Tom Akers did not grow up dreaming of walking in outer space. In fact, it wasn’t until he was around 30 years old that he even began to think about it.
“I was interested in joining the Air Force when I was 28 and I got to ride in an F4 when I was 30 and I fell in love with flying,” said the Eminence native.
He was too old to be a pilot and ended up as test pilot engineer or a “backseater” as they are called. His time with the Air Force led him to NASA in 1987. Three years later Akers was aboard the space shuttle, Discovery, where he was instrumental in deploying the European Space Agency satellite Ulysses.
Akers, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) earned bachelor of science and master of science degrees in mathematics from S&T in 1973 and 1975, respectively, was the university’s first astronaut.
He was back at his alma mater last week for Space Week 2013, a series of programs designed to educate the public about the wonders of space exploration, engineering and astronomy. He gave a keynote speech at the Havener Center Nov. 8.
Before his speech, Akers spoke with the Daily News.
In his 10-year career at NASA, Akers was one of close to 100 astronauts. Today, the space program has only around 40 or 50 astronauts because the shuttle program is gone.
During his time, he spent more than 800 hours in orbit and more than 29 hours of space walking.
“My first one was when I was part of a three-person spacewalk,” said Akers. “Your mind is totally on getting the job done. You do not have time to go outside and look around and go ‘wow.’ It probably would not have been appropriate.”
One of his more famous space walks was when he was part of a foursome who spent long hours repairing and upgrading the Hubble Space Station.
“During my time at NASA, we were in the beginning days of starting to do significant space walks and working in space,” Akers told the Daily News.
In reflecting on his time in space, Akers said there are only two things different than being here on earth.
“I always tell people that one is that everything is floating and the other is that you can look out the window and see earth.”
He credits his selection as an astronaut to his time at Missouri S&T
“UMR at the time was and still is a very reputable university. Specifically, the technical problem solving that you get here at Rolla has no doubt helped me all the way through.”
Page 2 of 2 - Akers served as a math instructor at the university here for 10 years before retiring in 2010.
When asked what his favorite memory was from his stint at NASA, he said he could not pick just one. They were all good years to him.
“I was getting paid to have fun.”
What he does miss is flying in the backseat of a T-38.
“You feel alive when you are up in an airplane flying 300 or 400 miles an hour. I miss that flying.”