Barry “Butch” Wilmore’s support for the Nashville Predators is out of this world. No, really.
Like many Middle Tennesseans, Wilmore has followed the Preds since an expansion franchise was granted to Nashville in 1997. That’s the same year Wilmore was first called for an interview with NASA - to be an astronaut.
Seventeen years later, Wilmore brought along a certain Gold jersey on his journey away from Earth’s terrestrial bonds and sent a video clip back to his home planet. The very 32-second video that was shown on the Megatron inside Bridgestone Arena prior to a Predators game this season, showcasing Wilmore aboard the International Space Station, sporting his Preds jersey high above the atmosphere.
For a man who has logged 178 days in space and has spent over 25 hours outside of the spacecraft, seeing things that most are only privy to through the imaginations of Hollywood, appearing on the Megatron to cheer on his hockey team ranks in the upper echelons.
“It’s humbling,” Wilmore said during a recent visit to the Predators’ offices. “It honestly is, because who could send a video in that you all would say, ‘Yeah, let’s put that on the Megatron,’ and that’s basically what I did and you stuck it up there.”
Born in Murfreesboro, Wilmore grew up in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and has degrees from Tennessee Tech and the University of Tennessee. He joined the Navy, and after attending flight school, working on aircraft carriers, flying through combat, completing test pilot school and attaining a master’s in electrical engineering, Wilmore began to realize that there was a chance to earn some consideration from NASA as a Space Shuttle pilot.
“[Being an astronaut] wasn’t a dream when I was a kid; it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this so I can be an astronaut,’” Wilmore said. “But eventually, it started looking like I could try. I thought, ‘They won’t want me,’ but I applied four times.”
“Liftoff” was granted on the fourth launch attempt. After being selected out of thousands of applicants, Wilmore got the call.
“It was a high point,” Wilmore said of his selection from NASA. “I was the 505th human to leave the planet when I finally launched in 2009 the first time, so it’s not something a lot of people have the opportunity to do…it was pretty big.”
So what about that first launch? According to Wilmore, once the realization that you’re actually leaving the planet sets in, it’s all business. As a pilot, Wilmore has a slew of procedures and checklists to follow during the liftoff.
But then the altitude increases. The external tank separates from the shuttle and it gets darker and darker and darker. Moisture develops on the outside of the Shuttle, and as the vacuum of space seeps closer, that moisture begins to crystalize. The results are stunning.
“I look out the window, the sun setting behind me, the blackest black I’ve ever seen in my life because I’m looking into the blackness of space, and I can’t see stars because we’re still illuminated by the sun,” Wilmore said. “We’re over darkness by the Earth, so we’re still illuminated, but this is dark. And these ice crystals look like diamonds. Just everywhere, these diamonds sparkling outside the window.”
And then the levitating starts. Well, not quite yet for Wilmore, who is still manning the controls. But for one of his fellow crewmates who has now unstrapped about an hour into the flight, gravity is non-existent.
“It’s normal and you get used to it, but the first time when I saw this guy just floating, it was just wild,” Wilmore said. “It was weird. I’m like, ‘That is not right.’”
Eventually, the queasiness of the trip begins to subside, such as the feeling of a previously consumed peanut butter and jelly sandwich sloshing around, and the body adjusts to the surroundings, or lack thereof. The astronauts then begin to complete their missions, all leading up to their return to Mother Earth in due time.
On his most recent trip, an expedition aboard a much smaller Russian Soyuz spacecraft utilized to journey to the International Space Station, Wilmore logged four spacewalks. He says that 99.8 percent of a spacewalk is hard work, but that .2 percent…
“We open the hatch, I get outside for the first time, I’m out there and I’m going, ‘I cannot believe we do this,’” Wilmore said. “It’s a lot of work, but the ‘wow’ is very ‘wow.’ Most of the time, I’ve got a module in my face because I’m working and I don’t see the beauty of everything going around. You have to actually take time and go, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a good handle, wow.’”
A trip to outer space for Wilmore is full of those moments. The International Space Station is a long way from Middle Tennessee, and while he knows he’s up there to do a job, he certainly takes time to appreciate just how far he’s come, figuratively and literally, from the Volunteer State.
And on many occasions, he did it all with the Preds crest looking down on the planet.
But that’s in a day’s work for Wilmore. For someone who has spent thousands of hours in orbit, 32 seconds on the Megatron inside Bridgestone Arena was just as extraordinary.
“You don’t remember everything that happens in your life, but as an old guy, I’ll remember this; I’ll remember that, ‘Hey, I was on the Megatron once,’” Wilmore said. “That’s kind of cool. As you have life experiences and life memories, the good Lord lets you get exposed to certain things. Certain things happen and that’s pretty special.”