January 30, 2012 | « back

THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE – Taylor, family, friends connect with space station commander

By Clarence Fanto – Berkshire Eagle Staff


That describes the reaction of James Taylor , his wife Kim and their twin sons, Rufus and Henry, as well as 20 friends, relatives and associates gathered on Sunday for a close encounter of the most unusual kind with outer space.

Through an iPad and satellite hookup from the high-tech recording studio at Taylor ‘s hilltop home base overlooking Lenox, to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and then 220 miles above the Earth to flight commander Dan Burbank aboard the International Space Station, the conversation about space exploration and music flowed freely, thanks to a near- flawless technical setup.

A high-def, two-way video screen and camera displayed stunning images of the space station – the size of a football field – and its rotating view of planet Earth for the Taylor gathering, while Burbank had a chance to play a duet with his favorite singer.

The video teleconference was arranged after Taylor ‘s personal assistant Ellyn Kusmin spotted an email from NASA scientist Dan Cook, head of Behavioral Health and Performance Space Medicine sent to Taylor ‘s website, like any fan. “We get at least 1,000 e-mails a month,” said Kusmin, “and I read as many as I can but I have to say I am very glad that I read this one. At first I thought it was a hoax. But it wasn’t.”

Final preparations for the technical setup were accomplished over the past week, leading to a “window” of available satellite time starting at 1 p. m. Sunday, through the efforts of Taylor ‘s IT consultants Sam Sorrentino of Lee and Scott Kirshner of Mad Macs, Inc., in Pittsfield.

” It’s unbelievable!” Taylor exclaimed as the video image of Burbank in the research studio of the space station came into view. At that moment, the space station was over India, rotating in a low orbit 180 to 200 miles above the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.

Burbank, strapped into his chair in the gravity-free space station environment, made no effort to conceal his enthusiasm. “It’s such a treat, wonderful to see you all,” he said, promptly displaying his guitar floating on the module’s ceiling.

Longtime Taylor fan

As a longtime fan of the singer- songwriter, Burbank has been taking virtual guitar lessons offered free on Taylor ‘s website.

The admiration was mutual as Taylor , a space buff deeply fascinated by science, technology and all matters mechanical, enthused that “we couldn’t be more thrilled to have this opportunity to visit with you.”

As the spacecraft spun far above the Himalayas, the Pacific and Hawaii – all in a matter of minutes – Burbank acknowledged that in the earlier days of space flight, “we used to feel disconnected from family and friends … but now I get a chance to speak to someone I’ve looked up to musically, all my life.”

“That’s very flattering, it’s a great honor for me to have you say that,” Taylor responded.

Following a demonstration of weightlessness as Burbank untethered himself and floated to the ceiling of the module, he described how the human body ” very quickly adapts to this environment perfectly.”

Showing off fitness center

“You never get tired of this, flying like Superman through the space station,” he said. Burbank even showed off the adjacent fitness center, equipped with a specially adapted treadmill and other gear.

“We can work out just like in the gym,” he observed. “Our crews are coming back from missions as healthy as when they left; in some cases, they’re even stronger.”

Burbank also made it clear that he and his five crew members – representing the United States, Russia and the European Union – were fully primed for a potential mission to Mars.

Inevitably, the talk turned to music.

“How do you hold your guitar?” Taylor wondered. “I rely on gravity, myself.”

Burbank showed the Velcro and strap that keep his instrument secure. “With all we have to do up here, there’s nothing like playing guitar with James Taylor ,” he said. “I’m a little terrified right now.”

“We’ll talk you through it,” Taylor replied as the two sang an impromptu duet (despite a two-second satellite delay) of the captain’s request, “Secret O’ Life.”

“One of my favorites of all time,” Burbank said gratefully. “It even has a couple of space references, and some great philosophy, too.”

80 entrees to chose from

In response to a question from Kim Taylor about the onboard cuisine, Burbank reeled off choices from a rotating menu of 80 entrees ranging from steak to pork chops to lasagna, with shrimp cocktail to start, all prepared in labs at NASA in Houston and at the European Space Agency in Paris – a year’s supply in the fridge.

” For some reason, we’re each eating 4,000 calories a day to maintain weight,” Burbank said. ” We’re not sure why, maybe because our brains have to be so engaged all the time, but I’ve lost 10 to 15 pounds.” Burbank is midway through his four-month assignment aboard the space station.

When JT queried Burbank about the number of rooms in the space station, Burbank launched a quick tour, floating and flying from module to module (there are 13 in all), pointing to his guitar afloat up top – “that’s for my mental health.”

“That’s where I keep my guitar,” Taylor quipped.

Burbank showed off the spacecraft’s cupola, “where I play my guitar and gaze out at Earth,” with brilliant sunrises and sunsets every 45 minutes. “We go from bright sunlight to total darkness in only eight minutes,” he pointed out. “I call it, being up on the roof.”

“How great is that!” Taylor exulted as the Earth came into view on a corner of the video screen. “I think I can see our house.”

Burbank waxed poetic as he described the shimmering color kaleidoscope of sunrise from outer space – “spectacular, from indigo to brilliant blue to aquamarine.”

‘All comforts of home’

Showing off his “phone-booth sized” sleeping cubicle, with a sleeping bag and a computer for sending e- mails home, Burbank described it as including “all the comforts of home.”

He also demonstrated the safety features of the space station. “If we ever needed to get out of Dodge, they’re all ready to go,” pointing to two spacecraft primed for launch at short notice, if needed.

For Kim Taylor , the event had family resonance since her late uncle, Rufus Hessberg, was one of the nation’s leading experts in aerospace medicine and served as director of space medicine for NASA from 1973 to 1979.

“A lot of the work he and his people did paved the way for the rest of us,” Burbank told her. “It’s amazing, the connections we all have.”