My life: Mark Polansky | South China Morning Post
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SUNDAY MORNING

My life: Mark Polansky

With millions of space miles under his belt, the former astronaut talks to Kylie Knott about the grandeur of Earth and how he came to have a teddy bear onboard his shuttle

 

FLY ME TO THE MOON I was born in New Jersey in 1956, and went through the United States public school system. By chance, I wound up going to Purdue University, in Indiana, which boasted graduates who were the first and last men on the moon - Neil Armstrong (in 1969) and Eugene Cernan (in 1972). I was 18 when I met Cernan at the university and the encounter made me think seriously about becoming an astronaut. I knew to do that I had to become a military pilot and a test pilot. I graduated in 1978 and entered the US Air Force, where I got to fly fighter jets. In 1992, I joined the Nasa astronaut programme as an aerospace engineer and research pilot, having logged more than 5,000 flight hours in 30 aircraft. I flew on three Space Shuttle missions and also served at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, in Russia. I retired from Nasa in 2012.

THE NEW BLACK Seeing Earth from space is truly amazing - the beauty and grandeur of it all. The colours are phenomenal but what's most amazing is the contrast. When it's daylight outside and you look at Earth you see all these vibrant colours. You see a curvature and above that you see a thin, cobalt-blue line, which is the atmosphere, and above that it's black - black unlike any black you've seen. My missions were all to the International Space Station (ISS). People have been living on the ISS since 2000. They travel at eight kilometres a second. I was commander of one mission (Space Shuttle Endeavour, in 2009), so I got to sit back and relax while everyone else worked (laughs). When I'm travelling in space I have no idea what time it is. We orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, so in one day you get to see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets. The first time I went into space I was proud to be an American astronaut rep-resenting my country but something changes when you see Earth from space and you realise it's not about being from one country. We all share this great responsibility - I felt like an ambassador for the world. Up there you realise how small Earth is and how we must strive to co-exist and protect the planet and the environment. They are the main things I took away from my flights in space. My longest mission was 16 days, covering 6,547,853 miles.

LUST IN SPICE In space, I like eating spicy food because your taste buds change - they become dulled so the spicier the food the better. If there's one thing I could have to eat in space from (Hong Kong), I'd say dim sum. I ate a lot of dim sum growing up in New York City and I met my wife because of dim sum. I was living in Houston and a group of us single folk would meet at mine about one Sunday a month and we'd drive to Chinatown for dim sum. One Sunday, the door bell rang and there was this lovely blond lady standing there. We now have two children, a boy and a girl.

ANYONE OUT THERE? I'm not a UFO-alien kinda guy - I don't believe in that. But, philosophically, it's hard to believe that with the universe as immense as it is and with new discoveries being made all the time - new solar systems and Earth-like planets … it's just too egotistical of us to think we're the only place in the universe with intelligent life. Space tourism and the commercialism of space are inevitable. I believe a little bit in destiny and believe the human race can get off the planet and do other things - that's not going to happen if we only have a small group of professional astronauts who get to do this. But it must be done at the right pace - space is an unforgiving business. It doesn't take much to cause loss of life in space. It's not like, "Oops, we are just going to pull over here." As an astronaut you try to anticipate all the things that are likely to go wrong and be prepared. And then you train for things you don't expect to happen. If something goes wrong you rely on all your years of training.

TEDDY IN SPACE One thing you get to do as a Nasa astronaut is take personal items into space. I've taken items for my kids but you also get to fly things for organisations - not for commercial use; I'm not allowed to benefit. There are strict ethical rules about that. My father was Jewish so I called the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, asking if I could fly something from the museum. They came up with a teddy bear that belonged to a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. I flew it into space - it was a story of survival and of hope. I am in Hong Kong representing eyewear brand Silhouette, which is collaborating with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I've supported this charity in the past … I'm a big believer in it. Having children - even if you don't have kids - it's very hard for me to think of children suffering because all I see are my children's faces. I find it hard to watch the news and even a lot of TV shows that talk about any form of exploitation of children.

KOREA PATH I first visited Hong Kong in 1984, as a tourist, while I was stationed at Clark Air Base, in the Philippines. I've noticed a lot of change in Hong Kong. For this trip my wife has joined me and I was like, "Honey, I got to take you up the tram to Victoria Peak - it's phenomenal and the view's amazing." But I went up there and the place had become really commercialised. It was disappointing but this city is still a lot of fun. It was a vibrant place when I first came here and I'm glad that hasn't changed. I love Asia and travelled a lot to Japan and Korea with the US Air Force. My mum's Korean. I don't speak Korean and know little about the culture. When I was visiting Korea I was just some white American guy. Biologically I'm half Korean but culturally I really don't have any connection.

 

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