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Anthony England, Astronaut/Scientist

7/29/2004:

It was on this date in 1985 that astronaut-scientist Anthony England finally reached outer space. He was part of a 7-man crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which orbited the planet 126 times in 7.94 days. Just six minutes after the shuttle was launched, one of Challenger’s three main engines shut down. It was too late to abort the mission; instead the situation became an “abort to orbit” – the first time it ever happened. When the Challenger returned 8 days later, the mission was considered a success.

Tony England was born in Indiana in 1942, but when he was 10, his family moved to West Fargo, which he calls his hometown. He grew up wanting to be a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough, and he had to give up that dream. Instead, he studied math and science and went to MIT, where he majored in physics. When he discovered that he liked fieldwork, he brought geology into the mix and got his Ph.D. in geophysics.

England developed theories about how to predict the electrical properties of the moon and the planets, and it was this work that brought him to the attention of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy wanted NASA to include scientists in their Apollo and Skylab space programs; Tony said yes, and joined the Apollo program in 1967.

Despite his eyesight, England was to become a pilot after all. He went to Air Force flight school, where he learned to fly jets.

England’s first brush with space disasters came while he was working as a part of the support team for Apollo 13 – the mission featured in Ron Howard’s movie starring Tom Hanks. England was there in the control room when the astronauts in the space capsule radioed, “Houston, we have a problem,” and it was England who, with other engineers, scrambled to design the CO2 scrubber, which they hoped would get the astronauts safely back to Earth. And it was also England who talked the astronauts through the process of building their own scrubber in space. When the crew returned, their device was identical to the lab model the engineers had designed.

Tony was himself scheduled to fly to the moon on Apollo 19, but NASA canceled the program after Apollo 17. In 1972, England left NASA to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, for whom he led scientific expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic. NASA tried to hire him back in 1976, but England was too busy and turned them down. Three years later, they asked him again, this time enticing him with another chance to go into space. He couldn’t say no.

Tony’s new role at NASA was as a member of the new space shuttle program. For the first three years, he flew shuttle simulators to help programmers and engineers perfect the computer navigation software. When he finally went up in the Challenger in 1985, his job as a mission specialist was to conduct many of the experiments in the onboard laboratory.

England had only two chances to appreciate the view from space – once when his equipment needed to cool down and again on the last night of the mission when he could stay up late. The flight was during the annual Perseid meteor shower, and the Aurora Australis was in full view above Antarctica. He pinpointed West Fargo as the shuttle flew over North Dakota and was able to see automobile headlights outlining the highways below. Of the shooting stars zipping through the Aurora Australis, England said, “It was otherworldly. Definitely something to remember.”

England left NASA in 1986 and went to work for the University of Michigan as a professor of electrical engineering while also conducting research in environmental remote sensing.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm