

As always, Allen had nothing but kind words for his alma mater.

"I assure you,' the former astronaut said, "a DePauw education travels very well and will take you on grand adventures across vast distances.

"Here's to you, old DePauw," he said, quoting the school's toast in closing to a standing ovation.

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