November 8, 2013
“Thank you for coming to my personal therapy session,” former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria joked at yesterday’s discussion on the “overview effect” at the National Air and Space Museum. He explained that people like himself, a Navy pilot, and fellow panelist Sandy Magnus, who has a PhD in materials science and engineering, are chosen by NASA to be astronauts largely for their technical skill, not their ability to “communicate touchy-feely things.” Which makes it difficult to translate the profound psychological effect that seeing Earth from above has on a person. (Or as Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway remarks, “They should have sent a poet.“)
The event began with a showing of Overview, a documentary on the effect released last year by the Planetary Collective. The 20-minute film, viewed nearly four million times, was a stepping stone to their upcoming feature-length documentary, Continuum, about our “interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe.”
It’s all a bit lovey-dovey, but astronauts who have gone to orbit over the last half-century have made it clear that seeing our planet from a vantage point in space flips some kind of switch in your brain. And while many of us may be awed by spectacular photos taken from the space station cupola and stretching all the way back to Earthrise, the powerful feeling of seeing it live just cannot be duplicated, they tell us.
After spending four and a half months floating around in microgravity as a crewmember of Expedition 18 in 2008-2009, Magnus came back to Earth to this “horrible, monstrously oppressive force” we call gravity. “My first thought was ‘oh my God, how do we get anything done on this planet??‘,” she said. It’s a feeling we can imagine but cannot experience the way an astronaut does. As Magnus put it, you know a stove is hot, but you can’t fully comprehend the concept until you’ve put your hand on the burner.
Frank White, a panel member who coined the term “overview effect” and wrote a book about it in 1987, believes that it’s crucial we find a way to translate it for the general populace. The effect, he says, “is a message to us human beings about who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.” Astronauts frequently have four particular epiphanies of awareness, according to panelist David Beaver, one of the founders of the The Overview Institute: the thinness of the atmosphere (Magnus said the paper-thin layer of atmosphere nearly skimming the planet’s surface was her very first thought upon opening the shuttle payload bay doors on her first trip to space), the interactivity of the biosphere, the smallness of Earth in space, and, perhaps surprisingly, the roundness of the Earth — another concept we understand in the post-Columbus era, but don’t really experience in our everyday lives.
The Institute’s goal is simple: To get people on this planet to realize we’re all living on “spaceship Earth” together, and that we need to care for the planet before we all become homeless together. Perhaps if our world leaders all took an orbit on the space station, said Lopez-Alegria, the idea of world citizenship over national citizenship would take hold, and the only thing left to wonder would be why it took us so long to realize it in the first place. Lopez-Alegria is now the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and hopes this new industry will “democratize access to space” so that regular folk — including the poets — can have the experience, and not just millionaire space tourists. (On the other hand, if you want to send a message that space tourism will continue to be a rich- people thing, NBC Universal’s press release today proclaiming, “Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television,” is exactly how you go about it.)
Lopez-Alegria cited the XCOR’s suborbital Lynx and World View’s newly-announced stratosphere balloon ride as (hopefully) relatively affordable options that will give regular people an opportunity to experience the overview effect. White, meanwhile, hopes that an organization like the Overview Institute might one day be able to offer scholarships to the kinds of people that might have the unique ability to communicate the feeling to those of us who remain gravity-bound.
October 11, 2013
We’re right to eulogize early astronauts like Scott Carpenter (who passed away yesterday at the age of 88) for heroism in the face of unknown dangers. The Mercury astronauts and their Russian counterparts were, after all, the first people to venture off-Earth.
But Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 flight in 1962 lasted just five hours — three quick orbits, a Pacific splashdown, and that was the end of his space traveling. At the age of 40, the former Navy pilot then turned to exploring the ocean, which, he came to conclude, “is a much more hostile environment than space.” Carpenter’s experience on SEALAB II in the fall of 1965 bears this out.
SEALAB didn’t have a fraction of Mercury’s funding or publicity, but was just as daring in its own way. The Navy wanted to know if people could live underwater, in a highly pressurized habitat, for extended periods, where they could easily dive in deep water without the time-consuming preparation needed to avoid decompression sickness. SEALAB II was a 57-foot-long steel cylinder dropped to the ocean floor on the continental shelf off La Jolla, California. The pressure inside the habitat was 103 psi — seven times normal Earth atmosphere — to match the pressure at a depth of 203 feet. SEALAB’s hatch, a hole in the habitat’s floor protected by a shark cage, remained open to the water. The crew could put on their diving gear any time and just swim outside. A total of 28 men lived inside SEALAB, as many as ten at a time, during a 45-day span from August to October 1965. Of all the residents, Carpenter lived there longest — 30 days.
Years later, he told an interviewer that part of his motivation in signing up for SEALAB was to conquer an old fear. As a Navy pilot, he had once been on a raft in the middle of the ocean — part of a survival exercise — when a radar reflector needed to attract rescue teams suddenly fell in the water.
It went overboard, and I thought of trying to get it. But I was afraid of the sharks and the critters in that water, and I didn’t do it. But my gunner’s mate, without a second thought, jumped overboard, was gone for a long time, but he swam down and got that corner reflector and brought it back up. And I thought, “There is a brave man,” and it made me ashamed of myself. That was the genesis of my need to conquer my fear of the deep ocean. It’s an important thing. Conquering of fear is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it can be done a lot of different places.
If living on SEALAB wasn’t exactly scary, it could be tremendously uncomfortable, bordering on painful, and was every bit as alien as life on a spacecraft. For one thing, everyone sounded like Mickey Mouse. The atmosphere in the lab was 85 percent helium (nitrogen at that pressure makes people act drunk, so it was replaced with helium). At first many of the crew thought this hilarious, but eventually the squeaky, party-balloon voices got annoying, because the men couldn’t understand each other. (They even tested a “helium descrambler” designed to make the helium voices more intelligible.) According to the SEALAB II project report, “when asked, ‘How soon were you able to understand all nine other aquanauts quite well?’ the responses showed that 16 divers felt they could in one to two days, eight more by the end of four days, two more by the eleventh day, and one never.” Carpenter got laughs when he pulled out a ukelele and sang “Goodnight Irene” in squeaky voice. But the problem became more serious — or funnier — when he tried to put in a call to President Lyndon Johnson from SEALAB. Here’s the full recording, starting with the topside officer who asks White House operators to stand by:
In a public talk in 1986, Carpenter discussed some of the other oddities of life on SEALAB. In that weird, alien atmosphere, you couldn’t whistle. Matches didn’t light. Working outside the habitat chilled you to the bone (the crew tested heated suits, but they leaked). Said one aquanaut later, “You accept the fact that part of the day is going to be spent being miserable [miserably cold].” Said another: “It’s hard work, it takes a long time to do simple tasks in the water. It takes a good hour to replace a (light) bulb.”
The project report goes on for paragraphs enumerating the hardships, from skin rashes to headaches, and is fairly blunt for an official document:
Working inside Sealab was no picnic either. Crowded conditions in the entrance area presented probably the most vexatious problems. The entrance area was a bottleneck in a very literal sense. Men crowded around in bulky and uncomfortable gear waiting to get into the water. There was almost no place to stow gear out of the way. The habitat sat unevenly on the bottom, with a list of six degrees in two directions. As a result, drawers would slide open or shut, objects would fall off counters, and men would walk up or down hill while leaning sideways. Long hours of careful preparation were required to put a man in the water, and the work schedule was constantly interrupted, delayed, and revised by emergencies or necessities. Work time far exceeded an eight-hour day. Communications with topside and within the capsule were difficult at best, due to the problems of understanding helium speech, and aggravated by constant background noise which rose to a level rendering verbal communication nearly impossible when the Arawak pumps were running. Work involving writing was made difficult by lack of privacy and the fact that writing surfaces were not level and extremely limited in space.
And yet, like the early astronauts, the SEALAB crews suffered the indignities willingly, because they believed they were doing something historic in exploring the deep ocean frontier. The project scientists wrote: “The sentiment behind this high motivation was probably best expressed by one of the divers on Team 1 who, upon being congratulated, responded, “Hell, I’m no hero, 10,000 other Navy divers would have given their right arm to have been in Sealab.”
August 27, 2013
It was fascinating watching space station astronauts re-create the recent water leak inside ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s helmet that cut short a planned spacewalk and led to some very tense moments for the crew.
Engineers are still trying to figure out what caused the leak. As today’s video shows, the suit still has a problem:
If you haven’t yet read Parmitano’s harrowing account of the incident, you should. Here’s an excerpt:
The water has…almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision….At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Parmitano’s ordeal reminded me of another incident, far less serious, that astronaut Carlos Noriega described in our 2002 book Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. Even a single drop of water can be a hassle in a spacesuit.
Toward the end of my EVA on STS-97, about two-thirds of the way through deploying the space station’s new solar power array, I went to take a sip of water from a tube inside my helmet. It went down the wrong way, and I coughed. Well, the little droplet of water took a perfect trajectory from my mouth to the inside of the helmet, where it bounced off and went into my eye. We coat the inside of our helmets with a thin coat of soap so they don’t fog up. And the droplet picked up just enough soap that it severely irritated my eye, to the point where I couldn’t see out of it anymore.
I suspected what had happened, but I wasn’t sure. At the time, Mission Control was concerned that maybe it could be a break in the lithium hydroxide system that cleans the carbon dioxide from the air we breathe, or maybe something else floating around in my suit.
I felt fairly comfortable, other than the fact that my eye hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The bad thing about zero-g is that the tearing mechanism doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to. The droplet just stays there in your eye, and doesn’t run down your cheek. I thought about shaking my head, but then there’s the potential that you’re going to get it in the other eye. It took a long time to dilute, and by that point the EVA was over. I’m one of those people who’s very sensitive to irritants, and my wife just laughed later, “You and your eyes.”
June 27, 2013
I’m not usually a fan of celebrating NASA anniversaries—too much looking backwards and pining for the good old days. But I was at the head of the line to salute this month’s 30th anniversary of STS-7, which carried Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. And it got me reflecting on Sally’s legacy as we approach the one-year anniversary of her death last July.
I was pleased to work with her on several occasions, both inside and outside of NASA and never dreamed we would have such a fruitful partnership—given that initially I couldn’t stand her.
In 1982, when she was preparing for her first shuttle flight, I was managing NASA’s Shuttle Student Involvement Program, a national competition that gave high school students a chance to fly experiments on the space shuttle. When I asked the STS-7 mission planners at the Johnson Space Center if room was available on the flight, they said no. According to them, Sally Ride didn’t want to have to mess with student experiments on an already busy flight.
I had only been at NASA a couple of years, so I assumed information sent to headquarters from the field centers was true. So I’m thinking, What does Sally Ride have against student experiments?
Fast forward to 1986. After serving on the presidential commission to investigate the Challenger accident, Sally came to NASA headquarters to lead a task force on long-range national goals for space. A mutual friend thought I could help Sally navigate the headquarters bureaucracy. She and I immediately hit it off, so I became, in effect, her sidekick. And I learned the truth: It turned out she had no idea there had ever been a request to place student experiments on STS-7.
Sally did a fabulous job in leading the task force, which produced Leadership and America’s Future in Space, known as the Ride Report (if you’ve never read it, you should check it out). She made sure the working groups that produced the report had ample representation from women and younger NASA staff, which was a departure from most study groups at the time.
You can see Sally’s commitment to education on the report’s last page:
“An informed public is essential to both the near- and long-term interests of the nation’s civil program…This means capturing the imaginations and interests of young people at an early stage…and encouraging them to pursue studies that will prepare them to actively participate in the space program.”
This from the person I was told was against student experiments! I can’t help but think that the seeds for her namesake organization, Sally Ride Science, might have been planted with these words.
In 1992, I again became Sally’s wingman when Bill Clinton asked her to join his transition team and lead the Science, Technology, and Space planning group. Not long after, the president-elect also asked Sally to return to NASA as administrator, but she turned him down.
“You can’t turn down the president,” I exclaimed when she told me of Clinton’s request. In her typical no-nonsense way, she replied, “Well, I did it this morning.” Not even Bill Clinton could compete with her beloved west coast and office view of the Pacific Ocean. Many have speculated on whether Sally would have made a good administrator. Although I’m sure she would have done a superior job, I think the politics and budget challenges would have deflated even her normally positive spirit.
I last interacted with Sally in my position at NASA as head of Public Involvement. A grant from the Office of Communication last year enabled Sally Ride Science to expand schools’ use of an Earth-viewing camera on the space station. As we worked out the details, Sally and I emailed and spoke on the phone several times, but private to the end, she never mentioned her fight with cancer.
During the past month, celebrations of her life and legacy were held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. She received numerous awards and posthumous honors, including the designation of the Sally Ride EarthKAM, a NASA internship named in her honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
NASA even named the spot where the GRAIL spacecraft crashed into the moon last December as the Sally Ride Impact Site. At the Los Angeles tribute, her sister, Bear, noted that the family calls it as the Sally Ride Gulch. I think Sally would have agreed and smiled.
Alan Ladwig has worked for space advocacy organizations, aerospace companies large and small, and NASA. Before retiring from the agency last month, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Outreach. He is now the head of To Orbit Productions.
April 12, 2013
This week NASA announced plans to capture a small asteroid in 2019 and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon for later study by astronauts. It’s a good idea, for several reasons.
It’s of real importance to society.
The asteroid threat is sometimes overhyped, and it’s no wonder politicians don’t consider it an emergency when the last Extinction Level Event (to borrow a term from Deep Impact) happened 64 million years ago. Still, the fireball over Chelyabinsk in February demonstrated that even a small space rock can do damage, and hinted at even scarier scenarios. The rock that NASA plans to retrieve would be just half the size of the 60-foot Chelyabinsk object, small enough to burn up harmlessly if it entered our atmosphere. But learning to deflect or move even a mini-asteroid should give us valuable experience.
Public support for asteroid research is a no-brainer, yet NASA has had trouble allocating even a few million dollars a year (in an $18 billion budget) for a comprehensive search using a modest, space-based telescope. This new mission would help get the hunt started, because it requires an inventory of even smaller objects than we’ve tracked in the past.
Meanwhile, NASA still struggles to find a compelling destination for future astronauts that will sell with the general public. Expeditions to Mars or setting up an outpost on the Moon are fascinating projects, but hardly essential, and many taxpayers still consider them frivolous. Understanding asteroids and learning how to alter their course, on the other hand, are critical to humanity’s ultimate survival.
It advances space technology.
A mission that sounds straightforward, and is expected to cost no more than NASA’s latest Mars rover, would nonetheless require several new technologies that could also be applied to other projects. Solar electric engines for the unmanned tug that retrieves the asteroid can be used on future planetary spacecraft. Robotic tools for snagging an “uncooperative” target like a tumbling asteroid might also be used to clean up space debris or refuel satellites in orbit. After the rock is retrieved, astronauts will have to learn to live and work in what’s called cislunar space, something they’ve never done. In short, there’s plenty of cool and useful technology in an asteroid retrieval mission.
It sends astronauts farther than they’ve ever gone.
Does human spaceflight have a future? In 2013, the answer is not obvious. The technologies of robotics and telepresence are advancing far faster than rockets and space capsules, which are still spinning off ideas developed in the 1950s. Those who doubt that humans will ever be content to explore deep space virtually, as opposed to going there in person, should consider Skype and Oculus Rift. Behaviors deeply embedded in human culture are changing before our eyes. Military forces are rapidly evolving from a centuries-old model of flesh-and-blood warriors facing off on battlefields to drones fighting drones. Why should space exploration be any different?
This may not, in fact, be the last hurrah for old-school (human) astronauts. But choosing a just-over-the-horizon destination like the lunar far side, while reviving some of the old Apollo mojo, will help us decide whether to continue sending people farther out into the solar system.
It encourages cooperation.
Groups including the B612 Foundation already are working to characterize the threat of larger incoming asteroids (“city killers” upwards of 100 feet in size), while others have announced plans to mine smaller rocks. NASA might be able to leverage these private ventures to keep its own costs down and encourage more players in the space business.
Within the agency itself, an asteroid retrieval mission would demand closer collaboration between the astronaut program and the science side of the house than at any time since Apollo. Meanwhile, partners in the International Space Station, who’ve shown only polite interest in the Moon or Mars, might be more willing to join in a smaller-scale mission with obvious benefit to all nations.
Maybe the biggest advantage of all.
Every so often, a U.S. President (Bushes 41 and 43 most recently) proposes a grandiose go-to-the-Moon or –Mars scheme, which quickly peters out when everyone realizes, once again, that it costs way too much. Space advocates with long memories might be forgiven if they no longer expect Charlie Brown to kick the football.
Today the economic situation is worse than at any time in the space age. With millions unemployed and uninsured, and with public and private debt skyrocketing, no politician is about to suggest an expensive mission to the moon or Mars. Sorry, that’s not strictly true. Those representing districts with NASA centers will. But don’t expect many others to join them.
That leaves NASA building a new rocket (the Space Launch System) and new vehicle (Orion), with no obvious place to go. Space agency managers rightly asked themselves what they could realistically do with the tools and money on hand, in a relatively short time. And the asteroid retrieval mission is what they came up with.
Some will say that grabbing a space rock – a tiny one at that – is not ambitious enough, not worthy of the nation that launched Apollo. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” so this argument goes. Maybe. But while Robert Browning’s advice may be good for an artist, it can lead to frustration and failure for engineers and accountants.
So here’s a more pertinent line from the same poem: “Less is more.”
Let’s do something we can actually accomplish. And let’s get on with it.
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