Appearing before about 140 International Space University (ISU) students from 31 countries, eight astronauts who have flown in space stressed “uncompromised excellence” in diverse fields as the key to participating in new space projects including possible selection as future astronauts.
Headquartered in Strasbourg, France, the ISU is conducting its summer program this year in connection with the Florida Institute of Technology and the Kennedy Space Center where the forum was held. The session was moderated by former astronaut. Robert Cabana, KSC director. The other participants on the panel were:
-Ken Bowersox, former NASA astronaut.
-Chiaki Mukai, Japanese astronaut.
-Garrett Reisman, senior engineer, SpaceX, and former NASA astronaut.
-Kent Rominger, vice president, advanced programs, launch systems, Alliant Techsystems, and former NASA astronaut.
-Winston Scott, dean, College of Aeronautics, Florida Institute of Technology, and former NASA astronaut.
-Nicole Stott, NASA astronaut.
-Jim Voss, director, advanced programs, Sierra Nevada Corp., and former NASA astronaut.
Among the ISU attendees, who were mostly 20 something’s, were about 20 Chinese “students” who averaged 31 years old. These were known Chinese low or mid-level space program managers like those who have traditionally attended ISU sessions for years.
They were undoubtedly soaking up as much American space experience as they could. But at KSC they were not shown any hardware or facilities beyond what an international tourist is allowed to see here daily, although their U. S. guides were more knowledgeable about KSC facilities as well as tech transfer limitations.
The discussion between the group as a whole and the astronauts was at a refreshingly higher level than the “how do you go to the bathroom in space” level of questioning that many public audiences have raised for decades – and still do.
The need for excellence was cited often in the discussion including by an Israeli student who asked how that also applied to family responsibilities during years of training as well as actual flights.
Voss said it was a very important question, while Stott noted “there should not be any compromise” on that score and that “family members should be included whenever possible during training” so they can understand and relate to everything their astronaut family member is faced with.
A European student posed a question about the public’s knowledge and fitness for space tourism, but not about the much discussed Virgin Galactic quick suborbital rides. His question was rather about the guidelines and infrastructure envisioned for tourists going to orbit in larger numbers, beyond the millionaires and billionaires who have traveled to the International Space Station.
Noting that Bigelow Aerospace wants to build space stations specifically for that Rominger said “I think it is great and more power to them.”
“I am with the Liberty project and we want to make it as simple as possible for passengers to get into space, said Rominger. “As pilots some of us are always going to want to do the flying, but the reality is that it’s about the destination which is space, not the going up and down,” he said.
Reisman noted that the analogy to the development of the commercial aviation industry is very appropriate to the topic of larger numbers of people going into space.
And Japanese physician astronaut Mukai noted that we have just ended the first 50 years of human space flight that included the 1998 flight of 77 year old “Original 7” astronaut John Glenn, a mission on which Mukai also flew. She said the highly successful flight of a physically fit elderly person is an important milestone toward flying a larger portion of the population to orbit in the next 50 years of human space development.
Stott agreed and said she believes that beyond ISS there will be dedicated tourist stations and separate dedicated science stations where astronauts will have much more flexibility in managing and modifying research parameters.
One of the Chinese guests noted that “my country is building a new generation of station”, and he asked what would be the single best thing to add to new stations to improve crew comfort. Cabana had very serious answer to that, “A hot shower would be nice.”
A young woman from India asked “what is the most important space experience” that you have all taken from your flights?
Several astronauts, as most always do, said the views of Earth remain with them most as an amazing memory of their flights in addition to the zero-g experience. “Nothing can prepare you for it when looking back at the Earth it is always vibrant and surprising,” said Stott.
Rominger said his biggest surprise was to look out at night and try to perceive how starkly black it is. “That is when the vastness of space really hits you,” he said.
Voss noted it is “the whole crew experience” the deep bonding that takes place starting with formation of a crew then their flight experiences together.
Reisman said “what was most impactful for me was how incredibly thin the atmosphere is. It’s no more than the fuzz on a tennis ball” and yet it makes life on Earth possible.
Mukai had one of the more unusual recollections. She was amazed during her first space shuttle reentry about how gravity gradually overtakes you, the lower you fly.
After about two weeks in space even at only 0.2g she said her head felt so heavy it was hard to lift up and that she kept throwing pens and pencils in the air to watch them first fall back to her lap very slowly then faster and faster. “This gravity is amazing!” she said.
Winston Scott had the most profound memory, while looking at Earth realizing that “Earth is finite, Earth is my home and you want to take care of your home.”
Another person from India asked a similar question about what was the most dangerous episodes of their flights not generally known.
Scott said his manual capture during an unplanned EVA with a rookie Japanese astronaut of a 3,000 lb. reusable science satellite. Scott noted how standing in their space suits out in the payload bay how he had to talk his EVA partner through that, but they pulled it off fine.
Cabana had an especially good tale. It occurred while flying a rendezvous with the Russian FGB module on the first space station assembly mission waiting for a “GO” from the ground to complete a grapple with the shuttle manipulator arm. The orbiter was station keeping very close to the FGB, when it appeared “that this 45,000 lb. mass had started moving into the payload bay.”
What actually happening was that the thrust from the orbiter’s maneuvering jets had introduced some coupling that was moving the orbiter toward the FGB. “For a moment there I thought we were going to collide. It would have been really bad, the end of the space program! Top that!” he implored his fellow astronauts.
Voss tried saying “I was terrified once.” Voss was on the infant ISS as a member of the Expedition 2 crew. After the shuttle crew had departed and just he and two crewmembers were left on board they went to bed looking for a good night’s rest, when in the middle of the night “the fire alarm went off and there were some moments of terror, “said Voss.
But being a brand-new station that was just the start. By the time they had left the ISS the Expedition 2 Crew had been alerted day and night by a total of 947 separate alarms of various types of which virtually all but a few were found to be false, said Voss.
Bowersox noted on his stay on the ISS the crew was at times so busy they would answer queries from either the U. S., Russian, European or Japanese control centers as if they would perform those requests from the ground. Then deliberately ignore the requests to get other more important work done.
During post flight debriefings they fessed up to those occasions and learned that was exactly what the ground controls expected them to do, based on their own best judgment in space, Bowersox said.
Bowersox also noted that he was on board the ISS in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia and her crew were lost during a non ISS related science mission. This was devastating to the ISS crew because Columbia’s crew were all dear friends. Bowersox noted that in space, the body seemed to be much more sensitive “to a wider swing of emotions.”
And these emotions would especially rise up when ongoing television interviews would force them to confront the situation openly by asking questions like “does it make sense to continue flying people in space when losses like this occur.”
“We hated it, we hated those interviews,” said Bowersox. But he also said the ISS crew realized “we had to do them” for the sake of NASA and all of the teams on the ground and that they also eventually helped the crew face their grief more openly on the ISS.