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DISCOVERY ASTRONAUT KEPT EYE ON HOME STATE FROM 200 MILES UP

SHARE DISCOVERY ASTRONAUT KEPT EYE ON HOME STATE FROM 200 MILES UP

Whenever space shuttle Discovery crossed above Utah, if he wasn't working or sleeping, Lt. Col. Michael Richard Clifford would look out the window and watch his old home state.

"I got some great pictures of the Great Salt Lake," he told the Deseret News. "You were all having a pretty good snowstorm, I know that."Clifford was interviewed this week by telephone, shortly after he participated in a post-flight briefing at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. The briefing was the crew's first public description of the flight, called STS-53, which took place Dec. 2-9, 1992.

Clifford, 40, who goes by "Rich," was making his first flight into space during this mission, whose primary payload was military. A career Army officer, he grew up in Ogden, where he graduated from Ben Lomond High School.

He considers Ogden his hometown, and his parents, Gordon and Lenore Clifford, live there.

"It's really a dream come true, because I dreamed of that as a high school student in Utah - that one day I'd get into space," he said. "I've been very fortunate in my life that . . . things have happened to allow me to meet the qualifications to join the astronaut office."

The most vivid memory he has of the liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., "is the noise that's generated."

At first, the shuttle exerted a force of about 11/2 times the pull of gravity, or "1.5 g."

"It's not a real press in the back, but the noise is very impressive," he said. "You know that you're on your way. The noise stays with you for the first two minutes on the flight when you're on the solid rockets."

Soon, "you're at 130,000 feet high, traveling four times the speed of sound. At that point, the solid rockets built by Thiokol Corp. have run out of fuel and we blow them away."

Thiokol is based in Brigham City, and the company's boosters are the primary lifters that get the shuttle into space. Knowing they were built in Utah gave him a feeling of a connection to his old home state, Clifford said.

By now the ship was coasting so that the feeling was nearly like zero gravity. "You're hanging in your straps, so to speak.

"It also gets very quiet. The liquid engines, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, are all the way in the back of the space craft."

After the enormous thunder of the solid rocket boosters, the shuttle became almost silent. Clifford remembers hearing the whirring of the cabin fans circulating air.

"The acceleration continues to increase," he said. "It takes just 1.2 minutes to get to main engine cutoff, and at that point we're pulling 3 g's - that's pretty dramatic."

This acceleration continues for 30 or 40 seconds, and "we have to physically throttle the engines back to prevent overstresses of the vehicle.

"You're about 80 miles high, traveling 18,000 miles an hour, all in 81/2 minutes, and that's impressive," he said.

At launch, Clifford was in Discovery's middeck. "Just three minutes after the main engine cutoff I was out of my seat and up on the flight deck looking out the window.

"The first view I had was the Earth's limb. We were in daylight, so I could see the bright blue line separating the whiteness of Earth - because it was covered in clouds - and the darkness of space. It's really spectacular."

Until the five astronauts, all military men, were able to deploy the secret primary payload, they were "real busy," he said. From time to time, his crewmates would tell him to look outside at some amazing view.

Weightlessness affected everybody differently, he said. For the first day he moved slowly, trying to keep his head at what he imagined was an "up" orientation; next day, he had doubled his speed; on the third, he was thoroughly adapted, zipping around by touching the shuttle's walls for a push, not caring which side was up.

Asked whether he was afraid during the mission, Clifford said he was not. He was aware of the danger, but he's been a test pilot and has done "crazier" things, so he didn't experience fear.

He was interested in taking a look at Utah and photographing the state. When he comes home, he will show the photos "and let the people know what their great state looks like from 200 miles high . . .

"I have a lot of good feelings for Utah, and a lot of kinship for the Thiokol Corp. because they produce the primary lifter."