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Montana astronaut Loren Acton: How he got from a Lewistown ranch to outer space

And his thoughts on NASA's future
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Astronaut Loren Acton
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Posted at 10:52 AM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 12:52:52-05

BILLINGS — It’s hard to imagine that a child born on a ranch just outside of Lewistown during the Great Depression would not only grow up to be a leading mind in the field of astrogeophysics, but spend a week of his life in space studying the sun. But such is the story of Loren Acton.

“I was the youngest of six,” he recalled. “And by the time I came along, it was the days of FDR and rural electrification. As a little kid, we had gas lamps. But then I remembered when electricity came and what magic that was.”

Meet Montana astronaut Loren Acton

Acton’s father, Wilber Acton, was the first rancher to introduce Angus cattle to Fergus County. On the ranch, there was always something to be done. Everybody chipped in and did their part, and the work was tough. But it was on his family's homestead that Acton’s curiosity for how things worked began to blossom.

For years he attended a small country school a mile and a half from his family's ranch. At one point, that school had eight kids in eight grades. The personalized attention, however, helped set him up for success and kept cultivating his love of science.

“The education in that little country school gave me a good head start. By the time I went to town school, I was ahead of all of the rest of those other kids.”

The town school he went to was in Billings. By the late 40s, the family had moved to Billings, where he attended both junior high and senior high before moving on to Montana State University to study engineering physics.

It was while getting his degree at MSU that he met his wife Evelyn at church. After a brief courtship, they were married, and Evelyn even paid for him to finish his degree.

“I married her after my sophomore year, and of course I never could divorce because she owned half of everything since she put me through school,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I saw a good thing when I saw it.”

Loren and Evelyn have been married 64 years with two children and one granddaughter. But it was while his family was first starting to grow that Acton earned a PhD in astrogeophysics from the University of Colorado and began working for the Lockheed Missiles and Space company as a research scientist. It was also at this time that the United States space program was taking shape and Acton’s NASA journey began.

“There were a substantial number of scientists working in the area of physics of the atmosphere of the earth and the magnetosphere. Lockheed, as a major defense contractor with assists in orbit around the earth, benefited from having that kind of scientific expertise on the payroll. So one of the first things I did, being an experimentalist, not a theorist, I sent in proposals to NASA to build and fly instruments into space to study the sun’s output at X-ray wavelengths.”

In 1978, Acton and his Lockheed team won a NASA contract to fly an instrument known as S.O.U.P. - The Solar Optical Univeral Polarimeter- on a spacelab mission to study sun-earth relations. Acton jumped at the chance to go along and run the instrument, but they wouldn’t get off the ground until 1985. In the meantime, Acton enjoyed the status of what he likes to call a “part-time astronaut,” since he wasn’t directly working for NASA.

The Spacelab 2 mission, as it became known, was set to launch on board the Challenger Shuttle in July of 1985, but just before blastoff, something happened.

“We finally got on the launch pad on July the 12th and aborted at T-minus 3 seconds.”

The launch was aborted due to a malfunction of a coolant valve that caused the shutdown of all three main engines. It is almost ominous to think what would happen to Challenger less than one year later. Acton said though that they all just got off and went to the post-launch parties that were planned.

“Hundreds of people are down there at your invitation to watch the launch and, of course, they had planned all these events following the launch and the events can go ahead and happen even though you didn’t have a launch.”

Seventeen days later, on July 29, 1985, there was no abort and what would be Challenger’s penultimate mission took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So what thoughts are going through the mind of a ranch kid from Montana just as he is about to blast off into space?

“Pretty much... 'Ah, s***,'” Acton recalled with a laugh, but added that at that moment, everything was out of his control and he was just along for the ride.

By the time Spacelab 2 got into orbit, Acton realized that this wasn’t the fun camping trip in space that he had imagined.

“I was prepared to enjoy it thoroughly. And what happened was, I got up there and overdosed on responsibility. I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the need to do everything perfectly; it really wasn’t fun. It was still an adventure and looking back on it is great. But I have to tell you that while I was in space I made enough errors that I was pretty depressed about the whole thing.”

Despite being overwhelmed, Acton remembered his crew being there for him, especially Astronaut Karl Henize who turned to him on their fourth day in orbit and said: “Hey Loren, you know, you’re in space. Look out the window.”

After that, Acton said he started to calm down and he began to appreciate what was going on.

Their mission was a scientific success and aside from their work with the S.O.U.P instrument, there was a famous soda drinking experiment that took place. Each crew member was assigned either Coke or Pepsi to see if fizzy drinks could be dispensed in such a way as to mimic the “feel” of drinking one in 1G. Acton was assigned Pepsi and while the Coke people spent considerable time designing a can system that would keep the dispensed beverage from getting too foamy, the Pepsi folks made no such effort. Coke seemed to be the more successful of the two, but any way you cut it, there was no refrigeration on the shuttle and as Acton puts it, “Who wants to drink warm soda pop?”

Acton may also hold one of the most interesting space distinctions. At his request, NASA filled a squeeze bottle with Louisiana Hot Sauce, so that he could have it with his scrambled eggs each morning. Not only did he enjoy it, but his crew members did as well and, as far as he knows, he is the first man to consume hot sauce in outer space. Not only that, after the flight Acton took the bottle to Louisiana and presented it to the company as a somewhat spicy historical artifact.

Spacelab 2 was Acton’s only mission in space and as alluded to earlier, nothing could prepare him for the events of January 28, 1986, when his former shuttle and a crew not too dissimilar to his own exploded shortly after takeoff.

“I was standing on the stage at the Junior High School in Worland, Wyoming, ready to talk to several hundred junior high kids about my space experience, when someone came trotting down the ales and said, ‘did you know that the Challenger had blown up?’”

Acton went on with his talk at the school but he spent the rest of that day in an office set up by the principal talking to the media. On that day, all NASA employees were embargoed and couldn’t speak to the press, but NASA contractors like Acton could. He was in high demand, and by the end of that tragic day, he was exhausted.

“When it was finally figured out why we lost that mission, I was really grumped off because it was totally unnecessary. It was because of a lack of communication between Marshall Space Flight Center, who's responsible for the rockets and NASA Space Flight Center who’s responsible for making the final decision about whether or not to go. They weren’t communicating the way they should have. We should have never tried to launch that day.”

Acton continued his sun research with Lockheed until 1993, when he accepted a Research Professorship in the Physics Department at his alma-mater, Montana State University. After years of teaching and a brief foray into state politics, running for and losing a bid for the Montana Legislature in 2006, Acton officially retired.

He and Evelyn usually split their time between their homes in Nevada and Montana, not to mention traveling the world and taking time to see their children and granddaughter. But, like so many right now, they are just trying to stay in one spot and stay healthy during these uncertain times. One thing that is for certain, however, is that Acton continues to be interested in both science and the space program.

“I am really enthusiastic about human space flight. Human space flight is something you do because that’s the kind of animal we are. The challenge, the adventure. We can do better science with robots than we can with people by in large, but it isn’t nearly as interesting. We want to be out there experiencing it and sharing our experiences and saying, 'what’s it like?’ So I’m a big enthusiast. I think it is good for the human spirit, good for the human animal to be doing this stuff.”

Last year, America’s Space Program received a jump start when it teamed up with SpaceX, a company whose main goals are to streamline space travel and eventually carry humans to Mars and Acton is OK with that too.

“I’ve been interested in going to Mars for a long time. It’s a real challenge and lots and lots of reasons why it’s difficult and dangerous. But, hey, it’s the next place we can go, so let’s get at it. I don’t mind at all that we are going back to the moon first. It is a reasonable program and I think it is good for us. I think it is good for the next generation and it is good to have been a part of a generation that got to experience it in person. I mean, what is more amazing than the fact that I got to go to space? My eyesight isn’t all that good. I'm just this guy, and low and behold the chips fell so that I got to do it.”

The next moon mission is scheduled for 2024 and while a manned mission to Mars is not officially announced, it seems that it could be sooner rather than later. Either way, Acton thinks that in the not-too-distant future space travel will be accessible to many people and he, like so many of us, will be watching with interest.