Husband, wife team up for book on training astronauts

4:40:07 PM CDT - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

For a generation of Americans, sending humans into space hasn't been an extraordinary feat.

But for Randall Chambers, now a distinguished professor emeritus at WSU, and his wife, Mary, space flight represented the unknown. Nearly 50 years ago, it was Randall's job to help figure out how to prepare a young crop of eager men for America's bold effort toward space journey.

Together, the couple, married for 55 years, has authored a book that tells the story of Randall's work in training America's first astronauts. Mary did most of the writing. She did so, she explains in the introduction of "Getting Off The Planet: Training Astronauts," so space fans and nonscientists could have a "simpler version of this amazing space adventure" than her scientist husband might provide. For those who want the more technical version, Mary, a former journalist, suggests they read her husband's upcoming textbooks.

"Getting Off the Planet" was recently released by Apogee Books, a commercial space book publisher. It retails for $18.95 and is available at the University Bookstore, with a 10 percent discount for faculty and staff with ID, and http://www.amazon.com.

The book offers a firsthand account of Randall's job as a key player as the head of the human engineering division with the U.S. Navy's Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory in Pennsylvania. Chambers and his team were charged with researching, designing and inventing materials to help astronauts train for and function in space. Anecdotes about various research and training projects paint the picture about the people involved in this pioneering undertaking.
One reviewer wrote, "... this book isn't a technical reference; rather it's a folksy memorial to a vibrant time and one family's contribution." The relatively short 119-page book includes a number of workplace photos with America's first astronauts and of the Chambers family, the latter lending part of the personal touches in this story about Randall's role as a space pioneer.

Another example of how the book intertwines Chambers' work and his family life appears early in "Getting Off the Planet," when Mary relates their "first space argument." Randall was telling his wife about his new job as the project officer for the training of the Mercury astronauts. When he responded to her question about the job's potential danger that not much had been done in the field and he'd have to try out some of the equipment, such as the centrifuge, she tried to reason he wouldn't necessarily have to try it out.

"Lots of obstetricians have never personally had babies, but they seem to be able to do their work all right," she writes in the book.

"Getting Off the Planet" isn't Mary's first publication about life as a space scientist's wife. In 1969 she wrote "Don't Launch Him He's Mine!," a humorous account of her life with the scientists trying to launch the first astronaut. It was condensed in Readers' Digest to coincide with Neil Armstrong's pioneering walk on the moon in 1969, Mary shares in "Getting Off the Planet."

Randall, who later was a chief life scientist for NASA and a principal scientist with the U.S. Army Research Institute, taught at WSU from 1988 until his retirement in 1996.

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