AAS Dispatch: Astronaut Looks Back at 50 Years of Human Spaceflight

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969. (Image credit: Apollo 11/NASA)

AUSTIN, Texas —  To celebrate the challenges and achievements of 50 years of human spaceflight, retired NASA astronaut Steven Hawley gave a special lecture Monday (Jan. 9) here at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Hawley flew aboard the space shuttle five times, including the iconic STS-31 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. The retired spaceflyer highlighted the various milestones in the history of human spaceflight and discussed his personal memories of growing up as America's space program was coming of age.

Hawley's talk was casual and funny, and it was peppered with interesting facts, including my favorite tidbit of the night: the aerospace programming language used on the space shuttle's computers (called High-order Assembly Language or HAL) is about 0.005 percent as powerful that used on an Xbox 360.

Some mention was made about the future of NASA, although the presentation was mostly a look back at the challenges and achievements of the past 50 years of human spaceflight. In his examination of the Mercury and Gemini programs that preceded NASA's Apollo moon program, Hawley talked about how the agency has changed — and how it's stayed the same.

"We've gotten better at some things, but not necessarily timely procurement," he said, commenting on the bureaucratic process.

Hawley then shared some fond memories of NASA's now-retired space shuttle program, including his involvement in the deployment of Hubble and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

"In the end, I can't think of anything that's more rewarding to have been a part of," Hawley said.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.