Go Away With … Mark C. Lee


By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
January 31, 2017

Before retiring, Mark C. Lee flew on four NASA space flights, traveled more than 13 million miles, circled the globe 517 times and did an untethered spacewalk. In 1992, he and his then-wife, Nancy Jan Davis, made history by becoming the first married astronauts to fly together in space. Based out of the Houston area, Lee — an engineer — spoke about what it was like to view the earth from his unique perspective. For more information about the space program, check out NASA’s website.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your first mission.

A. I was on the middeck during re-entering, so I didn’t have any responsibility for landing except to sit there. So I asked the commander if it was OK that I stay up. In four hours, you go around the world three times. It felt like I owned the world. It was one of those things where I was the only one around looking at it just floating around. Out of all the time I spent in space, it was probably the most special time.

For my second mission, after we got in orbit, which was 8-1/2 minutes or so that we got into space, I got out of my seat because we had to take some pictures of the external tank, which had just seperated from us. I look down and see England. Wow. From Florida over to England in 11 minutes – it was just hard to phantom. On my third mission, I did an untethered space walk. I got to fly a jet pack, disconnected from the shuttle, and flying up about 25 feet. It was pretty amazing. I still get goosebumps thinking about it after all these years. Working on the Hubble Space telescope and keeping it functioning to me was probably the proudest moment. I was contributing to something that was changed our total understanding of the universe. Being a part of it was pretty special.

Q. After having been in space, does traveling via airplane or sightseeing feel mundane?

A. From space, you see the big picture, but you don’t see the details. You can see the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and all the roads that emanate in different directions. But being there and walking around is a completely different story.

Q. Where do you head to when you want to get away from it all?

A. My favorite place to visit is Hawaii. We go out there almost every year. I like the Big Island. I like the fact that it has so many different climate zones and terrain and things like that. I just enjoy the starkness of it and also the beauty of it. I like to hike and visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can hike across and go down into the volcanoes. And the steam coming up is just one of those things that I find intriguing, because that’s kind of how the earth was formed and it’s neat to go and be able to be a part of that.

Q. Did you travel a lot when you were younger?

A. When I was in the ninth grade, we took a train to New York City. I traveled all over the city by myself, got on the subway, visited the Statue of Liberty and got lost a couple times. Nowadays, I wouldn’t let my ninth-grader walk across the street, but back then — it would’ve been around 1967 — it was fine.

Q. Which area of the world is still on your travel bucket list?

A. The Middle East is a place I wanted to go to previously. I would’ve loved to have visited Israel and Egypt. But I think the time for feeling comfortable enough to go is a little bit past. I don’t know how safe or practical it is to go there anymore, which is unfortunate.

Q. What are some of the places you’ve been to that stand out?

A. I lived in Okinawa for 2-1/2 years. I spent a lot of time in Japan. I’ve been to Russia, Australia and all over Europe. I’ve been down to South America a couple times. I’ve spent some winters in Alaska and been all across Canada. I do like going back to Hawaii, though, because the weather is perfect and I just enjoy being out there.

Q. Do you eat Spam Musabi when you’re in Hawaii?

A. I don’t. It is kind of neat because out there, they have maybe a dozen or more varieties of Spam that you can hardly ever find on the shelf here. I’ve got several people at work that want me to send them back a care package of all the different varieties of Spam. One lady is from Korea and the other just grew up on it. But not too many people here say, “I like Spam.”

Q. Are you an adventurous eater?

A. I enjoy food. When I was in Okinawa, I visited Korea quite often — maybe about 15 times. I spent a lot of time there. We’d fly to Kunsan Air Base and take it from there. I ate just about everything. We would go to different restaurants and everyone would order a dish that could feed a family and then we would pass them around. We would drink, eat the food with kimchi and talk.

Q. Are you adept at learning new languages?

A. I am not. I’m not a language person, at all. I learned a little bit of Japanese, but languages don’t come naturally to me, like they do to some people.

Q. What would you recommend that people do in Houston?
A. It’s not like we have a Disney World here, but we’ve got the Johnson Space Center. There are some really good exhibits and tours for some of NASA’s facilities. A lot of people like heading south of Houston to Galveston to enjoy the beaches and spend time there.

© 2017 JAE-HA KIM

Comments (4)

  1. Lucy Lee says:

    What an interesting man. To have had those kinds of adventures in one’s life must be awesome. I’ll bet he has plenty to talk about at parties! Thanks for the article!

  2. Mark Longos says:

    Great piece. My nephew wants to be an astronaut so I read this to him. Mark Lee has a new fan!

  3. This was a very good article. I wouldn’t refer to Mr. Lee as a celebrity, but I find him much more interesting than the Kardashians who are glutting the airwaves. I would like to have asked him about the flight he took with his ex-wife. Why did they keep their relationship and marriage a secret?

    “In his second flight, mission STS-47, running from September 12–20, 1992, Lee was payload commander with overall crew responsibility for the planning, integration, and on-orbit coordination of payload/Space Shuttle activities. This cooperative mission between the United States and Japan included 44 Japanese and U.S. life science and materials processing experiments and the shuttle carried Spacelab-J. Lee also initiated a unique distinction with STS-47: his wife at that time, N. Jan Davis, was a mission specialist on the flight, making Lee and Davis the first married couple to be in space at the same time. Lee and Davis had met during training for the flight and had married in secret. They disclosed their marriage to NASA shortly before the flight, when it was too late to train a substitute. NASA has since changed the rules and will not allow married astronauts on the same flight.[3]” — Wikipedia

  4. Aaron says:

    From what I remember, Mr. Lee and his wife caused NASA quite a bit of concern with their antics. It appears that they kept their marriage a secret so that they could both go to space together. If everything was kosher, why not just announce that they were married. Not a fan. Your article on Chris Hadfield was much more interesting and in my opinion he was a much worthier subject.

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