Montreat astronaut talks past, present, future of space travel at Summer Club lecture

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Form space shuttle commander John Casper gave a lecture on space travel on July 20 in Montreat.

On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. Col. John Casper listened to the landing on the radio of his fighter plane cockpit.

Exactly 53 years later, Casper gave a lecture on his new book, "The Sky Above" — as well as the past, present and future of space travel — at Anderson Auditorium in Montreat. He also spoke about his experiences in space and feeling humbled by viewing the Earth from above.

"Amazing, amazing views," Casper said. "We're all one human family living on this planet together."

More:Former astronaut lands in Montreat, reflects on career and experiences through new memoir

In light of the newly released James Webb space telescope pictures, Casper compared new information to old photographs from the Hubble telescope.

Casper said the James Webb telescope, launched in December, can see much farther into the universe through the use of an infrared camera. Since humans don't have the capability to see in infrared, NASA's computers colorize the photographs. 

According to Casper, more than 10,000 galaxies were identified in one area of the universe, captured on the Hubble telescope in 2004, thought previously to be dark.

Col. John Casper led a distinguished career as a fighter and test pilot, but always dreamed of space. At age 41, he was accepted to NASA's astronaut program where he flew four missions on the space shuttle.

Casper flew four missions on the space shuttle, three as crew commander. Prior to his time at NASA, he earned a distinguished career as a fighter and test pilot. On July 20.  he intertwined details of his religious faith and his struggle to pursue his dreams with stories of his experiences.

In 1984, Casper was chosen to be an astronaut at NASA. That year, 17 astronauts were chosen from a pool of 15,000 applicants. 

Before his first mission, he dealt with the sadness of losing friends and comrades to the space shuttle Challenger disaster while acting as a guide for the crew's family. This experience stayed with him, particularly when it was his time to venture into space.

"I never relaxed during those eight and a half minutes," he said, referring to the exhilaration of launching into orbit.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

In the 90 minutes it took to orbit the Earth, Casper said the shuttle was inverted so as to keep the ship warm from the sun reflecting off the planet. During his four missions, he saw 16 sunrises and sunsets as well as countless beautiful views.

Upon retiring from space travel, Casper continued to work at NASA. In 2003, he witnessed a second disaster as the space shuttle Columbia was torn apart upon reentering the atmosphere. It would be three and a half years of testing and redesigning before NASA launched another space shuttle.

"The accident was a harsh reminder that what we're doing in the space program is at the very edge of human capabilities," Casper said. "It's hard, it's complex, and it's very dangerous." 

Montreat resident John Casper, bottom right, flew four space shuttle missions with NASA, three as crew commander.

After 30 years and 135 flights, Casper knew the era of the space shuttle had ended, but it was not necessarily the end of space travel. He spoke of NASA's Artemis project, a mission with the goal of establishing a command module on the lunar surface in an effort to learn to live on other worlds.

Casper said NASA as well as the U.S. also has the goal of landing humans on Mars before the end of this century. 

"Experiencing new worlds with our own eyes is part of the basis of exploration," Casper said. "We will continue exploring and finding what's out there."

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.